by Dale Buss
We have a relationship with AM radio that folks in other parts of the country maybe can’t understand. So our antennae go up when the electric-vehicle revolution begins to eliminate the “amplitude modulation” band from new vehicles, messing with a medium that has been important to our information, entertainment, cultural identity and even politics.
Millions of boomers grew up fidgeting with the AM dial in the evening so we could hear the strains of our favorite pop and rock music, broadcast over hundreds of miles by blowtorches such as WJR in Detroit and WGN in Chicago. Their signals get amplified in the ionosphere in the absence of sunlight and face little physical resistance from our basically flat regional topography.
Same for broadcasts of Major League Baseball teams that still often reside on AM radio. As they wiled away their summers on the lake, how many thousands of Michiganders relied on the staticky stylings of Ernie Harwell recounting Detroit Tigers games on the team’s AM-radio network? How many upstate Wisconsinites strained to hear Milwaukee Brewers announcer Bob Uecker make his trademark home-run call, “Get up, get up, get outta here!”?
Excellence in Broadcasting
Rush Limbaugh and his “EIB” network made his history-changing talk-radio audience on hundreds of AM stations that included most of the leading ones in our region. Farmers across Flyover Country depend on weather and commodity-price data they get from AM radio. Small AM stations remain important communications cogs in thousands of communities across the heartland. Countless long-haul truckers passing through still favor the connectedness and content of AM-radio programming over FM or satellite radio. And so on.
But some automakers have been excluding the AM-radio band from all-electric vehicles on the road or in development. They blame the particular engineering challenges of shielding the AM output in the vehicle from the powerful electromagnetic forces generated by EV propulsion systems. The other audio systems in the car, including FM and satellite radio and internet-fed channels, don’t suffer.
Maybe that’s all there is to it. It's been pointed out that this trend of AM-band elimination also risks communications that can be crucial during weather disasters or national emergencies, so government preparedness officials aren’t happy about this for their own very practical reasons. Massachusetts Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat, even launched an investigation into all of this in December.
But does the story go deeper?
I first noticed the absence of AM radio in a Volvo EV I was driving for review as an automotive journalist a couple of years ago and, while annoyed, dismissed it as a quirk. But it turns out Volvo was part of a vanguard of luxury-vehicle makers including Tesla and BMW that have been leaving AM out of their EVs as well.
But it’s not just the new or European brands. Ford, for instance, removed AM radio from the all-electric Lightning version of its iconic F-150 pickup truck. The model features a “fronk” that can hold 400 pounds of party supplies and the truck sports an onboard generator, but somehow the Lightning can’t accommodate an AM band? Millions of owners of the hydrocarbon-fueled versions of America’s best-selling vehicle really like AM radio and culturally represent some of the biggest aficionados of the medium.
“This affects Middle America, forgotten America,” George Hoffer, a professor emeritus of automotive economics at Virginia Commonwealth University, told me.
Not Everyone’s in the Pack
At the same time, some other automakers have said they are, in fact, not planning to eliminate AM radio from EVs — so that must mean the technological challenges can be overcome without all that much difficulty or expense. Hyundai, for example, told me it has “no current plans to discontinue AM or FM radio in future Hyundai or Genesis products.”
Of course, whatever happens to audio in EVs will take a while to dictate what Americans can listen to, given that all-electrics doubled their share of the U.S. new-vehicle market last year but still amounted to less than 6% of sales. Moreover, AM content continues to be available in vehicles through mobile phones and onboard WiFi on a streaming basis, and many AM radio stations are undertaking conversions of their signals to FM-band delivery.
“This is not an immediate existential threat to radio,” Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a radio trade magazine, told me. “The biggest problem facing AM transmission is the lousy sound of AM compared with everything else.”
Perhaps. But it’s difficult not to sense the usual, road-grading bogeyman of coastal elitism at the controls of this particular juggernaut. Car buyers in Flyover Country already are the most reluctant of any Americans to buy EVs anyway. Don’t give us another reason to resist.