AM car radios debated in Congress, automakers want to phase out ‘century-old technology’

Many WTOP listeners have at one point listened to Washington’s all-news station on an AM car radio — Congress is debating a bill that would require automakers to continue to install AM radios in new models.

In 2024, listeners can hear WTOP in their cars, at work, on a smart speaker, online or on their phone with the WTOP app. However, before WTOP started simulcasting on FM in the aughts, the only way to hear the station was on our powerful 50,000 watt signal, at 1500 on the AM dial. In fact, when car radios were first introduced, drivers would tune between static to the number 15.

Today, WTOP’s sister station, Federal News Network broadcasts on 1500 AM.

While most in the National Capital Region have access to FM, and many have broadband, which enables online streaming of AM stations, many remote, underserved areas of the U.S. have neither.

While some carmakers have pulled the band from new vehicles, Congress is considering versions of the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act, that would require AM in new vehicles at no additional cost.

Carmakers have said electrical interference from the analog tuner affects electric vehicles, and cites data that few new car owners listen to AM.

In a Tuesday hearing, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy Rodgers, a Republican from the state of Washington, said her panel typically considers legislation regarding cutting-edge technologies.

“At the same time, as we make the transition to these new technologies, it is vital that we’re mindful of unintended consequences and how these kinds of transitions can impact our communities,” Rodgers said in her opening remarks.

Rodgers said in her district, and many parts of the country, “people have limited access to FM radio and broadband, so AM radio is the only source of information.”

Rodgers said AM radio, which is free to consumers, “also provides an existence for small broadcasters, especially religious and minority broadcasters, that are highly valued by many Americans.”

“Members up and down the dais, across both sides of the aisle, have had firsthand experiences dealing with natural disasters in their states, including wildfires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, even earthquakes,” said Rodgers. And while other forms of communication have failed during these incidents, AM radio “has been a calming voice in the storm, when on the go.”

What carmakers say about AM radio

Auto industry members testifying Tuesday said Congress was overstepping in considering the legislation.

“We don’t believe it’s an appropriate role of Congress to mandate the inclusion of a century-old technology in 21st century cars,” said Gary Shapiro, CEO of the Consumer Technology Association.

In 1930, the first car radio was installed in the U.S., according to Car and Driver magazine.

John Bozzella, CEO of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation said the issue of carmakers phasing out AM isn’t a pressing issue, since 99% of 286 million cars on U.S. roads have analog radio access.

“Even if every automaker discontinued analog AM radio starting at this moment … it would take more than 30 years for the fleet of vehicles to turn over and for analog AM radio to fully phase out,” Bozzella said.

Rodgers said AM continues to play an important role in many Americans’ lives.

“Whether they’re tuning in for local news, agricultural and weather reports, information during an emergency, or to listen to their favorite talk radio personality, AM radio continues to be a trusted way for Americans to stay in touch,” she said.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter with WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even though that means waking up at 3:30 a.m.

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