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Lawmakers introduce bill to keep AM radio in cars

The proposal would require new vehicles, including electric cars, to have AM tuners or otherwise provide access to AM broadcast stations.

The proposal would require new vehicles, including electric cars, to have AM tuners or otherwise provide access to AM broadcast stations.

(Stock image)

A bipartisan group of federal lawmakers have introduced a proposal that would require cars sold in the United States to have access to AM radio.

The proposal, called the “AM for Every Vehicle Act,” comes at a time when Telsa, Ford and other automakers have proposed eliminating AM radio tuners in some of their newer-model electric cars, or have done so already.

The move to eliminate AM radio tuners from some newer-model electric vehicles has drawn strong opposition from commercial radio broadcasters, who claim the decision to drop AM radio would harm their business interests and create public safety nightmares. Their rallying cries were loudly heard on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers agreeing to introduce a proposal that would effectively mandate AM radio access in cars.

If enacted, the measure would see the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issuing a rule that “requires automakers to maintain AM broadcast radio in their vehicles without a separate or additional payment, fee or surcharge.” The language of the proposal suggests carmakers who don’t want to install AM radio tuners could easily adhere to this requirement by providing access to AM radio stations over streaming, as long as they foot the bill for the cellular or satellite connectivity required for those datacast services.

The bill would also direct the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to “study whether alternative communication systems could fully replicate the reach and effectiveness of AM broadcast radio for alerting the public to emergencies.”

That study could backfire on groups that are in support of AM radio if the GAO study ultimately determines that the proliferation of cellphones and wireless service do an adequate, if not better, job in warning the public during emergencies. Most cellphones are compatible with the Integrated Public Alert & Warning System (IPAWS), the emergency alert network operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) that distributes Emergency Alert System (EAS) message through broadcast stations and Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) to mobile devices.

Still, the introduction of the bill is being seen as a partial victory for the public lobbyist groups that have supported commercial broadcasters in their fight to preserve open access to AM radios in cars. On Wednesday, the National Association of Broadcasters said it commended the bipartisan group of lawmakers who introduced the AM for Every Vehicle Act, saying it was necessary to ensure “that the tens of million Americans who depend on AM radio for news, entertainment and critical safety information each month can continue to have access to this reliable communications medium.”

“As the backbone of the Emergency Alert System, AM radio is instrumental in promptly disseminating vital information across all mediums during crises, ensuring that communities remain safe and well-informed,” Curtis LeGeyt, the CEO of NAB, said in a statement. “America’s local broadcasters applaud the bill’s authors and supporters for recognizing AM radio’s critical role in our nation’s public safety infrastructure.”

While broadcasters and industry groups have played up the outsized role of AM radio in delivering emergency alert messages to the public, none of the industry groups pushing for an AM radio mandate have provided any data that proves the broadcast industry would be competitively harmed if automakers remove AM radio tuners from their cars.

But there are some studies that show broadcast radio would not be significantly impacted if carmakers decided to pull AM and FM tuners from their vehicles entirely. In March, Edison Research published a new study that showed AM and FM radio is the dominant format for in-car audio listening among the average American driver, with 88 percent of time spent listening to broadcast radio compared to 12 percent of streaming.

The same Edison Research study — which is widely used by sales divisions within local and national radio outlets to pitch ad inventory to prospective buyers — proved broadcast radio is also the dominant audio format for listeners outside the car, with 64 percent of time spent listening to AM and FM radio in homes and offices compared to 36 percent of time spent with streaming music services. Streaming versions of AM and FM broadcast stations were counted in the AM and FM radio column; the study didn’t take into account SiriusXM satellite radio, audiobooks or YouTube streams.

A graphic showing the results of an Edison Share of Ear survey in March 2023.
(Graphic from Edison Research, March 2023)

Still, the scare tactics and thin anecdotal evidence offered by broadcasters have proved to be a loud voice that has resonated with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who are persuaded that removing AM radio from vehicles would do more harm than good.

“For decades, free AM broadcast radio has been an essential tool in emergencies, a crucial part of our diverse media ecosystem, and an irreplaceable source for news, weather, sports, and entertainment for tens of millions of listeners,” Senator Ed Markey, one of the bill’s primary proponents, said in a statement on Wednesday. “Carmakers shouldn’t tune out AM radio in new vehicles or put it behind a costly digital paywall. 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 proposal also has the support of Jessica Rosenworcel, the chairperson of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), who claimed — without evidence — that there “is a clear public safety imperative here.”

“Having AM radio available in our cars means we always have access to emergency alerts and key warnings while we are out on the road,” Rosenworcel asserted. “Updating transportation should not mean sacrificing access to what can be life-saving information. We stand ready to provide any necessary support and expertise to the Department of Transportation and Government Accountability Office as they may need.”

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is a nationally-recognized, award-winning journalist who has covered the business of media, technology, radio and television for more than 11 years. He is the publisher of The Desk and contributes to Know Techie, Digital Content Next and StreamTV Insider. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, the Walt Disney Company, McNaughton Newspapers and Tribune Broadcasting.
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