Is AM radio disappearing from new cars the issue the radio industry should be focused on?
I think not and here’s why I say that.
I grew up listening to WBZ AM out of Boston on my daily college commute in Western Massachusetts. Carl DeSuze, Dave Maynard, Larry Justice, Mean Joe Green in the BZ Copter with Boston traffic reports and Gary LaPierre with the news. It was truly “The Spirit of New England.”
So, when Sue and I were headed to Boston for the graduation of our son-in-law from Berklee College of Music, I put on WBZ as we left our hotel in Spring Valley, New York, and we listened to this station on our three hour drive into Boston, we didn’t listen to it on 1030AM, but via its stream on the StreamS application (App). The station, which is now an all-news operation, sounded fabulous.
The fidelity was of higher quality than FM and there was no buffering or dropout of the signal.
Once in Boston, I tried listening to WBZ over my car’s AM radio and the quality was poor, with noise and interference emanating from our surroundings.
What Does a Radio Look Like?
Back in June of 2017, I wrote a blog article asking what a radio looks like today and the most likely answer to that question was a smartphone. I also addressed in that article of six years ago, I was noticing that hotels were replacing those cheap AM/FM radios with charging stations containing a digital clock, perfect for charging smartphones, tablets and laptops.
Car Radios & The Future
Then in September of 2020, I wrote about how radios first came to be an option for buyers of new cars in June of 1930. But today’s new car buyer wants Bluetooth capabilities more than they want an FM radio; AM radio is not a must-have in 2023 according to the latest Jacob’s Media Techsurvey. What do people connect in the car with that Bluetooth, their smartphones.
What I Recently Witnessed About Radio Use
After COVID began to fade, Sue and I took a trip out to the west coast to visit our children and grand children in that part of the country. What we noticed in every hotel room we stayed was a giant flat screen TV, but no radios, just more of those charging stations with digital clocks.
This prompted another article that same year titled, “Is Radio Up Schitt’s Creek?” Sue and I became big fans of this series out of Canada, that takes place in a fictional town called “Schitt’s Creek,” and takes place primarily in The Rosebud Motel, where the shows characters use televisions, computers and smartphones, but never use a radio.
When watching movies and TV shows, I often look to see if there’s a radio in sight, noticing in British productions they often are, but not in American ones.
Once It Was Radio
When Sue and I stayed in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania we visited the museum inside the Hotel Bethlehem and found that fifty years ago, a hotel having a radio in your room was cutting edge.
The Hotel Bethlehem opened in 1922, two years after the birth of commercial radio in the United States and in 1953, it announced that patrons would enjoy a brand new AM alarm clock radio in every room.
Now seventy years later, Hotel Bethlehem features fiber optic WiFi.
Where Are the Radios?
Last year, Sue and I took a road trip through Atlantic Canada. We stayed in hotels and Bed & Breakfasts (B&Bs) throughout our trip, and found WiFi has totally replaced the AM/FM clock radios.
In Montreal, our room at the Hôtel William Gray, had a Bang & Olufsen (B&O) Bluetooth speaker that easily connected to my iPhone. The fidelity of B&O equipment is legendary and it was a joy to be able to connect any of audio Apps on my phone during our stay.
Radio Set Ownership in the Home
In American homes today, 39% don’t have a single radio set in them, and radio set ownership gets worse for young Americans age 12 to 34, where that number grows to 57% according to Edison Research.
To put this into perspective, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), says only 6% of the population still lacks access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds. Meaning, the internet is more accessible than broadcast radio.
Are Broadcasters in Denial?
Valerie Geller, who wrote the excellent book “Beyond Powerful Radio,” recently said
“You can sit down with a broadcaster who rails against podcasting and digital audio and artificial intelligence (AI). Then you get in the car with them, they’re using GPS, they’re listening to a podcast, they’ve got SiriusXM, they’ve got Spotify. Podcasting and radio co-exist now. That’s our truth.
Radio is its own worst enemy. We have not spent or invested in developing talent. Every other business has research and development (R&D) and they spend on it because they are investing in the future. I love radio, but I hate the state it’s in.
A lot of the voice-tracking I’ve heard already sounds like AI. There’s nothing human about it. It’s just a broadcaster playing an actor playing a broadcaster. AI is just as good as those voice-tracks because there’s nothing real being said.”
AM Radio Leaving the Dashboard
Automobile manufacturers removing AM radio from the dashboard ought to be alerting the radio industry to BIGGER PROBLEMS. The AM situation is a symptom of what we should be focused on, and that’s creating GREAT RADIO.
If you think it won’t happen to FM next, you haven’t been paying attention.
AM/FM radio sets are vanishing from hotels, B&Bs, American homes and big box retailers.
If your listeners aren’t up in arms about that, then losing AM radio in their dashboard won’t be a big deal to them either.
To paraphrase the great sales trainer Don Beverage:
Make your radio station so valuable to a listener,
that they want to hear your programming more
than you want to broadcast it to them.
33 responses to “Radio’s Disappearing Act”
Just like you (and many of us) Dick, we grew up with a radio nearby. The batteries would wear out on our portables, teachers would confiscate them in schools (happened to me), but we did just about anything to catch the latest tunes or as you pointed out the people playing those tunes. Today you hear the Joe Cipriano show or the Charlie Van Dyke show or the Jeff Laurence show-with 3-4 “local” mentions an hour by a “local” jock. That’s only part of the problem. AM has been destroyed by crummy sounding radios and non-enforcement of interference rules. FM has been trashed by HD hash and translators interfering with higher power signals and talk of adding more low power “boosters”. Now broadcasters are asking the general public to petition the FCC and legislators to keep AM in the dashboard. Do the car makers have any loyalty to AM/FM? Do the streaming services and Sirius/XM want to push other “services” off of the car infotainment system ? What will any legislation designed to “save” AM do? What’s to stop the “required” AM tuner from being hidden in the background? 89% of the US population has a “smart phone”. 61% own radios. What’s that tell you ? Broadcasters face massive competition from online services and you can argue til you’re blue in the face that “digital” doesn’t come close to the companionship and immediacy that AM/FM provides. If the consumer doesn’t want that companionship, or doesn’t know it exists, it doesn’t matter. Any more than this, I’ll start echoing your column. Your Don Beverage quote pretty much tells it all. Those of us who don’t operate radio stations get it. Those who DO operate radio stations apparently don’t.
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Thank You Dave for all your wrote.
Again, until the radio industry addresses the root problems, nothing is going to change.
It’s like the 12th Century English proverb, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.”
People will always do what they want to do, in the way they want to do it, be they manufacturers or consumers.
Don Beverage understood this, and knew addressing it, made all the difference.
Nice blog, Dick.
And once again you are spot on! I too grew up listening to WBZ. I live on the coast of Maine and the signal was extremely good. In my teen years, I bought an AM oscillator from Lafayette Radio and would broadcast the top tunes to my neighborhood friends. I would tape the top 40 off WBZ (Dave Maynard) and play them on my little transmitter. That started it all. I’m still behind the mic, over 60 years later.
Yes, radio is changing (disappearing) As you say,you can listen to a whole bunch of AM stations anywhere in the world. Some of us old fogies have a bit of trouble with that concept, but it’s here. Apparently it’s difficult to have AM radios in electric cars. Fine–I don’t want an EV, but for other reasons.
I really enjoy your blogs. Keep up the good work.
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Thank You Rick.
When I think of all the reasons that radio was attractive to me, and others, those things have been what the industry has abandoned.
For example: could you imagine a sports franchise eliminating fan merchandise, like radio stations have done?
Congratulations on 60 years (and counting) of being behind the mic.
Ah…remember the days of doing a remote with a Sparta mixer, 2 TTs and a cart machine? All that and a handful of LPs and we did REAL remotes. The listeners would show up, we’d do interviews and play requests and give stuff away. All gone now. Sad.
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Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end…
Reasonable. Mandating AM radio in vehicles doesn’t really accomplish anything is people and radio ownership continue to ignore it. I worked in a CC market when Randy Michaels was buying clusters with IPO money in the late 1990’s. Our newly acquired cluster had three woefully neglected AMs. He set about filing for major upgrades to all three, hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost…new directional arrays, land acquisitions, etc. that once he was removed as CEO, were all cancelled by CC mgt. It would have been a heavy lift anyway as none of the stations had billing or audience at that time. He came to the market several times and I remember him saying something similar too…build them out prepping for digital radio (again this was about 1999) and then we’ll have something…memories…
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Oscar, I remember those days. Thanks for stopping by the blog today and sharing your perspective.
Oscar, I worked with A(and against) Randy for several decades and he was a visionary and a great broadcaster. When digital storage systems were being rolled out he advised me that it was to be used as a “tool” -rather than a replacement for people. We struggled with vinyl, reels, carts and CDs until “NexGen” and its digital relatives. Then we could focus on content. After his departure from CC, things focused in on revenue vs. the product. The big broadcasters need to open the windows and see what the rest of the world is doing. You’ve seen both sides of the AM battle, Oscar. Many have thrown in the towel. I hope that they’ll change that approach and soon.
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Historical Note: The last U.S.-built Rambler, of over 4.2 million cars that carried the Rambler name that rolled off the assembly line in Kenosha, was produced on 30 June 1969.
I Doubt it TV’s may come and go, computers may come and go, even fashion, toys, and hair may come and go, but both radio and movie theaters will continue to evolve, even AM and FM!
Well, as Henry Ford once said, whether you think you can, or can’t, you’re right.
The future is now in the hands of the folks who own and run them.
I hope they take Don Beverage’s words to heart.
I remember sitting in my Dad’s new 66 Ford Galaxie 500 at night in Miami Beach listening to WABC Radio in NYC. When I started to work at WABC in 1976, it was not unusual for our CE Win Loyd to get QSL card requests from all over the United States and occasionally even from Europe. Months before I retired in 2016, there were days I’d get into my car at the Mineola Long Island Rail Road station, punch up the WABC button on my radio and not even be able to tell what was on the radio due to the static and noise. We were still broadcasting at 50,000 Watts from that one very tall tower in Lodi, NJ (about 50 miles away from my car radio) but today they’d be lucky to get a QSL card request from Queens! AM radio has been dead for a long time IMHO. Killed off by the electrical environment that is 2023, the lack of quality AM sections in most radios, and (in many cases) the crap programming on most corporate AM signals. So much has come and gone in this world since I was born in 1950, and AM Radio is just another one! Reality.
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Couldn’t agree with you more!
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Frank, WSM with their 50,000-watt signal was only about 50 miles from my university office and I couldn’t listen to this radio station due to all the interference. However, I could listen via their stream, which was not only crystal clear but in stereo too.
I hear you.
Thanks for sharing that story.
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Yet another excellent post on this blog. As usual, Dick is “spot on” as to what’s really going on in the radio industry.
For example, WSB 750 out of Atlanta was once known as the “50,000 Watt Clear Channel Voice Of The South”. These days, however, there’s hardly any mention of the AM signal, as most, if not all of the focus is on the FM signal at 95.5 MHz. That fact alone just proves how much times have changed.
Once again, thanks for sharing and posting.
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Thank you for sharing that perspective. Radio owners are doing this all across the country and the OEM’s have noticed.
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Simon Crees writes on Facebook:
I am in England in the UK and the big radio industry broadcasters have already set listeners on a course to listening to their favourite stations from Apps rather than FM or AM or even DAB digital radio. The only choice listeners in their car might have to make is which internet connection to use – either tether their mobile device to their car system or pay separately to use the SIM card built into their car by their car maker. Sound quality is generally much higher and stations don’t have to pay for expensive towers and transmitters. It’s completely changing.
Next time there is an emergency or a disaster (Natural or man-made) try listening to your local radio stations and see how much
timely information you are receiving. Now, I can watch in real-time storm chasers tracking tornados via my digital devices. Let alone another mass shooting. Enough said.
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You’re right J. Local radio is not there, providing the necessary services like they once were.
Oh, there are always the exceptions to what I said above.
But, when I got into the business, this was the rule and every radio station was your first source of information, because they were staffed with LIVE people.
So you tell automakers to keep AM and they do. Now what? People will continue to listen there way via Sat/Bluetooth/Apps. Mandating AM is a waste of time. That’s the same as mandating the rotary dial phone.
I started streaming as a “one-off” event in 2012 when many of our military listeners wanted to hear their kids play football when they got deployed. Now in 2023, I have more listeners online then over the air. Many are listening in their cars with their phone. The best part is I can see metric data instantly and accurately without the insane expense of a flawed ratings service.
Technology has changed people’s habits and we better embrace the change instead of complaining about it. No matter the platform, you have to start with good content. That’s still true today.
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Completely agree with you Chuck. Thanks for sharing your story.
When large Radio ownerships relinquished their positions of being the go-to places for information to service big debt, they eroded decades of service that had been widely recognized by listeners. When the sky gets dark and the wind blows those listeners are looking for information from a trusted voice. They will go where they can get it, regardless of the medium. Radio has largely walked away from that and it’s culture has changed on AM and FM. The listeners are getting that message.
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You speak the truth Hal. And isn’t it so sad.
There’s a public safety argument to be made for the retention of AM radio in vehicles, as when storms knock out power for days and devices are dead. I went to the car AM radio for vital information (and charged a device) during such an outage.
Perhaps Congress can do something useful along these lines.
James Heckel JRH Consulting
Sent from my iPhone
Just as people didn’t know how to set the clock on their VCRs and they would constantly blink “12:00”, there are many people who don’t know how to get AM radio in their cars.
Today’s digital dashboards will only make finding local broadcast radio even more challenging.
However, once your own a smartphone, you know how to access your Apps and as a previous commenter on this thread so accurately stated, they listen on their phones rather than a AM/FM radio receiver — even when they’re in their cars.
In Washington, DC the big news information radio stations (WTOP and WAMU) are both only available on FM.
James, what really has me concerned is, FM radio is already being sunset in other countries and if the radio industry doesn’t get its act together, that will be next.
Dick, when you and Sue visited Bethlehem PA, not only had the hotel radios disappeared, but also Bethlehem’s original sole radio station WGPA-AM\FM. Signing on in 1947, it boasted the Lehigh Valley’s #70 market’s finest and largest purpose-built studios (4) that may have qualified for an historic landmark, but it was razed for the parking lot of a college dorm. Under its 4th owner, the station’s 5th location is a four room house.
Robin, that is so sad to read. Radio’s history is slowly being destroyed by the wrecking ball.
Like Joni Mitchell sang…they tore down paradise and put up a parking lot.
Bill Wertz writes on Facebook:
Here is an argument against mandating AM in all new vehicles from CTA. I, reluctantly, agree with their argument.
“Mandating AM radio in new cars would be like mandating CD or 8-track cassette players,” says the first major organization to speak out against the AM For Every Vehicle Act. This criticism of the Act, introduced to Congress last week by a bipartisan group of sponsors led by Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Ed Markey, is coming from a source near to many broadcasters – the Consumer Technology Association.
The CTA is best known for the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, which many radio executives attend. In a blog post by CTA staff, the group argued that mandating AM radio in all new cars is an idea that should be critically examined as it contradicts the principles of a free-market economy. They said, “While the majority of cars will have AM radios for the foreseeable future, innovation and consumer choice – not the heavy hand of the government – should determine the makeup of car entertainment systems.”
CTA also said requiring AM radio installation in new cars would burden automakers with increased costs, leading to higher prices for consumers. They claimed focus on AM could somehow impede innovation in other areas of vehicle development, including safety features and fuel efficiency advancements.
The Association finally dismissed the public safety concerns around AM’s removal, because other technologies should step up to replace AM. “Some make the argument that AM radio is necessary for emergency broadcasts, but in such cases FM radio, internet streaming services, better rural broadband, and text alerts should be able to make up for any loss of AM radio access,” said the post.
There are people laughing and crying about this article. Obviously written by someone who really doesn’t get it. Try living in an area where the power goes down for hours and hours. In San Diego in 2011, a 500 kV line between Arizona Public Service’s Hassayampa substation near the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Tonopah, Arizona, and the North Gila substation in Yuma, Arizona was accidentally shut down. This transmission line is part of the Southwest Power Link. With the line shut down, the 500 kV Southwest Power Link went from San Diego to Yuma, AZ but was not supplied by anything else. My station had power to the transmitter (from Mexico) but nothing on the U.S. side. KOGO was on the air with an emergency transmitter, as were several other Clear Channel (iHeart) stations providing info from KOGO. Cell service was overloaded in to the point of uselessness in some cases. You don’t have to guess what that did to streaming capability. Reliance on the internet can prove what a fragile internet system we have. The power grid gets stressed in the Summer. Snowstorms affect the power grid as well. A single source of information from RF transmissions will be invaluable during the next power-grid catastrophe. Legislation won’t save AM in your car, your home or your phone. As much as I wish the universe were well-versed in emergency protocol, we’re sadly relying on a fragile system with one backup for information. That’s broadcasting. Utilities are still (and will be for some time) suggesting to keep your battery powered radio on hand. It may be all that works in the next disaster.
The amount of change that has taken place from 2011 to 2023 is mind boggling. To give an example of the state of broadcasting then to now or mobile communication from then to now, only the radio industry looks much the same — with the exception of a whole lot less people.
Daily time spent online on mobile devices increased from 32 minutes in 2011 to 132 minutes in 2019.
The number of global social media users increased from 970 million people in 2010 to 2.96 billion in 2020.
There were barely any EVs on US roads in 2010. By the end of the decade, though, there were over 1 million of them.
In 2010, 2 zetabytes of data was created globally, with only 9% of that data available in a structured format (i.e. data that has been organized or indexed for easier referencing). By 2019, annual data volumes reached 41 zetabytes with over of it being 13% structured.
In 2010, over 90% of data was held in local servers. By 2019, public cloud storage was expected to take over around 30% of this share.
Chat GPT was birthed to the world in November of last year. It’s already yesterday’s news, having been replaced by Chat GPT4.
The 2010s were a decade of phenomenal innovation, led largely by the transition to mobile and the rise of data, which accelerated the growth of AI, e-commerce, social media, and biotechnology. In the 2020s, additional foundational changes will take place as data latency shortens and AI algorithms improve. Such progress should enable new technologies to flourish, including autonomous vehicles, conversational AI, the massive internet of things, and augmented and virtual reality. As new technologies are introduced to the market place, they will have a profound impact on our lives, workplaces, and even investments as they reshape the economy.
For a more detailed look at the data I’ve shared, go to this website: https://www.globalxetfs.com/a-decade-of-change-how-tech-evolved-in-the-2010s-and-whats-in-store-for-the-2020s/
Today, if an emergency strikes an area, people who still have a radio will go to their favorite FM radio station. And most FM radio stations simulcast a TV station’s coverage.
The cell tower penetration is rich compared to over a decade ago and the idea that all cell towers come down is false. Radio towers also can blow down or become damaged too.
And tell me the radio owner who can afford to keep their AM operation going, when no one is listening, between disasters.
It’s time to acknowledge the world has changed and what the radio industry needs to do to stay relevant.
Darryl Parks writes on Facebook:
Congratulation AM radio! You received a stay of execution from Ford. Many of you sure told the powers that be, though social media, how valuable AM radio is. I’m sure the National Association of Broadcasters’ suits and overpaid sellouts to the industry are popping the corks and having a toast to good old AM radio. Ford was brought to its knees. You sure showed them.
Not really. Sadly, there are still those of you that still believe the shit you have been, are being, and will be fed in the future. It’s served to you through cleverly written press releases from corporate public relations flaks who don’t care if their paychecks bear the name of a broadcasting company or a company that collects garbage. It’s served to you with a big dollop of sweet whipped cream and a strawberry. It sure looks good. As you begin to take a bite, your teeth begin piercing that sugary topping, your tongue picks up the wonderful, albeit, short taste sensation, until you finally bite into the shit. No amount of whipped cream and fruit can hide the taste of the shit you continually eat.
For decades now you have been served one shit dessert after another about radio. And you continue to believe it, which is so unbelievably sad. For example, as the perpetual layoffs happen in radio, I can almost guarantee someone will eventually say, “I’m shocked. I didn’t see it coming.” Usually, it’s from the last survivor of a newsroom, a newsroom that was once crowded.
Ten years ago this fall I wrote my most powerful missive, calling out the NAB and calling its radio convention a big “circle jerk.” A number of industry trades took note, basically saying, “How dare you!” Its basis was about the FCC’s proposal, announced at the convention, regarding “AM Revitalization.” Remember that? I said it was a joke and explained why. Guess who was right about “AM Revitalization?”
That was 2013. In 2023, auto OEM’s (Original Equipment Manufacturers) knowing few customers under the age of 65 care about AM radio, and knowing the big radio consolidators in the USA have demonstrated they care even less about most of their AM stations started sunsetting the feature, like they did with audio 8-tracks and cassettes.
AM radio gets a twelve month break from Ford, and will now be included with their 2024 models.
Here comes the shit dessert.
When will the big radio consolidators and their private equity overlords begin to improve AM radio? I’m sure they have hundreds of research studies to reference. Bound books with plans to improve AM radio technically and through its content with desired “innovative programming.” Upper management must have called the private equity MBA’s by now to get their “best practices” which will create a “robust environment for increased revenue growth during unexpected future economic headwinds.”
Want to know what happened? The NAB made a few telephone calls to a few politicians, who with their hands out, made a few comments to the press, in social media and may have made a call to Dearborn, Michigan. The mistake Ford made was making the announcement it was pulling the plug on AM radio in 2023. If they had just waited to make that announcement in 2024, an election year, no politician would have answered the phone!
With that thought in mind, let’s jump ahead to May of 2024, pull out the “Magic 8-Ball,” and see what innovations, both technically and with programming content, the radio industry will have accomplished for AM radio in the next twelve months.
The “Magic 8-Ball” says the shit dessert will have the same flavor and AM radio will be a little closer to room temperature.