Picture of Christopher A. Hopkins, CFA

Christopher A. Hopkins, CFA

AM radio is not dead yet

Several auto makers have either already dropped or announced plans to dump AM radio receivers from their electric vehicles, claiming that the inherent technical problems of signal interference from the power train are too costly rectify. But the threat to the century-old technology has met with surprisingly vigorous opposition, energizing a diverse coalition intent on ensuring drivers still have the option to tune in.

Proponents argue that AM remains the most reliable source of information in times of natural disaster and continues to provide rural areas with important information. Like Mark Twain, reports of the death or AM radio are greatly exaggerated.

The word “radio” comes from Latin radius, meaning a ray, beam, or spoke of a wheel. Radio waves are a form of electromagnetic radiation and reside within the same family as microwaves, visible light, and X-rays. The signals received by our car or portable radios reside at the lower end of the energy spectrum, with gamma rays at the top.

Guglielmo Marconi first transmitted a radio message in Morse code in 1899. By 1906, voices and music were broadcast and in 1920 Westinghouse Electric in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania carried the first scheduled program using the call sign KDKA, announcing the election of Warren G. Harding.

These early radio transmissions encoded sound data by varying the amplitude or the height of the waves, called “amplitude modulation” or AM. The numbers on your dial represent the frequencies of different stations, ranging from 550 to 1,700 kilohertz or thousand cycles per second. KDKA is still in the air with news, talk, and sports at AM 1020.

During the 1930s, FM or frequency modulation technology developed that provided mush greater sound quality. By 1973, FM has overtaken AM in popularity, especially for music programming.

The problem for AM in electric vehicles is interference from the car’s other electrical systems, like the distortion of the AM signal you hear when driving near power lines. This noise is particularly problematic in electric vehicles due to their high currents, requiring additional shielding and filters and leading some EV makers to drop AM altogether. Yet a diverse coalition of lawmakers has coalesced to ensure that Americans retain access to this source of news and information, especially during emergencies.

Imagine a world in which Ted Cruz and JD Vance cosponsor a bill with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. The AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act of 2023 would require that all vehicles made in or imported into the US be equipped with AM tuners at no additional cost to the customer and is drawing broad bipartisan Congressional support. A Senate version failed a unanimous consent request in December will return for likely passage this session.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an industry trade group, opposes the legislation as too costly to implement. A 2023 study it commissioned claims that additional shielding and noise reduction required to permit AM reception would cost automakers $3.8 billion over the next 7 years. Yet the study itself acknowledged that much of that shielding technology is necessary in any event to reduce interference with other critical electronics including navigation, sensors, and entertainment equipment. A separate Congressional Budget Office report on the bill estimated an additional annual cost of only a few million dollars. The report also claims that the additional 2.2 pounds of filtering gear would degrade EV mileage. Yet industry data suggests that additional load would reduce the distance per charge by a whopping 175 yards.

According to the National Association of Broadcasters, 82 million Americans turn to AM radio each month over 4,200 stations, including 600 that broadcast at least part time in languages other than English and serve as trusted sources in their communities. More importantly, AM provides critical emergency information during natural disasters, especially when power outages disable the internet and cell phone systems.

FEMA’s Emergency Alert System or EAS includes a backbone of 72 stations equipped with emergency backup equipment to stay on the air when other means of communication fail. These stations, called Primary Entry Points, reach 90% of the US directly and their signals are rebroadcast over a chain of additional stations to extend coverage nationwide. WSM AM 650 in Nashville and WJCW AM 910 in Johnson City are PEP stations, part of the system that is activated when you hear a test of the EAS or what until 1997 was called the Emergency Broadcast System. The loss of cell transmission during the devastating 2023 Maui wildfires demonstrated the critical role of AM, and 7 former FEMA directors have written to Congress urging support for continued access to AM.

Tesla, Volvo, and BMW have already scotched AM tuners, and others are considering the move, eyeing subscription fees from other information and entertainment channels as an additional profit center. Ford recently reversed course and cancelled plans to eliminate AM in response to feedback from customers and lawmakers, and some other manufacturers including Toyota, Honda, and Nissan say they have no plans to kill AM, suggesting that perhaps the technological and financial burdens are not insurmountable after all.

From the WSM Barn Dance in 1925 to the deadly Arkansas tornadoes of 2023 and the Washington State Farm Report, AM has evolved into a dependable source of news. information, and talk that has provided critical assistance when other channels are down, and given the bipartisan support in Congress, is likely to be there for years to come.

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