Electric cars threaten Chicago’s AM radio stations

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

Chicagoans may find themselves driving while listening to the legendary Pat Hughes call the cubs game at 670AM. But the traditions of AM radio could be threatened by the electric vehicle boom in the United States.

The big picture: Some major electric vehicle manufacturers do not include AM radio in their new vehicles, because electric motors interfere with AM frequencies. With governments pushing for wider adoption of electric cars, this could mark the end of an era of broadcasting.

Why is this important: The impact of the loss of AM radio in cars could be enormous for stations and their listeners.

  • Elected officials say AM is essential for public emergencies, while some automakers counter that the government’s emergency management system needs to adapt to new technologies.

Be smart: The radio is still relevant. A Pew Research 2020 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 the radio’s continued reach, its audience has declined in recent years due to new channels such as streaming and podcasts.

  • Today, most radios are heard in the car, making their cutoff in electric vehicles a concern for radio executives.

Enlarge: AM radio holds a special place in Chicago’s history, as many of the country’s most popular programs originated here in the 1920s and 1930s.

  • Shows like WLS’s “National Barn Dance” and WMAQ’s “Fibber McGee and Molly.”
  • It helps that we have 50,000 watt signals from Chicago to most of the Midwest and Canada, unhindered by mountain ranges.
Photo of men listening to the radio on building beams high in the sky.
Radio host 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 ironworkers seem quite content. Photo: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

The plot: Chicago-area stations are speaking out against automakers’ decision to drop AM radio in their new models.

  • WCKG-AM threatened to boycott Ford or Ford dealer ads for this reason, chief executive Matt Dubiel tweeted several weeks ago.

What they say : “I can’t understand the idea of ​​not having the AM group available to Chicago listeners. The platform gives us such a great relationship with listeners,” said Mitch Rosen, COO of WSCR-AM. , in Axios.

  • Still, he says, “We’re blessed with a lot of streaming options. Listeners can also consume our product on Twitch and YouTube.”

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

  • But when Nexstar Media acquired WGN in 2019, management ended those to focus primarily on radio playout, arguing that the platforms were competing with each other.
  • “WGN Radio produces hard-to-duplicate local news and content,” WGN-AM chief executive Mary Sandberg Boyle told Axios.
  • “The delivery of our content via AM radio or any other streaming device is irrelevant to the listener and advertiser as long as our content remains desirable.”

And after: Lawmakers are asking Congress and the Department of Transportation to force electric car makers to reconsider.

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