The Congressional Hearing on AM Radio – A Look at the Future of Audio Entertainment in the Car?

AM radio (and broadcast radio in general) received strong support from Congressional representatives during this week’s hearing before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Communications and Technology subcommittee. Significant time was spent on recognizing AM radio’s important role  in the emergency communications network, both in delivering emergency alerts from the EAS system and in conveying additional information of importance to the public through news and public affairs programming (see the initial statement of J Chapman, a broadcaster based in Indiana who testified on behalf of the AM industry, and the statement of an official of the New Jersey State Police, who talked about the importance of AM in providing emergency information).  Virtually all the representatives urged car companies to retain AM in cars.  Despite this widespread support, some of the legislators expressed reluctance to adopt a legal mandate to require AM in cars, particularly representatives who have philosophical reservations about the government mandating business decisions.  That position was of course highlighted by the testimony of the representative of the automotive industry.  In the day’s discussion of these questions, some clues to the future of entertainment in the car may have emerged.

AM and public safety advocates at the hearing argued that AM radio needed to be protected.  They emphasized that AM provides the backbone of the emergency alert system due to the ability of high-powered AM stations to cover vast distances unimpeded by terrain obstacles. Even the sole representative of the automobile industry on the panel agreed that, at this point, over the air radio provides the best and most reliable source of free emergency alerts. The additional contextual information provided by news/talk AM stations was also emphasized, as stations can go beyond simply delivering a government issued emergency alert by providing in its programming the details and relevant context in any emergency.  While not central to the discussion, especially in the later parts of the hearing, there was also talk of the importance of providing a free audio service to the public for more than just emergency programming, particularly a service that often programs to underserved groups.  Protecting the investment of radio operators was also mentioned, as removing AM from cars would vastly decrease the potential audience for most of these stations. The desire to continue providing service to the public from AM stations was the broadcaster’s vision of the future of entertainment options in the car.

But that vision of the future may not be shared by all.  The auto industry representative argued that Congress should not mandate AM in the car, as there was no reason for it to choose technological winners and losers.  The representative did not harp on prior claims of interference from electric motors to the reception of AM stations, with most of the witnesses and the Congressional representatives seemingly concluding that any interference could be overcome if the automotive industry wanted to do so.  Instead, the real issue for the auto industry was whether Congress should be mandating business decisions and consumer options.  The auto industry’s representative framed the issue as one of consumer choice – that car makers want to give consumers what they want, and if those manufacturers determine that consumers no longer value AM, those manufacturers should be free to offer other entertainment choices instead and should not be required to provide a service of declining value to consumers.   He would only commit his industry to offering some free way of receiving emergency alerts  in the car, but not necessarily by radio.  See his initial statement here.  These thoughts were echoed in a recent blog by John Bozella, the President of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

Congressional representatives also asked pointed questions as to whether all free in-vehicle entertainment options provided by over the air radio could disappear.  The auto industry representative refused to rule out that possibility, indicating that it depend on what each car company decides based on their perception of consumer choice. 

The fear that all radio, not just AM, could eventually disappear from the car is not a new one. Our friends at Jacobs Media have been warning about that possibility for almost a decade (see, for instance, this article from 2015), leading them to sponsor joint broadcast/automotive conferences in the Detroit area.  While surveys still show radio is an important feature to automotive buyers, many digital apps and other entertainment source provide recurring revenue to the automobile manufacturer from subscription fees (or commissions on those fees).  So the current controversy over retaining AM in the car may be just an initial skirmish in what could be a protracted war.

This week’s hearing offered two visions of the future of audio entertainment in the car – one based on the tradition of free over the air radio augmented by other services, the other the potential of no free services but instead a variety of pay services that some consumers may value more highly. The pending AM For Every Vehicle Act raises the question of whether Congress has the appetite to put its thumb on the scale to dictate the outcome of the debate over these potentially conflicting visions of the future of entertainment in the car. We will see how this plays out in coming months. 

Courtesy Broadcast Law Blog