For nearly 100 years, motorists have listened to AM radio, an American institution that crackles with news, traffic, weather, sports and an eclectic variety of other programming.
But that dashboard staple could go the way of manually operated windows and car ashtrays as electric vehicles begin to capture more of the U.S. market.
An increasing number of electric models have dropped AM radio in what broadcasters are calling a worrying shift that could spell trouble for the stations and deprive drivers of a critical source of news in emergencies.
Automakers say electric vehicles generate more electromagnetic interference than gas-powered cars, which can interfere with AM signal reception and cause static, noise and high-frequency hum. (FM signals are more resistant to such interference.)
“Rather than frustrate customers with inferior reception and noise, it was decided to omit it from vehicles with eDrive technology,” BMW said in a statement, referring to the system that powers its electric vehicles.
Tesla, Audi, Porsche and Volvo have also removed AM radio from their electric vehicles, as has Volkswagen from its electric SUV, ID.4, according to the automakers and the National Association of Broadcasters. Ford said the 2023 F-150 Lightning, its popular electric pickup, would also drop AM radio.
Some experts say the reception problems are not insurmountable. Electromagnetic interference can be controlled with shielding cables, filters and careful placement of the vehicle’s electrical components, said Pooja Nair, a communications systems engineer at the entertainment technology company Xperi Inc., which owns HD Radio technology.
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But such changes require money and effort, and it’s not clear whether automakers are willing to spend more to serve AM radio fans. The Drive, a car news site that reported on the trend, noted that AM radio has lost popularity in Europe, perhaps reducing the need for automakers there to keep it.
If more electric vehicles drop AM radio, some broadcasters say they could lose connection with their core listeners.
“It’s a killer for us because most of our listening audience is on the morning drive and afternoon drive, when people go to and from work — and if we’re not there in their cars, we don’t exist” , he said. Ron January, operations manager at WATV-AM, an adult station in Birmingham, Ala.
About 47 million Americans listen to AM radio, representing about 20 percent of the radio-listening public, according to the media tracking company Nielsen Company. AM listeners are generally older than other radio listeners (about a third are over 65), and the amount of time they spend listening to AM has increased slightly over the past five years to just over two hours a day, reported Nielsen.
While some AM stations have translators that transmit dual broadcasts over the FM airwaves, AM signals travel farther and reach more people. AM stations can also be less expensive than FM stations to operate, allowing some to offer programs aimed at specific religious, cultural, or other communities.
Brian Winnekins, the owner of WRDN in Durand, Wis., which has seven hours of farm-related programming available each weekday on AM and FM, said he has urged listeners to tell automakers not to drop AM, pointing out that it can farm reach in remote areas.
“If you can make a vehicle drive itself,” Mr. Winnekins said, referring to the driver assistance systems in Teslas and other vehicles, “you can make a decent radio receiver.”
Nola Daves Moses, director of distribution at Native Voice One, which carries Native American radio programs, including some in Native languages, said she hoped more Americans would switch to electric vehicles.
But “if radio disappears from cars, it would be really devastating,” she said. “Is this a first step? Is FM next?”
In a letter to 20 automakers published Dec. 1, Massachusetts Democrat Senator Edward J. Markey requested that AM radio be kept in electric vehicles, describing it as a public safety problem.
“Despite innovations such as the smartphone and social media, AM/FM radio broadcasting remains the most reliable, free and accessible communication mechanism for government officials to communicate with the public in times of need,” Mr. Markey wrote. “As a result, any phasing out of AM radio broadcasting could pose a significant communication problem during emergency situations.”
Many AM stations say their stations’ news reports are the fastest way for motorists to learn about tornadoes, flash floods, and other severe weather. Diane Newman, operations and fire manager at WWL in New Orleans, said during Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, the station provided vital information for rescue and recovery efforts.
“There was no Wi-Fi; there were no telephone connections,” Ms. Newman said, adding, “You take away AM radios in cars and you take away a lifeline, a connection when the community needs you most.”
Automakers noted that drivers can still stream AM radio on apps and that not all electric vehicles have dropped it. Hyundai, which makes electric vehicles, said in a statement it has no plans to phase out AM radio. And some observers say the threat from electric vehicles may be overstated.
“The challenge to AM’s survival may lie more in broader demographics than in cars,” said Michael Stamm, a cultural historian at Michigan State University who studies media. “Do younger people care about AM at all, in cars or otherwise?”
Not all young drivers love AM radio.
“AM is where you get the information,” says Alex Cardenas-Acosta, 34, a Saab driver who works at an auto repair shop in Union, NJ. Like many who drive gas-powered cars, he didn’t know that some electric vehicles had fallen AM- radio. Mr. Cardenas-Acosta said he listens to the Mets on the air.
“I don’t think it should be taken away,” he said. “If you want to find something serious, turn on AM instead of all the crap they have on FM.”
Outside a Tesla dealership in Springfield, NJ, several Tesla owners said they weren’t terribly bothered by the lack of AM radio. The company began phasing it out several years ago, leading to a headline in 2018 in The Wall Street Journal: “Your Tesla Can Go Zero to 60 in 2.5 Seconds, But Can’t Get AM Radio.”
Brandon Utrera, 27, said he hadn’t noticed that the Tesla Model Y he bought five days earlier didn’t have an AM radio. “The only time I really listen to AM radio is when the Yankees are playing,” he said.
Mr. Utrera said his parents listen to it more than he does, though he couldn’t remember the channel. “It’s for the old-timers,” he said.