A man who owns property in Madison but lives in Chicago stopped by to chat this week as is his custom over the years, but in minutes had stopped our back-and-forth saying, “Before I forget, have you heard about the problems with AM radio in new cars?”
“I was listening to WIND, and they told listeners to contact their elected officials and urge them to stop car manufacturers from no longer placing AM radio units into new cars off the assembly lines.”
My lifetime love of radio and broadcasting came to the fore as I replied that WIND was the place where Eddie Schwartz, ‘Chicago Ed’ as he was known to listeners first became a household name. As a teenager in central Wisconsin, Chicago radio provided several stations that alerted me about how broadcasters could sound and make their mark over the airwaves. As I told my friend while we sat outside in the spring sunshine, that was all thanks to AM radio, which was always heard in our home, and also the car as the family traveled about the roads.
So yes, I was aware of the headlines being made about some manufacturers no longer placing AM radio into new car models, claiming their electric vehicles cause interference from the motors that result in annoying buzzing noises and faded signals. While I am a strong supporter of EV technology, I also know that NASA figured out to make communications work through issues of space flight to the moon. I strongly suspect that keen minds could brainstorm a remedy so AM radio could be heard in EV cars, too.
Over the months of following this issue, I have noted the strong desire coming from Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey who is pressing his colleagues in a bipartisan fashion to pass a bill requiring all new vehicles to include AM radio at no additional charge. Among the supporters calling for passage of the measure is Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin. Some car makers such as BMW, Ford, Mazda, Polestar, Rivian, Tesla, Volkswagen, and Volvo have already eliminated AM radio from their vehicles, but under the bill would be required to place units at no charge into the car upon the request from the owner.
The rationale for AM radio in automobiles was perhaps best summed up with the words from New Jersey Congressman Josh Gottheimer, who has introduced a House bill.
The importance of AM radio during large-scale emergencies cannot be underestimated, and it has, without a doubt and without interruption, saved lives and kept our communities informed. 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. I’m proud to introduce the bipartisan AM for Every Vehicle Act in the House to ensure that all auto manufacturers include AM radio in their vehicles to protect public safety.
As a former radio broadcaster, I especially liked the words from Senator Baldwin. She hit on a most valued aspect of AM, that being the connection between listeners and the local community. While emergency news and information are vital ways for AM broadcasts to reach those who need to know of events so as to take the appropriate actions, it is that strong sense of community cohesion that I can speak to as a solid foundation from each broadcast day.
Wisconsinites, particularly those living in our rural and farming communities, rely on AM radio in emergencies, to provide them with their high-quality local news, and to lift up the voices of local businesses, organizations, and people. I am proud to work with my Democratic and Republican colleagues to go to bat for the Americans who want and need AM radio to do their jobs, stay safe, and support their local communities.
When the local Jaycees wanted to raise money and encourage new members to join they took over the station for a broadcast day as I worked the board. When a local grocery store had a grand opening the AM live broadcast for several hours connected a business with customers. And when a local child had cancer a radio telethon was provided to aid the family. Such programming serves local people and must not be marginalized by large automakers.
My interest in the topic is not new. A decade ago I called attention to interference with AM broadcasts and used a New York Times story to make the point.
Ajit Pai, the lone Republican on the Federal Communications Commission, is on a personal if quixotic quest to save AM. After a little more than a year in the job, he is urging the F.C.C. to undertake an overhaul of AM radio, which he calls “the audible core of our national culture.” He sees AM — largely the realm of local news, sports, conservative talk and religious broadcasters — as vital in emergencies and in rural areas.
“AM radio is localism, it is community,” Mr. Pai, 40, said in an interview.
AM’s longer wavelength means it can be heard at far greater distances and so in crises, he said, “AM radio is always going to be there.” As an example, he cited Fort Yukon, Alaska, where the AM station KZPA broadcasts inquiries about missing hunters and transmits flood alerts during the annual spring ice breakup.
“When the power goes out, when you can’t get a good cell signal, when the Internet goes down, people turn to battery-powered AM radios to get the information they need,” Mr. Pai said.
He admits to feelings of nostalgia. As the son of Indian immigrants growing up in small-town Parsons, Kan., he listened to his high school basketball team win a 1987 championship, he said. “I sat in my bedroom with my radio tuned into KLKC 1540,” he recalled. On boyhood family road trips across the the wide Kansas plains, he said, AM radio “was a constant companion.”
I feel compelled to conclude this post with how it felt to be one of those voices that folks turned to on their AM dial.
While I was working at WDOR, a small AM/FM station in Door County, we may not have been cutting edge, but we were local. Local neighborhood disc-jockeys with the current weather and local fishing conditions, high school sports reports, and even the local obituaries were read on certain long-form newscasts. No one pretended to be more than what we were. We were happy to work out of a small studio that was too hot in the summer, and too chilly in the winter, but we knew our audience. Heck, we lived in the community, cared for our friends, and shared many commonalities. As such we served the community through our daily broadcasting.
I know AM matters to a large swath of radio listeners in their cars. I suspect many of my readers are those listeners. As such, I ask that you contact your senators along with your house member and urge them to support AM radio being required in all new car models.