When Ford announced it would stop installing AM radios in its vehicles this spring, it generated so much static among station owners, listeners and legislators that the automaker quickly reversed course.
But with Tesla and a growing number of EV manufacturers banishing the original car radio from their high-tech digital dashboards and into the audio graveyard occupied by eight-track players and CD changers, a Congressional subcommittee Tuesday began debating the merits of proposed legislation to make AM receivers standard equipment in all new vehicles.
In Chicago, where AM stations including WGN, WBBM, WLS and WSCR still command nearly half of radio listenership, there may be a lot riding on the outcome.
“It’s an issue for the listeners, because you should be able to choose how you want to get your content,” said Mary Sandberg Boyle, a veteran radio executive who became the first female GM at WGN Radio in 2019. “I don’t want listeners cut off.”
Removing AM radios from cars could dramatically reduce the audience, with 74% of AM listening happening in the car, a Nielsen spokesperson said Tuesday. While the percentage of radio listenership in the car declined during the pandemic, it has returned to pre-pandemic levels, Nielsen said.
Automakers cite audio interference with electric motors and the ability to stream stations as justification for phasing out AM radios, but the communications and technology subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee heard nearly three hours of testimony as to why AM should be saved.
The AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act, introduced last month, would require “dashboard access” to an AM broadcast stations in a “manner that is conspicuous to a driver.” The primary rationale is AM radio’s integral role in alerting the public of emergency situations as part of a national network, traveling to places and people where the internet, cell service and FM radio may not reach.
In addition, the subcommittee noted that AM radio has become a communications lifeline for diverse audiences, from ethnic and religious broadcasts to agricultural news. It is also an influential medium for disseminating politically conservative programming.
“There’s a lot of programming on AM radio that will have no place to go if AM radio dies quicker than a natural death,” Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, a radio trade publication, told the Tribune.
Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, head of the Energy and Commerce Committee, noted that Rush Limbaugh had about 15 million listeners each week for his show, which was broadcast across 650 stations at its peak.
“These are vital sources of information that keep people engaged and connected to their local community, region, and voices and perspectives they value in their lives,” Rodgers said.
Tesla, the leading electric vehicle manufacturer in the U.S., has not included AM radios in its cars for years. A number of manufacturers followed suit, bypassing AM receivers in their EVs, including BMW, Mazda, Rivian, Volkswagen and Volvo. The manufacturers claim that electromagnetic interference from batteries generates an audible high-frequency hum for AM broadcast signals.
But when Ford announced in April it would stop putting AM radios in gas- and electric-powered vehicles beginning in 2024, it generated a lot more than a hum. The radio industry mobilized listeners and legislators to the cause of keeping AM radios in cars. and on May 23, Ford reversed its decision — at least for the next model year.
“After speaking with policy leaders about the importance of AM broadcast radio as a part of the emergency alert system, we’ve decided to include it on all 2024 Ford & Lincoln vehicles,” Ford CEO Jim Farley announced on Twitter.
Longer term, the future of AM radio remains up in the air.
AM listenership has been in decline for years, losing ground to the cleaner sound of FM radio, and more recently, satellite radio and the rise of digital media in the new millennium. There are 4,500 AM radio stations nationwide reaching about 82 million listeners each month, or about a third of the audience for terrestrial radio, according to Nielsen.
In Chicago, AM listeners represent 48% of the total monthly radio audience — tied with Milwaukee and second only to Buffalo at 56%, according to a Nielsen study published this month by Cumulus Media, a national radio chain that owns WLS-AM, WLS-FM and WKQX-FM in Chicago.
Once a towering Top-40 station, WLS-AM 890 switched to a talk format more than three decades ago. It currently ranks 23rd in Chicago with a 1.7 share, according to Nielsen ratings for May.
Philadelphia-based radio chain Audacy owns two of the top-rated AM stations in Chicago, all-news WBBM and sports station WSCR, better known as The Score.
WBBM-AM 780 ranks 4th in the latest Chicago ratings with a 4.4 share in May, according to Nielsen, but that total includes a simulcast on 105.9-FM. It is also the top billing station in Chicago, generating $32 million in revenue last year, according to BIA Advisory Services.
Sister station WSCR-AM 670 is tied with WBEZ-FM 91.5, Chicago’s NPR station, ranking 12th with a 3.1 share, according to Nielsen.
Craig Schwalb, 51, an Illinois native and veteran radio news executive who took the reins at WBBM-AM in January, succeeding the retiring Ron Gleason as news director, has spent most of his career at AM stations. He declined to break down the AM/FM audience split at WBBM, but said the reach of its AM signal is crucial for a news station — especially in emergency situations.
“I’ve covered a bunch of hurricanes in my time in different radio markets, and I’ll tell you that when electricity goes down, and cell towers are out, and all kinds of things aren’t accessible, television is not accessible, cellphone signals and batteries die, things like that, AM radio is there,” Schwalb said.
A pioneering news/talk station, WGN-AM 720 ranks 10th in Chicago with a 3.2 share in May, according to the most recent Nielsen ratings.
Last year, WGN Radio celebrated its 100th anniversary as the “Voice of Chicago.” A perennial ratings powerhouse, WGN Radio had double-digit audience shares and millions of regular listeners during AM’s heyday from the 1960s through the 1980s, when Wally Phillips, Bob Collins, Roy Leonard and other legendary broadcasters ruled the airwaves.
It was also the longtime home of the Cubs before losing the broadcast rights in 2014.
In 2019, the stand-alone AM station was acquired by Nexstar, a Dallas-based TV station group that purchased it from Tribune Media, the former Chicago Tribune parent company. Boyle was promoted to general manager by the new owners.
While WGN has focused on fine-tuning its digital app — in part to help Tesla drivers listen to the station on the road — Boyle said streaming is not ready to replace over-the-air radio in the car.
“They need to make it perfectly easy to navigate before they can talk about getting rid of the actual AM radio,” Boyle said.
Streaming accounts for just 12% of AM/FM radio listening, while 88% comes via an over-the-air broadcast signal, according to a study from Edison Research.
Down the road, Harrison said streaming will eventually supplant traditional broadcasting, but automakers are cutting AM radios out of the dashboard before their time.
“The day will come when people will not need radios to listen to the programming we call radio, but it’s about 10 years premature,” Harrison said.
Harrison said automakers are “insensitive” to old school radio listeners who simply want to push a button on a dial and get their station of choice. Cost-savings is the driving force behind the decision to excise AM radios circa 2023, he said, but the automakers underestimated the value they still bring to consumers.
“They don’t know the difference between an AM radio and devices that they’ve thrown out without any blowback — cassette machines, eight tracks, CD players,” he said. “They see it as just another device that time has passed by, but it’s not true.”
As to the technical hurdles to getting good AM reception in EVs, Harrison noted that if automakers can program cars to park themselves, they should be able to get rid of a little static.
Bill Murdoch, chief engineer at WGN Radio, said EVs and AM radios can function in harmony with a simple fix.
“You kind of hear like a clicking noise or just kind of like white noise, but it can be very easily mitigated with some shielding,” Murdoch said. “Actually, spark plugs generate more wideband electrical energy than the electric motors do. And they kind of fixed the spark plug thing a long time ago.”