The Future of AM Radio

By Simon Jaronski, Staff Writer

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In today’s contentious political climate, bipartisan legislation has become increasingly rare. However, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have shown support for legislation that would ensure that Americans have access to AM radio in their vehicles. The AM in Every Vehicle Act would require the Department of Transportation (specifically the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) to mandate AM radio capability in vehicles with no additional fees.[1] The bill made it out of the Senate’s Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in July 2023,[2] but stalled in December after a unanimous consent request by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a co-sponsor of the bill along with progressive Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), was shot down by staunch libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky).[3]The bill’s counterpart has recently garnered increased support in the House of Representatives as well, with 200 representatives now supporting the legislation.[4]

This legislation has come in the face of efforts by vehicle manufacturers to reduce access to AM radio, or to eliminate it entirely. Electric vehicle manufacturers in particular (including BMW, Volkswagen, and Tesla ) are ready to dispense with AM radio in their electric models due to interference from electric motors.[5] Ford recently reversed course after removing AM capability from some of their 2023 electric models and even their 2024 gas-powered Mustangs; the historic American company used software updates to restore capabilities to their electric vehicles after the decision provoked controversy, and added it back to their 2024 Mustangs before delivery.[6]

The Senate version of the bill (S.1669) would mandate that all vehicles manufactured in, imported into, or shipped within the U.S. have AM radio capability, providing for civil penalties in the event that manufacturers fail to comply.[7] The legislation would also require the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to assess whether alternative communication systems would be as effective as AM in communicating crucial information to the public during emergencies.[8]

AM radio offers specific advantages that FM radio lacks. Whereas FM is ideally suited for music, AM’s ability to traverse greater distances is conducive to the talk-radio format.[9] According to Nielsen data, over 80 million Americans tune into AM radio every month, to access a wide variety of programming.[10] A number of AM stations (the most powerful of which are licensed to operate at 50 kW) also play a role in the national Emergency Alert System, with the ability to quickly propagate critical information during natural disasters or other emergencies.[11]Even though most of the concerns over the elimination of AM are tied to disaster readiness and the availability of basic information, the wide diversity of content available is equally important to supporters of the bill.[12]

The medium of radio has long been subject to legal regulation, and has presented difficult constitutional issues (particularly in relation to the First Amendment). The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), established in 1934, is responsible for the “fair, efficient and equitable distribution of radio service” across the United States.[13]Courts have also long recognized, and not without controversy, that the electromagnetic spectrum is a “scarce” resource requiring heavy regulation, which justifies the granting of commercial broadcast licenses in the public interest.[14] This rationale was behind the FCC’s now defunct “fairness doctrine,” which required licensees (regardless of their usual content) to present certain issues of public importance in some format, and represent different viewpoints on the issue.[15] Although the doctrine was repealed by the FCC in 1987, the U.S. Supreme Court had previously given its approval in Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, where, while recognizing the free speech rights of broadcast licensees, they held that the scarcity of the radio spectrum mandated additional government regulation to ensure the public’s access to diverse ideas.[16] This case is just one example among many in the court’s free speech jurisprudence where the First Amendment was viewed as a vehicle for social utility, rather than simply as an enabler of sometimes pointless speech.

FCC v. Pacifica Foundation is yet another example of radio’s heightened susceptibility to regulation. After a disgruntled father complained to the FCC after hearing an “indecent” George Carlin monologue on an NYC FM station, the FCC issued a letter of reprimand which Pacifica appealed.[17] The Supreme Court held that radio’s unique pervasiveness as a medium allowed the FCC to regulate indecent (but not necessarily obscene) content, a previously unrecognized category of content that would normally receive First Amendment protection if not for the unique ability of radio to intrude upon the ears of unwanting listeners.[18]

Whether or not the proposed AM legislation will progress any further is still to be determined. However, it certainly has the approval of some of the most powerful lobbies in America, including the AARP and many in the agricultural sector.[19] Either way, the American people have been reminded of radio’s historic importance as a medium in the age of digital streaming, satellite radio, and podcasts.














[14] National Broadcasting Co. v. United States, 319 U.S. 190 (1943).


[16] Red Lion Broad. Co. v. F.C.C., 395 U.S. 367 (1969).

[17] F.C.C. v. Pacifica Found., 438 U.S. 726 (1978).

[18] Id.


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