How to Listen to Internet Radio in Your Car

listening to internet radio on the road
If you have a smartphone or tablet with built-in connectivity, listening to Internet radio in your car is a breeze. Martin Philbey / Image Source / Getty

Internet radio may not have received a lot of press until services like Pandora rolled out, but the medium has actually been around, in one form or another, for a pretty long time. The first traditional radio stations started experimenting with Internet streaming in the early 1990s, the now-maligned pioneer of streaming media, RealAudio, showed up on the scene in 1995, and programs like NullSoft’s Winamp allowed anyone with a decent Internet connection to create their own virtual radio station by the late 1990s.

By 2012, nearly one quarter of young adults and teens were listening to Internet radio in lieu of broadcast radio.

Of course, throughout most of the history of Internet radio, tuning in meant chaining yourself to your computer—or a WiFi-enabled Internet radio device, if you were so inclined. It wasn’t until the rise of the smartphone, and developments in the cellular infrastructure that allowed high-speed mobile Internet connections, that listening to Internet radio on the go really became a thing. With those pieces in place, there are now a variety of different ways you can ditch traditional radio—or your Satellite radio subscription—and listen to Internet radio in your car. And when you do, you’ll find that the listening options that open up are pretty much endless.

Required Equipment for Listening to Internet Radio in Your Car

Listening to traditional AM/FM radio, or even HD radio, is about as simple as it gets.

Even with rumors of radioless car radios swirling on the horizon, pretty much any head unit you buy and install will have a radio tuner, and there’s a decent chance that it will also be capable of receiving HD radio. Internet radio, on the other hand, required a handful of different components to work, all or most of which won’t come included with your OEM or aftermarket stereo.

At a very basic level, there are two things that you’ll need if you want to listen to Internet radio in your car: a mobile Internet connection and a device that’s capable of accessing Internet radio content. As you may have guessed, modern smartphones provide a great way to listen to Internet radio on the road, since they combine both of those functionalities into a single, portable package that you’re probably already carrying around with you anyway.

Aside from a smartphone, you can also access Internet radio in your car via a head unit that includes Internet radio functionality and a separate mobile hotspot, or a tethered phone, which is sometimes an option. Some cars actually come with OEM head units that can access Internet radio and built-in WiFi hotspots that can also share a connection to your other devices.

Listening to Internet Radio in Your Car With a Smartphone

If you have a smartphone with a decent data plan, then that’s probably going to be easiest, least expensive way to bring Internet radio into your car. And if you already have some way of connecting your phone to your head unit, then that’s even better—all you have to do is connect the phone as you would normally, download the appropriate Internet radio app, and you’re good to go.

If you don’t already have a method of connecting your head unit to your phone, then you have a few options, depending on the capabilities of your head unit:

Locating Internet Radio Apps

The best, and easiest, way to listen to Internet radio on your phone, and in your car, is via the appropriate app. Some Internet radio services that offer apps include:

  • Pandora
  • iHeartRadio
  • Slacker Radio
  • TuneIn Radio

Some Internet radio apps, like TuneIn, act as aggregators that provide access to simulcast streams of physical AM and FM stations, while others allow you to create your own, customized stations based on your preferences, and others, like Pandora, use complex algorithms to generate custom stations based on how you rate individual songs that pop up.

Using a Head Unit to Listen to Internet Radio

In addition to smartphone apps, some head units come with built-in radio apps, or allow you to install radio apps, that provide access to many of those same services. If your OEM head unit came with that functionality, then all you need to do is add an Internet connection, in the form of tethering your phone or obtaining a mobile hotspot. Other cars actually come with built-in mobile hotspots, which you may have to pay to activate.

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