Some carmakers are removing AM radios from dashboards. How big of a loss will it be? | CBC Radio

The Current23:29Carmakers ditching AM radio

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When Alan Cross turned six years old, his grandmother gave him a transistor radio. The gadget may have seemed insignificant then, but by tapping into AM radio, it opened the world up to the young Cross, who went on to become a radio broadcaster. 

“Growing up in a little town outside of Winnipeg, I suddenly realized that there was more to the world than what was coming out of the radio in the dashboard of my dad’s car and on the kitchen table,” he told The Current’s Matt Galloway.

Cross was not the first or last person to feel fascinated by AM radio. Many a listener have spent hours tuned in to sports, music and the news on AM radio, often from inside their cars.

But now, some car manufacturers are moving on from AM radio. 

Recently, Tesla, BMW, Porsche, Audi and Volvo have all dropped AM receivers from some models on their assembly lines.

The move has received some backlash from AM radio enthusiasts. Last week, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill calling on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require AM in new vehicles at no additional cost.

Sometimes, it’s interesting to hear exactly what people are thinking and seeing in other parts of North America.-Alan Cross, radio broadcaster

At least one automaker has since walked back on its decision to remove AM receivers from its cars; Ford will include it on all 2024 Ford and Lincoln vehicles, and is offering owners of Ford’s electric vehicles without AM broadcast capability a software update.

Nonetheless, more automakers are expected to follow in the footsteps of some of the business’s top manufacturers in removing AM receivers. 

They cite issues such as interference with their electric vehicles signals as reasons for removal, although Cross doesn’t buy it. He says companies like Kia seem to have figured out how to put AM radio into their electric vehicles without interference.

“So they’re kind of pointing their fingers at the other manufacturers saying that we figured it out. Why can’t you?” said Cross, best known as host of syndicated radio series including The Ongoing History of New Music. 

A woman holds a cable to charge an electric utility vehicle.
Some electric car manufacturers cite electrical interference as reason to remove AM radio receivers from their new models. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

Old, expensive tech

According to Cross, one of the key benefits of AM radio is its reach.

“When you have vast countries the size of the U.S. and Canada, AM radio signals are very important because they travel very long distances,” he said. 

Sandra Olson can vouch for this. She lives in the village of Holden, Alta., and she said in an email that AM radio signals are “the only signals that [are] receivable on any/all radios that I own.”

“Not all areas of this world can receive the radio bands of FM,” she said. “Not all people can afford the extra [money] to buy extra transmissions of advanced technology.”

“If the AM bands disappear from airways, then [the] wonders of the world will be silenced.”

Cross said FM radio bands can cover roughly 144 to 193 kilometres tops, but AM radio can cover much greater distances. “And in a country our size, isn’t that important?” he said.

Maybe not as important as it once was, said broadcast consultant Andrew Forsyth.

“It is no longer such a big deal, mainly because most AM radio stations have to lower their power overnight — and it’s strictly in the overnight period when you get ionospheric bounce, you get the distance,” he told Galloway.

AM radio, despite its costs, is something that can get out emergency information very, very quickly and for free.-Cross

Forsyth says AM radio is old and expensive — so much so that some Canadian broadcasters are asking to switch from AM to FM. 

“That is one of the big downsides for the operators of AM radio is the expense,” he said. “There’s a lot of real estate involved. There’s a lot of equipment involved. They’re very inefficient. They use a lot of hydro, and the return on the capital is not great.”

Cross admits that AM radio is “inferior technology.”

“It doesn’t sound very good. It’s prone to interference from lightning and power lines and bridges and all kinds of other things,” he said.

“However, AM radio — despite its costs — is something that can get out emergency information very, very quickly and for free,” even if the internet breaks down or a satellite goes down, he said.

A hand hovers over a car dashboard demonstrating Apple CarPlay.
Due in part to the rise of internet and satellites, some experts say AM radios are no longer an important part of car dashboards. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

But Forsyth says there already are mandates and technology in place that provide emergency updates.

“Everybody is mandated by license that you have to have the ability to broadcast what we know as in the Amber Alerts that you hear on your smartphone; there’s a similar system that works on radio as well,” he said.

Nostalgic memories

Although Cross said he believes there’s still an audience for AM radio, he admits it’s probably an older audience since “the content tends to be older-based.”

Still, if AM radio disappears from all car dashboards, Cross said he’s going to miss the “nostalgic feel of that crackly sound of a signal” coming from countless kilometres away.

“That makes me realize that this is such a large world and that sometimes, we get caught in our own little regional bubble — and sometimes, it’s interesting to hear exactly what people are thinking and seeing in other parts of North America,” he said.

Produced by Paul MacInnis.

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