This is one in a series of occasional commentaries produced through the National Association of Farm Broadcasting.
In 2012, I became the licensee of WRDN 1430 AM Radio in Durand, the seat of Pepin County in Wisconsin, which has one of the smallest county populations in the state.
Many colleagues in the farm broadcasting industry told me I was crazy for buying a standalone AM, much less one in such a small, rural community. Many told me, “AM is dead or is dying” and that I would not last six months.
This year, we celebrated our 10th anniversary of returning the station to the air. All station debt is paid, and the station is an integral part of our community.
Since agriculture is a $1.5 billion industry in our listening area, agricultural and farm-related news is a critical part of our daily programming. We carry seven hours of farm content each weekday plus local news, high school sports and other community events. Many farmers listen to us in their vehicles, trucks, tractors and combines.
Recently, I was concerned to hear that Ford Motor Co. had decided to remove AM radio from the F-150 Lightning electric vehicle starting in 2023.
I don’t expect that many of our farmer listeners will purchase an EV anytime soon, but I am concerned that this decision could spread to non-EV vehicles and even farm equipment.
If the farm broadcasting industry does not respond to this, it also could lead to the elimination of FM radios from vehicles for many of the same reasons Ford is using now to eliminate AM. That would mean an end to free, over-the-air radio in one of our largest sources of farm-broadcasting listeners: vehicles.
Recently, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey wrote a letter to vehicle manufacturers expressing concerns about the removal of AM radio from EVs.
It’s great to see him put a spotlight on this, but it would be unwise for radio to depend on a government mandate requiring free over-the-air AM/FM receivers in vehicles. The vehicle lobbyists would fight this; and if it did pass without any receiver standards, it would lead to even lower-quality receivers installed in newly manufactured vehicles.
So what can “radio” (and, in my world, “farm radio”) do about this situation?
As a member of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting, I have talked with other association members, station owners, general managers and association members. We all agree it is time for radio to “Put up or shut up.”
Radio often touts how we can deliver our listeners to businesses. Well then, it’s high time radio delivers our listeners to the vehicle manufacturer of their choosing, asking them to demand they each keep free, over-the-air, high-quality radio receivers, covering ALL commercial broadcast spectrums, in ALL vehicles.
Our industry needs to prove to vehicle manufacturers that free over-the-air radio is still wanted and needed in vehicles by taking action.
At my station, we are airing commercials, telling our listeners about Ford’s recent decision and what it could mean to free, over-the-air AM/FM radio. We ask them to contact their vehicle manufacturers. On our website, we provide links to the various manufacturers to help listeners make that contact. We also demonstrate how good AM can sound on our website as our audio stream is fed by an over-the-air Carver TX-11A AM stereo receiver.
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Yes … AM stereo
Now, it does us as a radio industry no good to have receivers in vehicles that are of inferior quality; providing radio listeners with a terrible experience simply drives them away. Our listeners deserve quality receivers, especially if they are purchasing a vehicle costing several tens of thousands of dollars.
If a vehicle can drive itself, it should be expected to have a quality, free, over-the-air AM/FM receiver that can receive HD AM/FM, AM stereo, FM stereo and noise blanking technology … but only our listeners can demand this. In fact, listeners are willing to demand this.
In 2021, we converted WRDN to AM stereo as part of an overall upgrade of our air chain. Within a few weeks, some of my farmer listeners started asking what we did to the station because it “sounded like FM.” They also asked me why the station sounded so good on their old work trucks but sounded terrible on the $70,000 trucks they had just purchased.
They all thought it was unacceptable that new vehicles had terrible receivers in them, so I encouraged them to contact the manufacturers to complain, and that is what happened. I even helped a few farmers at the station find and fill out the contact form for their vehicle manufacturers.
The technology needed to reduce electrical noise in EVs is available; the manufacturers are saving pennies by eliminating radio. AM receivers can be made far superior to their collective current state. Today’s radios have the signal processing capabilities needed to implement receiving systems that were bound by patents a decade ago. Now, all the art required to produce a superior AM receiver is public domain.
We, the broadcasters, along with our listeners, need to force the industry to produce the product we deserve and protect our livelihood for the future. Let’s use the power of our medium to save AM (and FM) radio in vehicles!
The author owns WRDN Radio in Durand, Wis., where he serves as a farm broadcaster for the greater Pepin County agricultural community. He was president of the National Association of Farm Broadcasting in 2016 and was named the 2020 NAFB Farm Broadcaster of the Year.