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From Radio to iTunes: Tag Songs on Digital AM/FM for Later Purchase

Here’s a novel concept: When you hear a song you like on the radio, you’ll be able to press a button on your receiver to mark your interest, and later purchase it via iTunes. The only problem? A fair number of steps and requirements need to be in place: a new digital AM/FM receiver with a special hardware button and an iPod dock. It’s not that far-fetched, though.

Let’s start with the radio. You’ll need a radio that tunes in digital AM and FM, known as HD Radio (the trademarked name) or in-band, on-channel (IBOC). Digital AM and FM is broadcast by about 1,400 AM and FM stations in the U.S., and is hardly known. Digital signals are nestled alongside existing analog ones at a level that normal analog receivers typically filter out or receive as a very low level of noise.

But the sound is pretty great. I’ve been listening to HD Radio for about two years, and have expected it to break out at any point. (I even started a blog on the topic, which has languished a little as momentum slowed.) FM stations have a much higher dynamic range and a clearness of tone. AM stations, which I’ve never heard live as none are broadcasting in HD close enough to Seattle, get a boost with FM-like quality and no fade-out or sine-wave sounds. FM stations can also include digital subchannels, adding one or several separate broadcasts.

Artist, song, and other digital information can be sent to the radio; the capability of broadcasting data exists, too, although that’s not supported by any hardware yet. (Imagine getting song samples or free songs downloaded to your radio or iPod for listening to certain stations.)

The receivers until recently have been expensive tabletop editions; a $100 unit from Radiosophy is available now, however. Car radios have been on the market for years, and have become dramatically cheaper, too, with units or add-on modules in the $100 to $200 range. New HD Radio chips due this year will finally allow inexpensive, small, and battery-powered reception in portable radios, MP3 players, and other gadgets.

A recent announcement from iBiquity Digital (which developed and licenses HD Radio technology), Apple, and Polk Audio and JBL, two well-known audio equipment makers, makes the first connection between digital radio and digital music. iTune Tagging, as they’re calling it, will pair the pressing of a Tag button on two new receivers with an iPod docked into the receiver. The iPod will store the tag information, and when you sync with iTunes, will mark the song as one you were thinking of buying.

Polk will add the Tag button on its $499 i-Sonic Entertainment System 2, a revision to an earlier behemoth that had built-in speakers, could play CD and DVDs (with video jacks on the back), tuned XM Satellite Radio (with an optional module), and brought in analog and digital AM/FM radio. This revision adds an iPod dock, and removes the DVD player and XM support, but will pass through video content that’s stored on the iPod via S-Video and composite video outputs. JBL will put the button on its iHD, which has a dock as well (no other information seems to be available yet). Both systems will ship before December.

The final piece in this puzzle is broadcasters: stations have to add support to properly encode the tag information needed by the HD Radio to pass onto an iPod and be read in iTunes. The HD Digital Radio Alliance, a group of large chain broadcasters, has pledged support, and they include several hundred mass-market stations. “Hundreds” of stations will be included in the initial launch.

Several years ago, Sony offered a similar kind of service. The $20 eMarker was a tiny dockable device with a clock inside that paired with an online catalog. Press a button while listening to a song on the radio, and the eMarker would mark a timestamp. Dock the unit with a PC (running Windows 98, mind you!), and Sony could pull up a list of the songs you might have heard at that time based on your Zip code – but only in major markets and on stations that published advance lists of their selections (a surprising number pick and publish their playlists in advance). That excluded public radio, college radio, and independent radio, the very outlets where you might want to hear a song again. (I wrote at the time about the eMarker in a 2000 holiday round-up guide for The Seattle Times: “Obsolescence? Guaranteed!” Sure enough, the product was discontinued in 2001.)

iPod Tagging could have more legs, because it connects the act of listening with the act of remembering, and later the potential act of buying. You could use the tool to go and buy the CD, new or used, too; the iTunes Store is just a shortcut in that case. iPod Tagging ties in neatly with Apple’s recently-announced partnership with Starbucks, which will let you use iTunes, an iPhone, or an iPod touch to purchase a song you’re listening to or just heard in the coffee shop.

Next, can we have a button that just tells me what song is stuck in my head? I’d pay a lot for that feature.

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