Let me start by conceding the point: I’m not sure I could tell the difference between the stream I now get from WRVO or NCPR on my Galaxy Note II, and the f.m. signal I used to get on the Lumia 822 Windows phone.
Check that: there’s one obvious, glaring difference. I would get a small, constant reminder I was on f.m. with the Lumia because I’d move, so the headphone wires leading to the phone would move – and since they’re the antenna, I’d get a little burst of noise. Nothing unpleasant though; in fact, I kind of liked knowing I was pulling down a signal from the ether.
But the real question is: does one sound better than the other? I *think* f.m. does; I reach into my dusty audiophile toolbox of words and pull out things like “richer,” “fuller” and “more rounded,” (though I never knew what that phrase meant back when I was reading a lot of magazines about stereo hardware). Truth is though, I don’t think I could do much more than guess in a blind test, assuming there was a way to quiet the wires/antenna.
On the other hand, when I went out for my morning walk today, I couldn’t get NCPR through TuneIn, my preferred radio app. Some issue with the stream being corrupted or broken or otherwise not available. This sort of thing happens too often with streaming, and almost never with f.m. Also, it eats battery, even the giant battery on the Note II.
There’s also a greater (at least for me) sense of connectedness with f.m. or a.m. I think that’s not entirely irrational; online, Pandora is the same as Spotify is the same as Beats is the same as NCPR, at least in terms of being able to pick your particular favorite. Online serves as the great leveler and drains a little more of the “local” out of radio. Granted a lot of “local” drained out of radio years before the internet came along to upend the business. In many ways, the owners of radio have only themselves to blame. Still, when my local radio station is just one choice in a large universe of possible listens, it can’t help but change how I think about it.
Of course, I’m blessed in that NCPR, the public station headquartered in Canton, N.Y., is simply a great radio station. It has perfect taste as far as I’m concerned, mixes intelligent, well-reported news with good NPR programming and excellent (and eclectic) local music programming. WRVO out of Oswego isn’t in the same league, but is decent and getting better, little by little. Between the two of them and the almost all-classical station out of Syracuse, N.Y., WCNY-f.m., there’s enough to listen to, and all three have translators in my little town.
So I want to make the distinction between what I get locally, and the bigger world of radio and radio-like stuff. But most people wouldn’t and they get along just fine, which is why f.m. on smart phones is not much of an issue outside of obsessives like me. But like the guy who keeps spare parts in the garage for his Crown Vic, I feel vaguely less equipped without it, still miss it, still want it. Come the next big storm in these parts, or the collapse of civil society as we know it, at least I’ll have the soothing voice of public radio as the lights blink out.