Chicago’s AM radio industry may have trouble reaching drivers

The radio industry is dealing with a serious case of static.

Some automakers plan to remove AM radio from new electric vehicles, but lawmakers and the broadcast industry are pushing to pass a bill that would keep AM radio in cars.

The problem will affect drivers in Chicago, a market that is among the most loyal AM listeners in the country. The city has a decades-long tradition of local programming, and thanks to its central location and stations with 50,000-watt signals that span most of the country overnight, the voice of Chicago has been widely heard since the invention of television. radio.

But could listeners lose the AM signal forever? It’s a question being debated Tuesday in the Republican-led House. A subcommittee of the Committee on Energy and Commerce will hear testimony about AM in cars. A bipartisan group of representatives has sponsored a resolution that would direct federal regulators to require AM radios in new cars.

For years, Americans listened to the National Barn Dance on WLS-AM, big-band broadcasts from Palmer House, and talk shows from the Chez Paree nightclub. Later, the life of the baby boomers was dominated by the Top 40 playlists of the WLS and the former WCFL, which competed for the same listeners.

“Those were fun times and we didn’t have to pay much attention to the business side of things,” said Bob Sirott, WGN-720 AM morning host and former WLS-890 AM DJ.

Today, Sirott said, it has to rely more on serving local tastes. “If the content is out there, people will search for it and listen to it,” he said.


Bob Sirott in the 1970s, when he was a top personality on WLS.

Other broadcast executives, who did not speak by attribution, said that while a fragmented media market has reduced AM’s viewership, its reach remains impressive and has proven its value to advertisers who cannot afford to produce a tv ad.

Ratings company Nielsen, in an audience study conducted last fall, said that 48% of the radio audience in the Chicago market uses AM. Chicago was tied with Milwaukee as the market with the second highest AM penetration in the country. “This business is not gone or dead,” said a local broadcast executive.

Give listeners a choice

Mark Pinski, general manager of Newsweb Radio, said preserving AM access comes down to public safety, convenience and consumer choice.

AM lost its music formats to the superior FM signal decades ago, but continues with news, talk, sports and special interest programming. Newsweb’s WCPT-850 AM is a progressive talk station and owns other outlets that trade their time for religious and foreign language programs.

“It’s a lot simpler to hit your station button in your car” rather than using an Internet connection to get the same feed, he said.

Pinski is confident that automakers, perhaps in response to federal pressure, will recommit to AM radio. Ford, which initially said it would remove AM from all future models, be they gasoline or electric, did a complete turnaround last month.

Arguments about keeping AM in cars also point to the federal government’s system for emergency public alerts about weather and other matters. The National Association of Broadcasters said about 80 AM stations are primary contacts in the system, with the ability to go online and broadcast a single warning and with backup systems to stay on the air.

The station signals cover 90% of the country. The group said AM radio alerts are more reliable than warnings sent over the Internet or cell services that might be down.

Meanwhile, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the voice of automakers, said today’s users are more likely to receive alerts on their phone or from an FM station.

The trade group also cites problems automakers have with electric motors that interfere with signals to AM receivers. But a radio engineer told the Sun-Times that most manufacturers have found simple solutions that involve routing and jacketing wires for the radio.

AM for each vehicle

US Senator Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) is the lead sponsor of a bill to require AM radio in all vehicles. He surveyed 20 manufacturers and reported that half of the companies, including Honda, Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota, were committed to additive manufacturing.

General Motors has not announced its intentions with AM radio. Stellantis, formed by the combination of Fiat Chrysler and France’s PSA Peugeot, committed to keeping the AM as standard equipment.

Markey has said that BMW, Mazda, Volkswagen and Volvo are among manufacturers removing AM from electric vehicles. Tesla removed the AM several years ago.

“Automakers shouldn’t be turning off AM radio in new vehicles or putting it behind an expensive digital paywall,” Markey said. “I am proud to introduce the AM Act for each vehicle to ensure that this popular and rugged communication tool does not become a relic of the past.”

The bill is supported by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who emphasized AM’s various services, including “alternative point of view” talk shows. Experts said Republicans have expressed fear that people in rural areas will lose access to conservative speech on many AM stations.

Pinski said Congress is paying attention because listeners are supporting the radio industry’s lobbying. Many stations ran public service announcements urging people to contact their representatives about the issue.

However, automakers have responded. In a comment issued Monday, John Bozzella, president of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, said there are multiple ways to distribute emergency information.

“There is no need to mandate audio features in a vehicle. Congress has never gone down this path, especially in a competitive environment with so many options, many of them free,” Bozzella said.

“But if you want the government to support a particular technology that competes with other communication options and you have a hard time changing the number of listeners…the AM Bill for every vehicle is for you.”


Men work on the control panel of the WMAQ radio station in 1925, when it was owned by the Chicago Daily News.

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