The nation’s push for more electronic cars could spell doom for Black-owned radio stations. Because auto manufacturers say the motors on such vehicles generate electromagnetic frequencies that interfere with AM radio signals, there is a major effort to eliminate AM signals altogether.
The move has caused government concern for populations that rely on AM radio for news, information, and weather-related emergencies. Members of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in the U.S. Senate, want car companies to maintain free access to broadcast radio as a public safety measure. Nielsen estimates that almost 50 million people listen to AM radio.
AM is short for amplitude modulation, which refers to the means of encoding the audio signal on the carrier frequency or “mediumwave” stations, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Black broadcasters expressed concern about the impact removing AM stations would have on their broadcasting businesses. “There’s going to be a devastating impact on small broadcasters across the country,” said Gary Richardson, president of Richardson Broadcasting in Alabama, and owner of WJLD FM/AM. “Our community relies on its Black media for vital information about what’s happening in their neighborhoods and around the country. Losing AM will only further the information divide.”
African Americans currently own 220 of 10,315 commercial radio stations in the United States, including 117 FM stations and 103 AM stations. Most stations are concentrated in the south and are distributed among 30 states, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The largest number of Black-owned stations are located in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
“The end of AM radio will devastate Black-owned broadcasters who don’t have the capability of moving to digital,” Richardson told the Crusader. “If the FCC makes that move, I would expect them to compensate us for our licenses just like they did the TV station owners when they switched over from analog.”
Richardson, who is also mayor of Midfield, Alabama, is a lifelong broadcaster with advanced degrees in sound engineering. In 1987, he formed Richardson Broadcasting Corporation and bought his first radio station WJLD AM 1400 later WAYE-AM 1220 in Birmingham, and WIXI AM 1360 in Jasper, AL. A 43-year broadcast veteran, Richardson has hosted a daily morning talk program – “The Gary Richardson Morning Show” – and for the past 33 years and is a major influence on the Birmingham metropolitan area.
“The future looks bleak in one sense but on the other hand, with digital AM, the future is much brighter but all of that would have to be forced by the FCC,” Richardson said. “If this happens it will have a devastating effect because most of the stations that are owned by Blacks are AM stations.”
Larry Langford agreed. “AM is growing still with the digital and hybrid stuff, said Langford, who owns two radio stations in Michigan, including WGTO-FM. “I feel threatened because even though these stations have transmitters they still depend on the AM for the bulk of transmissions. I would be very upset because I believe they should be going the other way. They should equip cars so they are digital-ready that way when we decide to switch the cars will be able to receive our programming.”
Langford founded WGTO (branded as “97.1 & 910 MeTV FM”) in 1986. The station broadcasts soft oldies and is licensed to Cassopolis, Michigan broadcasting on AM 910 kHz and is under the ownership of Langford Broadcasting. Much of the programming comes from MeTVfm.
Auto manufacturers say AM stations generate electromagnetic interference resulting in popping and crackling noises. Rapidly fluctuating voltage results in high-level, low-frequency electromagnetic interference that reaches into the radio and leads to “possible audio annoyances as distortion, buzzing and signal fading” according to Consumer Reports.
But Langford said, “You don’t eliminate something because you don’t think you can’t fix it.”
In a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, emergency administrators also raised alarm. Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey surveyed 20 automakers and found that eight have stopped offering AM radio in their EVs, including Ford, Mazda, BMW, and Volkswagen.
Markey told reporters earlier this month that 10 automakers — Honda, Hyundai, Jaguar / Land Rover, Kia, Lucid, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Stellantis, Subaru, and Toyota — have said they have no plans to discontinue their use of AM radio.
“[T]oo many automakers are ignoring the critical safety benefits of AM radio,” Markey told the press in March. “Although many automakers suggested that other communication tools — such as internet radio — could replace broadcast AM radio, in an emergency, drivers might not have access to the internet and could miss critical safety information.”
This report is supported in part by the Inland Press Foundation.