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How to Turn Your iPhone into a Portable AM/FM Radio

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Apple’s iPhone is like a iPod music player melded onto a sophisticated mobile phone. It does triple duty as a mobile phone, handheld computer, and portable music player. It’s great for making calls and listening to music - except for traditional AM/FM radio. Why can’t your fancy-schmancy iPhone do what that cheap little transistor radio did half a century ago? In this article, author Michael Miller shows you several ways to get AM/FM programming on your iPhone - from external accessories to online streaming services.

Let’s face it, Apple’s iPhone is a remarkable device. It does triple duty as a mobile phone, handheld computer, and portable music player. The one thing it doesn’t do, however, is play traditional AM/FM radio – something transistor radios have been doing for half a century. Really; I grew up in the early 60s with a transistor radio next to my right ear, tuned to WIFE-AM in Indianapolis. Why can’t my fancy-schmancy iPhone do what that cheap little transistor radio did half a century ago?


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Why Your iPhone Doesn’t Have a Built-In Radio

I find it perplexing that Apple didn’t initially include an AM/FM radio in its iPod music players, or in its later smartphones. Other companies, such as Creative, include radios in their portable music players; some smartphones, such as models from HTC, also have this feature. It took Apple a half-dozen generations before it added FM radio functionality to its players, which it finally did with the iPod nano. But there’s still no AM or FM radio in the flagship iPhone.

And why not? It could be a simple matter of price; the pennies that it would cost to add the AM or FM circuitry would push the iPhone’s price up above what the average consumer is willing to pay.

I don’t think that’s the case, however; most folks wouldn’t notice if the iPhone’s price went up by a buck or two. And, after all, Apple was able to add an FM radio to the moderately priced iPod nano without anyone crying foul. Why not to any other devices in the line?

So maybe it’s a space issue, although it’s hard to believe that whatever chip or circuitry that might be needed couldn’t be fit within the iPhone case. Battery life might also be an issue; I imagine an AM or FM radio would draw some amount of power that could diminish the phone’s overall battery life.

It could also be a simple matter of Apple not wanting you to have the option of free music over the airwaves, especially when they have that big ol’ iTunes Store there to sell you all the music you want. Why give it to you free if they can make money selling it to you?

I’ve even seen some people argue that AM/FM radio just isn’t elegant enough for the folks at Apple. Terrestrial radio, after all, is rife with static and poor reception, and that’s not the way Apple likes to roll. If it ain’t clean and clear digital, Apple don’t want it.

Or maybe Apple just doesn’t think AM or FM radio is important enough to bother with. There may be something to this; given the choice of listening to your own custom playlists or being forced to sit through the dreck that most commercial radio stations broadcast these days, who wouldn’t turn off the radio in favor of a personalized digital music stream?

In any case, Apple obviously doesn’t think this is a burning issue, and it probably isn’t – or else more people would be complaining about it. Still, there are times and places where AM or FM radio may be your only listening choice; I’d really appreciate it if my iPhone could pick up my local stations, in addition to the streaming and downloadable music options currently offered.

Adding Radio Functionality to Your iPhone

What can you do if you want to listen to terrestrial radio on your iPhone? There are actually a couple of options.

The first thing you can do is connect an external radio to your iPhone, via a piece of add-on hardware. There used to be a few different choices here, but the market seems to have shaken out – maybe completely.

My favorite radio add-on is the Navigate in-line FM tuner/controller from Griffin Technology. This neat little unit connects to the dock connector on your iPhone or iPod and adds FM capability to your device. It also includes a connector to plug in your earbuds. Just connect everything together and dial in the local station you want.

Figure 1 Griffin's Navigate in-line FM tuner/controller

Unfortunately, the Navigate appears to be discontinued; at least, you can’t find it on Griffin’s website. It’s still available from Amazon and other retailers, however, so if this sounds like the way to go, snatch yours up fast. Suggested list price is $60, although actual selling price tends to be somewhat lower.

(Griffin used to sell another radio add-on called iFM, which operated in much the same fashion but was incompatible with newer iPods and iPhones. Like the Navigate, the iFM is apparently discontinued but also still available from some retailers; it’s priced at $39.99, if you can find one – and have an older model iPhone.)

Listening to Radio Over the Internet

Given the lack of add-on radio accessories, you may want to choose an alternative method for listening to AM and FM radio on your iPhone. This means installing a streaming radio app for your phone, and listening to terrestrial radio over the Internet.

That’s right, there are iPhone apps that let you “tune into” terrestrial radio stations and stream their programming over any Internet connection. So if your iPhone is connected to a Wi-Fi network or hotspot, or if you’re connected to your carrier’s mobile data network, you can listen to AM and FM radio stations from anywhere in the U.S., in real time, on your phone. Just enter a location or musical genre to see the available stations, then tune in to the one you want to listen to.

There are two main streaming radio apps you want to look at. My favorite is TuneIn Radio, which lets you browse through all your local AM and FM stations (even the HD substations), or look for out-of-town stations that fit your fancy – more than 70,000 stations in all. If you’re in the right mood, you can even use TuneIn Radio to listen in on local police and fire bands.

Figure 2 Listening to local AM and FM radio stations with the TuneIn Radio app

All you have to do is enter the name of a city or browse through the programming genres (rock, jazz, classical, talk, etc.). Find the station you like and then tap to start listening. It all happens in real time; I especially like how current programming is displayed onscreen, so you don’t have to guess what’s playing.

Also popular is the iHeartRadio app, which was developed by the evil geniuses at the Clear Channel Communications conglomerate. Like TuneIn Radio, iHeartRadio lets you browse for stations by location or genre, and then listen in live. It also offers a variety of Internet-only radio stations (from Clear Channel, of course), and the ability to create your own custom stations, so you have additional programming options. (My perception is that iHeartRadio is more of a general streaming music app that also offers local radio stations, but that may be a good thing for some listeners.)

Figure 3 More local radio stations in the iHeartRadio app

Both TuneIn Radio and iHeartRadio are free apps, available from the Apple App Store. I tend to prefer TuneIn Radio, as it isn’t linked to the Clear Channel empire, but you should try ‘em both and then use the one you like best. Either app is a great way to listen to your favorite AM and FM radio stations, from anywhere in the U.S.

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