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Emmis Communications CEO: Future of radio is interactivity

Terrestrial radio is far from dead.

In fact, Emmis Communications CEO and founder Jeff Smulyan says it’s in the process of becoming stronger than ever.

Indianapolis-based Emmis operates some of Austin’s best-known — and highest-rated — radio stations, including NewsRadio KLBJ, 93.3 KGSR-FM, 93.7 KLBJ-FM, 101X, 103.5 Bob FM and 107.1 La Z. It also owns Texas Monthly magazine, which is based in downtown Austin.

New technology, such as the NextRadio app, is making it easier than ever for listeners to stay connected to their favorite stations, regardless of where they are, Smulyan said. The app is currently available on about 50 mobile devices, including some models from Alcatel, HTC, LG and Samsung — but it’s not yet on Apple’s popular iPhone.

NextRadio uses 20 times less data and is three to five times better for battery life compared to traditional streaming, its backers say.

Smulyan sat down with the American-Statesman during a visit to Austin last month to discuss the future of radio.

American-Statesman: How is Emmis doing in Austin?

Smulyan: It’s a great market. Our properties here are great. Our stations have done very, very well here.

Emmis and other broadcasters are really pushing the NextRadio app. Why is that?

We need to build interactivity. There’s an FM chip in every smartphone in the world. As we get more and more carriers to turn those chips on, that’s what we’re doing — making everything interactive. You can buy concert tickets, get directions, enter contests, buy a song, like or unlike a song and even hit a button to call the station within the app. Everything works together.

There’s been some resistance with cellphone carriers who won’t turn on the chip. How come?

If I’m in the business of selling data and this is free, why would I do that? It can be a tough sell. Our goal is to be on every smartphone in the country in the next few years. Verizon is the last major carrier we’re working with and we’re incredibly encouraged by everything we’ve seen so far. There’s a website where people can learn more,

It’s not just about listening to music, though, right?

Right. NextRadio is FEMA-supported. In every emergency, when the power goes down, radio is your exclusive source for information. People trust local radio.

How popular is streaming?

Here at Emmis, we’ve been streaming in various forms for 20 years. The average radio session is about 9 minutes and 30 seconds, but with NextRadio, that goes up to 21 minutes. Blu (a cellphone maker) says their most-used app is their FM tuner.

How crucial is NextRadio — and other apps like it, such as iHeartRadio — to the future of radio?

We have to make radio available outside the car to grow. When young people, in particular, see the app, they say, ‘Wow, that’s cool.’

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