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Carmakers, streaming audio execs say AM radio bill is flawed

"Insisting that modern electric vehicles carry AM receivers is like demanding iPhones support rotary dialing," one executive said.

"Insisting that modern electric vehicles carry AM receivers is like demanding iPhones support rotary dialing," one executive said.

Less than 24 hours after federal lawmakers introduced a bill that would effectively require automobile manufacturers to make AM radio broadcasts available in their vehicles, critics have started pointing out the obvious flaws in the proposal.

The proposal comes at a time when public interest groups backed by broadcasters and some government officials say a recent move by a handful of electric vehicle manufacturers to remove AM radio tuners from their cars could pose a public safety risk, since emergency messages are often transmitted by AM radio stations.

Carmakers have defended the move, saying there’s multiple other avenues to get AM radio programming, including through Internet-connected infotainment systems that they are making standard in their vehicles. They also point out that electric motors often cause interference with AM radio tuners, making it difficult, if not impossible, to properly receive broadcast signals.

As written, the proposed legislation introduced by lawmakers on Wednesday would require electric vehicles to make AM radio broadcasts available in their cars. The legislation didn’t say manufacturers had to install an AM radio tuner in the vehicle, but did say the cars must support receiving broadcasts from the AM radio band; presumably, those broadcasts could be received by carmakers supporting various streaming platforms, but they would be required to pay for any wireless data service needed to pull those stations in.

Related: Lawmakers introduce bill to keep AM radio in cars

On Thursday, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation (AAI) blasted lawmakers for proposing a law that would mandate radio in cars for the first time. They also note that new vehicles offer plenty of ways for drivers to get emergency messages without AM radio, including those distributed through the Integrated Public Alerts and Warning System, the mechanism for distributing emergency messages to cell phones.

“Whether AM radio is physically installed in vehicles in the future has no bearing on the various methods of delivering emergency communications that alert the public,” the AAI said. “This is simply a bill to prop up and give preference to a particular technology that’s now competing with other communications options and adapting to changing listenership.”

Proponents of the measure have offered no proof that removing AM radio tuners would create a public safety issue, given that there are other avenues to receive critical emergency alerts. But some backers of the bill have hinted that the proposal is really about supporting the AM broadcast industry at a time when the business is facing serious challenges.

Those backers accuse carmakers of removing AM radio tuners from vehicles in an effort to “silence” conservative voices, though they’ve offered no definitive proof to that effect. Most electric vehicles have radio systems that are able to connect to the Internet, offering easy access to podcasts, where conservative programs are frequently among the most-downloaded on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Richard Stern, the CEO of TuneIn, has agreements in place with dozens of traditional broadcasters who distribute streaming versions of their AM and FM radio signals on his audio platform. Stern says he supports broadcasting as a business, but argues the proposal introduced by lawmakers and backed by industry groups like the National Association of Broadcasters is fundamentally flawed.

“AM transmission is a legacy distribution technology that is over 100 years old; insisting that modern electric vehicles carry AM receivers is like demanding iPhones support rotary dialing,” Stern said in a statement to The Desk. “There are more efficient technologies, such as [digital audio broadcasting] and [Internet Protocol-based systems] to deliver AM broadcasts to listeners. These new technologies point to a brighter future for the art of broadcasting and allow broadcasters to more meaningfully connect with modern audiences.”

While the average age of the typical AM radio listener gets older each year, Stern points out that content produced by AM radio stations still resonate with listeners today, particularly with those who are underserved by other media models.

“I think, as an industry, we have trouble decoupling the content of radio, and the vital relationship our listeners have with our content, from the nuts and bolts of distribution,” Stern said. “AM Radio content will live on and thrive long after the last broadcast tower falls or car radio is replaced with a modern infotainment system.”

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).