With broadcasters and those in associated industries ready to make their annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas for the NAB Convention, the Wall Street Journal decided to weigh in on an issue important to many radio broadcasters – the future of AM in the car.  One of the priorities for many AM broadcasters in the last year has been to push for legislation to require that automobile manufacturers retain AM radio in the car dashboard to stem what many see as a trend toward removing AM (and potentially other free over-the-air radio options) from the car and replacing it with other entertainment options.  The concerns of broadcasters have led to the introduction in Congress of the AM in Every Vehicle Act, which proposes to mandate that AM be required as a safety feature in all cars until it is determined that there is another, free, ubiquitous option to deliver emergency alerts to drivers.  See our articles here and here for more on the Act.

While this Act has garnered much support on Capitol Hill, there has been a concern among some legislators about requiring mandates on a car industry, particularly for a technology that many see as outdated and in decline (see the declining numbers of AM stations we noted in our last weekly update on regulatory news for broadcasters, citing the FCC’s latest report on the number of broadcast stations in the country).  The Journal Editorial Board article takes that same position, almost treating the attempts to keep AM radio in cars as a joke, arguing that it imposes additional unnecessary costs on car makers – costs that will be borne by all car buyers, even those who don’t need or use AM radio.  The article suggests that the emergency communications function is unnecessary as there are other alternatives to receive emergency alerts even in rural areas of the country.  The article asks if mandating AM in the home is next, and suggests that, without a mandate, car makers could use AM as a competitive feature to attract consumers to brands that maintain these radios in the car.

This article received almost immediate opposition from the CEO of the National Religious Broadcasters in a response published in Radio World magazine, arguing that the costs of the mandate were small and the benefit great, especially since the likely replacement for free radio in the car is some paid service – not a pro-consumer move.  The response does not specifically address some of the other Journal statements.  For instance, the fact that AM in the car is specifically protected does not suggest that mandating AM at home is next – as there are totally different forces at work.  At home, consumers truly do have other options for receiving alerts – through TV, the internet, and other communications channels that are much more likely to be available in the home to consumers no matter in what part of the country they live. 

By contrast, in the car, not all consumers have access to internet options, and satellite usually not an alternative for local alerts.  AM has the benefit of covering great distances, which is why the Federal Emergency Management Agency has spent money to develop the sites of many high-power AM stations that have the ability to provide emergency alerts to rural areas with little other communications services available to the mobile user. 

These high-powered AM stations are also the ones most likely to still be economically viable, even if other smaller AM stations have struggled in areas where there is substantial competition from other over-the-air stations.  AM also remains viable and important in smaller markets, particularly in rural areas.  In fact, it often proves the only audio service that can be received.  To suggest that FM or cell phones are an alternative is an indication that the authors of the article have not driven some of the vast distances in rural America, particularly in the western US, where for many miles there is no access to FM or cell phone service. Thus, many former FEMA officials have recognized the service that AM provides to these rural areas in supporting passage of this legislation. 

The AM For Every Vehicle Act recognizes that this mandate may not be permanent.  It tasks the Government Accountability Office to review the availability of alternative means of providing free alerts to consumers and brief Congress as to the continuing need for the mandate proposed by the Act.

From the ongoing debate, it is clear that the legislation has traction in Congress, even in this election year.  If it was a dead issue, there would not need to be a debate.  The debate is one about whether the government should impose burdens on industry to protect those most vulnerable to gaps in information about emergencies and other events, including those who live in rural areas or those who rely on free media; or whether the burdens that would be imposed on the automotive industry are unnecessary as they protect only a minority of consumers.  The debate also raises questions as to whether the government should simply allow car companies to give consumers the choice of whether or not they will have access to these services.  Like so many other debates in government, perspectives are varied.  This is sure to be an issue that we will hear discussed in the radio sessions and in the halls, conference rooms, and social events in Las Vegas in the coming week.