Listen up! AM matters to rural America
Tune in as this legacy radio band’s future is debated by carmakers and lawmakers
Farm reports and weather alerts. Major League Baseball and high school football games. Talk radio and local news.
If there were soundtrack for rural America, it would be broadcast on AM radio.
Like many farmers, local AM stations are where my dad and grandpa always found out the day’s crop prices and livestock markets, listened to fire-and-brimstone preachers and paused their day for Paul Harvey’s “rest of the story.” As a teenager, my sister was even an honest-to-goodness disc jockey at the neighboring town’s AM station, WCDT 1340 out of Winchester, Tenn.
But AM radio is in danger of being silenced. Automotive manufacturers such as BMW, Mazda, Porsche, Audi, Volkswagen and Volvo have opted to drop the technology from their vehicles, citing a combination of technical hurdles, a decrease in use and a belief that content can be accessed through streaming services. It’s also not included in many new-model electric vehicles due to motor interference that disrupts AM transmissions.
The public had largely tuned out this trend until Ford said it would stop including the legacy band in its car radios in 2024. The American-as-apple-pie automaker claimed only 5% of their customers were using AM radio, so they decided it wasn’t needed anymore. After the announcement prompted a swift backlash from broadcasters and lawmakers, Ford put that plan in reverse—at least for now.
Contrary to Ford’s data, the National Association of Farm Broadcasters (NAFB) says AM radio reaches an estimated 82 million listeners monthly through more than 4,400 licensed stations across the country. Missouri alone has 245 AM radio stations.
When the first commercial radio stations went on air in the 1920s, some of the earliest programming was targeted to farmers, such as weather reports and grain market updates. More than one-third of AM stations continue to provide agricultural broadcasting today.
Research has shown just how important AM radio continues to be to rural life. A survey of farmers conducted in 2021 and 2022 by Aimpoint Research for the NAFB found that two-thirds of farmers reported listening to AM stations for information about their business. That’s a big reason why the trade group stepped into the fight to preserve AM radio in car and truck dashboards, where about half of AM listening takes place.
Thanks in part to farm broadcasters’ lobbying, Congress is now considering the “AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act of 2023,” which would require all new motor vehicles to have devices that can access AM broadcast stations installed as standard equipment. The bill was introduced in both the House and Senate in May.
Those opposed to the mandate say that internet radio or other communication tools could replace AM radio, but rural areas still struggle with reliable broadband access and cellular service that make such streaming services possible. Citizens in these areas often have to rely on AM radio for news, weather, entertainment and emergency information. In fact, the technology is so simple, it still works when cell reception and internet connections fail, making it ideal for transmitting emergency alerts and traffic information. This is one reason many U.S. lawmakers still want it around.
This debate is part of a larger conversation our society is having about the intersection of technology and tradition: online media versus print publications, digital music versus record albums, texts versus phone calls, emails versus letters, Zoom meetings versus face-to-face interactions. In some cases, is the reluctance to change simply a matter of holding on to what we’ve always known? It’s a valid question.
What I do know is that AM radio would be sorely missed in many communities, even if it is old technology. And if AM is lost, will FM follow? Without universal internet coverage and cell service in rural America, a vital source of timely, free and local information and entertainment would also be lost if people can’t access broadcast radio in their vehicles. It’s a critical issue for anyone who regularly flips on their local radio station in the car or truck.
Getting Congress to take up the matter is a victory, but the war is far from over. Through its “Why I Listen” campaign, the NAFB encourages listeners to tell their legislators to support the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act. Learn more at nafb.com/WhyIListen. Sharing your voice can help amplify the movement to save AM radio.
-Allison Jenkins, Editor
Today’s Farmer magazine
CLICK HERE to read more articles from this August/September 2023 issue of Today's Farmer Magazine.
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