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It’s Not Yet Time To Kill Off AM Radio

Their numbers are growing smaller with each passing year, but a significant number of Americans can still recall when AM radio basically was radio.

AM was where news broke about their communities, where they first heard fresh releases from the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, and where they would find out critical information when a swirling funnel cloud was bearing down on their neighborhoods. By the 1960s, the technology that was given its first tryout in Pittsburgh just four decades before was a vital component of just about every American’s life.

By the 1970s, though, the grip of AM started to loosen, as listeners turned to FM for its superior sound. In the decades since, AM has experienced an inexorable slide, with FM becoming where the action truly is in commercial radio. AM stations in this region such as WKZV in Washington, WFGI in Charleroi and WBGI in Connellsville have all gone silent.

Some proponents of AM radio fear its demise could be getting closer, thanks to a decision by some automakers to leave it out of their new models. Ford recently said it would no longer include it in either its gas-powered or electric vehicles, but backpedaled after an outcry. BMW, Mazda, Tesla and others say they are removing AM from their electric vehicles because the engines in those cars would hopelessly interfere with AM radio’s sound. Besides, they argue, the news, music and information that can still be found on AM can be accessed in other ways, namely through the phones that most of us now carry around as a matter of routine.

The possibility that AM could no longer be included in many vehicles has brought a rare moment of bipartisan agreement in Washington, D.C. Both Democrats and Republicans are aghast at the possibility. Members of the GOP are concerned about the impact such a move would have on the right-wing talk shows that have proliferated on AM, while Democrats are worried that a crucial source of information for under-served communities, particularly those Americans whose first language is not English, will be snatched away. U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, has teamed up with a Republican colleague, Ted Cruz of Texas, to introduce a bill that would mandate that AM radio be included in every vehicle.

One of the pleasures of driving at nighttime is tuning into AM radio and pulling in stations from across the eastern seaboard or as far south as Atlanta, as far west as Chicago or St. Louis, and as far north as Montreal. During the day, a low-wattage station on the AM dial might be playing polka music, and another will be playing the hits of Bollywood or a minor league baseball game.

Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers, a radio industry trade journal, told The Washington Post, “This is a tone-deaf display of complete ignorance about what AM radio means to Americans. It’s not the end of the world for radio, but it is the loss of an iconic piece of American culture.”

No one would argue that AM radio is as vital a component in a vehicle as an airbag or functioning brakes. And the day will probably come when AM is no longer commercially viable, given its aging audience. But that day isn’t here yet, and AM should still have a place on American dashboards.

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