Is AM Radio in Cars Doomed to Permanent Extinction? Maybe Not

Is AM Radio in Cars Doomed to Permanent Extinction? Maybe Not

Currently awaiting U.S. Senate approval, the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act seeks to make AM radio a mandated requirement of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).Lawmakers point out that AM radio is still useful in emergencies; manufacturers argue that it’s old tech.Various manufacturers have been dropping AM radio as a feature, particularly in EVs.

A bipartisan bill currently before the U.S. Senate, the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act, aims to regulate exactly what you think it does. It has already passed the Senate Commerce Committee, and it seems likely that legislation will soon be passed to keep AM radio in new vehicles. The act is waiting for full Senate approval, which won’t happen until at least after the August recess.

On one hand, the politicians behind the AM Act make some good points. Manufacturers including Ford, Volkswagen, and Tesla have quietly removed AM radio functionality from some of their new products, although Ford later changed course and announced that its 2024 models will still have AM capability. Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey said in a press release, “The importance of AM radio during large-scale emergencies cannot be underestimated, and it has, without a doubt and without interruption, saved lives and kept our communities informed. When the cellphone runs out, the internet gets cut off, or the television doesn’t work because of no electricity or power to your house, you can still turn on your [car’s] AM radio.”

Why Not Just Use Smartphones?

Pushback coming from manufacturer trade associations points out that cellphones are much better at broadcasting emergency alerts and can include hyperlinks with directions and information. The vast majority of cellphone users in the U.S. own smartphones, and the new iPhone 14 even has satellite link capability for emergency services. Commercial AM radio audiences have shrunk, and streaming audio is far more common. Maybe it’s time to move on.

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AM radio is the longest-running form of in-car audio, unless you count singing when behind the wheel. The very first aftermarket radios began showing up in the 1920s and 1930s, though they were expensive and very bulky. An early Blaupunkt car radio, for instance, cost a third the price of a new car and was the size of a suitcase.

And the kind of radio you could pick up on in those early days is absolutely mind-boggling. In 1932, when you could get a Motorola radio for your Ford Model A, the 300-foot towers at XER in Mexico were cranked up to one million watts. The broadcasting range reportedly stretched to Mexico, but accounts at the time said people were picking up the station on their telephones, bedsprings, fillings, and even barbed wire fences.

AM Radio’s Wild Past

The man behind the XER “border blaster” (it was situated just across the border from Del Rio, Texas) was one of America’s most bizarre quacks and charlatans. John R. Brinkley made his fortune as the goat gland doctor, performing thousands of operations where he claimed to insert goat testicles in people to cure impotence. His radio station broadcast all sorts of highly questionable medical advice, advertised miracle cures, and to fill time he hosted up-and-coming musicians. Brinkley launched the career of the likes of Gene Autry, and deserves at least partial credit for the popular spread of country music. He earned millions yet died penniless, though don’t shed too many tears as in the latter part of his life he became a really big fan of Adolf Hitler.

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Later in AM radio’s Wild West period, a New Yorker named Robert Smith showed up in Del Rio, lured after having heard Hank Williams and Johnny Cash on the XERF radio station. He changed his name to Wolfman Jack and ended up spreading blues, jazz, and rock music all across a fairly repressed America. Kids in jalopies cruised at night, listening to Mexican pirate radio. The Wolfman was a sufficient icon of the time to show up later in American Graffiti.

Later you had Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM, beaming out discussions of the paranormal in the wee hours of the morning. Sports radio. Talk radio. Call in shows. Hit shows about fictional stations like WKRP (in Cincinnati) or KACL (Go ahead, Seattle, Dr. Frasier Crane is listening). AM radio outlived the eight-track, the cassette tape, and is currently watching the CD player being phased out.

Can’t Beat the Price

According to a Nielsen survey done in the fall of last year, more than 82 million Americans still tune into AM radio on a monthly basis. It’s still a great go-to for traffic alerts and sports, and whether this legislation is government overreach is exactly the kind of thing that gets hotly debated on AM talk radio shows.

Keeping AM radio in cars is, at worst, a small added expense for manufacturers that they’ll have to pass on. But as more and more entertainment options and even features embrace the subscription model, AM radio is still free. That might be an outdated idea these days, but it’s one worth keeping around.

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Contributing Editor

Brendan McAleer is a freelance writer and photographer based in North Vancouver, B.C., Canada. He grew up splitting his knuckles on British automobiles, came of age in the golden era of Japanese sport-compact performance, and began writing about cars and people in 2008. His particular interest is the intersection between humanity and machinery, whether it is the racing career of Walter Cronkite or Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki’s half-century obsession with the Citroën 2CV. He has taught both of his young daughters how to shift a manual transmission and is grateful for the excuse they provide to be perpetually buying Hot Wheels.