AM or not AM? Carmakers mull the future of radio

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Thursday, May 25, 2023

Some car companies like Tesla are doing away with AM radio functions due to their possible interference with new electric engines.

Ford recently was put on the hot seat after it announced that its 2024 vehicles would no longer have the function.

ABC News' "Start Here" spoke with ABC News entertainment reporter Jason Nathanson about the controversy, and Ford's recent about-face.

START HERE: Usually, ABC's Jason Nathanson is fielding questions about movies, music, TV. He's our entertainment correspondent. But this week, everyone's been asking him about a different medium. So a few weeks ago, Ford made a huge announcement. It said its cars would no longer include AM radio. They'd still have FM, but AM was gone, done.

JASON NATHANSON: They decided, look at radio, it's not a thing of the future for them. They're just not going to include it.

START HERE: And let's be clear: even as more and more people listen to streaming, and yes, podcasts, in their cars, radio is still astonishingly popular. Pew Research says more than 80% of Americans listen to terrestrial radio once a week. The reason, of course, is it's easy to use. Flip on the dash and you're cruising.

But if AM isn't offered in cars, that's the beginning of the end for lots and lots of stations.

How did it get to this? Well, electric cars.

NATHANSON: One of the problems or "problems" is the electric car manufacturers have said that they can't put AM in cars. So it's very tough to put AM in cars because there's interference. And we all know this. If you have it, if you're in your house and you're listening to AM radio and you turn a light switch on, you're going to hear interference.

START HERE: AM is different from FM radio in this regard: It's more susceptible to interference. And a lightbulb creates nowhere near the electrical impulse of a 400-horsepower engine. Now there are ways to make it work - some carmakers have started using heavier-duty cables, or putting the antenna in a different part of the car.

NATHANSON: There's all the shielding and stuff that they need to do in order to fix that, and they can. Toyota has figured out a workaround.

START HERE: But more and more, carmakers are wondering, 'why would we go to all that trouble for something that young people, our prized buyers, aren't listening to?' Teslas haven't sold cars with AM radios for years, and it hasn't seemed to affect sales.

NATHANSON: Then Ford went a step further and for 2024 said we're not putting them in any of our cars whether it's electric or not. And that got people in Washington, [to] perk their ears up.

START HERE: See, while Tesla might not care about AM, local lawmakers might. A century after its adoption, AM radio is still the most reliable source of information we have. Unlike a TV or a Wi-Fi router, it can run off a small battery. Unlike FM, it can be transmitted across entire states and mountain ranges, into rural communities. In emergencies, it's still considered the most surefire way to keep the public informed.

NATHANSON: I remember this very clearly during the 1994 Northridge earthquake here in California. We all went into our cars to listen, to hear what was going on. And a lot of times that's on AM radio. AM radio has the clearest signal.

START HERE: And think about who utilizes AM radio stations. Local news, political talk, Christian music, non-English speakers: Constituents that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle do not want to lose. A bipartisan bill came forward that would require cars to include AM radio.

On its face, this seemed like a bizarre proposal. Why force carmakers to include something that might not even work? The bet seemed to be that car companies won't put something out that irritates customers without trying to spruce it up.

Well, yesterday -- under a ton of pressure from these lawmakers, not to mention a big chunk of the media world -- Ford CEO Jim Farley announced the company is reversing course. AM radio will be part of its 2024 fleet, and even its electric 2023 models that have already been sold with no AM radio.

NATHANSON: They're able to go back and retroactively put AM radio into those cars via a software update, which is really quite fascinating. We didn't know it was that easy for them to just put it back in with software and say, "Hey, here, here's your AM radio back."

START HERE: But while it's a reprieve for radio fans, this conflict will amplify as electric cars continue to take over the road. The waves are just beginning.