iPhone and Public Radio, Almost There

Perfecting mobile radio

This might old news, but it’s so nice, you might as well hear it twice: Last October, National Public Radio, American Public Media, Public Interactive, Public Radio Exchange, and Public Radio International teamed up to create the Public Radio Tuner. And in late January, they unveiled the latest version of the iPhone application that takes this love-at-first-sight gadget into take-you-home-to-meet-the-parents territory.

Well, almost. Previously, public radio enthusiasts could only listen packaged versions of their favorite NPR programs, but never stream their local affiliates directly. The new application allows the latter, but not the former, which still leaves room for improvement. In the meantime, there’s NPR Mobile, an independently developed application that offers access to programs, Fresh Air, Morning Edition, and the rest of NPR fare, but without access to non-NPR stuff, like This American Life. For that, you have to subscribe to the free podcast, or use the Tuner to listen live.

The Tuner itself isn’t without problems. Part of the beauty of the iPhone is its ease in multi-tasking, say, talking on the phone and browsing the Internet. But the Tuner only works if the application is open and up on your screen. Try to do anything else, and, poof! your radio shuts off.

But even though it’s not perfect, it’s an exciting step in the right direction, and not just for the growing ranks of iPhone users, because the application puts public radio into the hands of a tech-savvy audience, previously not assumed to be the classic NPR crowd. Urban dwellers, for instance, who don’t listen in their cars, can now listen on foot.

It’s also worth noting that the Tuner makes use of the Internet to stream public radio content, because the iPhone doesn’t have radio hardware. For now, it’s an acceptable workaround, but it would be better if public radio could get Apple to add actual radio functionality, which would give the app more reach. Plus, it would be nice if the development process were open source, which would make it a more public enterprise.

But, the Public Radio Tuner is an ongoing project, so there will be changes and tweaks in the future. To learn more about the project, such as whether the application will be available on non-iPhone mobile phones, check out their site.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.