Chicago’s a big market for AM radio, but electric vehicles loom as a buzzkill
AM radio has a decadeslong history in Chicago, but the industry faces the prospect of losing easy access to listeners in their cars.
The radio industry is dealing with a bad case of static.
Some automakers plan to remove AM radio from new electric vehicles, but a number of legislators and the broadcast industry are pushing to pass a bill that would keep AM radio in cars.
The issue will impact drivers in Chicago — a market with among the most AM-loyal listeners in the country. The city has a decadeslong tradition of local programming, and thanks to its central location and stations with 50,000-watt signals spanning most of the country at night, Chicago’s voice has been widely heard since radio was invented.
But could listeners lose the AM signal for good? It’s a question being debated Tuesday in the Republican-led House. A subcommittee of the Energy and Commerce Committee will hear testimony about AM in cars. A bipartisan group of representatives has sponsored a resolution that would order federal regulators to mandate AM radios in new cars.
For years, Americans heard the National Barn Dance over WLS-AM, big band broadcasts from the Palmer House and talk shows from the Chez Paree nightclub. Later, baby boomers’ lives were dominated by the Top 40 playlists of WLS and the old WCFL, which competed for the same listeners.
“Those were fun times, and we didn’t have to pay much attention to the business side of things,” said Bob Sirott, morning host at WGN-720 AM and a former DJ at WLS-890 AM.
Today, Sirott said, AM has to rely more on serving local tastes.
“If the content is there, people will seek it out and listen,” he said.
Other broadcast executives, speaking not for attribution, said that while a fragmented media market has reduced the audience for AM, its reach is still impressive, and it has proven its worth for advertisers, who can’t afford the expense of producing a TV spot.
Ratings company Nielsen, in a study of listenership last fall, said 48% of the radio audience in the Chicago market uses AM. Chicago was tied with Milwaukee as the market with the second-highest AM penetration in the country.
“This business is not gone or dead,” one local broadcast executive said.
Giving listeners a choice
Mark Pinski, general manager of Newsweb Radio, said preserving AM access comes down to public safety, convenience and consumer choice.
AM lost its music formats to the superior FM signal decades ago, but continues with news, talk, sports and special interest programming. Newsweb’s WCPT-820 AM is a progressive talk station, and it owns other outlets that broker their time for religious and foreign language shows.
“It’s just so much simpler in your car to hit the button for your station” instead of using an internet connection to get the same broadcast, he said.
Pinski is confident that automakers, perhaps in response to federal pressure, will recommit to AM radio. Ford, which initially said it was dropping AM from all future models, whether gas or electric, did an about-face last month.
Arguments about keeping AM in cars also point to the federal government’s system for emergency public alerts on weather and other matters. The National Association of Broadcasters said about 80 AM stations are primary contacts in the system, with the ability to connect and broadcast a single warning and with backup systems to stay on the air.
The stations’ signals cover 90% of the country. The group said AM radio alerts are more reliable than warnings delivered by internet or cellular services that could be down.
Meanwhile, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the voice of car manufacturers, said users today are more likely to get alerts on their phone or from an FM station.
The trade group also cites trouble automakers have with electric engines interfering with the signals to AM receivers. But a radio engineer told the Sun-Times that most manufacturers have found simple solutions involving the placement and sheathing of cables for the radio.
AM for every vehicle
U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., is the lead sponsor of a bill to require AM radio in all vehicles. He surveyed 20 manufacturers and reported that half of the companies, including Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota, were committed to AM.
General Motors has not announced its intentions with AM radio. Stellantis, formed by combining Fiat Chrysler and France’s PSA Peugeot, has pledged to keep AM as standard equipment.
Markey has said BMW, Mazda, Volkswagen and Volvo are among the manufacturers removing AM from electric vehicles. Tesla phased out AM several years ago.
“Carmakers shouldn’t tune out AM radio in new vehicles or put it behind a costly digital paywall,” Markey said. “I am proud to introduce the AM for Every Vehicle Act to ensure that this resilient and popular communication tool does not become a relic of the past.”
The bill has support from Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who emphasized AM’s various services, including talk shows with “alternative viewpoints.” Experts said Republicans have expressed fears about people in rural areas losing access to conservative talk on many AM stations.
Pinski said Congress is paying attention because listeners are supporting the radio industry’s lobbying. Many stations ran public-interest spots urging people to contact their representatives about the issue.
Automakers have fired back, however. In a commentary issued Monday, John Bozzella, president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, said there are multiple ways to distribute emergency information.
“Mandating audio features in a vehicle isn’t necessary. Congress hasn’t ever gone this route, especially in a competitive environment with so many choices — many of them free,” Bozzella said.
“But if you want government to prop up a particular technology that’s competing with other communications options and struggling with changing listenership … AM for Every Vehicle Act is for you,” he said.