AM May Become a 100-Year-Old Relic of Radio Past

Steve Propes
GRUNDIG Classic 960 Anniversary Edition AM FM SW Radio sold at the former ACT Electronics store on Anaheim Street to Beachcomber Publisher Jay Beeler..

On this past April Fool’s Day, the Detroit Free Press reported “Ford Motor Co. plans to stop putting AM radio in new gas-powered and electric vehicles beginning in 2024, including the all-electric Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lightning pickup.”

This announcement did not go unnoticed. “We are transitioning from AM radio for most new and updated 2024 models,” Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood told the Free Press. “A majority of U.S. AM stations, as well as a number of countries and auto makers globally, are modernizing radio by offering internet streaming through mobile apps, FM, digital and satellite radio options.

“Commercial vehicles will continue to offer AM radio because of long-standing contract language,” Sherwood said. Drivers often turn to AM radio for live traffic updates and weather reports, as well as emergency communication.

General Motors was non-committal on their plans. Jeep, Chrysler, Dodge and Ram lines will continue offering AM radio. Most German car companies like BMW as well as Volvo have dropped AM radio for EVs, as well as Tesla.

Almost immediately, L.A.’s leading AM radio station, News Talk KFI (640 AM) ran spots decrying the move, urging listeners to write to Washington DC to oppose this decision. KFI is one of about 32 local radio stations on the AM dial, 15 of which broadcast in foreign languages (Spanish, Iranian, Vietnamese and Korean); 10 are news talk; six are religious; three are sports talk and one broadcasts classical music.

There are about 50 FM signals locally, 10 foreign language; nine public radio; seven rock and alternative; five religious and four urban and hip hop.

AM has greatest impact in small markets as the AM signal travels much further than FM. Local AM remains the source for syndicated talk radio, country and ethnic music as well as big city 50,000 watt AM “flame throwers” out of Chicago, Nashville, St. Louis, Denver and Minneapolis among major metros reaching otherwise underserved regions.

AM radio first appeared in Southern California slightly more than 100 years ago and many signed on in the interim. Two stations that survived are news radio KNX and news talk KFI.

In the first 50 of those years, AM was king.

Motorola introduced the first dash-mounted radios in the mid-1930s. By the late 1930s, push-button AM radios were a common option for cars. This 1952-52 car radio was made by Bendix Corporation for Ford Motor Company.

FM became a thing in the early 1940s with KHJ-FM signing on in 1941, “simulcasting” (repeating the AM side) for several decades. The FM audience was small as receivers were expensive and programs were narrowly focused to that audiophile demographic with folk, jazz and classical music programs. With little interest in the frequency, there was limited incentive to originate popular programs.

Blaupunkt, a German company, produced the first FM radio for cars in 1952. Within a year, Becker Audiosound produced a combined AM/FM radio. Programming often amounted to just a few hours a day, typically classical music.

During the 1950s and 1960s, L.A. market leaders were rockers KFWB, KRLA and “boss radio” KHJ. Even a small wattage AM, KGFJ got big ratings as a soul music favorite competing with KDAY and various border blasters. Country was dominated by AM signals, KLAC and Long Beach’s oldest AM, KFOX. KFAC and KFAC-FM simulcast the classical offerings.

KHJ-FM, KABC-FM and KNX-FM simulcast the AM side until the 1960s when the FCC ruled against that practice. FMs were thus required to originate at least some programs. In 1971, KABC-FM became KLOS and in 1972, KHJ-FM became KRTH during the era of Earth Day. Thus, it was 50 years ago that FM began eclipsing AM, a trend that has hardly diminished.

Well before that tectonic shift, two very local stations pioneered a new approach to FM radio. Begun in 1949, KNOB was located at its transmitter site atop Signal Hill when it debuted playing classical music for several hours a day in 1954. Past CSULB dean and Lakewood Village resident Rowland Kerr recalled, KNOB owner “Ray Torian got in touch with LBCC’s radio class, which had a good radio studio at the time,” said Kerr. a jazz fan. Kerr jumped at the job offer. “KNOB signed on at noon. Torian would play classical at noon and classical music later in the day until midnight. I would open up my jazz show in the afternoon at 3 or 4 p.m.”

Sleepy Stein, L.A.’s first great jazz radio legend “contacted Ray and came in while I was there. He would do a show he called Mahogany Hall. It allowed us to play more jazz, developing this audience of jazz fans.” On Aug. 18, 1957, KNOB became the world’s first all-jazz station, known to listeners as “the Jazz Knob.”

FM radio KLFM, which had signed on the air in 1961 with studio locations at Lakewood Center and Greenmeadow Road in Lakewood Village, as well as downtown Long Beach, announced a new “Less talk and more rock” format on Oct. 4, 1963.

At about the same time, KTYM-FM in Inglewood began spinning R&B oldies. KTYM later became KACE and KLFM became “pure rock” KNAC, the world’s metal leader until 1995. KNOB, KLFM and KTYM all became Spanish language FM signals in recent ownership changes.

After Congressional pressure, on May 24, Ford threw the plan into reverse, pointing out the importance of AM as an emergency frequency. 

Had Ford simply dropped AM radio from 2024 models without any announcement, likely there would have been no outcry from the industry and Congress. 

[Editor Note: “AM” stands for amplitude modulation with waves following the ground’s  surface while “FM” means frequency modulation, with waves traveling a direct, line-of-sight between the transmitter and receiver.]

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