On Radio: Car audio has quite a past and future
By BILL VIRGIN
You may take the presence of a radio in your car for granted. The radio industry certainly doesn't.
Car radios may be an old technology, but they represent a hugely important channel for delivering programming and advertising to listeners. According to Arbitron data, listening in the car accounts for nearly 35 percent of overall audience (trailing home listening, but well ahead of workplace listening).
The percentage is even higher for certain times of the day such as 6-10 a.m. weekdays (37 percent, just behind home listening) and 3-7 p.m. weekdays (more than 44 percent). Even in evenings, in-car listening accounts for 27 percent of the audience.
The subject of the car radio came up with the recent obituary notice for Chih-Chi Hsu, longtime professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington.
One of Hsu's accomplishments was to be the co-author of a patent, while he was working at Bendix in the 1950s, for, "a radio receiver unit of the signal seeking variety," the patent filing says, a refinement to a device that would "relieve the operator of a touring automobile from the task of tuning a receiver across the dial in search of signals of unknown frequency."
In other words, what he and fellow engineers developed was a forerunner of the search function found on most modern radios. As explained by Les Atlas, a UW professor of electrical engineering, "The patent is for a novel way to control radios to seek radio stations, as most of us do now when we drive our cars on long trips and into new cities. While the details of the electronics have changed greatly over the past 50 years, the concept of a station-seeking radio is now standard equipment on virtually any new car sold."
The car radio has been around since the 1920s, a device pioneered by inventors William Lear, Elmer Wavering and Paul Galvin, according to an American Heritage magazine article on the subject. With the success of those first practical car radios in the early 1930s, Galvin changed the name of his manufacturing company to Motorola.
Radio had the car dashboard largely to itself over the decades, although that exclusivity in auto audio has been eroded by the cassette deck and the in-dash CD player. The competition for the dashboard is only going to get more intense. Some cars now come with plug-in stations for portable music players. Satellite radio is making inroads -- Sirius announced Wednesday that Chrysler expects to have its satellite receivers in 70 percent of vehicles produced for the 2008 model year.
Traditional broadcasters are trying to fight back by pushing with HD-technology-enabled radios, which allow FM stations to broadcast multiple channels of programming on their frequencies, into cars. Yet another competitive threat looms, however: devices that can tune Internet-based audio services, which opens up a huge number of potential listening choices in the car.