End of a love affair AM radio will be removed.JPGw1440

End of a love affair: AM radio will be removed from many cars

Ford, BMW, Volkswagen, Tesla and other automakers are ditching AM radio from some new vehicles, sparking protests over the loss of a medium that has defined American life for a century

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May 13, 2023 at 9:00 am EDT

Scott DeLucia talks about traffic, sports and what to watch on TV during his WTAW morning show “The Infomaniacs” in College Station, Texas. (Danielle Villasana for The Washington Post)Comment on this storyComment

America’s love affair between the automobile and AM radio — a centuries-long romance that provided the soundtrack for love stories, sustained solitary company with ball games and chat shows, sparked family chants and defined road trips — is on the brink of collapse, a victim of rapid technological change and of rapidly changing consumer preferences.

The split is completely lopsided, a move by major automakers to ban AM radios from new vehicles despite protests from station owners, listeners, first responders and politicians from both major parties.

Automakers like BMW, Volkswagen, Mazda and Tesla are removing AM radios from new electric vehicles because electric motors can interfere with the audio from AM transmitters. And Ford, one of the top three auto sellers in the country, is taking a bigger step and eliminating AM from all vehicles its vehicles, electric or gas-powered.

Some station owners and advertisers claim that losing access to car dashboards will indeed spell the death knell for many of the country’s 4,185 AM stations — the possible demise of a core element of the nation’s news and political talk delivery system (particularly on the far right). ). ), reporting of weather emergencies and foreign language programming.

“This is a deaf display of utter ignorance about what AM radio means to Americans,” said Michael Harrison, editor of Talkers, a trade publication on the talk radio industry. “It’s not the end of the world for radio, but it is the loss of an iconic piece of American culture.”

The first hundred years of mass media were dominated by AM radio American Life: This is where Franklin D. Roosevelt held his fireside chats; where a young Ronald Reagan announced the Chicago Cubs baseball games; where DJs like Wolfman Jack spin in the USThe Mexican border, Larry Lujack in Chicago, Alan Freed in Cleveland, “Cousin Brucie” Morrow in New York City and Don Imus in California, Texas, Ohio and New York howled, growled and yelled the latest pop hits.

Through the crackles and crackles of distant lightning and the hum of overhead power lines, the sometimes static signal of AM radio dominated the country’s soundscape. From the 1950s through the 1970s, the top 40 hit music stations in many major cities had staggering audience shares, with 50 percent or more of listeners tuned into a single station, meaning people would walk across a city sidewalk and Transistor radios, ghetto blasters and above all car radios are booming.

But technology evolved, and the silky smooth sound of FM radio and then the crystal clear digital clarity of streaming stations and podcasts limited AM’s hold on the American imagination.

According to the National Association of Broadcasters, while 82 million Americans still listen to AM stations each month, AM audiences have been aging for decades. Ford says its data, drawn from internet-connected vehicles, shows that AM stations account for less than 5 percent of in-car listening.

Ford spokesman Alan Hall said that since most AM stations also offer their programs online or on sister FM stations, the automaker will continue “to offer these alternatives so customers can listen to their favorite AM radio music and news while we listen to them.” removed.” [AM] from most new and updated models.” The 2024 Mustang is Ford’s first internal combustion engine model to be marketed without AM.

Several major automakers, including Toyota and Honda, say they have no plans to phase out AM radio, and General Motors, the country’s top-selling automaker, has not announced its intentions.

Like Ford, BMW has removed AM from electric models in part because “technology innovation has provided consumers with many additional opportunities to obtain the same or similar information,” said Adam McNeill, the company’s U.S. vice president of technology, in a letter to Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).

However, many AM stations do not offer alternative ways to listen to their shows. Even those who say their audiences, many of whom are older, tend to be unfamiliar with the technologies that allow drivers to stream whatever they choose from their smartphones into their car’s audio system. And despite the growing popularity of podcasts and audio streaming, much of in-car listening still remains old-fashioned broadcast radio, according to industry studies.

The removal of AM radio from cars – where about half of AM radio happens – has sparked cross-party protests. Some Democrats are fighting to save broadcasters, which are often the only live source of local information during extreme weather conditions, and broadcasters aimed at immigrant audiences. Some Republicans, are now demanding the abolition of AM radio aims to narrow the reach of conservative talk radio, an AM mainstay from Sean Hannity to Glenn Beck to dozens of supporters of the late Rush Limbaugh. Eight of the country’s ten most popular radio talk shows are conservative.

“The car is essential to freedom,” right-wing talk show host Mark Levin told listeners last month. “It’s freedom. So controlling the automobile is about controlling your freedom. They finally figured out how to attack conservative talk radio.”

One night that spring, as severe thunderstorms swept across Bryan, Texas, and tornadoes threatened parts of the region, Bill Oliver, the news director of WTAW, the region’s century-old AM station, connected to the studio from his home and stayed in the studio until late at night, the air swept through the air, telling listeners which neighborhoods and streets stood in a villain’s way.

For most of the day, the WTAW broadcasts the same right-wing, nationwide talk that dominates AM broadcast across much of the country — Hannity, Beck and Limbaugh’s successors, Clay Travis and Buck Sexton. But the station’s morning show is strictly local: it’s three hours of news (the top story of one day last week was the city’s acquisition of three new fire engines), talk (the mayor comes every week to take calls from listeners ) and Community (the head of the local theater spoke for nine minutes about the performances she is staging this season.

“We might not be the first station you turn to, but when the weather is bad, when the game is on, when you want to know what’s happening where you live, we’re the only place,” said Ben Downs, who Owner and General Manager of WTAW, which serves the sister cities of College Station and Bryan. “AM is where news and conversations are broadcast live. And in the great American Midwest, farm radio is on AM. Our audience has gotten older, but when something big happens, everyone in town knows who to turn to.”

Chelsea Reber, news anchor at The Infomaniacs for WTAW, gives the station identification, time, and weather updates. (Video: Danielle Villasana/For the Washington Post)

Downs’ company, Bryan Broadcasting, owns 15 stations in the city, mostly on FM, but WTAW is its biggest revenue generator and the only one that employs news reporters and a forecaster. That’s a rarity for a commercial station these days, after waves of corporate consolidation and budget cuts over the past three decades have deprived much of American radio of its local content.

But broadcasters say that in most markets there is at least one station, mostly on AM, that like WTAW emphasizes its local ties, reports on weather emergencies and champions community causes.

At WTAW, Scott DeLucia, who started as a country DJ at the station in 1968, hosts the morning show The Infomaniacs. He says he does his best to avoid divisive political rhetoric, preferring to talk about traffic, sports and what to watch on TV. But almost every day he has a local mayor or councilor visit to talk about their initiatives and take calls from listeners.

“There’s a lot of people out there that would love to silence one side of the political spectrum, but that’s scary,” DeLucia said, “so we’re keeping it close and keeping it civil.” If you’re an AM station like ours loses, you lose the voices that appeal to conservatives, minorities and the religious sector – those are three important groups and that would be a real loss.”

Scott DeLucia hosts “The Infomaniacs” for WTAW, reading ads for roofing contractors and contests where listeners can win free barbecue. (Video: Danielle Villasana/For the Washington Post)

DeLucia knew from a young age that he wanted to be in radio. As a kid in Bryan, he listened to WLS, Chicago’s top 40 station, every night. (AM signals, unlike FM, can travel enormous distances at night.) In 1964, DeLucia wrote to his favorite DJ, Art Roberts, asking if he could stop by the station and meet him while his family was touring through Chicago on a trip to the Chicago World’s Fair in NYC. Roberts responded with a certified letter, and DeLucia was ushered into the studio to watch his hero shoot the hits.

“It was really cool that he let a kid like me in,” DeLucia recalls 59 years later. “I’m afraid there isn’t much of that left.”

Today, DeLucia tries to keep such connections alive in his city of 84,000. his show is often rated #1 and offers a traditional mix of features like Today in Texas History, updates on Texas A&M athletics, and a plethora of homemade ads for local businesses, many with their own jingles, produced by the station’s advertising staff . It sounds like a flashback, but many people in Bryan can sing the jingles for Schulte Roofing (“Home of the Bulletproof Roof”) or George’s Paint and Body (“We’ll Meet By Chance at George’s Paint and Body”).

A regular on “The Infomaniacs” is Bryan’s Mayor Bobby Gutierrez, a lifelong resident of the city who owns the House of Tires auto repair shop. handed down from his parents, who have been advertising on the station for 50 years.

“All we want to communicate to citizens is the way we do it,” the mayor said. “The station is also the only medium that comes to each of our meetings and watches us very closely. We are probably more afraid of what they report than any other media.”

Gutierrez expects the House of Tires to do so Stop advertising on WTAW when the station is no longer available in cars. “I can’t imagine what the automakers are thinking,” the mayor said. “In an emergency, the AM signal cannot reach rural areas and the FM signal cannot. That can make the difference between life and death.”

For automakers, eliminating AM is a simple matter of numbers and progress. AM audiences are getting smaller and older, and the growth of alternative forms of in-car audio is explosive. The programming and audience of AM radio began to change when FM radio was introduced as standard equipment in cars in the mid-1960s. The trend away from music towards spoken word formats has accelerated over the past two decades.

Of the $11 billion in advertising revenue that radio brought in last year, about $2 billion went to AM stations, according to BIA Advisory Services, which conducts research for broadcasters. And some of the country’s most lucrative radio stations are still on AM, mostly news-only or news-and-talk stations in major cities like New York, Chicago, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.

About 40 percent of AM stations have news, talk, or sports formats, 11 percent target specific ethnic groups, and 11 percent are religious. according to BIA. About a third of AM stores play music, mostly oldies, Spanish or other less popular genres, said Nicole Ovadia, vice president of forecasting and analytics at BIA.

“AM is the Long Tail,” she said. “And if those stations aren’t on the dashboard of the car, they’re dead.”

Loss of AM’s foreign language stations – such as Polish and Russian affiliates in Chicago, Farsi in Los Angeles, five Vietnamese stations in the Northern and Southern California markets – including The proliferation of about 700 Spanish-language channels across the country would cut many immigrant communities from their most trusted source of information, said Pierre Bouvard, chief insights officer at Cumulus Media, which owns more than 400 channels.

“Radio is still the soundtrack of the American worker,” he said. “It’s what people hear on the way to work. And Ford owners are massive users of AM radio – one in five AM listeners is a Ford owner, so Ford is missing something here.”

Automakers admit that many of their loyal customers listen to AM stations, but manufacturers say niche audiences have learned how to find what they need online or stream audio to their cars using Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, and similar programs. But station owners say older listeners “are not going to get in their car and spend three or four minutes turning on Bluetooth to listen to our station,” as Downs put it.

Marketers often assume that young people primarily stream in-car audio, but a new study by Edison Research, which monitors Americans’ listening habits, found that young people often prefer AM and FM broadcasting because it’s free, is more accessible while driving and features local information and personalities.

Collectively, AM and FM radio still make up 60 percent of the overall in-car listening experience, Edison noted. SiriusXM satellite radio accounts for 16 percent of in-car audio usage, followed by the driver’s own music from their phone at 7 percent, and podcasts and YouTube music videos at 4 percent each.

In a recent campaign to keep AM in cars, broadcasters are joining forces with conservative activists, first responders and liberals who see AM as a key source of media diversity. Seven former Federal Emergency Management Agency executives wrote together in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg that the removal of AM radio from cars “poses a serious threat to future disaster preparedness and relief efforts at the local, state and federal levels.”

Markey urged automakers to change their choices, telling manufacturers that “in an emergency, drivers may not have access to the internet and could miss important safety information.”

Eight automakers — Ford, VW, BMW, Mazda, Volvo, Tesla, Polestar, and Rivian — told Markey they’ve already removed AM from their electric models. Several other companies – including Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Kia and Jaguar Land Rover – said they had no plans to phase out AM.

General Motors did not respond to a Washington Post request for comment or answer Markey’s questions. GM has announced plans to replace Apple CarPlay and Android Audio, programs that now allow drivers to bypass a vehicle’s audio dashboard and instead redirect drivers to GM’s own audio system in electric vehicles.

AM stations are trying to get listeners to speak out against the change. Many Black-aligned stations air spots urging listeners to contact Congress: “For decades, our community has relied on AM radio to inform, entertain, and empower,” states in an announcement. “From the gospel music you grew up listening to, to the black voices and perspectives you depend on for your messages…. We cannot afford to have our voice silenced.”

News also aimed at Spanish speakers will be broadcast on channels aimed at that community.

And conservative talk stations play a nod to former Vice President Mike Pence, who paved his way into politics as the host of an AM radio talk show: Talk radio has “become a meeting place for the American people”. Here we come together and get information.”

But Harrison, the talk radio editor, said most listeners would find other ways to get the information they need. Just as most music programming shifted from AM to FM in the 1970s and 1980s, he predicted that the talk, news, and sports programs found primarily on AM would shift to places like satellite radio, internet streaming, and podcasts .

What remains distinctive about AM are the local voices that sound like the places they operate. Three years ago, Todd Starnes, a right-wing commentator who used to work for Fox News Radio, moved to Memphis and bought KWAM, better known to listeners as The Mighty 990, not just to build an audience for conservative talk shows — including his own — but to revitalize the local connections that AM stations cultivated in the 1960s and 1970s.

Part of that appeal is nostalgia: “My grandfather gave me a transistor radio when I was a kid,” Starnes said, “and I’ve loved AM radio ever since.”

But some of it is uniquely local content: He’s added local newscasts on the hour, hired a full-time weatherman, and started covering high school football games, in part to attract younger listeners.

Starnes believes KWAM can survive the loss of AM in cars. He says listeners will stick with AM stations even if they’re a little disturbed by electric motors, just as they’ve long put up with static from power lines or lightning. “It has something to do with getting in the car and turning on an AM station,” he said. “I love the crackle.”