The fear that AM radio will disappear from the car has been high on broadcasters’ lists of concerns in recent months as several car makers, including Ford, have suggested that receivers would be dropped from new models. The issue was addressed last weekend in a front-page story in the Washington Post. It has been highlighted by recent Congressional letters to car makers urging them to continue to include AM in cars for many reasons, including the ubiquity of the signals even in rural areas and the importance of AM for conveying emergency messages throughout the country. Now, there is a legislative proposal to require that AM be included in cars. Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), along with Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), and J.D. Vance (R-Ohio), members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and Representatives Josh Gottheimer (NJ-05), Tom Kean, Jr. (NJ-07), Rob Menendez (NJ-08), Bruce Westerman (AR-04), and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (WA-03) introduced the AM for Every Vehicle Act, which would require that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conduct a rulemaking proceeding, to be completed within one year, to mandate that AM be included in all cars sold in the US as a standard feature, without any additional cost to new car buyers. In addition, until the effective date of the new rule, before any car could be sold without an AM radio, the seller would need to have “clear and conspicuous labeling” to inform any buyer that the car does not have an AM radio.
The bill would also require the Government Accountability Office to study whether there was any other available technology to replicate the reach and effectiveness of AM in delivering emergency alerts to the public. Any alternative system would have to reach 90% of the population of the US. The study would also need to review the cost of any alternative system. The GAO would brief the appropriate Congressional committees about the study within one year and deliver the report to Congress within 180 days of the briefing, presumably to allow Congress to reassess any mandate imposed by this Act. The FCC’s role in the process is limited. The FCC is to coordinate with NHTSA in their rulemaking to mandate AMs in cars, and with the GAO in its study. But it is the transportation safety issues that are driving this push to mandate AM in cars, not issues in the FCC’s jurisdiction.
Many have asked why the FCC does not mandate AM radios in all radio receivers, just as they mandated all TV receivers contain both VHF and UHF tuners. The FCC’s authority to mandate both television bands in all TVs was specifically granted to the FCC by Congress through the All-Channel Receiver Act of 1962, when UHF stations were struggling economically because many TVs simply could not pick up their signals. Congress has never given the FCC similar authority over radio tuners. Thus, without explicit Congressional approval, the FCC has no jurisdiction over radio receiver manufacturers. This bill proposes that, instead of giving the FCC a mandate to require AM in all radio receivers, to instead impose the requirement where the need is now most critical – ensuring that cars maintain AM radios. Thus, it puts the burden on NHTSA, an agency more familiar with regulating carmakers than the FCC.
The bill would require not only that AM radios be standard equipment in cars shipped in interstate commerce or imported after the effective date of the rules adopted by NHTSA, but also that access to AM be “conspicuous to the driver.” The bill would allow this access either through standard AM receivers or through receivers that play content from “digital audio AM broadcast stations.” Curiously, the definition of digital audio AM broadcast station includes stations that use the in-band, on-channel transmission system, but excludes all-digital AM stations. This exclusion is perhaps meant to avoid any implication that a carmaker could satisfy the requirement by installing a radio only capable of picking of all-digital AM stations, which would force all AMs to go all-digital to be received. Congress apparently does not want to force AMs to go all-digital, as that would make their signals inaccessible to those with legacy AM receivers – likely the majority today as digital AM receivers still are not the norm for most listeners.
This bill has just been introduced in Congress. It must pass both Houses of Congress and be signed by the President before it becomes law. Presumably, there will be committee consideration of this bill in Congress, and we will see if the carmakers raise objections to this proposal as it moves forward. But this is clearly the first step to ensuring the long-term survival of AM radio as a service that can be accessed by the public.