The radio station WLSD is a familiar presence in Wise County as it celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.
Broadcasting at 1,000 watts on 1220 AM since it first signed on in 1953, WLSD has weathered numerous storms – literally, in the form of the severe weather that has visited this mountainous corner of far Southwest Virginia over the years, and figuratively, in the form of increased competition such as satellite radio and, more recently, digital streaming services.
“We’re providing a service still yet to the community,” said Adam Sturgill, the station’s staff engineer and program director. “That’s really what it’s about, is doing the local ball games and being there for events in the towns and communities, so that’s the one thing that helps keep it going.”
There are more than 130 AM radio stations in Virginia, including more than 60 operating in Southside, Southwest and the Alleghany Highlands.
Now, those AM stations and others around the country face a new challenge: Some carmakers say they won’t include AM radios in new vehicles, citing the availability of other listening options as well as interference between AM radio signals and the increasingly complex electronic systems such as those found in electric-only vehicles.
Broadcasters are pushing back, arguing AM radio is vital for distributing public safety information during emergencies.
This month, the National Association of Broadcasters announced a public-relations campaign with a website, www.DependonAM.com, which features materials such as suggested scripts for radio stations to read on the air touting the importance of AM.
“Public safety officials, policymakers, consumers and broadcasters alike have been sounding the alarm on the public safety consequences for removing AM radio from cars,” the association said. “As the backbone of the nation’s Emergency Alert system, Americans depend on AM radio to disseminate timely, urgent information.”
The NAB highlighted efforts by politicians such as Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, and U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-New Jersey, to keep AM radios in vehicles.
Markey said in a news release he sent a letter to 20 automakers asking whether they have discontinued access to free broadcast AM radio in their new vehicles, including electric vehicles.
Eight – BMW, Ford, Mazda, Polestar, Rivian, Tesla, Volkswagen, and Volvo – said they have removed broadcast AM from their electric models, Markey said. General Motors and Mercedes-Benz didn’t provide individual responses, while 10 other automakers still maintain access to broadcast AM.
“Although many automakers suggested that other communication tools – such as internet radio – could replace broadcast AM radio, in an emergency, drivers might not have access to the internet and could miss critical safety information,” Markey said.
He called broadcast AM radio “irreplaceable.”
“…Although the drivetrain in electric vehicles may interfere with broadcast AM radio signals, Senator Markey has urged automakers to invest in new technologies to mitigate this interference so that it can continue providing free, accessible broadcast AM radio in their vehicles,” Markey’s news release stated.
Ford said in a statement that many AM radio stations and automakers are “modernizing radio” with internet streaming, FM, digital and satellite options, and it suggested its exclusion of broadcast AM might not be limited just to electric vehicles.
“Ford will continue to offer these alternatives for customers to hear their favorite AM radio music, news and podcasts as we remove amplitude modulation – the definition of AM in this case – from most new and updated models we bring to market,” the company said.
Gary Burns owns Forest-based 3 Daughters Media, which operates multiple AM stations, including CBS Sports Radio at 1320 AM in Lynchburg and WGMN 1240 AM in Roanoke.
Burns noted many AM stations, including his, already simultaneously broadcast on FM frequencies, a move encouraged by the Federal Communications Commission through its “AM Revitalization” effort.
“The FCC, in anticipation of diminishing AM listenership, has made avenues available to the AM broadcast to see that their message can still get out,” he said.
With internet streaming in particular, radio stations can reach more people than ever before, Burns said.
“People are more sophisticated,” Burns said. “They know where to go to get the programming. It’s available in more places now than it’s ever been available.”
In February, listeners started 47,000 online streams across his company’s stations, and that figure rose to 65,000 in March, boosted in part by March Madness basketball coverage.
“We’ve been developing our apps for the last five years and making our programming available on every device for the last five years, so we feel we’re well-positioned for the future,” Burns said.
But while more and more listeners are opting for internet streaming, the cellphone service necessary to pick up a radio station through a phone app while on the go isn’t ubiquitous.
With an AM tower situated in Big Stone Gap, WLSD – its call sign is named for Wise, Lee, Scott and Dickenson counties – broadcasts classic hits that can be heard into Tennessee and Kentucky.
In many parts of the WLSD listening area, it can be difficult to stream anything on a phone in the car, Sturgill said.
Broadcast radio keeps motorists both entertained and informed, especially during situations such as severe storms that might knock out other forms of communication, he said.
“Some of these stations are 70, 80 years old. They’ve seen it, they’ve done it, they’ve got the equipment they need to stay on the air to provide a service to the listener, and that could be the only way they get it,” Sturgill said.
And while WLSD simulcasts on an FM frequency, FM can’t always reach all listeners, Sturgill said.
On a basic level, an FM signal is more or less sent straight out from a tower, while a daytime AM signal uses ground waves that hug the surface of the earth.
An FM signal might get blocked by mountains or “overshoot” an area – leaving AM as the only way for some listeners to hear a station, Sturgill said.
Paul Johnson is vice president and general manager of New River Radio Group, which owns Radford’s WRAD at 1460 AM, a station that began operating in 1950 and where listeners these days can find Virginia Tech baseball and conservative talk radio.
WRAD can also be heard at 101.7 FM and 103.5 FM, but Johnson noted the FM signals don’t cover all of the AM listening area.
“While they do overlap, there are times someone may drive out of one signal. We have to hope they tune to the other,” Johnson said in an email.
Meanwhile, Johnson said the challenges for AM radio go beyond just listening in cars.
With so many options available to listeners, each station must create reasons why listeners choose it over the others, he said.
“These include super-serving the local area, developing a new and interesting generation of announcers, and offering programming elements that aren’t offered anywhere else,” Johnson said in an email. “Syndicated shows are partially necessary, as they help keep costs down. But staying relevant means staying local, and we do that as much as we can.”
The “death of AM radio,” Johnson said, has been predicted many times, and radio has had to reinvent itself each time.
“Many AM stations are ‘spoken word’ formats. While their audience may be smaller, the interaction with listeners is greater,” Johnson said. “These formats aren’t on in the background. They’re being listened to closely. This continues to make them valuable to advertisers. But again, if the content is good, consumers will find it.”
Sturgill, of WLSD, noted that the car manufacturers’ recent decision is just the latest challenge AM radio has faced; when AM stations sign off for good, new ones aren’t taking their place.
Nonetheless, WLSD still is holding on, he said.
“I don’t think it’s an attack on AM radio,” Sturgill said of automakers opting out of AM. “I think it’s just a technical problem.”