With the media sounding the alarm bell that AM radio is increasingly being dropped by auto manufacturers, a bipartisan group of members of Congress has introduced legislation that would mandate auto manufacturers keep the traditional radio band intact in new vehicles.
The AM for Every Vehicle Act was introduced in both the House and Senate Wednesday. If successful, it would reverse a tide that has seen several manufacturers of electric cars, including Tesla, drop it from those vehicles — citing interference between the AM band and electric operating systems — and, more alarmingly for AM radio listeners, has found Ford planning to drop AM from all new cars.
The Federal Communications Commission, while having no regulatory power over what auto manufacturers do, is applauding the new congressional legislation.
“For decades, free AM broadcast radio has been an essential tool in emergencies, a crucial part of our diverse media ecosystem, and an irreplaceable source for news, weather, sports and entertainment for tens of millions of listeners,” said Senator Edward Markey (D-MA), according to a report by Inside Radio. “Carmakers shouldn’t tune out AM radio in new vehicles or put it behind a costly digital paywall.”
There is a political aspect to the growing controversy: Some conservatives have claimed that the shift to axe AM is part of a move to silence right-leaning talk radio, which mostly thrives on the AM dial. Cruz, not surprisingly, has emphasized that angle, calling AM “a critical bulwark for democracy.” But many Democratic congresspeople are joining the fight to preserve AM as well, especially those representing rural areas, where the need to access information in emergencies is considered vital.
Said FCC chair Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement, “There is a clear public safety imperative here. Having AM radio available in our cars means we always have access to emergency alerts and key warnings while we are out on the road. Updating transportation should not mean sacrificing access to what can be life-saving information.”
In the Senate, backers include Markey, Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Deb Fischer (R-NE), Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) and J.D. Vance (R-OH). In the House, those initially pushing the legislation are Reps. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (D-WA), Bruce Westerman (R-AR), Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), Tom Kean, Jr. (R-NJ) and Rob Menendez (D-NJ). Inside Radio said many other lawmakers are expected to sign on as co-sponsors, given that 100 House members sent letters earlier this week to all the major auto manufacturers asking them to keep AM intact in new vehicles.
The AM for Every Vehicle Act would have the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issuing a rule that “requires automakers to maintain AM broadcast radio in their vehicles without a separate or additional payment, fee, or surcharge.” It would also mandate that any cars being sold without AM have a warning sticker pointing out the lack of the band, in the interim, until all new vehicles are in compliance.
According to the National Association of Broadcasters, more than 82 million people still listen to the nation’s 4,185 stations each month.
Yet Ford told the Washington Post that its data showed that less than 5% of listening in its cars was to AM stations. If there’s a bias in that data, it could be in it having been pulled from Internet-equipped cars.
In April, Markey surveyed the car makers to find out their plans going forward for AM. He found that eight manufacturers of electric cars had already ditched AM: BMW, Ford, Mazda, Polestar, Rivian, Tesla, Volkswagen and Volvo. Moreover, Ford signaled that there was no longer a need for AM in its non-electric cars, either.
Said Ford’s chief government affairs officer, Christopher Smith, “We acknowledge that broadcast AM radio has long been an important source of information for consumers.” But, he said of the emergency alerts that have traditionally gone out over AM, “with FM, satellite radio, mobile data and others, vehicles and their drivers have numerous alternative sources to receive these alerts.”
But Gottheimer, the House member from New Jersey, has counterargued that saying that AM stations can be accessed via apps ignores what happens if, say, cell service cuts out.
“Elon Musk and Tesla and other car manufacturers are putting public safety and emergency response at risk,” said Gottheimer. “The importance of AM radio during large-scale emergencies cannot be underestimated… When the cell phone runs out, the internet gets cut off, or the television doesn’t work because of no electricity or power to your house, you can still turn on your AM radio.”
Not all manufacturers made a commitment either way in Markey’s survey, but a handful did say they had no plans to ditch AM, including Nissan, Hyundai, Kia, Subaru, Land Rover, Jaguar and Mitsubishi.
As far as interference with electric vehicles goes, Tesla has said that its cars’ electric drivetrains operate on a wavelength similar to that of AM, which makes having the radio band in its vehicles “unstable and unusable.” Some other manufacturers have indicated that they are working on technology that would remove such interference problems. But Tesla doesn’t consider it necessary to find a way to solve that problem, saying that anyone who wants to access an AM station can do it via mobile apps. Volkswagen has also said it sees no need to find a technological solution to put AM in electric cars.
“Although many automakers suggested that other communication tools – such as internet radio – could replace broadcast AM radio,” said Markey, “in an emergency, drivers might not have access to the internet and could miss critical safety information. The truth is that broadcast AM radio is irreplaceable.”
During nighttime hours, AM still benefits from having clear-channel stations with powerful signals that can be heard across several states, reaching where FM signals or phone signals cannot in more sparsely populated areas.
AM radio is found in some electric cars, currently, like Toyota’s, with that manufacturer saying it had found a work-around for electrical interference. Yet the automaker would not tell Markey that it planned to keep AM radio into the future. “While Toyota has addressed this problem in our current vehicles,” said Toyota VP Stephen Ciccone, “we would like to refrain from commenting on potential future business plans.”
According to the Washington Post, ad sales are still robust on many AM stations, with some of the highest-earning stations in the U.S. being news or talk outlets on the band — even if the $2 billion in advertising revenue that AM stations pull in each year is just a piece of radio’s overall $11 billion pie.