If car makers drop AM radio, it may cause some static

According to a story in the December 12 edition of the New York Times headlined “In Future Filled With Electric Cars, AM Radio May Be Lost in Static,” some automobile manufacturers are dropping the AM radio reception capability on their new vehicles. The automakers’ stated reason for AM radio’s demise is that the electronic components on new cars, especially electric vehicles, create reception interference.

Static has always been on the AM dial. It’s part of its charm.

AM, which stands for amplitude modulation, is a technology that was introduced in the mid-1900s. By some accounts, the first AM broadcast was a violin version of “O Holy Night” from a Massachusetts transmitter on Christmas Eve to ships at sea. That account has been disputed.

I grew up listening to AM radio on 9-volt battery-powered transistor radios and portable radios sheathed in leatherette cases. The offerings on the AM dial ran the gamut, from all-news, talk shows, sports broadcasts, and music. The sound fidelity wasn’t great, but radio signals from Chicago came in loud and clear all day.

 My mom used to walk around our house with a portable battery-operated radio listening to news, traffic and weather on Chicago’s WBBM (780). My dad would push the black buttons on the AM-only car radio looking for some Frank Sinatra or Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass music.

As a kid, I was more interested in listening to Chicago’s WLS (890) with its rock ’n’ roll format and a recurring comedy feature called “Animal Stories.”

 At night, my mom got me to listen to the CBS Radio Mystery Theatre broadcast on local channel WSBT (960). Hosted by E. G. Marshall, it offered spooky and macabre dramas in the old-time radio mold. I would put my radio on my pillow and listen to the hour long broadcast for as long as I could stay awake. I didn’t make it to the end of most of the shows.

In the evening, my radio could pick up AM stations from Pittsburgh (KDKA), St. Louis (KMOX), New York (WABC), and even stations in Canada on clear nights. Many stations featured overnight talk shows where insomniacs and third-shift workers could call in and chat with the hosts and their guests. WGN’s Eddie Schwartz, a true radio raconteur, was one overnight host I regularly tuned into. Milt Rosenberg, a University of Chicago professor-emeritus, hosted an intellectual interview/call-in show on WGN for almost four decades with guests ranging from former presidents and authors to intellectuals and journalists.

Of course, WGN (720) in Chicago (the call letters stood for World’s Greatest Newspaper because the station was owned by the Tribune Company) was best known for being the radio home of the lowly Chicago Cubs and having a 50,000-watt signal that travelled far across the airwaves of the Midwest. Although I was not a baseball fan as a young kid, I did occasionally listen to Vince Lloyd and Lou “Good Kid” Boudreau consistently gloss over the Cubbies’ many flaws. 

During the 1970s, with the rising popularity of FM radio (frequency modulation, a technology that had been around since the 1930s) with its better fidelity, I started to tune into local FM stations WRBR (River Bend Rock) and WAOR (Album Oriented Rock). As the Steely Dan song lyric says, “No static at all: FM!” Sure, the radios I was using were not high fidelity, but the sound was definitely better on FM.

In 1983, I was lured into the “Winning Ugly” season of the Chicago White Sox thanks to a doctor for whom I did odd jobs. He subscribed to the Chicago Tribune. When I arrived in the morning at his home to work, the newspaper would be on his porch with the latest account of how the Pale Hose were running away with their division. I started listening to games on Chicago’s WMAQ (670). I can’t recall how that season ended for the Sox.

Twenty-two years later, I would frequently lie in our spare bedroom listening to White Sox games on the  WSCR “The Score,” which broadcast on the old WMAQ 670 spot on the AM dial. Ozzie Guillen’s team almost blew a big division lead over Cleveland that year, but then coasted through the playoffs to win the 2005 World Series (a result somehow erased/belittled by many Chicago baseball fans when some other Windy City team won the Series in 2016).

The recent Times article reported that 47 million Americans still listen to AM radio. In big cities, many drivers still rely on AM for traffic and weather reports. AM radio is now dominated by a more politically partisan kind of talk radio. Listeners skew older, which is not a good trend for AM’s survival. These days, when I attempt to listen to a game on my 8-year-old car’s AM radio, all but the local stations are mostly static and buzzing noises. 

I still enjoy listening to sports on the radio. A good announcer can bring a game to life. Indiana University’s longtime announcer Don Fischer is one of my favorites. In my opinion, much of what’s been added to television sports broadcasts detracts from the games. Do we really need cameras in helmets and end zone pylons?

In all likelihood, nobody buying a new automobile will even notice the lack of an AM radio option. But what’s next to be eliminated? Surely not 8-track, cassette, or CD players.