AM radio interests are lobbying U.S. Congress for legislation that would require automakers to continue to install AM radio tuners in new vehicles.
Some manufacturers of electric vehicles, including Tesla and BMW, recently quit offering AM tuners in new vehicles over concerns related to electromagnetic interference between electric engines and the AM radio signal.
Supporters of the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act of 2023, a bill introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year, say the emergency broadcasting system is the primary reason for supporting the mandate for auto manufacturers.
Over the years, the system has been used to warn rural residents about weather events and other natural disasters.
Although government mandates on the auto industry are nothing new, opponents say there’s no longer a demonstrated need for the aging technology. They say AM radio is the next victim on a list of obsolete technology that includes 8-track and cassette tapes, the rotary telephone, the fax machine and the typewriter.
In the 1920s, amplitude modulation— or AM — radio was the first communications medium that connected listeners from across the United States in real time. It was common for families, especially in rural areas, to gather around the radio for entertainment.
The first broadcasts many Americans heard were President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s fireside chats, “Little Orphan Annie,” the “Grand Ole Opry” and live broadcasts of Major League Baseball games.
Comedian Milton Berle called AM radio a wonderful invention by which “I can reach millions of people who fortunately can’t reach me.”
The Argument To Keep It
When Tesla Inc. and BMW announced they were dropping AM tuners from new electric vehicles because of electromagnetic interference, many people in the radio industry began looking for a political solution that would keep the aging technology alive.
The National Association of Farm Broadcasters (NAFB), based in Platte City, Missouri, supports the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act because AM is still the best way to reach people in times of emergency, said Tom Brand, the association’s executive director.
“The Emergency Broadcasting System is the primary reason for our support,” Brand said. “We feel that it’s important for everyone, no matter what ZIP code they live in, to have access to emergency information from weather to a message that could come from Washington, D.C.”
The NAFB has 185 members and is made up of farm broadcasters from every state. Its programming is broadcast on about 4,500 radio stations across the nation.
Brand acknowledged that electric vehicles aren’t a big deal in rural America so far. But he said demand for electric vehicles is increasing and that Ford announced plans to discontinue offering AM tuners in its internal combustion engine vehicles. Ford has since postponed those plans.
“One of the places where they are regular consumers of the product (AM radio) is in their vehicles,” he said. “I think one of the reasons that propelled us to engage is we had some manufacturers that said they would remove it from combustion engine vehicles too.”
Brand added that he is generally not supportive of government mandates on private businesses. But in the case of the automotive industry, there are numerous mandated safety add-ons, including anti-lock brakes and seat belts.
As he sees it, AM radio keeps people informed about weather disasters, which also is important from a safety standpoint.
Wyoming Lawmaker Weighs In
Wyoming Republican U.S. Rep. Harriet Hageman supports the AM radio bill in its current form but has not signed on as a co-sponsor.
In an email to Cowboy State Daily, Hageman said AM radio has stood the test of time and that it’s still useful.
“AM radio has proven to be an extremely effective method of distributing lifesaving information all over the country,” Hageman said. “Removing this technology from future vehicles would likely be putting hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of civilians in harm's way. This is especially true for Wyomingites as blizzards, forest fires and other disasters are ever-present.”
Hageman added that supporters of the AM Radio Act asked auto manufacturers for a status report and information on federal loans, grants and tax incentives received by the companies. A letter to the manufacturers questioned whether that money could be used to offset the cost to mitigate the interference problem between electric engines and AM radio signals.
“In response to our letter, we have learned that Ford Motor Co. has reversed its decision to phase out AM radios at this time,” Hageman said. “We are still waiting to hear from the other manufacturers as to their position.”
Aaron Turpen, an automotive writer and former AM radio broadcaster who lives in Cheyenne, said it’s time to let AM radio go the way of the pager, the floppy disc and the flip phone. Turpen’s auto reviews are featured regularly in Cowboy State Daily.
“I feel that this push is a last gasp to save a dying industry,” Turpen said. “I was once a talk show host on an AM channel. That was 25-plus years ago, and even then it was a dying market. AM radio had its day, but the frequencies are long and broad, so interference is more and more likely as vehicles produce more electromagnetic interference. Even NPR now has FM channels.”
Regarding the emergency broadcast system, Turpen said AM radio provides nothing that cellular telephones and FM radio couldn’t quickly replace.
“The argument that ‘information channels’ such as the low-power AM 530 broadcasts is somewhat valid, but is still based on the idea that something needs to remain in the stone age,” he said. “Simple changes to cellphones or the FM dial could quickly replace the current setup at relatively low cost.”
The AM Radio in Every Vehicle Act of 2023 is sponsored by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-New Jersey, and has 187 co-sponsors. The bill has bipartisan support from numerous farm-state Republicans.