Save the Static!

There’s a campaign underway to save the static.


Here’s some quick history:

In 1988, after being syndicated to radio stations across America, Rush Limbaugh saved the AM band by creating a clubhouse for conservatives who were rightfully feeling shut out of the mainstream media.  The political ramifications were huge, and the payoff for Limbaugh was enormous, as evidenced by the invitation he received to sleep in the White House’s Lincoln bedroom from then-President George H.W. Bush. FM radio was becoming all the rage when Limbaugh’s entertainment based on headlines provided a respite that may have run its course after his passing in February of 2021.


Now comes the news that several major automakers, including BMW, Volkswagen, Mazda, and Tesla, are removing AM radios from new electric vehicles because electric engines can interfere with the sound of AM stations. Ford went even further, eliminating am from all its vehicles –electric or gas-powered– citing its data that AM accounts for less than 5% of in-car audio use. Cars are where about half of the AM listening takes place in this country. Station owners and advertisers say removing access from car dashboards will kill off many of America’s four-thousand-plus am stations– 700 of them were Spanish-language.


So, this week, Republican senator Ted Cruz and Democrat Ed Markey began pushing the “AM for Every Vehicle Act.” The legislation would direct the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to require automakers to keep AM broadcast radio in their vehicles at no additional cost. The two parties, though, seem to have differing interests in why they want to preserve AM’s singular role.


As the Washington Post puts it,


“Some Democrats are fighting to save stations that often are the only live source of local information during extreme weather, as well as outlets that target immigrant audiences. Some Republicans, meanwhile, claim the elimination of am radio is aimed at diminishing the reach of conservative talk radio… eight of the country’s 10 most popular radio talk shows are conservative.”


To which I would add, how ironic that typically laissez-faire Republicans would want to prop up an industry on life support due to technological advances and competition. No doubt it’s because they fear the loss of the clubhouse that Limbaugh built.


At his peak, Limbaugh aired on approximately 650 stations, half of them AM. Talkers Magazine estimated his weekly audience at 15.5 million listeners, the most-listened-to show in the country.  If AM is jettisoned from cars, it will hasten the end of an era that began in the early 1900s. It’s where Americans heard FDR fireside chats, the Hindenberg crash, and Ronald Reagan’s baseball broadcasts.  While the National Association of Broadcasters says that 82 million Americans still listen to AM stations monthly, that audience has been aging for decades.


Look, I get nostalgic feelings for AM radio.  I, too, grew up listening to Philly 56 WFIL playing in my parents’ 1966 Chevy Impala when I was a kid. It was the age of big markets being dominated by larger-than-life personalities. Alan Freed in Cleveland. Cousin Brucie in New York City. Wolfman Jack in the American Southwest. And Jerry Blavat… the Geator with the Heater, the Boss with the Hot Sauce ….in Philadelphia.


The radio station where I was heard before coming to SiriusXM was a 50 thousand-watt, clear channel signal based in Philadelphia that could be heard after dark as far away as Florida. But just as vinyl was overtaken by 8-track, which was replaced by cassettes, then outmoded by CDs and rendered extinct by MP3s, the time has marched on for AM.


But fear not, my conservative friends.  The days of your having no place to gather are long over.  As explained to me this week by Dr. Brian Rosenwald from Penn, the author of Talk Radio’s America:


“What’s going away here isn’t the content. It’s just the delivery mechanism. People will still get the exact same sort of extreme infotainment they’ve gotten on the AM dial, it will just now come from FM shows, podcasts, internet outlets, streaming shows, Fox/Newsmax/OAN.”


He’s right.  And many of the radio companies have themselves hastened the demise of am radio by moving popular programming, including live sports, to the FM band. So even if AM disappears, the political programming won’t go away; it will just be found on different platforms.


Using the perfect blend of analysis and humor, Michael Smerconish delivers engaging, thought-provoking, and balanced dialogue on today’s political arena and the long-term implications of the polarization in politics. In addition to his acclaimed work as nationally syndicated Sirius XM Radio talk show host, newspaper columnist, and New York Times best-selling author, Michael Smerconish hosts CNN’s Smerconish, which airs live on Saturday at 9:00 am ET.

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