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A Texas-led bill that would mandate AM radio capability in car manufacturing was blocked from passing in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, requested a unanimous consent decision on his AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act. The legislation was blocked by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, who said the mandate on private companies would be an overstep of congressional power.
For months, Cruz has pushed for vehicle manufacturers to retain AM radio in new car models to protect emergency communication channels and diverse content. He partnered with Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., in May to introduce the legislation, which had broad bipartisan support in the Senate.
A corresponding bill was introduced in the House and has 191 cosponsors, including two Democrats and 12 Republicans from Texas.
AM radio is “enormously important to millions of Texans,” Cruz told The Texas Tribune in October. He noted the platform is essential for diverse talk radio — especially for conservative voices.
“I think silencing those voices is enormously harmful to both free speech but also to a robust democratic process,” Cruz said.
On the Senate floor Tuesday, Cruz pointed to conservative commentators Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck, who all found audiences on AM radio.
“AM radio is a haven for people to speak, even if their views are disfavored by the political ruling class,” Cruz said on the Senate floor. “Rush Limbaugh would not exist without AM radio. The views of my friend, [Rand Paul] the senator from Kentucky, would be heard by many fewer people without AM radio.”
AM radio in rural Texas and other southern states is also a platform for religious, local news and sports programming. Local stations will also run chain or network programming with more well-known commentators, according to Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
Some rural communities are dependent on getting local interest information from a single radio station or single newspaper, Cross said.
“If you allow the manufacturers to not put AM on cars, then you're killing off an essential part of the media landscape of the United States,” Cross said.
Supporters of the bill also point to AM radio’s importance as a means to protect emergency communication channels. A fall 2022 Nielsen survey showed AM radio reaches over 80 million Americans monthly.
“During times of disaster, AM radio is consistently the most resilient form of communication,” Cruz said.
AM radio is used as an alert system by federal, state and local agencies to communicate in times of disaster when other forms of communication fail, like during a power outage.
Cruz said he was confident that the legislation would pass overwhelmingly if brought to the floor for a vote, but since it was blocked on Tuesday it now awaits scheduling by Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
The congressional pressure already provoked change in the industry. Days after the bills were introduced in May, the CEO of Ford announced that the company would keep AM radio in 2024 models.
Car companies started cutting AM radio capacity to simplify manufacturing and because of assumptions that American consumers don’t find AM radio necessary, according to Oscar Rodriguez, the president of the Texas Association of Broadcasters. Companies also can make revenue from car owners’ subscription-only radio services.
“It became very clear very quickly to the automakers that this is a highly valued service that's extraordinarily important,” Rodriguez said. “It's not just an entertainment service. It is an emergency communications service.”
AM station signals cover 90% of the American population, according to the National Association of Broadcasters, and are able to continue operations during power outages.
But a number of national trade associations have defended manufacturers’ right to exclude AM capacity, arguing that FM radio, internet access and text emergency alerts can replace the loss of AM radio.
“This is giving preference to a technology that is facing fierce competition,” said India Herdman, manager of policy affairs for the Consumer Technology Association.
A FEMA strategic plan pointed out that Americans are “moving away” from radio and broadcast television as primary sources of news and information, one reason for emergency managers to prioritize alerts to smartphones and other methods.
Herdman said that a mandate for AM radio contradicts previous congressional action authorizing federal funding for updated emergency communications.
“What are we spending those appropriated dollars for if we're just going to go back to using century-old technology?” Herdman said.
But in a state like Texas, with a significant rural population, proponents of AM broadcasting argue the access is key.
Cooper Little, executive director of the Independent Cattlemen’s Association, said Texans in the agricultural sector rely on AM radio for reports on livestock and markets, as well as severe weather alerts.
“Things happen at a moment's notice,” Little said. “In areas where there's not necessarily cell service, that's how you spread the word.”