Is the FM Radio in Your Phone Turned On?

FM radio in my phone? Are you crazy? In one of those little-know (or at least little discussed) facts, today’s smartphones have an FM receiver built-in. The thing is, the receiver is not activated in most phones. As of last fall, FM was working in only 44 percent of the top-selling smartphones in the U.S.

If you’re one of the (few?) who actually listen to local radio over the Internet on your phone, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) goes out of its way to point out the benefit of switching to the off-air local broadcast: “Listening to radio on your phone using the FM chip instead of over the Internet saves you valuable data and battery life.”

Curious now? Click here to see if the FM radio in your phone is activated.

What’s the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)—the government agency that regulates communication by radio, TV, satellite, and cable—think about all this?

In a speech given yesterday at the American Broadcasters Association’s “Future of Radio and Audio Symposium,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai sung the praises of radio’s historic staying power, pointing out that, “Each week, 93 percent of Americans over the age of 12 still listen to the radio, which is about the same as a decade ago, and the decade before that, and the decade before that. That’s over 245 million Americans… They are listening on average for 12 hours a week.”

He went on to say that while he would like to see FM activated in more smartphones it’s not the commission’s place to step in.

“As a believer in free markets and the rule of law, I cannot support a government mandate requiring activation of these chips. I don’t believe the FCC has the power to issue a mandate like that, and more generally I believe it’s best to sort this issue out in the marketplace,” he said, while pointing out that the number of phones in which FM has been activated is on the rise, having gone from less than 25 percent to 44 percent over the past two years.

We’ve culled a few excerpts from Pai’s speech but you can read the full text at

It seems odd that every day we hear about a new smartphone app that lets you do something innovative, yet these modern-day mobile miracles don’t enable a key function offered by a 1982 Sony Walkman.

You could make a case for activating chips on public safety grounds alone. The former head of our Federal Emergency Management Administration has spoken out in support of this proposal. The FCC has an expert advisory panel on public safety issues…[that] pointed out, “[h]aving access to terrestrial FM radio broadcasts, as opposed to streaming audio services, may enable smartphone users to receive broadcast-based EAS alerts and other vital information in emergency situations—particularly when the wireless network is down or overloaded.”

Moreover, most consumers would love to access some of their favorite content over-the-air, while using one-sixth of the battery life and less data. As more and more Americans use activated FM chips in their smartphones, consumer demand for smartphones with activated FM chips should continue to increase.

I’ll keep speaking out about the benefits of activating FM chips. Having said that, as a believer in free markets and the rule of law, I cannot support a government mandate requiring activation of these chips. I don’t believe the FCC has the power to issue a mandate like that, and more generally I believe it’s best to sort this issue out in the marketplace. For despite the low numbers, we are seeing progress; in the last two years, the percentage of top-selling smartphones in the United States that have activated FM chips has risen from less than 25 percent to 44 percent.

That brings me to one last point. When it comes to fighting for a vibrant broadcasting industry, I take a back seat to no one at the FCC...Under my Chairmanship, radio won’t be neglected. I will work aggressively to cut unnecessary red tape, modernize our rules, and give you more flexibility to serve your audiences. Our regulations should reflect the marketplace of today, not the marketplace as it existed 30 or 40 years ago.

That applies to any sector and any company, by the way. I’m a fierce believer in the power of competitive, free markets to maximize consumer welfare… I see it as my job to ensure a level regulatory playing field. It then falls to American consumers to decide who wins and loses with their ears, their eyeballs, their clicks, and their wallets.

In a competitive marketplace like that, there will no doubt be challenges ahead for broadcast radio. There are more audio choices and business challenges than ever, as you well know. But I’m optimistic that radio will continue to succeed, for you’ve defied the odds before.

In 1929, the caustic commentator Jack Woodford offered a prediction about radio: “[I]n two years, at the present rate of advertising exploitation which the radio is suffering, it will be as dead as a Democrat. We can dig a grave for it. . . . Probably in another five or ten years we can dig another grave in the same lot for Television.”

I won’t take the late Mr. Woodford to task here regarding television—that’s another topic for another day. But suffice it to say that as a social, local, mobile, and vital means of communications, radio has well outlived his prediction and is as alive as this Republican. Good times are ahead. Stay tuned!”

jnemesh's picture

I actually had NO IDEA my Note 4 had an FM tuner in it...and while I won't be using it to listen to music on a regular basis, I am installing the app for use in emergency situations!

hk2000's picture

I'm glad you brought it up to the readers. I listen to FM radio on my Nokia phone all the time- I always assumed most people knew about it. All you need is to plug in a headphone which acts as the antenna.

John Sully's picture

Quite frankly he is an industry tool. He hates any consumer oriented regulations but loves pro industry stuff. Net neutrality? Gone. Treating internet access as a utility (which it should be, it is the modern landline), gone. Consumers are in for a rough ride over the next few years, it won't be pretty.

OTOH, I listen to the radio everyday in my car using OTA. Sometimes I listen to out of town stations by streaming them, but that is a small amount of data in general. Bigger amounts of data are spent streaming in my car listening to Amazon Music Unlimited or a radio station I subscribe to for commercial free access. I like the choice, but I have a great local (college) radio station, so when I'm in town...

boulderskies's picture

Interestingly no mention one way or the other is made of the Apple iPhone.