Scott Toenniessen remembers himself as a twelve-year-old, falling asleep to his favorite AM radio show, John Otto’s Extension 55 out of Buffalo, New York.
Toenniessen, now in his fifties, listens to radio stations from Boston and New Bedford as he resides in the Cape Cod region of Massachusetts. His love for radio and exploring new topics led him to Dan Rea’s 8 p.m. to midnight show, NightSide, on WBZ’s AM station.
“John Otto was widely listened to and nearly everybody liked him,” Toenniessen says. “When he spoke, he wasn’t a blowhard type of guy, just a very intelligent guy who brought on a variety of guests on all different topics. It was just an interesting show at that time when not everybody had a cell phone, a tablet, or even a television.”
But as technology has advanced, automakers are debating AM radio’s viability as they consider removing the service from its vehicles. Advocates claim that removing AM from vehicles would be the “nail in the coffin” for the broadcasting industry.
BMW, Mazda, Tesla, Rivian, Volkswagen, and Volvo have already removed or are considering removing AM radios from electric vehicle models. Ford went further by saying it would ditch AM radio in both gas and electric automobiles starting in 2024.
“A majority of U.S. AM [radio] stations, as well as a number of countries and automakers globally, are modernizing radio by offering Internet streaming through mobile apps, FM, digital and satellite radio options,” Ford spokesperson Wes Sherwood told the Detroit Free Press.
Policy experts jumped on Ford’s announcement and contacted company leaders to find a temporary solution. The company’s Chief Executive Officer Jim Farley tweeted on May 23 that Ford will keep AM radio in its 2024 vehicles after being informed of the technology’s importance in the emergency alert system.
The issue made its way to Washington as members of Congress crafted the AM Radio For Every Vehicle Act, which would require automakers to maintain AM radio receivers in their vehicles. The bill was sponsored in the House of Representatives by Representative Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, and in the Senate by Senator Ed Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts.
Although boosted by Democrats, the bill has bipartisan support. Senate Commerce Committee Member Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, joined Markey in writing an op-ed for Fox News urging Congress to pass the legislation.
“We represent two very different sides of the political spectrum,” the two wrote. “If the two of us—a progressive and a conservative—can find common ground on this issue, it should highlight how important we believe it is for Americans to have access to AM radio in cars, and just how important AM radio is to millions of Americans from different walks of life.”
On June 6, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee joined the Communications and Technology Subcommittee to host a hearing where legislators not only raised concerns about emergency systems alerts, but also its impact on rural America. Representative Robin Kelly, Democrat of Illinois, expressed concerns over how eliminating AM radio in vehicles may decrease farmers and ranchers’ access to reliable, local information.
“In rural America, AM oftentimes is the best [way to distribute] talk programming [in] extended long-form,” said Jerry Chapman, president of Woof Boom Radio in Indiana and Ohio, responding to a question from Kelly.
While Ford says Internet streaming has modernized the radio industry, many AM radio advocates claim that streaming platforms cannot replace AM for a variety of reasons, including its role in emergency response, hometown pride, local news reporting, and in serving America’s growing immigrant population.
Many AM radio advocates claim that streaming platforms cannot replace AM for a variety of reasons, including its role in emergency response, hometown pride, local news reporting, and in serving America’s growing immigrant population.
Grant Merrill owns Southwest Media Group, a media company consisting of both AM and FM radio stations primarily in Texas. Merrill tells The Progressive that removing AM stations from vehicles would drastically reduce his clientele—ultimately impacting a station’s reach and attractiveness to potential advertisers.
If AM radio stations have less advertising revenue, listeners like Toenniessen worry these stations won’t be able to stay afloat. As stations potentially dwindle in number, the use of home radios would also decrease. This could leave little room for emergency alerts to get out to communities without Internet access.
“If we were in some kind of a catastrophic, grid down type of situation with no Internet [as occurred during Hurricane Katrina in 2005], a couple of AM stations can almost cover the entire country to get information out,” Toenniessen says.
For Toenniessen, AM radio’s local element is its most important quality. Toenniessen, who also has a SiriusXM subscription, says he finds himself preferring AM radio content because it comes from “local announcers talking about stuff happening in the community.”
Merrill says he discovered something similar in June 2022 when his media company acquired KGRO, an AM station in Pampa, Texas. He says the community of roughly 16,000 people thinks of itself as its own municipal center, not one belonging to the widespread Amarillo, Texas, area.
“Pampa has a lot of active community leaders, and residents are proud of being from Pampa,” Merrill says. “They don’t want to be associated with Amarillo or some of the other places in the Texas panhandle. They are their own town. That’s one of the things that’s made the radio station so successful all these years, it’s been the voice of that town.”
Toenniessen worries about how local stations, like Merrill’s KGRO, would fare if forced to adapt to streaming platforms where local broadcasters would compete with larger, more expansive entities. He compared it to what’s been happening in the newspaper industry, with many publications going online, leading to the decline of the print newspaper.
Local print journalism has found ways to adapt with some hyperlocal publications finding a home online. Block Club Chicago, a non-profit local news organization, is an example of that. The publication has a team of journalists focused on Chicago’s individual neighborhoods. It also hosts a talk show for its audience with its podcast, It’s All Good, which covers a variety of local topics, ranging from Chicago’s drag queens finding community in churches to an oversized snapping turtle named “Chonk” that was found in the Chicago River.
Lawmakers and advocates are also bringing a racial equity lens to the matter. In their op-ed, Cruz and Markey wrote that AM radio is “a home for alternative viewpoints and diverse audiences,” noting its high number of Latinx and Black listeners.
Amador Bustos, president of Bustos Media Holdings, which has stations broadcasting in Spanish, Russian, Korean, Chinese, and Vietnamese, tells The Progressive that these niche stations are often on AM channels because it is more cost-effective. He says if AM radio goes away, these populations will not have an avenue to receive local news and entertainment in their own languages. Immigrant populations are particularly vulnerable to the demise of AM radio because it can be harder for them to adapt to advancing technology, Bustos adds.
“Generally, first-generation immigrants are used to the communication format of their home country where AM radio is more widely used,” Bustos explains. “[They might not have the same tools or be as] technology savvy [as we are in the United States] so they’re not necessarily going to be following us on mobile streaming platforms.”
Toenniessen believes that AM radio will have to make changes to its content to make the service more attractive to a wider group of listeners. When he listened to Extension 55 as a twelve-year-old boy, he fell in love with radio because it exposed him to a variety of different topics. Today, he says, the landscape has changed. “A lot of talk shows are very political in the modern world. But that wasn’t the way they started out,” he tells The Progressive. “Some of the talk stations could take a cue from [Otto and Rea] to branch out from always talking about politics and dive into more generic, general stuff people are interested in.”