End of a love affair: AM radio is being removed from many cars

Ford, BMW, Volkswagen, Tesla and other automakers are eliminating AM radio from some new vehicles, stirring protests against the loss of a medium that has shaped American life for a century

Scott DeLucia discusses traffic, sports and what’s good to watch on TV during his WTAW morning show “The Infomaniacs,” in College Station, Tex. (Danielle Villasana for The Washington Post)
15 min

America’s love affair between the automobile and AM radio — a century-long romance that provided the soundtrack for lovers’ lanes, kept the lonely company with ballgames and chat shows, sparked family singalongs and defined road trips — is on the verge of collapse, a victim of galloping technological change and swiftly shifting consumer tastes.

The breakup is entirely one-sided, a move by major automakers to eliminate AM radios from new vehicles despite protests from station owners, listeners, first-responders and politicians from both major parties.

Automakers, such as BMW, Volkswagen, Mazda and Tesla, are removing AM radios from new electric vehicles because electric engines can interfere with the sound of AM stations. And Ford, one of the nation’s top-three auto sellers, is taking a bigger step, eliminating AM from all of its vehicles, electric or gas-operated.

Some station owners and advertisers contend that losing access to the car dashboard will indeed be a death blow to many of the nation’s 4,185 AM stations — the possible demise of a core element of the nation’s delivery system for news, political talk (especially on the right), coverage of weather emergencies and foreign language programming.

“This is a tone-deaf display of complete ignorance about what AM radio means to Americans,” said Michael Harrison, publisher of Talkers, a trade journal covering the talk radio industry. “It’s not the end of the world for radio, but it is the loss of an iconic piece of American culture.”

For the first hundred years of mass media, AM radio shaped American life: It was where Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered his fireside chats; where a young Ronald Reagan announced Chicago Cubs baseball games; where DJs such as Wolfman Jack along the U.S.-Mexico border, Larry Lujack in Chicago, Alan Freed in Cleveland, “Cousin Brucie” Morrow in New York City and Don Imus in California, Texas, Ohio and New York howled, growled and shouted out the latest pop hits.

Through the snap and crackle of distant lightning and the hum of overhead power lines, AM radio’s sometimes-staticky signal dominated the country’s soundscape. From the 1950s into the 1970s, Top 40 hit music stations in many big cities maintained astonishing shares of the audience, with 50 percent and more of listeners tuned to a single station, meaning that people could walk along a city sidewalk and hear one station continuously blasting out of transistor radios, boomboxes and, above all, car radios.

But technology moved on, and the silky smooth sound of FM radio and then the crystal digital clarity of streaming stations and podcasts narrowed AM’s hold on the American imagination.

Now, although 82 million Americans still listen to AM stations each month, according to the National Association of Broadcasters, the AM audience has been aging for decades. Ford says its data, pulled from internet-connected vehicles, shows that less than 5 percent of in-car listening is to AM stations.

Ford spokesman Alan Hall said that because most AM stations also offer their programming online or on FM sister stations, the automaker will continue to “offer these alternatives for customers to hear their favorite AM radio music and news as we remove [AM] from most new and updated models.” The 2024 Mustang is Ford’s first internal combustion model to be marketed without AM.

Several big automakers, including Toyota and Honda, say they have no plans to eliminate AM radio, and General Motors, the nation’s top-selling carmaker, has not announced its intentions.

As Ford did, BMW eliminated AM from electric models in part because “technological innovation has afforded consumers many additional options to receive the same or similar information,” Adam McNeill, the company’s U.S. vice president of engineering, said in a letter to Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).

But many AM stations don’t offer alternative ways to listen to their shows. Even those that do say their audience, much of which is older, tends not to be adept at the technologies that let drivers stream anything they choose from their smartphones into their car’s audio system. And despite the growing popularity of podcasts and streaming audio, a large majority of in-car listening remains old-fashioned broadcast radio, according to industry studies.

The removal of AM radio from cars — where about half of AM listening takes place — has sparked bipartisan protests. Some Democrats are fighting to save stations that often are the only live source of local information during extreme weather, as well as outlets that target immigrant audiences. Some Republicans, meanwhile, claim the elimination of AM radio is aimed at diminishing the reach of conservative talk radio, an AM mainstay from Sean Hannity to Glenn Beck to dozens of acolytes of the late Rush Limbaugh. Eight of the country’s 10 most popular radio talk shows are conservative.

“The automobile is essential to liberty,” right-wing talk show host Mark Levin told his listeners last month. “It’s freedom. So the control of the automobile is about the control of your freedom. They finally figured out how to attack conservative talk radio.”

One evening this spring, when severe thunderstorms rolled into Bryan, Tex., with tornadoes threatening parts of the area, Bill Oliver, the news director at WTAW, the area’s century-old AM station, connected to the studio from home and stayed on the air deep into the night, giving listeners details on which neighborhoods and streets were in a twister’s path.

Through most of the day, WTAW pumps out the same right-wing nationally syndicated talk that dominates the AM dial in much of the country — Hannity, Beck and Limbaugh’s successors, Clay Travis and Buck Sexton. But the station’s morning show is all local: It’s three hours of news (the top story one day last week was the town’s acquisition of three new firetrucks), talk (the mayor comes on every week to take calls from listeners) and community (the director of the local theater spent nine minutes talking about the shows she’s staging this season).

"We may not be the first station you turn to, but when the weather’s bad, when the game is on, when you need to know what’s happening where you live, we’re the only place,” said Ben Downs, the owner and general manager of WTAW, which serves the twin cities of College Station and Bryan. “AM is where news and talk have gone to live. And in the great American Midwest, agricultural radio is on AM. Our audience has gotten older, but when something big happens, everyone in town knows where to turn.”

Chelsea Reber, a newscaster on "The Infomaniacs" for WTAW, gives the station identification, time and weather update. (Video: Danielle Villasana/For The Washington Post)

Downs’s company, Bryan Broadcasting, owns 15 stations in town, most on FM, but WTAW is his No. 1 revenue producer and the only one that employs news reporters and a meteorologist. That’s a rarity on any commercial station these days, after waves of corporate consolidation and budget cutting over the past three decades stripped much of American radio of its local content.

But broadcasters say that in most markets, there’s at least one station, usually on AM, that, like WTAW, stresses its local ties, covers weather emergencies and promotes community causes.

On WTAW, Scott DeLucia, who started at the station as a country music DJ in 1968, hosts the morning show, “The Infomaniacs.” He says he does his best to steer clear of divisive political chatter, preferring to talk about the traffic, sports and what’s good to watch on TV. But almost every day, he has a local mayor or council member on to talk about their initiatives and to field calls from listeners.

“There are a lot of people out there who would like to have one side of the political spectrum silenced, but that’s scary,” said DeLucia, “so we keep it close to home and we keep it civil. If you lose AM stations like ours, you lose the voices that speak to conservatives, to minorities and to the religious sector — that’s three important groups, and that would be a real loss.”

Scott DeLucia hosts "The Infomaniacs" for WTAW and reads ads for roofing and contests for listeners to win free barbecue. (Video: Danielle Villasana/For The Washington Post)

DeLucia knew that he wanted to be on the radio from a young age. As a kid in Bryan, he listened every night to WLS, the Top 40 station in Chicago. (AM signals, unlike FM, can travel enormous distances at night.) In 1964, DeLucia wrote to his favorite DJ, Art Roberts, asking if he could drop by the station and meet him as his family passed through Chicago on a trip to the World’s Fair in New York. Roberts responded with a certified letter and DeLucia was ushered into the studio to watch his hero spin the hits.

“That was really kind of cool that he would let in a kid like me,” DeLucia recalled 59 years later. “I’m afraid there’s not a lot of that anymore.”

These days, in his town of 84,000, DeLucia seeks to maintain those kinds of connections. His show is often No. 1 in the ratings, offering a traditional mix of features such as “Today in Texas History,” updates on Texas A&M athletics, and a plethora of homespun ads for locally-owned businesses, many with their own jingles, produced by the station’s ad staff. It sounds like a throwback, but lots of people in Bryan can sing the jingles for Schulte Roofing (“Home of the Bulletproof Roof”) or George’s Paint and Body (“We meet by accident at George’s Paint and Body”).

One regular guest on “The Infomaniacs” is Bryan’s mayor, Bobby Gutierrez, a lifelong resident of the city who owns the House of Tires auto service shop, passed down from his parents, which has advertised on the station for 50 years.

“Anything we want to get out to the citizens, the station is how we do it,” the mayor said. “The station is also the only media that comes to every one of our meetings and they watch us very closely. We’re probably more frightened of what they report than any other media.”

Gutierrez expects the House of Tires will stop advertising on WTAW if the station is no longer available in cars. “I can’t imagine what the automakers are thinking,” the mayor said. “In an emergency, the AM signal reaches the rural areas and the FM signal doesn’t. That can be life or death.”

For the automakers, eliminating AM is a simple matter of numbers and progress. The AM audience keeps getting smaller and older, and the growth of alternative forms of in-car audio has been explosive. AM radio’s programming and audience started to change when FM radio was introduced as standard equipment in cars in the mid-1960s. The trends away from music and toward spoken-word formats accelerated in the past two decades.

Of the $11 billion in advertising revenue that radio pulled in last year, about $2 billion came into AM stations, according to BIA Advisory Services, which conducts research for broadcasters. And some of the country’s most lucrative radio stations are still on AM, mostly all-news or news and talk stations in big cities such as New York, Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles.

About 40 percent of AM stations have news, talk or sports formats, 11 percent are oriented to specific ethnic groups and 11 percent are religious, according to BIA. About a third of AM outlets play music, mostly oldies, Spanish or other less popular genres, said Nicole Ovadia, vice president for forecasting and analysis at BIA.

“AM is the long tail," she said. "And if those stations are not on the car dash, they’re dead.”

Losing AM’s foreign language stations — such as Polish and Russian outlets in Chicago, Farsi in Los Angeles, five Vietnamese stations in northern and southern California markets — including about 700 Spanish-language stations nationwide, would cut off many immigrant communities from their most trusted source of information, said Pierre Bouvard, chief insights officer at Cumulus Media, which owns more than 400 stations.

“Radio is still the soundtrack of the American worker,” he said. “It’s what people listen to on the way to work. And Ford owners are massive users of AM radio — 1 out of 5 AM listeners are Ford owners, so Ford is missing something here.”

Automakers acknowledge that many of their loyal customers listen to AM stations, but the manufacturers say niche audiences have learned how to find what they need on the internet or stream audio into their cars using Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and similar programs. But station owners say older listeners “aren’t going to get in their car and spend three or four minutes firing up the Bluetooth to listen to our station,” as Downs put it.

Marketers often assume that young people mainly stream audio in the car, but a new study by Edison Research, which monitors Americans’ listening habits, found that young people often prefer AM and FM broadcast radio because it’s free, easier to access while driving, and offers local information and personalities.

Overall, AM and FM radio still account for 60 percent of all in-car listening, Edison found. SiriusXM satellite radio makes up 16 percent of in-car audio use, followed by drivers’ own music from their phones at 7 percent and podcasts and YouTube music videos at 4 percent each.

In a last-ditch campaign to keep AM in cars, broadcasters are teaming up with conservative activists, first-responders and liberals who view AM as a vital source of diversity in media. Seven former Federal Emergency Management Agency leaders joined in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg saying that removing AM radio from cars is “a grave threat to future local, state, and federal disaster response and relief efforts.”

Markey urged automakers to reverse their decisions, telling manufacturers that “in an emergency, drivers might not have access to the internet and could miss critical safety information.”

Eight automakers — Ford, VW, BMW, Mazda, Volvo, Tesla, Polestar and Rivian — told Markey that they have already removed AM from their electric models. Several other companies — including Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Kia and Jaguar Land Rover — said they have no plans to eliminate AM.

General Motors did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post and did not answer Markey’s questions. GM has announced plans to replace Apple CarPlay and Android Audio, programs that now let drivers bypass a vehicle’s audio dashboard, and funnel drivers instead toward GM’s own audio system in electric vehicles.

AM stations are trying to enlist listeners to speak out against the change. Many Black-oriented stations are airing spots urging listeners to contact Congress: “For decades, our community has relied on AM radio to inform, entertain and empower,” one announcement says. “From the gospel music you grew up with to the Black voices and perspectives you depend on for your news …. we can’t afford to have our voice silenced.”

Messages similarly targeting Spanish-language speakers are airing on stations aimed at that community.

And conservative talk stations are playing a pitch from former vice president Mike Pence, who paved his way into politics as an AM radio talk show host: Talk radio, he says, has “become a meeting place for the American people. It’s where we come together and get information.”

But Harrison, the talk radio publisher, said most listeners will find other ways to get the information that they need. Just as most music programming shifted from AM to FM in the 1970s and ’80s, he predicted that the talk, news and sports found mostly on AM will move to places such as satellite radio, internet streaming and podcasts.

What remains distinctive on AM comes from the local voices that sound like the places they serve. Three years ago, Todd Starnes, a right-wing commentator who used to work for Fox News Radio, moved home to Memphis and bought KWAM, better-known to listeners as The Mighty 990, not just to build an audience for conservative talk shows — including his own — but to rekindle the local connections that AM stations fostered back in the 1960s and ’70s.

Part of that appeal is nostalgia: “My grandpa gave me a transistor radio when I was a kid,” said Starnes, “and I’ve loved AM radio ever since.”

But part is unique local content: He’s added local newscasts at the top of the hour, brought on a full-time weatherman and started covering high school football games, in part to attract younger listeners.

Starnes thinks KWAM can survive the loss of AM in cars. He says listeners will stick with AM stations, even with a little interference from electric engines, just as they’ve long accepted some static from power lines or lightning. “There’s something about getting in the car and turning on an AM station,” he said. “I love the crackle.”