Apr 2, 2023 - News

Electric cars threaten Chicago's AM radio stations

Photo of the front of a building that says WGN Radio

The WGN Radio window display at Tribune Tower in 2015. Photo: Christopher Dilts/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Chicagoans may find themselves driving around, listening to the legendary Pat Hughes call the Cubs game on 670AM. But AM radio traditions could be at risk in America's electric vehicle boom.

The big picture: Some major EV manufacturers are not including AM radio in their new vehicles, because electric motors interfere with AM frequencies. With governments pushing for wider adoption of electric cars, it could signal the end of a broadcasting era.

Why it matters: The impact of losing AM radio in cars could be huge for stations and their listeners.

  • Elected officials argue AM is essential for public emergencies, while some automakers counter that the government's emergency management system must adapt to new tech.

Be smart: Radio is still relevant. A 2020 Pew Research study says the medium still reaches 83% of Americans.

  • And 50 million people still listen to AM stations, according to the National Association of Broadcasters.

Yes, but: Despite radio's continued reach, its listenership has declined in recent years due to new channels such as streaming and podcasts.

  • Today, most radio is heard in the car, which makes cutting it in EVs a concern for radio executives.

Zoom in: AM radio holds a special place in Chicago history, as many of the country's most popular programs originated here in the 1920s and '30s.

  • Shows like WLS's "National Barn Dance" and WMAQ's "Fibber McGee and Molly."
  • It helps that we have 50,000-watt signals emanating from Chicago to most of the Midwest and Canada, unimpeded by mountain ranges.
Photo of men listening to radio while on construction beams high in the sky.
Radio announcer Jack Nelson broadcasts from the 24th floor of the Palmer House, as it was being built in 1926. Note the difference: Jack has his legs around the steel beams, while the iron workers seem very much content. Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

The intrigue: Chicago-area stations are speaking out against automakers' decision to ditch AM radio in their new models.

  • WCKG-AM threatened to boycott ads from Ford or Ford dealerships for that reason, general manager Matt Dubiel tweeted several weeks ago.

What they're saying: "I can't fathom the idea of not having the AM band available to listeners throughout Chicago. The platform gives us such a great relationship with listeners," WSCR-AM's director of operations Mitch Rosen tells Axios.

  • Still, he says: "We are fortunate that we have a lot of streaming options. Listeners can consume our product on Twitch and YouTube video as well."

Between the lines: Not all stations offer the added platforms. For instance, WGN-AM was a pioneer of video-streaming live radio broadcasts in the 2010s. It also included a fleet of original audio programs and podcasts that were exclusive to online audiences.

  • But when Nexstar Media bought WGN in 2019, management ended those to focus mainly on the radio broadcast, arguing that the platforms competed with each other.
  • "WGN Radio produces difficult-to-duplicate local news and content," WGN-AM general manager Mary Sandberg Boyle tells Axios.
  • "Delivering our content via AM radio or any streaming device is irrelevant to the listener and the advertiser as long as our content remains desirable."

What's next: Lawmakers are petitioning Congress and the Department of Transportation to force electric car manufacturers to reconsider.


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