For the better part of 65 years, "Cousin'' Bruce Morrow has sat in front of a radio microphone. He's mostly done this for two stations, WABC/770 AM and WCBS/101.1 FM, where he's spun more Top 40 songs and "oldies" than just about any person alive. Both a radio legend and some sort of human Guinness record, Morrow has been a major part of AM radio and cultural history. Now, at 85, he insists he wants to be part of AM's future, too, as murky as that future is.
Morrow, who hosts WABC's "Cousin Brucie's Saturday Night Rock & Roll Party," says he's been energized by the debate over some carmakers' decision to pull AM radio out of their electric vehicles. .He admits that it's unusual for AM radio to be part of any conversation, much less a "debate." But this one pivots on American culture and identity, free speech and politics, emerging technology, and a future dominated by cars that run on electricity rather than gasoline — a future where none might have AM radio.
So yeah, the "Cuz" is all in on backing the beleaguered medium.
Through the internet, Morrow's show is heard around the world thanks to "technology [that] is so fabulous that I am happy that I'm still taking part in this."
Then, that famous voice made for radio — the one heard by generations of listeners and which introduced a nation to four guys from Liverpool — rises in defense of that glorious, antiquated and quite possibly doomed dinosaur born over a century ago.
"Why take something that has reliability and is a necessity and say it's an old horse, let's bury the bones? It's not an old horse," he says. "It still has good bones and it still reaches people and reaches them efficiently and satisfies a market. That's what counts. Just don't say, 'Go away, you're old-fashioned and we don't need you anymore.' "
AM FACES ITS GREATEST CHALLENGE
AM radio receivers, in fact, began disappearing in some electric cars 10 years ago when BMW and Tesla dropped them from new models because of static, or that famed "hash" interference listeners have long grown accustomed to.
AM — which means amplitude (the strength of the signal) modulation (in which the signal strength is changed to make sound) — occupies that part of the electromagnetic spectrum with lots of other things, from lighting to computer chips, as well as batteries and powertrains on EVs. Other than Tesla, mostly European-based manufacturers have dropped AM radios from their EVs, including Volkswagen, Polestar, Volvo, Audi and Porsche.
And now, the much-beloved, much-mythologized, much-underappreciated AM radio station has a target on its back. There are roughly 4,700 in the United States, including such storied brands as New York's WABC, WOR and 1010 WINS, although the majority are tiny outposts serving wide-open spaces.
Because so many are heard in the car, or during "drive-time," the calculus pretty much speaks for itself. If there are no AM radios in cars, then there will be far fewer people listening to them. This is what's called a "Catch-22," or perhaps the better term is "existential crisis." Simply put, AM is now grappling with the single greatest challenge in its history.
Washington, which only recently woke up to the issue, has mustered bipartisan support to get automakers to reverse course. In May, Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced the "AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act," which is expected to go to a vote this fall.
But this current flap dates to 2022 when Ford stumbled into a PR blunder by announcing that AM receivers would disappear from 2024 models, including gas-powered ones. After an outcry, Ford reversed the decision.
With the political heat on, no major U.S. automaker has dared advocate for the elimination of AM radio in cars since then. Besides Ford, the other two domestic car giants, GM and Stellantis' Chrysler and Jeep, have pledged to continue installing AM receivers in new EV models for the time being. So has Toyota, the leading seller of cars in the world. Nevertheless, most observers believe automakers ultimately have little incentive to fix the hash problem because the solutions are either onerous, expensive or diminish car performance.
Lots of people have a stake in the outcome of this. They include some of the biggest names in media, notably conservative media commentators whose syndicated programs are heard on thousands of AM and FM stations.
Sean Hannity, the Fox News host and radio's top-rated one, said in a recent phone interview, "it's a big threat and one I've talked about" on the air. "Look, I obviously come at this from a conservative point of view, but AM radio is one of the main sources of information that offers conservative thought and one of its biggest platforms. You can't convince me this is an expensive fix when they talk about the interference factor, especially considering modern technology. It just seems to me they're looking for an excuse," he says.
Indeed, that presumptive "excuse" has led to speculation among broadcasters that if they do fix the static, they'll want to be paid for going to the trouble — in the form of subscription fees from drivers who want to listen to their favorite stations.
Especially in the 1950s and '60s, AM tuners held an honored position on the dashboard of all cars. That began to change a few years ago when radio tuners were absorbed into the now-ubiquitous LED display. The valuable real estate AM/FM once shared with CD players (or cassette and 8-tracks) has been ceded to "infotainment" services like Sirius XM and Spotify.
To find AM in this crowd is like finding Waldo. But could it go away altogether? Will beloved Long Island institutions like WHLI or WRIV, which have been broadcasting continuously for decades, disappear? Or will car drivers have to pay for them and thousands of other stations?
The issues are complex, the answers still taking shape, but to explore them, it helps to look to the past and to the present. From there, AM's complicated future then begins to come into focus.
THE PAST: AM RADIO WAS 'YOUR NEIGHBOR'
WGBB signed on the air Dec, 15, 1924, broadcasting from a garage at 215 Bedell St. in Freeport. The original garage is gone, but a radio tower still looms over the site, while a blue historical marker reads, “WGBB 1240 AM, founded here by Harry H. Carman, broadcast Long Island’s first commercial radio newscast circa 1924.”
At launch, Carman's family ran a grocery store in Rockville Centre but Harry didn't have much interest in selling lettuce. Carman, in fact, was the prototype of the early AM radio operator. He just didn't know it yet.
According to a history of New York radio, "The Airwaves of New York," by Bill Jaker, Frank Sulek and Peter Kanze, Carman was a "devoted but parsimonious owner [who] was known to work airshifts himself, using more than one voice in an attempt to give the impression of a larger announcing staff."
Like other notable early Long Island radio pioneers — Edward Fitzgerald Jr. of WGSM, Huntington, or Jack and Dorothy Ellsworth of Patchogue's popular Big Band station WLIM — he was all about "local" because local was cheap, easy and popular, or as Jack Ellsworth once told a newspaper reporter, "Local news! local information! That's what Long Islanders want. I've got the Girl Scouts coming on talking about their cookie sales." Listen to a vintage Jack Ellsworth show on WALK-AM from 2002 here.)
Broadcasting on just 100 watts, or about what it takes to run a conventional modern TV set, Carman eventually turned WGBB into a South Shore powerhouse. Over the decades, this kind of local model became the playbook for thousands of other stations around the country. Like WGBB, many of them thrived in the shadow of NYC's giants.
"It was a community-unifying force, and whether your preference was for HLI or GSM or GBB, it was nevertheless your neighbor who spoke to you about your lost pets or whether or not you won a 'car box' contest," says Gary Lewi, onetime morning anchor for "Long Island Network News" (listen to an LINN newscast from 1967 here), which fed reports to a string of local stations. "That all began to disintegrate under deregulation [in 1996], when corporate ownership shifted, and AM truly fell off the cliff as the internet was created."
These days, WGBB serves Chinese-speaking listeners.
By the 1930s, AM radio had become the most important medium in the world, assuming a cache that is almost unimaginable these days or at least unimaginable for AM radio. Stations like Queens-based WWRL/1600, once the "Big RL," now an affiliate of the Black Information Network, later served historically neglected communities and changed music and culture in the process.
In 1951, radio consultant Todd Storz introduced "The Two-hour Hit Parade," which quickly morphed into Top 40. The format soon overwhelmed radio and listeners. Morrow among others at WABC rode the Top 40 wave to superstardom.
"We were with people in their showers, we were in their cars, we went to bed with them, we shopped with them, we're on the beach with them, we went to business with them," says Morrow. "It was very much part and parcel of everyday social and cultural life. And it was, you know, let's face it, it was really one of the only mass media besides newspapers where you could reach right into your back pocket and get." (Listen to Cousin Brucie in a 1968 WABC broadcast with commercials!)
The long history of AM can be roughly divided into two parts — a meteoric rise followed by an inexorable decline. There are two other pivotal dates in this story, each critical to this current moment.
The first arrived in 1940 with the birth of FM radio. The second was in 1967, when the Federal Communications Commission required AM/FM operators to air different programming on each signal as part of its so-called non-duplication rule. In one massive whoosh that seemed to happen overnight, music migrated to the FM dial while AM signals were left with talk, sports or news. Most listeners followed the music.
The fate of Patchogue's WALK was representative. The FM station, 97.5, would become Long Island's most popular station, while its AM counterpart withered and declined, eventually to become WLID/1370, which airs a Spanish-language Christian format. Current owner, New Jersey-based Cantico Nuevo Ministry, picked up the station in 2019 for literally nothing — WALK's owner, Connoisseur Media, donated it.
COULD THESE SAVE AM?
Nevertheless, the AM industry as a whole has held a pair of aces.
The first arrived in 1951, in the midst of the Cold War, when AM radio was incorporated into the old "CONELRAD" system, which would be activated in the event of a nuclear attack. That was eventually merged into the current National Public Warning System, composed of 77 AM stations, including WABC, and a handful of FM ones. (Listen to the first CONELRAD alert from 1956. Spooky!)
The thinking was and remains stark: If the power grid collapses or cell towers fail, these stations will continue broadcasting because they have their own self-contained power supply.
The other landmark year was 1987 when the FCC abolished the Fairness Doctrine, which had required broadcasters to air opposing views. That opened the door wide for Rush Limbaugh and countless other conservative radio broadcasters, most of whom flourished on the AM band.
The net result of all this has brought AM right up to the current standoff of automakers versus a truly improbable coalition of right-wingers, liberals, free-speech advocates and first-responders.
Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Deanne Criswell told a congressional committee last month that “AM radio is one of the most dependable ways that we can reach individuals across this country to get warnings out there."
In an interview with Newsday, "Fox & Friends" co-host Brian Kilmeade — whose popular talk show airs on WABC and LI News Radio/103.9 FM — said, "Tell me that when all hell broke loose in Hawaii or when Sandy happened on Long Island that AM radio didn't matter? The reporters go to the neighborhoods they know and get the signal up. It's a great emergency service in a dangerous world — natural or otherwise."
THE PRESENT: 'I'M FINE FLYING UNDER THE RADAR'
Perched on the third floor of Riverhead's 1899 Bank Building on West Main Street, WRIV/1390's studios are tiny, genial and proudly antiquated. They also happen to have a perfect view — into the past, for the most part.
Other than a studio relocation or two, nothing much has changed here during the past 68 years. The world has rushed by, and so has that information superhighway. But RIV scarcely seems to have noticed, nor cared much. As day follows night and year follows year, RIV's rhythms have been predictable and reassuring. Since launching in 1955, WRIV has offered a reliable stream of music, news, commentary and local sports, all tailored for hyperlocal interests, or for those locals who live within 20 or so miles of the transmitter.
Bruce Tria, who has run the station for 36 years, admits he's done nothing to boost ratings with the usual stunts simply because he has no clue what WRIV's ratings actually are. "I'm fine with flying under the radar," Tria says. "People ate steak and mashed potatoes in the 1950s, and they're still eating steak and mashed potatoes now. The staples never go away."
Because the FCC doesn't break down the numbers, it's unclear how many of the country's 4,728 (give-or-take) AMs are steak-and-potatoes operations like WRIV. Certainly many of them are. These mom-and-pops, which aren't owned by radio colossi like iHeart or Clear Channel, have long served their communities with hyperlocal everything — farm and weather reports, bingo night results, high school football play-by-play, county fairs, a live feed from the monster truck rally …
Many are revered local institutions with listeners who know where to find them, whether in the kitchen, or on a tractor. A car is fine, too, but hardly the only place or possibly even the preferred place.
How they'll be affected by a future without AM radio in electric cars, assuming that comes to pass, depends to an extent on which one of these stations is asked. But Tria, who was born and raised in East Northport, says "I feel like Mark Twain and those reports of his death that have been greatly exaggerated." The reason is because many of 1390's longtime listeners don't bother to tune in from cars, but from home or offices, he says.
THE PRESENT: LASER FOCUS ON LISTENERS
Including WFTU, which is operated by Five Towns College, Long Island has 10 AM radio stations. Cantico Nuevo Ministry — which provides religious programming to the Island's nearly 600,000 Spanish-speaking residents — owns four: WNYH/740, WLID/1370, WJDM/1520 and WNYG/1580.
But the best known of Long Island's AMs is Farmingdale-based WHLI/1100. Scrappy ever since its launch in 1947 when it offered charter listeners gifts just to tune in, WHLI went on to become one of the country's first AM/FM combos because the AM signal had to be turned off at night to protect the signal of another station in Cleveland, Ohio. (Another curious advantage to AM — the signals travel vast distances after the sun goes down.) WHLI once aspired to be "the Voice of Long Island'' and still does. Also like WFAN and WINS, WHLI has now hedged its bets against a tenuous AM future by simulcasting on the far more popular FM band.
Like most big market stations, WHLI flipped through formats over the years but eventually settled on what it now calls "the hits of a lifetime." Like WRIV, the station has also kept a laser focus on those listeners who are older, loyal and who live within a reasonable distance of the transmitter on Milburn Avenue in Hempstead.
Program director and host, Jon Daniels, says the station certainly has a vested interest in the outcome of the AM-EV debate, except "I think you'd be surprised" how many listeners tune in from home.
"About 90% of [our] households have a radio," Daniels says. "It may not be displayed like the old hi-fi, but they've got it and they have the batteries for it. They were raised on the radio and they didn't have smartphones. You turn to what you know."
Daniels adds that the carmakers "probably haven't listened to AM in a while and maybe projected that falsely onto the rest of the population — that no one else was listening, either. But in major markets like this, AM stations are top-rated, or serve non-English-speaking communities, or serve other communities in the rest of the country, especially the central part, where AM also gets out farm information."
The argument for keeping AM radios in cars "is a no-brainer."
THE FUTURE: 'I BELIEVE IN THE AM SPECTRUM'
One of Long Island's largest radio broadcasters occupies the second floor of an office building in Ronkonkoma. In cubicles lined up side by side, staffers are bonded to terminals while the steady roar of Veterans Memorial Highway just outside has been reduced to a low thrum. While unremarkable and nondescript, it's here where a surprising bet on the future of AM radio is about to take place.
In late June, JVC Broadcasting, which owns 12 Florida stations and seven on Long Island, bought WLIM/93.3 and WLIM/1440, both formerly "The Breeze." It'll relaunch both on Sept. 5 as "En Vivo" ("Live"), as Long Island's first-ever all-news radio station in Spanish.
Ana Maria Caraballo, host of JVC's WBON/98.5 ("La Fiesta") who will take the reins of En Vivo, explains that "we noticed that during the pandemic, when people needed to know the information about the vaccine, or what was going on with COVID, we'd turn La Fiesta from a Top 40 Tropical station into an information station because there was a need and nobody could find information anywhere else."
WBON thus became an information hotline for some of Suffolk and Nassau County Spanish-speaking listeners, many of them recent immigrants who had no other information source to turn to.
John Caracciolo, 59, an Inwood native who launched JVC in 2009 after a long run as chief engineer at the legendary Hempstead station, WLIR, got the idea for En Vivo during the pandemic.
But an AM launch, on a medium threatened by an electric vehicle future and countless other challenges?
"I believe in the AM spectrum and I believe the outlook is good," he says, while adding that it's all about the programming quality, and not some roiling debate in Washington over AM's future. Like a restaurant, he says, serve good food and people will come.
Caracciolo insists that the radio industry "will prevail" in getting automakers to install AM tuners, but that the imbroglio really masks their ultimate goal — to charge drivers for everything that comes out of the dashboard, AM included.
As for the future host of En Vivo, Caraballo, puts it this way: "Remember when you used to buy an airline ticket and be on your way?" she says. "Now, you need to pay for every other single thing — the additional bag, the seat upgrade, or 10 dollars if you want to board first. The auto manufacturers want to do the same thing. You want access to information? Then pay for it."
Caraballo says that will ultimately include AM, and one day FM, too. Such a radio pay-for-play future in cars would be similar to pay-for-play on TV — to wit, a cable TV model. The car's LED display "would be turned into a streaming receiver and there would be no more AM tuners," says Caracciolo. The driver would then have to fork over a monthly subscription fee to listen to anything, AM stations included, he says.
This has, in fact, become a widely held view in the AM radio industry. For example, Hannity says "radio is something people have gotten for free their whole lives. They're used to paying for TV, not radio, so it's really problematic and I'm not sure it would be a viable business plan anyway."
THE FUTURE: PAYING FOR AM RADIO?
Last spring, GM announced that it would phase out Apple CarPlay and Android Auto from EVs, in favor of its own proprietary system built by Google. Reuters subsequently reported that GM chief Mary Barra "is aiming" for $20 billion-$25 billion in subscription revenue by 2030.
That comment caused an uproar in the radio business, and GM has been walking parts of it back ever since.
Stuart Fowle, director of global product development, software defined vehicle and design communications at General Motors, says, "the media coverage of Apple CarPlay and our choice to not support it on future EVs has been conflated" with the AM-EV controversy. "But there is no subscription money that has to happen because of our decision" because the new Google-based system is about new and proprietary features for the cars.
Yes, customers will still have access to AM radio in all models, Fowle says, and (no), they will not have to pay for it.
A spokesman for the Alliance for Automotive Innovation — the D.C.-based automaker lobbyist which has been leading the fight to get AM tuners out of EVs — declined to comment, but referred instead to a post on the Alliance's website by its CEO, John Bozella.
Bozella wrote that it is "true [that] some automakers have made a business decision to discontinue AM radio in certain vehicles."
"Why would they do that? First, the high-voltage electrical systems in electric vehicles make an already fuzzy AM station unlistenable. Combine that with research indicating drivers barely listen to AM radio in vehicles and the finite real estate behind the dashboard to house newer technologies, a clearer, less dramatic picture starts to emerge."
Naturally, the AM forces disagree. They point to Nielsen research that says more than 90 million people tune in to an AM or FM station at some point during the week. They add that the problem is fixable — a wire shield here, a diode or two there, and presto, problem solved.
These pro-AM forces also think the Alliance and its members had no idea what they stepped into.
Michael Harrison, the publisher of Talkers Magazine who — with DJ Richard Neer, in an earlier career move, rebooted WLIR into a rock station in 1970 — explains that "the static issue is simple [because] AM radio will always have a certain amount of static. All the increase in various radio frequencies and all the interference from the internet has only added to AM's woes. Electric cars do create static, which can be remedied with a few small technological tweaks that would cost the car companies a few bucks to execute."
But "they were tone deaf and didn't realize that they were stepping on a lot of people's toes and getting rid of something that still has value. People are emotional about this. It's not like getting rid of their 8-track but getting rid of their radio."
THE FUTURE: BATTLE LINES ARE DRAWN
The outcome of this fall's vote on the Senate bill is far from certain, in part because some lawmakers are reluctant to place any speed bump in the way of the EV future. Others worry about forcing an entire industry to pander to what some see as an antiquated technology.
Nevertheless, the pro-AM forces are well organized and have some powerful, vocal allies who have scored potent points already. They say AM still provides an essential service to immigrant communities whose first language isn't English, and like En Vivo, are information pipelines — in some instances the only free broadcast media available to them.
Then there's FEMA, the powerful emergency agency which has stood with the radio industry, too.
In a statement to Newsday, the National Association of Broadcasters, said, “The AM Radio For Every Vehicle Act has gained significant bipartisan support in just a few short months, with more than 170 members of the House and Senate joining as co-sponsors of the legislation. We appreciate the support from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who recognize the importance of preserving AM radio in the dashboard for millions of Americans" and "we are hopeful for passage this fall.”
Kilmeade — who like fellow Long Islander Hannity can remember a time when WGBB ruled the local airwaves — says that "my hope is that when Tesla and the other major car companies understand that this matters, they'll do the fix and make it part of our future. If you're an electric car company and getting people to change, why wipe out something that people count on?"
Adds Hannity, "the car companies will give into reason."
Harrison, too, remembers that vibrant radio scene growing up in Farmingdale and Freeport during the '60s.
"What we're really talking about here is the symbolism of AM radio," he says, "which happens to be supported by the fact that AM will still be viable for the better part of the next decade.
"For crying out loud, leave it alone."