“K – I – O – A, 940!”
I can still remember the old-fashioned jingle that accompanied the call letters from that Des Moines-based AM radio station. Oldies from the ‘50s and ‘60s merrily crackled through the static, greeting my ears whenever I clambered into our old Pontiac with my parents.
Or maybe we’d be listening to the farm report on 1040 WHO—“The 50,000 watt clear-channel voice of the Midwest,” the ads for the channel proclaimed. Every day, voices intoned what was happening with the grain and livestock markets. (To this day, I’m not 100% sure what a pork belly is, though I suppose it should be self-explanatory.)
Sometimes I’d get shipped off to my grandparents’ house and spend the weekend with them at their farm. Many a summer day, I remember sitting on my grandfather’s knee in an air-conditioned John Deere tractor as he drove, the voices of baseball announcers calling Minnesota Twins games over the air, a broadcast that just barely reached his central Iowa farm. Or maybe he was listening to someone like Rush Limbaugh in his early years on the air, opining about the looming new threat of “political correctness” before most of us even knew what that phrase meant.
Even closer to home, several of my friends were honest-to-goodness disc jockeys at the modest little AM station in my hometown of Perry, Iowa: KDLS. Many a Friday or Saturday night I’d spin by the studio to see what my friends Mike or Brett were spinning on the local airwaves between the sleepy local news and sports updates they dutifully gave (“Looks like the Perry High School Bluejays are going to miss the Midwestern conference playoffs again this year after yet another shellacking at the hands of Denison Monarchs on Friday night.”)
Oldies. Farm reports. Baseball. Talk radio. Local news.
It seems timeless, AM radio.
But is it? What if its time is up? What if it went away?
Admittedly, this is not AM radio’s first rodeo. The 1970s, of course, were the decade that embraced upstart FM radio—a vastly more satisfying listening experience due to a huge technological leap even then. (And, frankly, FM still sounds vastly superior to satellite radio to my ears.) AM has weathered technological storms before, and until now has persisted.
But time and technology march ever onward. And the advent of streaming media, combined with the growing market share of electric vehicles, means that this old-school communication medium’s days may be numbered.
This week, Ford Motor Company became the latest car manufacturer to announce that it would be removing AM radio from most of its new vehicles, joining BMW, Mazda, Tesla and Volkswagen in this tech trend. The change is being, ahem, driven by the fact that EVs’ motors can interfere with an AM signal. And some car manufacturers believe that people can still find AM outlets via the Internet, making receivers in cars unnecessary. Ford spokesperson Wes Sherwood said the decision, “A majority of U.S. AM stations, as well as a number of countries and automakers globally, are modernizing radio by offering internet streaming through mobile apps, FM, digital and satellite radio options.”
Still, some 4,000 AM stations in the United States reach an estimated 82 million listeners monthly. And advocates for the format believe that car manufacturers’ decision and rationale are faulty. “This is a tone-deaf display of complete ignorance about what AM radio means to Americans. It’s not the end of the world for radio, but it is the loss of an iconic piece of American culture,” Michael Harrison, publisher of the radio trade journal Talkers, told The Washington Post.
The Post’s Marc Fisher writes that folks from both sides of the political aisle have concerns about the diminishing availability of AM radio content:
“The removal of AM radio from cars—where about half of AM listening takes place—has sparked bipartisan protests. 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, an AM mainstay from Sean Hannity to Glenn Beck to dozens of acolytes of the late Rush Limbaugh. Eight of the country’s 10 most popular radio talk shows are conservative.”
Fisher’s observations have important implications for our culture, even if it’s tempting to consider AM radio a fossil from a bygone era if you don’t listen yourself. Our perspective on the world is deeply shaped by the information and entertainment media that tell us what’s going on in it. Though AM radio may not enjoy the cultural saturation and influence it had in its heyday 50 or 60 years ago, it remains an important source of information for millions of people. That’s especially true of older listeners—Forbes reports that one-third of AM radio listeners are 65 or older—who may not readily know how to access the same content via an online source.
AM radio isn’t quite dead yet, and its advocates are now rallying to ensure its survival into the future. In April, the National Association of Broadcasters launched its “Depend on Radio” campaign. But despite strenuous arguments being marshalled in favor of this hundred-year-old communication system, I can’t help but wonder if technological change is nevertheless leaving it behind, much in the same way other legacy media (take your pick from 8-tracks, to cassettes, to DVDs, to land lines, to perhaps even cable television) have been similarly rendered obsolete as technology grinds inexorably forward.
I certainly don’t know what’s going to happen, and I can see both sides of this argument. As much as I’d hate to see this legacy medium disappear, I can’t say that I actually use it myself very frequently.
For all of us, though, I think technological inflection points offer us a chance to ponder some important questions. Where do we get our news and information? What voices do we trust to deliver that content, and why? How do we think deeply and critically about the constant flood of ideas and information, no matter where we get it? How much does that content shape our perspective on the world, and how much do we use our spiritual convictions as Christians as a lens to help us see and understand it?
I think these are critical questions for us to grapple with. And it most certainly won’t be the last time that technological leaps forward force us to change our habits and, potentially, our deeply ingrained ways of interacting with the world.
And now, back to our regular programming.