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Did AM Radio Just Get Hit By “Lightning”?

There’s something missing from the newest F-150 Lightning truck

This contributed story originally appeared on Jacobs Media Blog

(Credit: Ford Media)

These days, the auto industry is as disrupted as broadcast radio. Like the radio companies – a group of independent operators, each moving down a different pathway – automakers are highly individual companies.

And in much the same way radio broadcasters have been rocked by digital players – streamers, podcasters, satellite radio – the auto companies have watched an outsider by the name of Elon Musk transform the way cars (and soon trucks) are designed, built, and sold. Love him or loathe him, Musk’s initial commitment to electric vehicles has transformed the industry. (And we’ll be staying tuned to Twitter to see how Musk goes about transforming a grossly underperforming social platform.)

Ford CEO Jim Farley got the memo. And his company has jumped on the EV bandwagon in a big way.  The Mustang Mach E electric SUV has been a big hit, paving the way to the biggest risk of them all, the F-150 EV called “Lightning.”

The company has led the way in trucks for decades with the F-150, the most successful in its class. But manufacturing the electric version of this truck represents a major risk for the company – and perhaps a turning point of the internal combustion engine.  The new 2023 model of the F-150 is slick, with some hot new features – including a new backup camera when the tailgate is down, software updates, and other tech innovations.

But there’s something missing from the newest F-150 Lightning truck: AM radio.

[Related: “Why Are Some Automakers Ditching AM Radio?“]

That’s right. Following in the footsteps of Musk’s Teslas, this amazing truck won’t be able to receive stations like WABC, WWL, WGN, and other AM stalwarts, still slugging it out in the broadcast radio landscape. These stations will be accessible via apps, of course, but the AM tuner is a thing of the past in these forward-leaning F-150 Lightnings.

I’ve written about the interference issues facing AM radio in EVs.  The 2022 F-150 Lightning had a whip antenna to facilitate AM reception.  Now, the Ford brain trust has apparently concluded it’s not worth the expense for a radio platform that is clearly facing the death spiral.  True, FM translators and HD Radio have helped AM stations sustain themselves.  But if occupants of F-150 Lightnings in Iowa want to tune in WHO for its farm show, they’ll have to use the iHeartRadio app or another digital service.

Even core radio fans are no longer sold on AM radio.  In this year’s Techsurvey, we ask new car buyers (9% of the total sample) about the most important features they want in their next vehicle.  The headline tells an important story.  For the first time, Bluetooth is a stronger must-have feature, edging out FM radio.   That’s disturbing, of course.  But look down the list, and you come to AM radio. And only one-third of these new car customers list it as a “most important” feature.

Ostensibly, Ford and the other automakers know this, too.  And when consumer demand ebbs on a feature – even one with a long tradition like AM radio – the OEMs aren’t going to continue pouring money into it out of the kindness of their corporate hearts or even a sense of social responsibility. And why should they.

You’d think the radio broadcasting industry would be up in arms about this seminal decision from Ford, but I’ve heard very little reaction.  And unlike Tesla, when one of the American “Big 3” like Ford makes this kind of decision, you might expect other automakers will follow suit for their EV models.  Interestingly, former acting FEMA head, Pete Gaynor (pictured), called out Ford for putting “public safety at risk.”

In an Inside Radio story, another FEMA administrator, Craig Fugate, noted that when he was in Florida during Hurricane Irma in 2017, all power was out in his community.  “The only way I could get any updates on what was happening was off the radio,” he noted.  Wonder if Fugate will be buying a new F-150 anytime soon.

The Detroit News published a commentary from Gaynor this past Sunday. He wrote:

“We are indeed living in an era where we are slowly losing luxuries we once mistook as basic standards. But the reality is that the AM radio is not a luxury but a necessity — one of great national security importance. The country cannot afford to lose AM radio from their cars — not today, not tomorrow, not ever. When making this decision, Ford was likely unaware of the move’s implications.”

I think Ford was plenty aware of what it was doing – saving money on each and every truck that rolls off its assembly line.  Automakers have been graciously installing AM/FM  radios in their dashboards for most of a century – with absolutely no revenue from broadcasters who have monetized its presence in millions of cars and trucks for as long as anyone can remember.

Not anymore.

Here in Detroit, still the auto capitol of the world, we have viable AM radio stations that can’t be too happy about Ford’s momentous decision.  WJR (Cumulus) and WWJ (Audacy) are still factors in the radio marketplace, still generating impressive revenue marks in spite of aging audiences.  In this market, many auto execs listen to these stations, and Tier 1 manufacturers often advertise on both, eager to reach a very small cume of automotive decision-makers.

Still, the industry trend is obvious. As Audacy recently did in New York City, broadcasters are blowing up their weakest FM station to make room for strong AM brands like 1010 WINS.  Logic tells us this will continue.  And the auto companies are taking note.

In an obvious slap in the face to radio broadcasters, Ford is sending the message that AM radio doesn’t really matter to their drivers.  And if you’re wondering about all those farmers listening to ag reports on nearby AM stations, it turns out they may be as tech-savvy as urban dwellers and suburbanites.

In Techsurvey, we measure how our core radio listeners tune in their favorite radio stations.  “Traditional” listening takes place on “real radios” – on the nightstand, in the car, on the workbench. “Digital,” of course, represents streaming on mobile apps and tablets, computers, and on smart speakers.  A look at our total sample versus those who live in rural areas reveals no significant difference in the way each listens to broadcast radio.

This was confirmed for me qualitatively last year when we did focus groups among farmers in the upper Midwest.  The takeaway?  These folks are pretty tech-savvy.  Their John Deere tractors and other vehicles are well-equipped with Bluetooth, GPS, and other technology.  Some have Apple CarPlay.  In other words, even if they end up buying F-150 Lightnings for their farm-related work, they’ll find a way to listen to their favorite stations.

(Ironic, isn’t it, that streaming – roundly criticized by many broadcasters over the years – could likely end up being the salvation for AM stations slow to come around to its accessibility?)

Stepping back from the Ford decision and the reverberations it may create, it seems like this is more of a statement about how automakers perceive the continued viability of RADIO.  If FM operators are the least bit smug over the absence of AM on F-150 touchscreens, they should think twice about the implications of this move.

For too long, radio broadcasters have been hesitant to improve the way they look on today’s high tech dashboards, despite the best efforts of the NAB and metadata display companies like Quu Interactive.  In most markets, a simple scan of the FM dial from 88 to 108 reveals checkerboard results.  Some stations look good and even great, while others are behind the curve, or worse, worried more about displaying the ambulance-chasing lawyers in town than the artists and titles of the songs they play.

I was pleased to read a new commentary by auto guru, Roger Lanctot, who recently got a huge software update on his late model Hyundai.  When the bits and bytes were downloaded, Roger was looking at Xperi’s slick AutoStage platform on his screen.

Here’s how the “most connected guy in the connected car industry” thought about this dashboard transformation:

“This Hyundai software update will change the way Hyundai owners – and others – think about software updates. It simultaneously enhances the value of the embedded navigation and the long overlooked radio – both unique auto-centric applications. It also shows Hyundai significantly closing the user experience gap with Tesla.”

So, with Ford, a big step back. But with Hyundai and Xperi, a giant leap forward.

There’s work to be done here, fellow broadcasters. You just never know when lightning may strike.

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