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AM radio has no one to blame but itself
Auto companies are removing AM radios from new vehicles
It would be overly dramatic to write that AM radio is gasping for its last breath, but its health is in serious jeopardy.
A number of major auto manufacturers are removing AM radios from new vehicles. The Washington Post reports BMW, Volkswagen, Mazda and Tesla are removing AM radios from new electric vehicles because the electric engines interfere with the AM signal. Ford is going further, removing AM radios from ALL vehicles, electric and gas-powered.
Ford says less than five percent of in-car listening is to AM radio. If that’s true, it’s a sad commentary and I wonder how much of this crisis radio station owners have brought on themselves. More on that in a moment.
As you might expect, radio station executives see this as a huge threat because about half of AM listening is in vehicles. Industry groups are sounding the alarm. Dan Shelley, president and CEO of the Radio-Television Digital News Association, told me “AM radio is the only mass communication platform that has been tested in and successfully utilized during natural disasters like tornados. Due to the wide reach of its signals, AM radio can engage a greater group of listeners than its FM counterpart – connecting Americans with the news they need to prepare for tornados and other natural and national emergencies.”
Like many of you, I grew up listening to AM radio on my transistor radio. At bedtime, I’d listen to baseball games, or the local AM rocker counting down the top ten hits. In the 20th century, AM radio connected Americans, through FDR’s fireside chats, Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story”, and all-news radio stations in big cities.
I started my journalism career at one of the biggest AM stations in America – WHO radio in Des Moines. Its 50,000-watt clear-channel signal – blasted out from a tower in Mitchellville - could be heard after sundown “border to border and coast to coast.” My father enjoyed driving home from work at night in St. Louis listening to his boy on the radio in Des Moines. WHO’s history is legendary – from Ronald Reagan and Jim Zabel doing ballgames, to Jack Shelley reporting from Tinian when the Enola Gay returned from its historic bombing run, to farm broadcasters Keith Kirkpatrick and Lee Kline reciting prices for barrows and gilts.
When I worked there in the late 1970s, WHO radio had a big news department with 12 full-timers and a few part-timers. There were five AM stations in Des Moines doing news, and we were competitive, always trying to break stories the other guys didn’t have.
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It’s a far cry from the state of radio today, and as mentioned above, I wonder if the move away from AM radio is at least partially due to self-inflicted wounds.
The industry consolidated heavily, creating super-group owners needing to service heavy debt. They cut expenses, and that means cutting people – particularly journalists. News on most radio stations these days is a slimmed down version I call “faux news”. Where once radio newsrooms would break major stories, today the few stations that even do news get by with reporting on the obvious stuff – a fire, a news conference, a press release. But they no longer have reporters going out, knocking on doors, finding out things and doing original reporting.
A radio anchor sitting in Des Moines might be doing local news on co-owned stations in far-flung cities he’s never been to. There’s no way an anchor sitting in Des Moines can legitimately cover local news in Green Bay, yet that’s the model the industry has adopted.
There’s one more self-inflicted wound in my view – the steady stream of conservative talk radio. Not only have the Rush Limbaughs of the world harmed our democracy, but there is zero balance. From morning through nighttime, anyone listening to talk radio will be subjected to nothing but ultra-conservative views. I don’t mind hearing viewpoints I might disagree with, but a station licensed to use the public airwaves should make every effort to provide balance. AM radio has completely failed at that. I got sick of it, and I suspect I’m not alone.
In 2009, it was time to buy a new car and the number one item on my wish list was – you guessed it – a satellite radio. I started paying Sirius XM a few hundred dollars a year, and I haven’t looked back. No longer am I forced to listen to endless commercial breaks and a one-sided tsunami of extreme conservative talk. Even with my roots in radio news, I left over-the-air radio for good in 2009 and I haven’t looked back.
In a rural state like Iowa, I understand the value of AM radio. It would be a significant loss if Iowans couldn’t listen to Hawkeye games or the wonderful programming from Iowa Public Radio. I don’t think AM is going away anytime soon. But if new car buyers don’t have access to an AM signal, that means a smaller audience, smaller ratings and less revenue for owners, who might get up in the morning, look at themselves in the mirror, and rightfully wonder if the reason for AM’s demise is staring right back at them.
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