Congress fights to keep AM radio as some automakers want to let broadcasting method fall by wayside
The threat of eradicating AM radio in American cars produced a rare scene of bipartisanship in Congress on Tuesday when lawmakers rallied to the defense of the staticky broadcasts.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers urged carmakers to stop yanking AM radio from electric vehicles and endorsed legislation to make AM radio mandatory in all automobiles.
The reason for killing AM in cars, according to automakers, is that EV batteries and high-voltage systems interfere with the signal, adding more static to the already crackly AM signal.
Lawmakers said over 45 million listeners rely on AM radio each month for local news, evacuation instructions, sports and weather updates but could be cut off in a crisis if the EV makers continue to ax AM receivers from new models.
In a House hearing, members of both parties defended AM radio as a reliable and battle-tested form of communication even as an auto industry representative said many consumers have moved on and prefer digital, satellite and mobile forms of communication to receive alerts.
“When hurricanes, tornadoes or other natural disasters strike, AM radio remains steadfast, providing vital information to those in affected areas, when other communication channels fail,” Rep. Bob Latta, Ohio Republican and chairman of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Technology. “Removing AM radio receivers from vehicles means individuals may miss out on critical life-saving updates.”
Electric propulsion systems — including the motor, inverters and charging systems — can create static, noise, and a high-frequency hum that interferes with AM signals.
Some carmakers are experimenting with shields and filters that can improve AM reception, though at least seven companies — BMW, Mazda, Polestar, Rivian, Tesla, Volkswagen and Volvo — told lawmakers they are removing analog AM radio from their electric vehicles.
Ford Motor Co. said it planned to remove AM radio from models starting in 2024 only to reverse course after speaking to policymakers.
Lt. Colonel Christopher M. DeMaise, the homeland security branch commander for the New Jersey State Police, testified Tuesday he supports the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act, a bipartisan bill that would compel the U.S. transportation secretary to issue a rule requiring access to AM broadcast stations in motor vehicles.
“The life-saving value of AM radio clearly outweighs the incremental cost to improve AM reception in electric vehicles,” Lt. Col. DeMaise said.
He said an increase in wildfires, active shooter incidents and other emergencies underscored the importance of AM radio.
Jerry Chapman, the president of Woof Boom Radio, which operates a dozen stations in Indiana and Ohio, described how AM radio advised Illinois residents about a train derailment and ethanol-fueled fire in 2009, providing news and context that a text message cannot.
“AM radio that evening played a very important role,” Mr. Chapman said.
The difference between AM, or amplitude modulation, and FM, or frequency modulation, involves how sound waves are encoded into a signal that can be picked up by receivers.
AM signals can travel farther than FM ones, reaching into rural areas and around tall buildings, so they are the preferred method for dispatching emergency alerts. The sound on AM isn’t as crisp as on FM, which explains why FM is preferred for music.
Scott Schmidt, vice president for safety policy at the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, testified the car industry is committed to ensuring free access to Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Integrated Public Alert & Warning System, whether it is through AM radio or another method.
He said most vehicles can connect to digital radio, satellite radio and other modern technologies that provide ways to hear alerts.
Mr. Schmidt also said the Federal Communications Commission has “noted challenges with analog radio’s steady decline in listenership and reception issues.”
“The ways in which consumers receive information will change over time as innovation in the auto industry continues,” he said.
Volvo Cars said it is committed to providing access to AM radio “despite EMF interference challenges.”
“Every Volvo car gives its owner the ability to access AM radio, including the emergency broadcast system, via internet-connected apps,” the automaker said in a statement.
Stellantis, the parent company of Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Fiat, told Congress it is using “shielded high-voltage cables and connectors” to preserve AM radio and cut down interference but Volkswagen has said that kind of fix would weigh down their cars and impact performance, according to RadioWorld.
Rep. John Curtis, Utah Republican, urged his colleagues to be open-minded about whether people are pivoting to streaming instead of AM radio, given modern trends. He said a lot of times, he can stream an AM station in rural Utah but not get it through the airwaves.
By and large, Tuesday’s hearing presented a bipartisan defense of old-fashioned AM radio as preferable to newer systems that rely on data plans or might not be reliable in power outages.
Rep. Anna Eshoo, California Democrat, said Ford’s reversal showed the industry can respond to “robust demand” for AM radio that remains in the public.
Lt. Col. DeMaise also said some age or demographic groups are more comfortable with AM radio than newer forms of communication.
Rep. Frank Pallone, New Jersey Democrat, said the “digital divide” makes it difficult for persons without unlimited data plans to access outside apps or other modern options. He also said AM stations are more likely than FM stations to be owned by women and Black or Hispanic Americans.
“We simply cannot allow EV manufacturers now, or in the future, to remove AM radio from their EV models,” Mr. Pallone said.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Washington Republican and chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, faulted President Biden’s “rush” to an electric-vehicle future for the unfolding debate.
She said FM signals are spotty in parts of her district and many AM stations feature conservative and Christian content, adding to her level of worry.
“While people in some parts of the country have been able to take advantage of alternative options in vehicles for accessing AM radio, like through a streaming service, many parts of the country still lack access to reliable broadband services, meaning this option would be unavailable,” she said. “That includes people in my community who are raising the alarm and sending the message that they like their AM radio.”