Congressional Hearing On The Importance of AM Radio
“AM has proven its value in emergency situations.”
That’s a direct quote from Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) during an AM-focused congressional hearing on June 6th. Driven by a move from automakers to take AM out of the dashboard, there was broad bipartisan support not only to keep AM in cars but also for the role that radio plays during emergencies.
Rep Bob Latta (R-OH) said “Its unique frequency characteristics allow signals to travel far and wide. This makes AM radio an invaluable tool during times of crisis.” He made that statement during a hearing on a bill that would require automakers to maintain AM broadcast radio in their vehicles without a separate or additional payment, fee, or surcharge.
The radio and car industries have long been allies, joined at the dashboard with a mutual effort to entertain and inform drivers. That remains the case today said Jerry “J” Chapman, President of Woof Boom Radio. He testified that a requirement that AM remains in the car is “not a zero-sum game” between the two industries. “We can protect Americans with the one dependable system – EAS – to communicate in times of crisis,” Chapman said.
As expected, the role AM plays in emergency alerts dominated much of the hearing testimony. Many lawmakers even shared their own firsthand experiences with how radio has played a critical role in helping inform their districts during an emergency.
“To lose access to AM radio signals, certainly would impede the messaging getting out,” agreed Lt. Colonel Christopher DeMaise, Homeland Security Branch Commander at the New Jersey State Police. “We need all platforms available to our residents because some people are more comfortable listening to AM radio stations to obtain their information.”
Hardware Or Software Issue?
Following pressure from lawmakers and an uproar from the radio industry, Ford Motor Company announced last month that it will keep AM radio in its new 2024 Ford and Lincoln vehicles. For owners of 2023 electric vehicles without AM broadcast capability, the company would offer a software update.
That has led to some confusion since some auto brands said they would need redesigns to their cars to protect AMs from interference. As committee members dug in for answers, Scott Schmidt, VP of Safety Policy for the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, explained that the software fix had to do with how Ford was implementing its changes.
“Ford started removing AM radio by disabling the software while they worked on modifications that would actually remove the hardware,” Schmidt said. “For those models, Ford can enable the AM radio via the over-the-air update.” He said other car companies may not be able to reverse things quite so easily. And when Schmidt was asked whether any automaker had the technology to keep AM in the cars but was opting not to use it, he sidestepped the question. “They do a lot of market research and try to determine how to deliver the most value to the customers,” he said.
To Mandate Or Not
The three-hour hearing was a love fest for AM radio with members of the House subcommittee showering praise on radio one after another. That will be critical as the industry pushes lawmakers to move forward with the legislation. One potential hurdle is that some members on both sides of the political aisle expressed reservations about the government mandating car companies to include AM in their cars, with the bill taking a backseat during most of the discussion.
Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) said a move by Ford reversing an earlier decision to take AM out is showing that the free market is working. “There is robust demand for this and I think this episode shows that automakers are responsive to demand,” Echoo said. But she also said there is a precedent that could work in radio’s favor too, since the only features that the government requires are those that are intended to keep drivers safe. Key to the argument for keeping AM in cars is public safety and EAS capabilities.
Schmidt said the car industry is “technology agnostic” but it sees such a mandate as a “blunt instrument” where the cost and long-term benefits need to be considered. “There are many more options for delivering content and alerts now and vehicles than there ever were,” he said.
But with so much of the world internet-based, DeMaise said it is easy to forget why emergency officials need redundancy when a hurricane, earthquake, or snowstorm strikes. He told lawmakers that they have learned that cellular networks “collapse” when the power goes out. And even when the lights stay on, emergency management officials prefer multiple ways to reach people. “Any delays in getting that message out in that critical moment certainly could be a matter of life and death,” he said.
My thanks to Inside Radio for the information in this report.
Allegheny Mountain Radio is a proud member of the national Emergency Alert System.