Mark Bennett: AM radio carries on, despite its absence in s…


As a kid growing up in a small Hoosier town, AM radio brought the sounds of the world to me.

Rock and roll. The ABA-era Indiana Pacers. Cincinnati Reds games. Indiana State Sycamore basketball.

Years later, my wife and I listened to all of those, plus the wacky episodes of “Animal Stories” with legendary disc jockey Larry Lujack and his sidekick “Little” Tommy Edwards on Chicago’s WLS-AM 890, on the Motorola radio in her 1977 Ford Maverick.

Today, I still listen to the Reds on the distant signal of WLW-AM 700 in Cincinnati in my truck, if Sullivan’s WNDI isn’t carrying that night’s game. The crackle and buzz of AM doesn’t deter me.

Yet, AM radio may slowly disappear, a sad thought.

Some manufacturers of electric vehicles — Tesla, Audi, Volvo, BMW and Porsche, the Sacramento Bee reported this week — are phasing out AM radios in their latest models. Automakers contend the EV motors interfere with the AM radio signal. Ford planned to eliminate AM from its 2024 electric- and gas-powered vehicles, but relented in May under pressure from a bipartisan (a word disappearing even faster than AM) group of federal lawmakers, The Associated Press reported.

The pushback created an improbable coalition of U.S. senators, ranging from Republicans such as Indiana’s Todd Young (a co-sponsor of the AM for Every Vehicle Act) and Texas’ Ted Cruz to Democrats Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Ed Markey of Massachusetts.

The bipartisan movement seems to negate unsurprising conspiracy theories that the dismissal of AM is a plot to diminish rightwing talk shows.

The bill aims to ensure new vehicles will be able to receive AM broadcasts without extra costs to car buyers.

“AM radio plays a vital role in preserving public safety across Indiana,” Young said in a news release Wednesday. “By delivering important weather updates, local news, and emergency and disaster response information, this bill will ensure Hoosiers — especially those in the most rural areas — continue to have access to this critical communication tool.”

Klobuchar reiterated Young’s comment, adding that AM also is a go-to source of agricultural news for farmers.

As the senators’ words show, the legislation is more than nostalgia preservation.

Still, AM’s future is clouded by improving technology and consumer desires. Programming through the internet and satellite service includes a gamut of content and clear sound. Sirius XM, a satellite and internet broadcast service, has 34 million subscribers, according to 2022 statistics. Also, AM programming can be relayed to listeners through digital apps.

But an AM broadcast signal can be heard for free by anyone with a radio and a working battery or electrical outlet.

The AM band proved its value during last month’s storms that rendered 48,000 Duke Energy customers without electrical power, and many without Spectrum internet service. Battery-powered AM radios kept going.

“AM is crucial for that,” said Rich Green, general manager for Indiana State University’s FM stations WZIS and WISU.

“Logistically, it’s important for breaking news and weather,” he added. “That’s why it’s really important when power goes out.”

AM has other upsides, too. Its signal travels farther and penetrates barriers, such as buildings and walls, better than FM. But FM has — as Steely Dan famously sang — no static at all, compared to AM.

Sources of static have increased, said Dave Crooks, president and general manager of DLC Media, which operates seven Wabash Valley radio stations. Twenty-first-century streetlights, power lines and cellphones can generate static to disrupt AM reception. Car radios aren’t as well made today, he added.

“Some of these [car] manufacturers are putting crappy radios in there,” Crooks said.

DLC’s roster of stations includes WAMB-AM 1130 in Brazil and WIBQ-AM 1230 in Terre Haute. Both of those stations’ AM signals are simulcast on FM translators, allowing all of that programming to be heard via FM. The listenership of AM programs delivered on FM is growing, in Crooks’ view.

“I would propose that 80% of the listeners have gravitated to the FM translator,” Crooks said. “I guess that’s what keeps [AM stations] alive.”

He also realizes that advocating for AM’s preservation can seem “like trying to defend 8-track tapes.”

Crooks certainly knows the radio turf. He’s been at it for 43 years, dating back to his junior year at Sullivan High School in 1980. AM has its devoted listeners, he emphasized.

A Nielsen survey last year indicated that AM radio reaches 82.3 million Americans each month, or 1 of every 3 terrestrial radio listeners.

In the latter half of the 20th century, numerous AM radio stations competed for Wabash Valley listeners, such as WBOW-AM 1230, WTHI-AM 1480 and WAAC-AM 1300. Former Tribune-Star reporter Arthur Foulkes’ family owned WAAC, a station launched by his dad, George A. Foulkes in 1963. After George Foulkes passed in 1977, his wife, Martha, ran the station until selling it to country music group The Oak Ridge Boys in 1983.

Like many AM stations of that era, WAAC leaned into the local community and even broadcast a golf tournament at Rea Park. “I remember someone [from the station] telling me how hard it was to carry the broadcast equipment around on the course,” Arthur Foulkes recalled this week.

Today, the roster of local AM stations includes WPFR-AM 1480 in Terre Haute and WKZI-AM 800 in Casey, Illinois, operated by Map and Compass Communications. The two AM stations — which also are carried via FM translators — are currently down for repairs, but should return in a couple weeks, said Tim Nelson, the general manager.

Talk radio, politics, entertainment and agriculture comprised the two stations’ menu, but Nelson expects to add weekend shows by longtime Wabash Valley broadcasters offering oldies and local music, as well as a “Sundays with Sinatra” show hosted by former “Saturday Night Live” comic and conservative talk show host Joe Piscopo.

The signal from Illinois public radio station WILL-AM 580 brings a steady diet of not only news but farm programming, especially market and commodity reports, and is heard by thousands of Terre Haute listeners, too.

Farm reports and live sports events remain as AM radio niches.

Green, who leads the ISU stations, has listened to Chicago-based AM stations WSCR-AM 670 (“The Score”) and WGN-AM 720 since growing up in that region. “Those stations, I listened to all the time,” Green said, “and when I go home, I still do.”

He expects AM and terrestrial radio to survive.

“Radio is local, and that’s the way it’s always been,” Green said. “All you need is a battery.”

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