Taking AM/FM Out of Cars? That's Crazy Talk

When Christmas time rolls around, the programming on TK-101 in Pensacola, Fla., can get bizarre.

It's normally a rock-and-roll station, but one Saturday every December you can hear everything from Perry Como to Merle Haggard to the O-Jays. It's part of a radio-thon called "Anything for the Kids." The on-air personalities tell listeners they can call and request any song -- in the format or not -- if they will donate cash or a toy for a needy child in the listening area.

"People try to see how far they can take this musically," said Mark "The Shark" Dyba, who was a DJ at the station until earlier this year. "They would essentially pay to hear their song on the radio. Our sponsors would do it and our biggest fans would do it to get recognition. But we also had a lot of regular people who looked forward to this opportunity to do something for the neediest in the community."

Dyba, who has been in the radio business since the early 1980s, says such events connect communities and keep AM/FM radio alive, fresh and vital. A lot of the content these days is produced nationally -- he did a show in Tulsa while he lived in Pensacola -- but stations take steps to preserve a local flavor even on those programs, he said.

"I was driving from Omaha to Milwaukee recently, and the station I was listening to was giving obituaries," he said. "People in those areas rely on radio for everything from when stores will open to when funeral services will be held. And people are talking about taking that away?"

Yes, they are.

With changes in technology, some believe its time to start burying the AM/FM radio. There is a move afoot to replace radios in cars with apps that permit access to satellite, streaming and other broadcast services but do not provide access to the local AM/FM offerings. Drivers today turn to Spotify, Pandora and XM-Sirius for music and news content in increasing numbers, the reasoning goes, so access to the local political talk station or rock-and-roll entity is no longer necessary or in demand.

Consumers tell a different story. They like their apps, but a recent survey by IPSOS showed that 99 percent were comfortable with AM/FM technology in their cars. The survey of 1,000 adults found 91 percent preferred to have an AM/FM radio with its content alternatives, local news, music and opinions and access to emergency traffic and weather information, and only 9 percent preferred an app-only system.

Moreover, they like the price. "People don't want a Wi-Fi bill for their cars," said Dyba. "They're getting hit from all sides. If manufacturers stop putting radios in cars, what do those people do? A lot of them can't afford one more thing."

That's why, in part, a move by automobile manufactures to limit access to AM/FM radio would be a slap in the face to American consumers who already get nickled and dimed at every turn. Not only would an app-based entertainment system be more costly, it would limit access to critical information, particularly local information, that Americans need and desire.

Dyba says over the past few years there has been a turn toward national radio programing and some cutting of local personalities, which has created a niche for new entrants to the market in places such as Pensacola, Dyba said. There, a local operator has opened a station that is news talk on the AM side and country music on FM, and a local website/cable channel has undercut the Gannett newspaper's local site and now offers a popular live morning TV talk show.

"You have towns where there is one local radio personality for a station, and everything else is piped in," Dyba said. "You can tell... they will say 'visit our website' but won't give the web address because they are doing it for multiple stations. There is an opportunity to have a bigger presence in the market and make an impact by concentrating on the local. If you attract attention, people are going to want to follow you on their car radios. And no app is going to cover this."

Dyba says there remains an appeal to turning on the radio and just listening to what is on, of waiting through four or five songs you may not love now but will later to hear the song you already love. The price is right. The voice is local. The contests and radiothons are meaningful to people you actually know, and those people follow all this in their cars. On their radios.

"I hear a lot about the 6-minute breaks and waiting for songs to come on," he says. "But it's something people enjoy being part of and feel like they contribute to."

Besides, he says, carmakers may want to talk to their dealers before they take this step. "I can tell you from having done a few of those 6-minute breaks ... there's always at least one ad for a car dealership and usually two. Where are they going to go with that if cars don't have radios?"