Lapointe: In your car, do you still listen to AM radio?

Legacy media seeks Congressional boost

May 22, 2023 at 8:00 am
click to enlarge A bipartisan coalition has endorsed the “AM for Every Vehicle Act.” - Shutterstock
Shutterstock
A bipartisan coalition has endorsed the “AM for Every Vehicle Act.”

By even the hyperbolic standards of auto reviews, Car and Driver gushed about the noise that booms from the 2024 Ford Mustang.

“Put it into sport mode,” the magazine wrote, “and the Coyote V-8 snarls and shouts.”

That sounds just swell. But something you won’t hear from this new product of the Motor City are the strident voices of contemporary AM radio.

Following the lead of electric carmakers, the 2024 Mustang is Ford’s first internal combustion model to be marketed without an AM receiver. This illustrates a further decline in another form of legacy media. And, to a few, it reveals a plot by “them” against “us.”

“They finally figured out how to attack conservative talk radio,” snarled Mark Levin, a syndicated right-wing reactionary who rants every weeknight in Detroit over WJR (760-AM). “Most conservative talk shows are on the AM band.”

But not only conservatives are concerned about conserving an information and entertainment technology that has been on the market for more than 100 years and in automobiles for about 90 of them.

A coalition of Republicans and Democrats in Washington — in both the Senate and the House of Representatives — have endorsed the “AM for Every Vehicle Act,” proposed last week.

They say eliminating AM will remove a fallback source of important information needed during severe weather, gun massacres, terrorist attacks, or other emergencies.

One of the sponsors is New Jersey Democrat Josh Gottheimer.

“When the cell phone runs out, the internet gets cut off, or the television doesn’t work, because of no electricity or power to your house, you can still turn on your AM radio,” he said.

Perhaps Gottheimer forgot that AM transistor radios work in the home or elsewhere even without automobiles attached to them. He criticized specifically the makers of electric cars, who don’t include AM tuners because, they say, the electricity interferes with reception.

“If Elon Musk has enough money to buy Twitter and send rockets to space,” Gottheimer continued, “he can afford to include AM radios in his Teslas.”

While Ford hopes to eliminate AM from all cars, General Motors and Stellantis have been unclear about this band of “terrestrial” radio which once drew ears with music and sports. Gradually, those shows moved to FM, which offers superior sound but less range.

click to enlarge The 2024 Mustang is Ford’s first internal combustion model to be marketed without an AM receiver. - Ford Motor Co.
Ford Motor Co.
The 2024 Mustang is Ford’s first internal combustion model to be marketed without an AM receiver.

Especially in its earlier formats, AM radio used to be called “the theater of the mind.” Think War of the Worlds as fiction and the Hindenburg as fact. Radio remains an intimate form of communication and there is something Rockwellian about memories from the AM dial.

In childhood, listening in bed at night to distant stations, turning and tuning the dial like a safecracker picking a combination lock. You felt connected to faraway places: the Cardinals’ games on KMOX in St. Louis; a local newscast from New York; some preacher from who-knows-where shouting about “Juh-HEE-zuss!”

Later came car radio memories of riding shotgun in the ’65 Mustang of a high-school friend (no seat belts, of course) listening (at loud volume) to all the hit records on CKLW (800-AM) out of Windsor, the Canadian boombox that dominated much of American pop music for decades.

After that, living in Chicago and driving along the west shore of Lake Michigan at night and picking up Tigers’ games on WJR. Its 50,000-watt, clear channel signal gently pushed Ernie Harwell’s mellow voice across the night water. Something mystical about AM radio waves.

Many years later, driving a rental car on a winter Saturday night from Missouri to Kansas, twisting the dashboard knob and catching the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville, live on WSM (650-AM), the signal bouncing across the farmlands.

Between country-western musical acts, a comedian told a joke about Valentine’s Day. He said he was in bed when his wife entered the room wearing only a skimpy nightgown and a smile. He said she was holding four, short pieces of rope.

She told him, “Honey, for your Valentine’s treat, I want you to tie me up to the bedposts and do anything you want to do,” he recalled.

“So I tied her up.”

[Pause]

“And then I went fishin’.”

Of course, the Opry — which is still on the air — evokes how radio once was, long ago, with live music and a live audience.

It is an AM throwback to the decades before car dashboards offered FM radio, eight-track tape players, cassette tape players, CD players, CB radio, Sirius XM satellite radio, or a podcast, or a telephone call, or whatever else you can bounce from your smartphone app through Bluetooth to your stereo speaker system.

Long gone are the days and nights of Father Coughlin, Fireside Chats with FDR, Amos ‘n’ Andy, Walter Winchell, Payola, and Top 40. Gone, too, in cities like Detroit, are the major professional sports teams, who used to anchor stations like WJR. They, too, are moving to FM.

Also absent is the Fairness Doctrine, abolished in 1987 under President Ronald Reagan. Since then, AM stations have primarily offered two approaches.

One is right-wing talk shows, like those on WJR. These screeds feed paranoia. They pander to a fearful audience with a consistent backlash of resentment, grievance, and thinly disguised bigotry.

Reagan’s decision allowed one-sided propagandists like Rush Limbaugh to fill the void for stations like WJR. Limbaugh dominated the industry for three decades and greatly influenced the tone of American political dialogue.

Although he died more than two years ago, Limbaugh’s voice still echoes throughout a fragmenting industry and a severely embittered national conversation.

Another AM approach is to provide a rapidly rotating headline service of news, traffic, and weather reports as heard on Detroit’s WWJ (950-AM). Stations like WWJ and WJR remain relatively successful in their markets and in their niches.

But in the most recent Nielsen ratings, WWJ ranked only 12th in Detroit; and WJR was 14th. All the rest of the top 20 stations are FM.

Perhaps AM boosters like Levin will convince Congress to mandate AM radios in all new cars — electric or gasoline — and help save the platform that way. Wouldn’t it be ironic, though, for “big government” interference to bail out this diminishing segment of the industry?

Or, maybe big AM brands with call letters like WWJ and WJR will migrate to the FM band through mergers or takeovers. Or maybe AM radio stations will simply drift away like so much smoke, mist. or vapor in the air now that the free-market breeze has shifted.

After all, technology marches on. Cable TV viewers are cutting the cord. Do you still get a newspaper delivered at home? When’s the last time you got a personal letter (handwritten or typed) through the snail mail postal service? Hey, did anyone here ever get a telegram?

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