(Bloomberg) -- Automakers moving into an electric future are locked in a battle with broadcasters concerned about the potential loss of an aged and fading technology: AM radio.
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Major carmakers, including Tesla Inc. and BMW AG, are omitting AM tuners from electric vehicles, citing electromagnetic interference with the frequencies used by the century-old broadcasting service. AM radio is particularly susceptible to disruption because it uses frequencies like those emitted by EV systems, which can overwhelm the radio signal and make it unintelligible. FM stations operate over different wavelengths. Shielding radio reception gear can be costly and complex, especially when vehicle users can access AM signals via digital platforms.
Broadcasters say AM radio deserves protection because it’s a linchpin of the US emergency information system, and remains important on a day-to-day basis for millions of listeners including rural, religious and foreign-language audiences.
“When the power goes out and cell networks are down, the car radio is often the only way for people to get information, sometimes for days at a time,” Jerry Chapman, president of Woof Boom Radio, which operates three AM stations in Indiana and Ohio, said in testimony for a US House hearing on Tuesday.
More than four dozen House members have signed onto the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act, a bill that would require all new cars and trucks to receive AM broadcast signals.
“Removing AM radio receivers from vehicles means individuals may miss out on critical lifesaving updates,” said Representative Bob Latta, the Ohio Republican who chairs the communications panel that held the hearing. “We must ensure that no community’s left behind, no voice is silenced and no emergency response is compromised.”
Overtones of the US partisan divide have crept into the discussion, with some zeroing in on talk radio, where conservative hosts such as Sean Hannity thrive on AM channels.
“AM radio is worth keeping in our cars,” Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, tweeted last week. “Millions of Americans listen to talk radio. It’s central to our democracy and freedom of expression.”
Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers magazine, which covers the talk radio industry, said he doubted carmakers had any intention to quiet conservative voices on talk radio. But he lamented the rift in what he called a “long, symbiotic relationship.”
“Radio has exalted the automobile as being mythical, and gorgeous,” Harrison said in an interview. “It’s almost a betrayal on the part of these car manufacturers to say, we’re getting rid of AM radio.’”
Carmakers, their dashboards replete with FM radio, internet and satellite-radio links, can cite evidence that users prefer those media, which were unforeseen when AM commenced commercial broadcasting in 1920.
AM radio was once the dominant form of audio entertainment. Until 1978, more than half of all radio listening hours were spent on the AM dial, the Federal Communications Commission said in 2015.
But by late 2022, only about 15% of people 12 and older listened to AM radio during an average week — less than half the 34% who did in 2000, according to Nielsen data provided to Bloomberg. The AM radio audience is older and whiter than FM radio’s, according to Nielsen.
Broadcasters say a Nielsen survey for fall 2022 showed 82 million Americans listen to AM radio monthly.
Carmakers omitting broadcast AM tuners from electric vehicles include Volvo Group, Volkswagen AG and Mazda Motor Corp., according to Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who objects to excluding AM radio from cars.
Ford Motor Co. was originally on that list too, dropping AM radio from the F-150 Lightning pickup truck and the Mustang, saying AM listeners accounted for less than 5% of radio usage in its vehicles. But the company changed course last month and Chief Executive Officer Jim Farley said all 2024 Ford and Lincoln vehicles will include AM broadcast radio.
Farley said the reversal came “after speaking with policy leaders about the importance of AM broadcast radio as a part of the emergency alert system.” He didn’t say what might happen after 2024.
The AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act would direct regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require automakers to maintain AM broadcast radio in new vehicles at no additional charge, bill sponsors said in a news release.
Backers of the bill include the National Association of Broadcasters, which said that a 77-station emergency alert system with direct connections to US officials includes more than 60 AM stations.
“Take away these stations and you’re really undoing the ability of every American to get emergency alerts,” broadcasters’ association President Curtis LeGeyt said in an interview. He said such a problem is “small right now” but added, “what does public safety look like as new vehicles proliferate?”
Gary Shapiro, chief executive officer of the Consumer Technology Association that includes carmakers as members, scoffed at the public-safety rationale. The collapse of alternative warning systems including mobile phones, FM radio and satellite radio is “possible but extraordinarily unlikely,” Shapiro said.
Electric vehicles are a growing portion of the US market, and accounted for about 7% of new vehicle sales in the first quarter, according to Cox Automotive.
A mandate requiring AM broadcast reception is “just one more thing hindering the introduction of electric cars,” Shapiro said in an interview.
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