American???s Love Affair with Traditional AM/FM Car Radio

My wife loves this story.

It was a perfect opportunity to see my beloved LSU Tigers play basketball. It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving in 2005, and they were playing at West Virginia. It would be an easy ticket, I told Mrs. M. Students gone for the holidays. Non-conference game between unranked teams. West Virginia had never sold out a November non-conference home game. As in never ??? ever.

But then some strange things began to happen. I tried to order tickets online, but couldn???t ??? even though all other games were available. Then, the starting time changed from 3 p.m. to 4:44 p.m. Who starts a game at 4:44?

Undeterred, we headed to Morgantown only to find out this game was indeed quite a big deal on the WVU campus. Jerry West, the greatest Mountaineer and one of the greatest Los Angeles Lakers ever, the man known as The Logo because the NBA logo is a silhouette of him demonstrating perfect form, was being inducted into the WVU Hall of Fame. No.44 (thus the weird start time) was, in fact, its first inductee.

No wonder no tickets were available online. Scalpers wanted $150 per seat.

So we retreated to a nearby eatery and watched most of the game there. But, with WVU up by 12 late in the game, we decided to head out. Naturally, LSU caught up and forced overtime. And then another overtime. And there we were, on the side of a highway ramp on top of a hill in intimidating dark listening to the end on a fading radio signal.

When LSU won, my loud cheers were heard only by Mrs. M and my 1-year-old daughter, who, it was noted, had been sleeping peacefully.

All of us of a certain age have stories like that ??? where our car radios put us places we couldn???t go, taught us songs we???d never know and gave us a free view into the local culture and personality of every town we ever drove through. AM/FM radios in our cars have created a culture all their own. From Rush Limbaugh to Diane Rehm, from Casey Kasem to Dr. Laura, it has created a legion of legends, a mountain of music, a diversity of experiences we???d never have enjoyed otherwise.

The car radio soon could be a thing of the past. Some developers, contrary to all evidence of consumer preference, want to supplant the traditional AM / FM car radio with various audio apps.

I think this would be a mistake. There are legitimate safety concerns. Could programming while driving become the new texting while driving? Could a completely digital dash result in new fees for all forms of future audio options, leaving poorer drivers with no access to traffic or weather info? It???s not a big deal until it is a big deal ??? at which point it becomes a very big deal.

But there is something more important at stake. George Will has for years lamented how the interstate highway system enabled Burger King, Denny???s and McDonald???s to wipe out mom-and-pop roadside cafes. It didn???t just wipe out a lot of good food options. It wiped out originality. Today, it???s go with the formula or die.

Radio would undergo the same thing if car companies stopped installing AM/FM units in cars.

Yes, there would be content without AM/FM units in cars. I???m as big a fan of satellite radio as anyone. But the ability of newer voices, those not part of the scene, to break through would be lost. The local talk shows would be wiped out by the big networks. Big-time sports still would be available, but high school and small college games ??? the bulwark of sportscasting in small-town America ??? would not.

Apparently, I am not the only one who thinks this. A February survey by the polling firm IPSOS showed Americans overwhelmingly opposed to losing AM/FM radios in their cars. Nearly all ??? 99 percent ??? say they understand the technology, know where to find the entertainment and information they want and need and are comfortable having AM/FM in their cars, even if they use satellite or streaming services as well.

I???m all for technology, but new audio apps should a complement to the traditional AM/FM radio, not a substitute for it.

Today, AM/FM radio is one of the few bastions of local expression left. It is where communities can establish and explain their voice, their values, and their unique take on the world. If AM/FM radios are eliminated in cars, those stations will die ??? not all in one day, but soon enough. And that content, those views, those new stars and songs, those weather reports and traffic warnings and high school football games will be lost ??? forever.