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How Tesla is Killing AM Radio

AM RadioDepending on your age, radio is one of these things:

  • Your main source of news, information, and music (Baby Boomer, Greatest Generation)
  • One of many forms of entertainment you mix in with podcasts, streaming, and that old CD that isn’t on Spotify (Gen X)
  • What’s radio? (everyone younger)

My late uncle once told me that in the 1960s, people said AM music was “American Music” (country and western) while FM was “foreign music” (the Beatles).  There isn’t much music left on AM radio because of the superior audio experience with FM.  I notice flipping around my dial that the only music in my city is oldies (a format I think was once known as “sunshine music” because it’s very pleasant; think nursing home lobbies), and a Spanish-language station.

AM radio has had an amazing history.  Franklin Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” during the Depression and World War II through the national call-in shows that were very popular up to the turn of the century, AM radio was the nation’s first “living room get together”.  Today, there are innumerable means for mass participation, from group chats to live chats to LowEndTalk.  But while the printing press was the first mass communication device, AM radio was the first way to do it live with tens of millions of people listening simultaneously.

However, radio has been on the decline for years, owing to both the limitations of the format and competition (first physical media, then satellite, and now streaming).  Still, it soldiers on for a few reasons.

Radio is Sort of a Freemium Model Participant

First, not everyone has a smartphone.  Probably everyone reading this post does but 15% of Americans.  That’s 49.5 million people – and what do you know, Nielsen says that about 47 million Americans listen to AM radio.

Second, if you want to listen to something live like sports or political commentary, the alternative is streaming.  Since radio towers and cell towers are completely different, you may have access to one without the other during some or all of a drive.

And finally, even if you have a smartphone, some people prefer a “freemium” model.  If you’re streaming, that usually means you’re burning data, though this is is no longer as big a deal as it once was.  But you may be listening to ads on the streaming service unless you’re paying for a premium plan.  From a convenience point of view, radio might win because if you like to listen to Rich Eisen on your drive, the radio’s set to it and you just hit the button when you get in your car, as opposed to fiddling with an app on your phone (yes, yes, all you AI assistant people, we know how you effortlessly do it with a voice command).

It’s different with music because the it’s a different thought process of deciding if you want an unknown DJ pick songs for you versus playing something themselves.  But for live talk, AM radio is still competitive in the car.

It also retains an important role in public safety, as part of a multi-layered alerting system.  In national disasters, cell phone and wifi are often out and radio is the best way for people fleeing to get updates.  Short-wave radio is nowhere near as common among civilians as portable and auto radios.  AM signal typically reaches further than FM, and in rural areas it’s the only signal you’re likely to find.

And now AM radio may be coming to an end, in the car and beyond.

EVs Killed the AM Radio Star

In a letter to BMW published earlier this week, Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts stated “Despite the importance of broadcast AM radio, some automakers have begun discontinuing the feature in new vehicles, particularly electric vehicles. Manufacturers have argued that batteries and other technology in EVs create an electromagnetic interference with AM radio waves, significantly impairing audio quality.”

Or as the Wall Street Journal put it, “Your Tesla Can Go Zero to 60 in 2.5 Seconds But Can’t Get AM Radio”.

The problem is that the electric motors create electromagnetic frequencies on the same wavelength as AM radio signals, which results in buzzing, static, and weak signal from the interference.  It’s not an insurmountable problem and can be minimized or eliminated by shielding and insulation, but this adds cost and manufacturing complexity for what manufacturers think is a largely unwanted features, especially given EVs’ upmarket position.

Tesla, Audi, Porsche, Volvo, and Honda have all dropped AM radio from their EVs, and Ford will not include it in their 2023 F-150 Lightning.

OK, so let’s project this out.  Imagine that eventually nearly all passenger and commercial vehicles are electric, and AM radio is infeasible in vehicles.  Does that mean AM radio is dead?

Ron January, a radio station operations manager, is quoted by the New York Times as saying

“It’s a killer for us because most of our listening audience is in the morning drive and afternoon drive, when people are going to work and coming from work — and if we’re not there in their car, we’re nonexistent.”

And that’s that.  If audiences plummet, advertising revenues plummet.  Soon AM radio is no longer economically viable, stations begin to wink out, and vintage AM radio stations T-shirts appear for sale on Etsy.




  1. Susan:

    WHF, I grew up on AM. Matter of fact, out in our Texas plains AM radio is about the only thing we can receive. Trust me when I say FM will not reach in places where AM is strong.

    Sad fact and glad you brought the facts out. But you will see few electric trucks out in the plains…

    December 11, 2022 @ 12:39 am | Reply
  2. Country music is still very popular to day. Like Taylor Swift also emerged with country music.

    December 19, 2022 @ 2:16 am | Reply
    • Susan:

      Associating Taylor Swift with country music is like associating hotdogs with filet mignon in the same sentence. Sure, she started off pretending to be country, but the girl was never country in any way.

      December 19, 2022 @ 10:14 am | Reply
  3. Robert:

    Radio is still very popular in Britain. Ken Bruce, who is about to move from BBC Radio 2 to a commercial station, attracts 8.4 million listeners a week. The BBC still broadcasts its five main radio stations on AM (as well as FM and streaming) with Radio 4 available on long wave too.

    January 22, 2023 @ 4:32 am | Reply

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