Broadcaster-Backed AM Mandate Bill Prospects Uncertain; Latta Looks to Hearing
Broadcasters seeking an AM radio requirement for cars are counting on bipartisan support and public safety concerns to carry the day, but opponents argue Ford’s recent reversal (see 2305230047) shows legislation to mandate the technology like the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act (HR-3413/S-1669) isn't needed. It would direct the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to issue a rule mandating AM radio access in new vehicles. House Communications Subcommittee Chairman Bob Latta, R-Ohio, is withholding deciding on whether such legislation is needed pending the outcome of a planned early June hearing on the issue.
“We were really pleased” Ford decided it won’t remove AM radio from its cars in the U.S., but “we’ve got a number of other car companies that we’ve asked to submit information” on their plans for the technology “that we need to hear from,” Latta said in an interview. “We’ll go forward” once they get those responses and hear testimony. Ahead of that panel he believes many Republicans will be reluctant to say “we’re going to mandate” automakers keep AM radio technology in future vehicles, he said: “What we really want to make sure is that all the facts are in.”
Automakers argue “they can’t” keep AM radio in their electric vehicles because of interference issues and lawmakers need to get the full truth about those claims and balance them against the benefits of the technology, Latta said. AM critics contend “you can stream” stations’ content “or an AM station now has a sister FM station. But if we have a massive attack and the internet goes down, then what happens? We don’t have the ability to go out there and broadcast emergency information. That’s why you need this redundancy” that AM provides. He cited limited wireless connectivity during the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and other “horrible situations” when access to terrestrial radio has been important. “We need that backup, and in most cases that exists in your car,” Latta said.
Opponents argue HR-3413/S-1669 will go the way of a similar, unsuccessful previous effort: the FM cellphone chip. “If we're going to go down that road, why not mandate radios in every public building, public schools, in every classroom?” said CTA Policy Affairs Manager India Herdman in an interview. “It’s a slippery slope.”
“This isn’t a political issue, it’s a public safety issue,” said New York State Broadcasters Association President David Donovan in an interview about HR-3413/S-1669. He noted wireless networks fail during disasters such as New York’s Super Storm Sandy, while radio remains viable. Broadcasters have the support to get their legislation through even with a presidential election approaching, Donovan said. “It has to be sooner rather than later” because of government subsidies encouraging a huge rollout of electric vehicles. If those cars are constructed without the capability to receive AM, it would be disastrous for broadcasters and public safety communications infrastructure (see 2302280073), he said: “This has to get fixed fast.” The NAB-backed HR-3413/S-1669 attracted a diverse range of bipartisan supporting lawmakers, including Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Ed Markey, D-Mass., and AM has a listener base that can sway lawmakers, Donovan said. “AM radio is listened to by 82 million people a month in this country."
NAB Radio Board member Larry Patrick, a media broker, is less confident in the legislation’s chances. “I don’t see members of Congress falling on their swords for this,” he said: Automakers are international businesses, and many countries have done away with AM. “Congress doesn’t like to pick winners and losers,” Patrick said.
“Nobody is doubting the benefits of AM radio, but there are new technologies that can reach more audiences,” Herdman said. To receive wireless emergency alerts, a listener doesn’t need to be in a car, tuned to a specific channel, she said. Mandating AM in electric vehicles runs counter to the White House’s goal of supporting the electric vehicle industry, Herdman said. “This is not the way to do that. It's a hindrance. It's an obstacle.” Consumers should have a choice between buying cars with AM and buying cars without it, said CTA Vice President-Regulatory Affairs David Grossman.
Given the public attention the AM radio issue has received, if other automakers reverse course it will probably due to market research warning of a likely backlash, said Berk Talay, University of Massachusetts marketing professor, who has done auto industry research. Automakers "are experts in gauging public opinion and adjusting their responses accordingly." While the stated reason for dropping AM is that electric vehicle engines interfere with radio reception, electric vehicles have been around for years and interference hasn't been brought up as a big problem until now, he said.
The AM move is more likely about putting radio content behind a paywall, creating a potential revenue stream for the automakers, said Ian Greenblatt, J.D. Power managing director-technology, media and telecom (TMT) intelligence. AM, with its smaller audience than FM, could be "a test balloon," to see if the public would tolerate it. The problem is what a loss of AM will mean for disseminating emergency alerts and that the FCC, NOAA and Federal Emergency Management Agency have not had a chance to chime in, he said.
Honda told us all its Honda and Acura models currently on sale have AM and FM but said it couldn't speak to future models. Kia, Hyundai and Nissan said they have no plans to phase out AM. Stellantis said AM radio "remains available on all our vehicles" and referred all other questions to the Alliance for Auto Innovation (AAI).
"Automakers remain 100 percent committed to ensuring drivers have access to public alerts and safety warnings through the Integrated Public Alerts and Warning System," AAI said. IPAWS "was built with technological redundancies that can distribute warnings across multiple platforms: AM radio (digital and analog), FM radio (digital and analog), internet-based radio, satellite radio and over cellular networks," it said. AAI also pointed to FEMA's 2022-2026 IPAWS strategic plan, which acknowledges the public "is moving away from radio and broadcast/cable television as the primary channels for news and information. Just as IPAWS has adapted emergency alerting to smart phones via WEAs, the program must now find ways to communicate with the public however they receive information."
AAI called HR-3413/S-1669 "unnecessary." Congress "has never mandated radio features in vehicles ever before," the group said. "Whether or not AM radio is physically installed in vehicles in the future has no bearing on the various methods of delivering emergency communications that alert the public. This is simply a bill to prop up and give preference to a particular technology that’s now competing with other communications options and adapting to changing listenership.”
HR-3413/S-1669 also got some criticism in the TMT space. "Can't believe rational humans are arguing that we should mandate AM radios in every automobile," tweeted Neil Chilson, ex-FTC acting chief technologist, now a researcher at Stand Together. "What's next, the leech industry lobbying for mandatory bleedings during every doctor's visit?" He said the bill is "just a PR effort by a special interest group to leverage the 'woke corporation' vibe to make auto manufacturers feel a little pain. But it's so cynical and stupid."
Filling the roads with AM-less cars would be “slicing the neck” of most AM radio owners, Patrick said. Companies such as the largest owner of AMs, iHeartMedia, would take a hit, but it would be worse for smaller owners. Many AM radio stations serve niche and diverse audiences, and they can’t afford a hit to their listenership. “They live on the slightest slivers of audience,” Patrick said. “You’d see people leaving the business” and reducing local broadcasting, said Bob Proffitt, CEO of Alpha Media, which owns both AM and FM stations.
Although a great deal of AM stations have FM translators and thus could reach cars without AM receivers, many smaller stations or those located in difficult spots do not, Patrick said. FM translators also have a greatly reduced reach compared with an AM station, limiting their effectiveness in an emergency situation, Proffitt said.
“A lot of the same public safety arguments were made,” when broadcasters were lobbying to have FM chips activated in cellular phones, Grossman said. “It's the same exact labeling.” A broadcaster push for legislation on FM chips was unsuccessful, but a campaign urging cellphone manufacturers to voluntarily activate the chips made more progress, said Emmis Communications CEO Jeff Smulyan, who led the FM chip campaign. Apple was the only major cellphone manufacturer that declined to activate the chips.
Smulyan doesn’t agree with the comparison between the two issues, because the chips were already sitting dormant in the phones, and the chip effort was derailed by the economic issues that aren’t present with AM radio. He does think that the logic behind both campaigns is sound. “When the power grid goes down, there’s nothing left but terrestrial radio,” he said.