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    Saturday, April 20, 2024

    Ford will include AM radio in 2024 models, reversing decision

    The largest automaker to have announced it was removing AM radios from its vehicles' in-dash audio systems suddenly reversed course Tuesday, announcing that it will restore AM service to all its models of electric and internal combustion vehicles.

    Ford's about-face came after news reports focused attention on the elimination of the nation's 4,700 AM stations from vehicles produced by eight manufacturers and after a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers joined in support of a bill that would require cars to include AM radios.

    "After speaking with policy leaders about the importance of AM broadcast radio as a part of the emergency alert system, we've decided to include it on all 2024 @Ford & @LincolnMotorCo vehicles," tweeted Jim Farley, Ford's chief executive. Farley said the company will provide a software update for electric vehicles already produced without AM radio. Ford and several other automakers had eliminated AM radio from electric models because the vehicles' electric drive systems could interfere with the AM signal, causing static. But some other manufacturers, such as Toyota, said they had found a technological fix and kept AM radio in their electric cars.

    Opposition to the removal of AM came from many quarters: Radio station owners feared that the loss of AM in cars would devastate their business, since at least half of all AM listening takes place on the road. Some Republicans accused the auto industry of taking aim against conservatives, since political talk is one of the largest formats among AM stations and eight of the top 10 talk shows are conservative in ideology. And some Democrats joined the battle to retain AM in cars because the nation's emergency alert system is built around AM stations, which generally have much stronger signals than FM radio can support.

    "That's the best news I've heard in a long time," said Ben Downs, the owner and general manager of the AM station WTAW in Bryan, Tex. His station airs local talk, nationally syndicated conservative talk, and local news and weather. "When you get Ed Markey [the Democratic senator from Massachusetts] and Ted Cruz [the Republican senator from Texas] on a piece of legislation, there's a good reason it's such a bipartisan issue: America needs AM radio in their cars. We do a lot of things that other people don't do, like news and sports."

    The two senators, as ideologically opposite as any pair in the Senate, were part of a large, bipartisan group in both houses of Congress that had called on automakers to keep AM in cars and who have signed onto a bill requiring it.

    Markey issued a statement Tuesday calling on the other automakers to follow Ford's lead, saying that "Ford's reversal reflects an overdue realization about the importance of AM radio, but too many automakers are still going the wrong direction."

    The nation's radio industry also applauded the reversal. "In light of Ford's announcement, the National Association of Broadcasters urges other automakers who have removed AM radio from their vehicles to follow Ford's lead and restore this technology in the interest of listeners and public safety," said the group's president, Curtis LeGeyt.

    The other companies that had announced they would remove AM from electric vehicles — VW, BMW, Mazda, Volvo, Tesla, Polestar and Rivian — have not announced any change in policy. A number of other automakers — including Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, Kia and Jaguar Land Rover — said they have no plans to eliminate AM. General Motors has not announced any policy on the future of AM in its audio systems.

    BMW has no plan to join Ford in reversing course, a company spokesman said Tuesday. "The bill was only recently introduced and has not yet been voted on," said Jay L. Hanson, BMW's product and technology spokesman. "Should the bill pass, we will review the final language and decide on a course of action then."

    About 82 million Americans still listen to AM stations each month, according to industry figures, but the AM audience has been aging for decades. Ford originally said its decision to pull AM from vehicles was based on its data, pulled from internet-connected vehicles, showing that less than five percent of in-car listening is to AM stations.

    Ford spokesman Alan Hall had said earlier this month that because most AM stations also offer their programming online or on FM sister stations, the automaker would 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 was to have been Ford's first internal combustion model to be marketed without AM.

    AM's decline as a medium has led some in the audio entertainment industry to argue that AM radios might be best relegated to the junk heap of technology, alongside 8-track tapes and cassettes. Although many in the radio business praised Ford's about-face, some voices in the burgeoning online audio world say the move is only postponing the inevitable.

    "Giving the industry more time to adapt is a good thing," said Rich Stern, chief executive of TuneIn, an audio streaming service that connects digital listeners with radio stations around the world. "But this is not the solution to the existential challenges facing terrestrial radio distribution in the U.S. We've all received the wake-up call. Digital investment and transformation needs to be a top priority for the industry going forward."

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

    But in much of the country, especially in rural areas, AM stations are the primary source of weather information in emergencies, although many stations have cut out local news staffing as listeners have migrated to FM and streaming audio. 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.

    And for certain ethnic and immigrant communities, 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 and about 700 Spanish-language stations nationwide — would cut many of them off from their most trusted sources of information, said Pierre Bouvard, the chief insights officer at Cumulus Media, which owns more than 400 stations.

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