On Ford Restoring & Saving AM Radio

On Ford Restoring & Saving AM Radio

And now, since many are still vacationing, a subject perhaps only three in a hundred care about. AM radio.

You might have heard that Ford was going to whack AM radio in their new vehicles, following companies like Tesla and (I think) BMW. Tesla, of course, produces expensive subsidized electric vehicles, which because of their innards become portable mini-broadcast stations, generating signals that can overwhelm many weak AM stations, or produce enough hash to make listening to them irritating.

So, instead of giving whiners a chance to carp that their AM reception is imperfect—people who spend that kind of money demand perfection—these companies decided silence was gold.

Nobody cared when Tesla did this, mostly because there are too few of their cars on the road. Plus their drivers are annoying in the exact same way people who use Apple products are. “I drive a Tesla,” they announce as they sidle up next to you at the urinal. Let them suffer the loss of radio.

Ford is much bigger, and the men buying F-150s aren’t interested in signaling their efforts to “save the planet”. Ford customers are small-c conservative and don’t like change for the sake of change, so when Fords said no AM radio, there was a bit of a mini-Bud Light blowback.

In short, Ford backed down, reversing their decision. Now they say they’ll offer “software updates” in the new cars which will waken the AM functionality that was already there but switched off.

The same kind of thing happened with early cellphones. FM chips were in the phones, and some carriers, like Cingular, allowed their use. Yes, you could listen to the radio on your handheld radio—most people not realizing their cellphones are radios. In time, FM functionality was purposely left off: phones with the chips were still being produced, but the FM oh-en-oh-eff-eff switch was left in the oh-eff-eff position.

Besides expense, I don’t know why this was done. Bad reception may have played a part, as with AM in cars. This might be because the corded headphones did double duty as antennas.

Point is, you can’t help feel a bit cheated that all they had to do is throw a switch they first refused to throw. Let drivers decide if they can put up with the static, not some over-trained MBA.

On the other hand, given the surfeit of asinine lawsuits brought by the ignorant and greedy, maybe they were heading off certain troubles. Now they can claim they didn’t want to turn AM on, but were made to by politicians.

Anyway, not everybody wanted AM back. Some said let it go. Which makes little sense, because if you don’t want to listen, don’t. But we live in an age of Diversity, which means strictly enforced Uniformity, and it’s difficult to suppress the urge to control.

Many against AM used as their devastating argument that the technology is over a hundred years old. That’s the It’s The Current Year Fallacy. Bicycles use even older technology and nobody is suggesting abandoning them. Bikes are like AM in another way: they are simple. Anybody can make an AM radio out of even less than a handful of parts.

This lack of technical updating grated the sensibility of some. We don’t need AM, they said, when we have satellite and streaming.

Satellite costs money. Satellite can only be used with access to clear sky, a bit like AM. And most satellite channels are boring. If people complain about Expert-created playlists over the air, it’s worse on satellite. And there is anyway only one company. Whereas, even with the foolish consolidation of radio, there is still plenty of variety.

Streaming doesn’t work that well. It often costs money. It’s difficult to use. Users have to switch from one app to another to change channels. And they rack up minutes on their data plans, which they have to pay for.

Look what happened with cable. That started relatively cheap, but grew into a behemoth, people paying hundreds a month. So they “clipped” the cable and went to streaming. Which costs for each new service, and where each has to be managed separately, and whose total cost isn’t much different.

Radio remains free.

Some thought leaving off AM was a “war” against conservative radio. They’re wrong, but I wish they were right. Have any of you ever heard Ben Shapiro’s voice? How did anybody ever think that voice should be put on the air? Then there’s Mark “Bomb ’em” Levine, and the sly genius of Sean “Repeat my new favorite word forty times a program” Hannity.

These shows blanket AM, a terrible mistake. Because they’re boring. Conservatism begins at home, and we don’t need every station yammering about national politics. And sports. Not the games themselves. The endless discussions about the games (how do people forget sports is entertainment and is not meant to be taken seriously?). Nothing is drearier than sports talk. Except maybe “contemporary” Christian music.

Fun national programs exist, like Coast to Coast, though that one requires a sense of humor, which many no longer have. Local programming can be found, but is costly. Though worth it.

Everybody has known from Day One AM does not offer perfect audio fidelity. Listeners don’t care. They listen through the static. There is therefore no technological solution to “saving” AM. Because none is needed. What will save AM is for it to stop being so dull.

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  1. Robert Berger

    All our choices are being funneled through government so we only get to ratify and not to choose.
    EV’s are a great example. We have the Feds subsidizing the production and the demand and penalizing other choices by law. There is no market in any sense when that is done.

  2. Pk

    Interesting. So Ford didn’t take the radios out. They just locked them in the off position? Would be fun to hear what sorts of parts folks can make a radio out of.

  3. Briggs


    Complete radios, AM & FM, are all on one chip anymore. Not the front end and audio amplification, but the tuning and demodulation.

  4. Hagfish Bagpipe

    ”Have any of you ever heard Ben Shapiro’s voice? How did anybody ever think that voice should be put on the air? Then there’s Mark “Bomb ’em” Levine, and the sly genius of Sean “Repeat my new favorite word forty times a program” Hannity.”

    I’m picturing… and audioing — Shapiro and Hannity yakking it up together, their helium chipmunk voices broadcast over AM, crackling with static, picked up by a tiny transistor radio with an even tinier, cracked speaker, volume at max distortion, the hideous sound screeching across a frozen wasteland where Judas Iscariot sits listening, wailing and tearing his hair out.

  5. My car (Volvo V60/T6) has AM, FM, and Sirius – but I almost never listen to them. Sirius is terrible – the streams they offer seem curated for cheap production and poor playing – FM no longer offers classical music (the CBC used to, but now just plays crap chosen for someone’s skin color or sexual orientation), and AM is an endless comment section on subjects I don’t care about. A pox on all them! I usually play stuff from a USB drive made by copying my CD collection to digital disk.

    p.s. Ford is doing this because customers are becoming more important to them – the Obama people are (again) trying to find ways to drive them out of business.

  6. NLR

    “There is therefore no technological solution to “saving” AM. Because none is needed. What will save AM is for it to stop being so dull.”

    There are so many changes which are presented as the inevitable result of technological progress or the inevitable economic reality, and much of the time it’s just not true.

    But the people who say it is know that many people will just turn off their brains and accept it, if the change is presented that way.

  7. Rudolph Harrier

    There are people who think that removing headphone jacks from cell phones was a good idea. Not because of any benefit for the consumer, but because it’s PROGRESS. Here “progress” means nothing more or less than “we did it in the past, so it’s good to get rid of it, because that was the past.”

  8. Nate

    “Radio remains free.”

    If you don’t count the cost to your soul as you listen to the 400th advertisement for the local usury car dealership and the guy hawking Reverse Mortgages.

  9. Cary D Cotterman

    When my dad was an AM radio DJ/announcer in the 1950s and early ’60s, there was a lot of music on the radio–country, rock, jazz, pop, and classical. Now it’s mostly talk, with a Mexican polka station here and there. I remember a push, several years ago, by leftists to overregulate and diminish AM talk radio, because it was just about the last bastion of mainstream media that wasn’t liberal. They failed, but I can’t help suspecting the present trend to leave AM out of cars may be just another attempt at the same goal, but from a different angle. Most people listen to AM radio while they’re commuting, so eliminating it from cars would drastically reduce the public voice of conservatism. I don’t want to listen to Hannity in my car any more than the next guy, but there are many right-of-center stations that offer a lot of information on the ongoing corruption and stupidity of local politicians (both left and right) that’s quite useful to anyone who wants to stay on top of what’s going on but can’t find such reporting in newspapers or on tv.

  10. Milton Hathaway

    You didn’t mention it, but I wonder if some group is coveting the AM frequency band. It’s very narrow (0.53 to 1.7 MHz), useless for most modern communications, but it has some unique propagation characteristics that might make it appealing for some applications.

    It is said that Rush Limbaugh saved AM radio, but in hindsight it appears he just delayed it’s demise. When I first started listening to Rush, it was AM radio or nothing. The AM radio in my vehicle at the time was crap, typical for a Japanese import. I bought a GE Super Radio, which had a large internal ferrite antenna and properly designed receiver circuits with proper IF filtering, and used that instead. Even then it would still dissolve into a buzzy hissy mess when I drove under the 320KV power transmission line on my way to work.

    But oh, man, the commercials! Endless commercials, incredibly annoying commercials. When Rush first started offering downloads, I signed up immediately, and bought a little MP3 player for portability. I wrote a simple computer program to automate the downloading process, strip out the headers and insert my own that would display properly on the tiny LCD screen of the MP3 player.

    Rush’s annual download subscription wasn’t cheap, but if you spread that cost over the number of hours of advertising I no longer had to listen to, it was actually dirt cheap. So cheap, in fact, that it really shed light on the economics of advertiser-supported media. People put up with advertising because they like ‘free’ content, but if you were to place an equivalent hourly wage rate on the time wasted listening to commercials, you’d realize you are ‘working’ for a tiny fraction of minimum wage.

    The economics of any sort of streaming content, be it AM radio or online streaming services, seems really strange to me. For example, if you watch an old movie with commercials, the content provider makes mere pennies on each viewer. Yet the content provider will demand a few bucks to stream the same movie without commercials. You can watch the movie for no incremental charge without commercials if you pay for a subscription to that streaming service, of course. This made sense when NetFlix had pretty much everything most people cared about, but there are now hundreds of competing streaming services, each having it’s own crown jewel programming available nowhere else. To add to the seeming stupidity, the streaming services offer free trial subscriptions or cancel-anytime subscriptions, so just about everybody I know who streams content is constantly signing-up and cancelling services. None of these people admit to forgetting to cancel the service, only remembering later when the credit card statement arrives, but I’m sure it happens. Is that the heart of the business model?

  11. eugene

    Tnank you, that was very interesting!
    the bit about how no one thought BS’s voice is worth putting it on the radio is funny.
    also the article made me want to listen to radio which I did not do in months. I now hold the same views on AM radio as you, shame on me for being to lazy to think on my own.

  12. Christopher Reed

    Anybody else build a “radio” with a chunk of galena and a paperclip?

  13. spaceranger

    With AM you could at least tolerate the static in return for the range. Before FM came along, I used to listen to classical music at my home in Nothern Iowa coming from WOI in Ames on AM. About 80 miles away. There were big AM blowtorches back then: KAAY in Little Rock, KDKA in Pittsburgh, WBBM in Chicago. They had talent and original programming late at night.
    One of the biggest tragedies to hit Houston in the last few years is not Hurricane Ike or Hurricane Harvey, it was when the U of H “non-profit” station, KUHF, stopped their FM broadcasting of classical music. Now you have to access it online. The 4th largest city in the US cannot afford a classical music station. They replaced it with BBC World service at night and all NPR all the time during the day.

    There is a lot more noise on AM these days-I think WiFi and other new communication tools are stepping on it. The FCC is doing as good a job certifying the noise standards on electronic devices as the FAA did signing off Boeing’s MCAS. And since the EV’s are all noise generators, I don’t doubt that there are parties, especially with access to certain social media, interested in convincing us that AM is just obsolete anyway.
    Also, as pointed out above, somebody wants that bandwidth.

  14. houska

    “Would be fun to hear what sorts of parts folks can make a radio out of.”

    For AM look up crystal radio.

  15. anon

    1) Forgot to mention that AM is good for emergency broadcasts. 2) Executives who make “no radio” decisions likely never tune in in the first place (think this is a driving [ haha] factor rather than a yen to attain perfect audio perfection). As they would never flip on the radio… makes sense to them that you would never either.

  16. re: “The same kind of thing happened with early cellphones. FM chips were in the phones,”

    Where do you/when did you get this idea? Former cellular RF engineer here from the early days of ‘portables’ here (mid 90’s). I know of not ONE portable (handheld) cell phone (subscriber unit) that had an FM ‘broadcast’ radio it.

    It takes more than just a ‘chip’, dear chap, to get FM Multiplex (stereo to you layman) receive capability (especially in THAT era on the 1990s!) into a product. How about LC elements (inductors and capacitors) for the front end tuning, the VCO/PLL for the LO (Local Oscillator) that drives the mixer, then there is the 200 kHz wide IF filter to pass only the one desired FM multiplex ‘signal’ (at a peak deviation of about +-75 kHz) which is considerably wider than the FM deviation of the early analog FM “AMPS” (Advanced Mobile Phone System) cellular systems (30 kHz channel spacing and channel BW, +-12 kHz deviation) compared to FM Broadcast (200 kHz channel spacing and channel BW, +-75 kHz deviation).

  17. @Milton Hathaway on May 30, 2023 at 4:41 pm

    re: “You didn’t mention it, but I wonder if some group is coveting the AM frequency band.”

    No. Some technical aspects follow.

    #1. An efficient 1/4 Lambda (one quarter wavelength) antenna mid-band (1.0 MHz) is 246 feet tall – is that in any way convenient? No. A quarter wave at the original cell phone band (870 – 890 MHz) is 3 about inches. MUCH more convenient for both BS (base station) and MS (mobile station) incorporation.

    #2. Noise during thunderstorms. TRY it some time TUNE across the AM band during an active thunderstorm in your area and not the NOISE produce by the lightning …

    #3. I used to operate the 160 meter band quite a bit, it runs from 1.8 MHz through 2.0 MHz, so its just above the AM broadcast band … the band becomes USELESS some evenings during spring and summer months on account of the NOISE produced by thunderstorms across the lower 48 … the BEST time for 160 meter operation therefore turns out to be in WINTER. WHAT commercial service would find this useful – a band you can really only fully use* is during winter evenings? (* for distance, or weak-signal work)

  18. re: “Satellite costs money. Satellite can only be used with access to clear sky, a bit like AM.”

    Fun fact.

    When I used to work for PageMart (yes, that pager company, back in the late 1990’s) at the PageMart building near Lee Park (statue of Lee since removed by BLM nuts etc) in Dallas and park in the underground parking garage I found I could STILL receive AM band signals IF I parked close to the building core, say, within 100 ft or so of the building’s core and didn’t park further away in the extended part of the underground garage.

    With the building being like 12 stories tall, a steel structure about 1/4 Lambda tall, RF currents from ALL stations flowed through the building’s steel all the way down to ground with a current ‘maxima’ near the base or bottom. And as we all should know, maximum current on a 1/4 wave antenna is down near the base or bottom.

    As long as I was close enough to pick up the induced RF current from the RF flowing up down the building, I could receive any of the AM stations receivable on the surface streets. FM didn’t work that way. Once underground (and certainly when at the #3 lowest level) NO FM signals could be picked up, but, the AM signals were still there.

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