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Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders Are Teaming Up to Save AM Radio

Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders Are Teaming Up to Save AM Radio
Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders Are Teaming Up to Save AM Radio

There is little love lost between Senator Ted Cruz and Representative Rashida Tlaib. She has called him a “dumbass” for his opposition to the Paris Climate Agreement; he has called her and her allies “shills for terrorists” on account of their support for Palestine. Lately, though, the right-wing Cruz and the left-wing Tlaib have found a cause they can both get behind: saving AM radio.

In recent years, a number of carmakers—BMW, Volvo, Tesla—have stopped offering AM radio in at least some models, especially electric cars. The problem is that their motors cause electromagnetic interference on the same frequency bands in which AM radio operates, in some cases making the already fuzzy medium inaudible. Carmakers do have ways to filter out the interference, but they are costly and imperfect. All to maintain a format that is in decline anyway. AM radio was eclipsed by the superior-sounding FM in the late ’70s, and the century-old technology can seem akin to floppy disks in the age of Spotify and podcasts. According to Ford’s internal data gathered from some of its newer vehicles, less than 5 percent of all in-car listening is to AM radio. Which is perhaps why Ford decided last year to drop AM from all of its vehicles, not just EVs.

Because so much listening happens in the car, the Ford news seemed like the beginning of the end for the whole medium. But just a few weeks after announcing that decision, the company reneged in response to political pressure. Before Ford’s reversal, Cruz and Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, had introduced the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act, which would require exactly what its title suggests. (Bernie Sanders and more than 40 other senators have joined them as co-sponsors, along with Tlaib and 208 other representatives in the House.) Not everyone supports the bill: In December, Senator Rand Paul at least temporarily delayed its passage on the grounds that it constituted regulatory overreach. In the interim, Representative Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey announced new steps last month intended to ramp up the pressure on carmakers to preserve AM radio. The year is 2024, and, somehow, AM radio still matters.

For Republicans, it’s the home of conservative talk radio. In a speech on the Senate floor, Cruz framed AM radio as a bastion of free speech and invoked such hallowed right-wing names as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck, all of whom got their start on its airwaves. By some accounts, conservative talk radio is still the most important medium for right-wing discourse, more even than podcasts or social media. Of the top 10 most-listened-to talk radio shows, nine are right-leaning, according to the trade journal Talkers. Hosts have come out in force to defend it: “The automobile is essential to liberty,” the conservative talk-show host Mark Levin told his listeners last year. “The control of the automobile is about the control of your freedom … They finally figured out how to attack conservative talk radio.”

But AM is about more than owning the libs on your way home from the office. It hosts all manner of foreign-language stations relied on by immigrants across the country, including some 700 Spanish-language stations. It hosts Black stations and hyperlocal news and sports stations. It hosts the agricultural stations important to many rural communities and provides information to communities so remote that other modes of communication struggle to reach them. “There are formats on AM radio that are lifelines to people,” Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers, told me. Its audience is aging, but roughly 80 million Americans still listen to AM radio each month—more than watched any NFL game this season with the exception of the Super Bowl.

All of this does not necessarily mean that Congress should come to AM radio’s rescue. The primary argument in favor of the latter, from both Democrats and Republicans, hinges on an appeal to public safety. In a House hearing last year, a FEMA deputy administrator testified that AM radio remains “critically important” as a means of disseminating public information during emergency situations (flash-flood warnings, tornado warnings—the same information you probably receive via those blaring text-message alerts). Think of those signs on the side of the highway that tell you what station to tune in to for information.

According to a study by the Consumer Technology Association (which did not respond to a request for comment), just 1 percent of Americans heard a test of the nation’s emergency-alert system on AM radio. But in a true emergency, seven former FEMA administrators wrote in a letter to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, the signals that power AM radio are more reliable than FM, phone service, and internet connection. Most of the 75-odd stations with backup communications equipment and generators that allow them to broadcast in a crisis are AM stations, and AM radio covers 100 miles or more, far more territory than FM or any other widely accessible alternative. Gottheimer wrote a letter urging the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require companies that manufacture cars without AM radio to include stickers reading Warning: No AM Radio. Vehicle Unsafe in Certain Emergencies.

This whole episode is a good reminder of how technology can remain narrowly, forgettably essential even as, in most ways, it becomes obsolete. Just as how arguably the safest place to keep your passwords is still on paper in a secure location. Or how Russian security services have reportedly reverted to using typewriters to prevent spying. Consumer technologies trend over time toward greater ease and utility—not necessarily toward greater safety and security.

Even Harrison, who’s been working in the industry in one form or another since he joined Hofstra University’s student station in 1967, recognizes that “radio is not forever.” Five or 10 years from now, Harrison said, if some alternative means of emergency communication comes along, carmakers might finally jettison AM radio. Some stations would certainly jump ship to FM, but making that leap is no simple thing. Many stations would get lost in the shuffle.

For the moment at least, AM is likely sticking around. And even setting aside the very real arguments about safety and security, there is something just about this outcome. “The radio has played a major role in giving prominence, glory, and magic to the car industry,” Harrison told me. It helped transform the car from a mere mode of transportation into a place for leisure, and in doing so helped create car culture. It’s been along for the ride ever since. And the ride, it seems, is not quite over yet.

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