The “death” of AM radio was first foretold with the advent of television. The number of AM and low power AM stations only grew. And as the better fidelity and stereo sound of FM eclipsed its older sibling, again the death of AM frequencies was forecast; and then the birth of talk radio and AM audiences exploded.
The oldest of AM radio stations hit their century mark in 2022 – still broadcasting in the public interest, still the backbone of the Emergency Broadcast System, and still providing dozens of millions each year in free public service announcements and public affairs programming in communities across the nation.
Radio waves are incredibly amazing things. We can’t see, touch, or feel them; and yet much of our world runs on electromagnetic radio waves. Our smartphones signals are transmitted via very high-frequency (FM) radio waves. In 1906, Reginald Fessenden broadcast “O Holy Night,” played on a violin from Ocean Bluff-Brant Rock, Massachusetts, to ships off the coast at sea. His broadcasting frequency used amplitude modulation, or what later became known as AM radio. The advent of vacuum tube receivers and transmissions in 1920 gave birth to radio stations and the radio industry.
Times and tastes do change over time, and as new technologies come online, AM radio has well weathered a century of those. But the airwaves of 2023 are also much more congested, just like our highways. Radio and microwave frequencies, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth spectrum, and even the electromagnetic waves emanating from electric vehicles all crowd those once wide-open spaces.
Electric vehicles in fact emit enough of their own electromagnetic waves to interrupt or degrade the signal quality of AM signals into receivers. And for AM stations above 1000 on the dial, signal quality seems much more rapidly in decline. The television industry, however, moved up the spectrum from NTSC and 525 lines of resolution to HDTV and 1080 lines of data per image per microsecond, refitting all of its transmission towers and receivers over a period of years and with a multi-billion-dollar private sector investment.
Unfortunately, with the electric vehicle sector leading the charge (pun intended), there is a more than nascent plan and effort in place to end the placement of AM radio receivers in almost all new automobiles. In recent years, Georgia has experienced multiple hurricanes and major tropical storms, taking out landline phones, wireless phone service, high-speed internet, and even broadband and fiber lines flooded underground. Through each of these natural disasters, only AM radio continued uninterrupted service with emergency updates, shelter locations, and directions on how to respond to the ongoing wind and flooding.
And though the pandemic did reverse or pause some commuting trends, millions of Americans still spend double-digit hours in their automobiles each week, with radio as their most constant companion. The cost of the transmitter is a small fraction of most any other auto component, and even with electric automobiles with concerns over transmission interference impacting performance, there are now multiple technologies available for capturing and delivering AM radio transmissions.
During an average month, 82 million Americans, just under one-in-four, tune in to AM radio. Low-power local AM radio and smaller stations in smaller markets also more frequently transmit in Spanish or are aimed at minority audiences, than their more expensive and less extensive FM peers. But unlike cable, high-speed internet, and even that smartphone, AM radio is delivered to all, free of cost other than access to a receiver or radio.
And in a nation more focused than ever on receiving content, there are more than 4,500 AM radio stations. Each of those stations, as well as their advertisers, provide employment and unique reach into each and every community they serve. As most of us spend one to four hours per day behind a wheel of some sort—at work, play, or hauling our kids to sport—this daily interaction is also a part of what keeps our public informed.
Former FCC and FEMA commissioners are urging Congress to intercede, and largely over concerns of public safety, keep AM radio receivers in every vehicle and dashboard. WABC-AM in New York has begun a petition, your signature will help – https://www.change.org/p/save-am-radio-a-part-of-the-emergency-alert-system.
Post your opposition to axing AM on social media and sign the petition. Make your concerns and voices heard. Or when that next big storm hits, and you don’t hear about it from your radio, you may just not be in Kansas anymore.
Bill Crane is political analyst and commentator in metro Atlanta, as well as a columnist for The Champion, DeKalb Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can contact him or comment on a column at email@example.com.