“Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got til it's gone?”
Today's blog post quotes both Joni Mitchell and Popeye (the Sailor Man). Each is something of a philosopher. And when it comes to AM radio, we need all the thoughtful wisdom we can get.
I've already written more posts about AM radio in 2023 than I have in the last decade. AM operators are running scared these days, and for good reason. Amplitude modulated radio stations are under attack this year. But those paying attention to AM specifically, and broadcast radio generally know the attack on AM may just be the prequel to an assault on FM receivers in the car.
The scrambling over these past few weeks by AM operators, the NAB, and other concerned players may be too little too late. And that's not just about efforts – legislatively and otherwise – have been somewhat last minute. AM radio has been a laggard for a long time now
Because many station owners have both AM and FM stations in their portfolios, there's a lot on the line. The car remains broadcast radio's top listening location. And at least for now, it is also the king of the hill in the car. Of course, “connected cars” offer the promise of bringing in outside content from smartphones, a practice that has already eroded broadcast radio's position in cars.
Let's look at where AM stands – the mistakes that have been made but also the stations and their parent companies that are doing something right. What does the research tell us – pro and con – about AM radio and its perceptions among the listening public?
AM's travails are nothing new. The plight of these stations in American radio has been discussed and debated for a number of years now. And the chicken/egg of it is that as AM radio listening has eroded, so has the quality of its content. Long ago, stations have sold out their programming to the highest – or lowest – bidders. That's why so many AM stations are unlistenable, especially over weekends when ostensibly, “no one is listening anyway.”
But now, operators are scurrying to position AM radio as an emergency service that alerts listeners to clear and present dangers in their markets – derailed trains, weather emergencies, natural disasters. Some stations responsibly embrace this role, but in too many markets, AM stations are doing blessedly little to invest in serious content. There might be a local calamity happening in Anywhere, U.S.A. but there's no guarantee there's an AM station in that market in a position to do something about it.
Of course, there are other metros where AM is alive and somewhat well, continuing to provide valuable services to local audiences. Some have questioned why the kerfuffle about AM's disappearing act is happening when consumers can access these stations on any number of apps, such as TuneIn. In fact, that's been Ford's rationale as they leave AM stations on the shoulder. But as many defenders of the AM flag remind us, when there's a real natural disaster, we've learned the cellular towers are likely to go down, while the towers and transmitters associated with broadcast companies continue to function, providing a service to beleaguered consumers. And many broadcasters have invested in redundancy – backup towers/antennas, transmitter, and studio because “just in case.”
One of the more ironic stories over the last several years in praise of broadcast radio has been told by one of the medium's fiercest critics, the Consumer Technology Association's CEO, Gary Shapiro. While on vacation, he got boxed in by northern California wildfires. Gary sang the praises of a local radio station that courageously stayed on the air to keep the locals informed. As he explained to former NAB CEO Gordon Smith, cell service was out, and Shapiro found himself in a strange and scary situation with no information and no phone. It dawned on him to jump in his rent-a-car, tune in a local radio station, and get the updates on the wildfire he couldn't get anywhere else. Saved by radio! (I don't think Gary specified whether it was an AM or FM station that saved the day.)
That said, EV makers have used the interference excuse to omit AM radio in their vehicles. And the Ford decision now puts a point on AM's problems, eliminating AM from all vehicles. Diverse constituencies in the radio broadcasting industry are up arms about the AM dis in new cars. Some conservative talkers posit this policy is a conspiracy designed to go after their form of radio. WABC's Cats and Cosby floated this in an interview they did with me earlier this month which I've posted below.
At the NAB Convention, Radio Ink asked Curtis LeGeyt whether the ouster from AM in car discriminates against the many minority-owned stations, as well as iHeart's Black Information Network, many of whose affiliates are on the AM band.
And yet another group – America's farmers – staged a rally in Washington, D.C. spearheaded by the National Farmers Union, working in tandem with the National Association of Farm Broadcasting. The latter's executive director, Tom Brand, told Inside Radio “This is an issue of concern for our members across the country serving audiences in areas where data – and in some cases, even basic cell phone signals – are still limited or unavailable.”
It would make sense if John Catsimatidis (owner/host at WABC) sat down with Tony Coles (head of iHeart's BIN) and Pam Jahnke (the Fabulous Farm Babe) and pooled their resources to stage a unified front on behalf of AM radio. Strange bedfellows? Indeed. But they have a common concern and their own platforms.
There are no conspiracy theories in play here by Ford, Tesla, or the other OEMs when it comes to AM radio. When I was interviewed by Cats & Cosby earlier this month on WABC, I channeled Rupert Murdoch and said, the omission of AM radio in cars isn't a red or a blue issue – it's a green one.”
For the automakers, it's about the money – period. While they receive subsidies from Sirius XM, some are hard-pressed to think of what they get from broadcasters by installing AM radio in their cars.
The National Alliance of State Broadcaster Associations and their many state groups are on the case, working with FEMA to make AM's case in the car as a safety feature. Their plans are coming together and will be announced soon. Give them credit for recognizing the gravity of the situation, and working as a unit to campaign for change. Watch this space.
Meantime, the AM issue may be the canary in the radio coalmine. FM could be next.
Broadcasters would be wise to get out in front of the next chapter of “Hunger Games: Battle for the Dashboard.” Cataloging radio's good deeds every time there's a disaster in this country might be a starting point. And with the rise in weather disasters, mass shootings, and other madness in the country, it wouldn't be hard to assemble an impressive list that should go right to every legislator in D.C.
As for the automakers themselves, congressional pressure from a unified broadcasting front is of paramount importance. But so is convincing them that the radio's absence on their ever-expanding screens would create economic havoc on their spreadsheets.
I'll be presenting our new Techsurvey at the AllAcess Audio Summit today. One data point goes to the heart of the AM radio issue. We asked prospective EV buyers whether the lack of an AM radio would have any impact on their buying decision:
Like all research, it depends how you interpret the data. For a majority of those planning on buying or leasing an EV this year, a missing AM radio make no difference on their decision. But nearly a third would think twice about buying an electric car without an AM radio. And one in ten says it's a deal-breaker. In any industry a 10% hit on sales in a queasy economic climate is scary. When you add in those who might be influenced to find a different EV option, you're looking at perhaps four of ten buyers reconsidering their decision. Yes, these are core radio listeners, so these numbers might not hold up against the general population.
Yet, it's not just automakers that need convincing – it's consumers, even those who are among the most active radio listeners. In Techsurvey 2023, we learned that 12% of respondents are in the new car market. And we gave them a list of “infotainment” features and asked them to designate the most important ones. Here's the pecking order:
Even among these core radio listeners, Bluetooth edges out FM radio (for the second year in a row), while AM is back in the pack. Fewer than one-third say AM radio is a “very important” feature in their next vehicle.
And that suggests, broadcasters have a heavier lift than just convincing Ford, Toyota, Hyundai, and Jeep.
It's become a tired mantra: “Radio needs to do a better job telling its story.”
We'd better start telling it.