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Will radio rights deal put an FM tuner in your iPhone?

In March, I wrote about those “Stop the Radio Performance Tax” ads running constantly on some local stations; Monday, the New York Times reports there may be a deal for the radio industry to pay $100 million to the performers and record companies wh

Earlier this year, I wrote about those “Stop the Radio Performance Tax” ads running constantly on some local stations. Monday’s New York Times reports there may be a deal for the radio industry to pay $100 million to performers and record companies who hold the “performance copyright.”

The radio stations have argued that the only thing listeners will notice is less music, because playing it will get more expensive. Artists and their reps say it’s only fair terrestrial radio lose a 38-year-old exemption, and more dough equals better music. (Broadcasters pay songwriting copyright holders, and online stations already pay performance fees.)

But for civilians, the deal’s biggest impact may be the provision least likely to survive: that Congress mandate future mobile phones include an FM tuner. While some phones already have this, the iPhone, for one, doesn’t.

Yes, most terrestrial stations have apps that stream music to your phone, but if your phone becomes a tuner it “could help broadcasters compete with online streaming services like Pandora, which are popular on mobile devices,” the Times notes.

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I wonder how much upside there really is here. I don’t think Pandora listeners will switch just because the phone starts picking up an over-the-air signal; Pandora wins on customizable variety, something a conventional station can’t do. But I guess if it’s easier to pull in a signal without an app, more folks might listen.

As you might imagine, the phone manufacturers aren’t happy about being pulled into this issue. They say phones will become bulkier and battery life will drop.

The radio industry has campaigned dishonestly on this issue, calling performance-rights fees a “tax” when no money goes to the government. Will Steve Jobs start scaring us with ads showing bulky ’80s phones? OK, probably not (especially since several sleek phones already have tuners), but Congress has to approve this deal, and if the Apples of the world are against it, that doesn’t help.