Charlie Kirk, radio host and founder of the rightwing youth group Turning Point USA, believes that a conspiracy may be afoot. “Whether they’re doing this intentionally or not, the consequence will be … an all-out attack on AM radio,” he told the listeners of his popular syndicated show.
In an appearance on Fox, the television and radio host Sean Hannity gave his viewers a similar warning: “This would be a direct hit politically on conservative talk radio in particular, which is what most people go to AM radio to listen to.” Mark Levin, another longtime radio host, agreed: “They finally figured out how to attack conservative talk radio,” he told his listeners in April.
What are they all so worried about? It turns out, a minor manufacturing change announced by car companies including Volkswagen and Mazda: they will be removing AM radios from their forthcoming fleets of electric vehicles, citing technical issues. Tesla, BMW, Audi and Volvo have already dispensed with AM in their electric cars, because AM’s already unpolished reception is subject to even more buzz, crackling and interference when installed near an electric motor. While some manufacturers have found workarounds for the interference, others appear to have decided that it’s not worth the engineering expense.
Many on the right have been quick to declare the move political sabotage. The Texas senator Ted Cruz, while promoting a federal bill that would require automakers to install AM radios in new cars, claimed he smelled something fishy: “There’s a reason big car companies were open to taking down AM radio … let’s be clear: big business doesn’t like things that are overwhelmingly conservative.”
AM is the oldest commercial radio technology in the US. In the 1920s, when AM was all there was, listeners would gather around neighborhood and living room radio sets to hear everything from music to boxing matches, soap operas and presidential speeches. They would listen through AM’s constant (if now somewhat nostalgic) hum. By mid-century, music was king on the radio as many dramatic programs shifted over to the new medium of television. And in the 1960s, the comparatively crystal clear FM band overtook AM as the band of choice. Many music stations deserted AM, leaving it floundering in lo-fi isolation and struggling to secure advertising dollars, until it found its salvation in talk radio. Initially there was a wide variety of political perspectives on AM but the deregulation of content and consolidation of ownership of radio during the 1980s edged many minority voices and local owners off the air. Following the model of the nationally syndicated Rush Limbaugh Show, conservative talk became the cost-effective default for the risk-averse corporations that now dominated the radio dial. The humble AM band played a starring role in the rise of social conservatism in the US and was a precursor to outlets like Fox News.
These days, AM radio is somewhat synonymous in the public imagination with conservative blowhards, a place where false claims about the 2020 election, racist notions of a “great replacement” and other conspiracy theories fester and escape into the atmosphere without accountability. Far-right programming is not only ubiquitous, it’s monotonous – with a few national radio chains syndicating the same handful of shows to “local” stations, many of which have almost no local content. In cities and towns across the country, listeners hear much of the same one-sided, syndicated programming.
But the idea that AM radio is made up of nothing more than conservative talk is a myth that has dangerous implications for the medium.
It is true that conservatives and far-right pundits have claimed near dominion on talk radio – a medium that still ranks nearly neck-and-neck with social media for how Americans get their news. Seventeen of the top 20 most-listened-to US talk radio hosts are conservative, while only one is liberal. But that’s not the whole story: while syndicated rightwing voices are the best platformed on AM radio, what is less known is that the band is home to many of the country’s increasingly rare local stations and non-English-language radio shows. And ownership of AM radio stations is more diverse than that of FM stations: according to a 2021 FCC report, 13% of commercial AM stations were majority-owned by a Black, Hispanic or Asian American broadcaster; on the FM band, that figure was only 7%. Often lacking the financial and political resources available to chain-owned conservative talk stations, it is these local and diverse voices – not nationally syndicated conservative talkers like Sean Hannity and Mark Levin – that are likely to be the hardest hit by any changes to the band.
“AM is, generally, the least expensive route to a broadcast station ownership,” says Jim Winston, president and CEO of the National Association of Black Owned Broadcasters (Nabob), a trade organization serving Black- and minority-owned radio stations. And though the 1980s and 1990s saw a decrease in local and minority ownership, Winston says a disproportionate number of the stations he works with today are on the AM dial. “There are many communities where the only Black-owned station is an AM station,” he says. “And Black owners, for the most part, are local owners.”
In cities across the country, AM stations remain a crucial resource for those who are rarely served by other media. Detroit’s WNZK, known as the “station of nations”, runs a variety of non-English and English language programming for the area’s immigrant communities. In Chicago, WNVR broadcasts in Polish, and many AM stations in California and New York run talk and music programs in Vietnamese and Chinese.
The time-tested technology of AM radio has also given the medium a particularly important role in small towns and rural areas. “Out here, it does serve a very distinct purpose, because AM frequency travels very differently from FM,” says Austin Roof, general manager at KSDP in Sand Point, Alaska, on the Aleutian Islands. AM is better than FM at getting through mountains and other barriers. Plus, Roof says, “once AM hits water, it just carries really well”. For a radio station serving island residents and those who work on the area’s fishing boats, that value can’t be overstated. “One kilowatt of AM can outperform thousands of kilowatts of FM in our environment.”
Satellite internet has only recently become available in much of KSDP’s coverage area, and the region’s geography means that even the few local newspapers have limited distribution. So radio stations like KSDP – which serves an area nearly twice the size of Massachusetts – can be a lifeline. In recent years, as the islands have experienced some of their largest earthquakes and subsequent tsunamis, the radio has played a crucial role in spreading emergency alerts and instructions. (Between emergency updates after a 2021 earthquake, station staff played songs like AC/DC’s You Shook Me All Night Long and the Surfaris’ Wipe Out.) “Your cellphone can lose its charge,” says Winston of Nabob, “You could be … out someplace where your cellphone signal is not being picked up.” But radio, he says, is ubiquitous, and it’s very important “that people be able to receive radio when they can’t receive anything else”.
AM stations are not just of value during emergencies: in small towns and rural areas across the country, AM stations are a rare tool for civic engagement, especially with the decline in local newspapers. Roof says KSDP’s most popular broadcasts are those that listeners can’t find anywhere else: “Local, state news, local meetings, sports,” he says, “it’s the hyper-local content that matters.” The story is similar on the Yakama Reservation in Washington state, where the program director Reggie George says the hyperlocal AM station KYNR broadcasts public service announcements and coverage of local events such as government meetings and powwows, in addition to a steady playlist of both oldies and Native American music. When a technical snag or bad weather temporarily silences the station, residents react. “We get calls right away when we go off the air,” says George, one of two paid staff at KYNR.
Many AM stations have tried to prepare for an uncertain future by meeting their listeners on other platforms, such as FM simulcasts, podcasts and web streams. Alaska’s KSDP has managed to get its content simulcast on one full-power and three low-power FM signals that serve nearby towns, and on a well-utilized online audio stream. But finding the money to stay afloat while supporting those other platforms hasn’t been easy. “We’ve begged, borrowed and stolen for hardware,” Roof says. Roof personally climbs the radio tower to replace equipment and touch up paint, has taken pay cuts, and has opted out of company healthcare to keep more money in the station. But other hyperlocal AM stations haven’t had the budget to make the expansion.
To some in the radio industry, the removal of AM radios from electric vehicles feels like a death sentence for their already struggling medium. Others are less worried. “I think a lot of these places that are really benefiting from AM … are not where electric cars are really going to serve up the most benefits,” says Roof. In his part of the country, there’s no infrastructure to support EVs yet, and not many people can afford a Tesla or a BMW. “If you think someone in Sand Point, Alaska, is getting an electric car any time in the near future, you’re crazy,” he says. “Is getting rid of [AM radio] in electric vehicles going to do away with it? Absolutely not.”
There remains a lurking sense, however, that the removal of AM from EVs is a symptom of a larger shift away from the AM band. And if other changes come to pass, it will probably be the local, diverse stations – the unlauded heroes of AM – that are at greatest risk, not the well-resourced nationally syndicated conservative talk hosts who dominate talk radio. “Those voices are not going to be shut down, no matter what happens with AM radio,” says Winston. If AM radio does become harder to access, he says, “there are serious casualties.”
Katie Thornton is a freelance print and audio journalist. Her Peabody-winning podcast series The Divided Dial, made with WNYC’s On the Media, reveals how the American right came to dominate talk radio