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AM Radio Has Powerful Backer in Georgia Association of Broadcasters Pres. Bob Houghton

Radio has always been essential to the Emergency Alert System, and AM radio stations are particularly crucial. These stations act as Primary Entry Points that are rebroadcast on FM stations and television during emergencies. Even FEMA, the FCC, and Homeland Security recognize the value of AM radio when power and internet services are down. 

Over 80 million people tune into AM radio stations for daily news, sports, and entertainment. This medium is always free and serves underserved communities in rural and urban areas. These communities include people of color and underrepresented groups with religious and language differences. 

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Last May, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Edward Markey (D-MA) introduced the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act, which has received support from both sides of the aisle. The bill is now up for consideration on the Senate floor. 

During a recent meeting in Washington, a panel of broadcasters from various organizations discussed the importance of AM radio. Representatives from the National Association of Farm Broadcasters, National Religious Broadcasters, National Association of Black-Owned Broadcasters, and owners of Spanish-speaking stations shared their insights.  

Bob Houghton is a respected figure in the broadcasting industry and advocates for AM radios in vehicles. He has held various positions and is currently serving as the President of the Georgia Association of Broadcasters since March 2012. Before that, he was General Manager at Score Atlanta from 2009 to April 2012 and at Georgia Public Broadcasting from July 2007 to April 2009.  

Houghton’s extensive experience includes being the VP of Business Development at Big League Broadcasting from September 2001 to July 2007. He was also General Manager at WGST Radio from May 1992 to May 1999, where he managed multiple networks such as the Braves Radio Network, Hawks Radio Network, Georgia Tech Sports, Atlanta Falcons Radio Network, and Georgia News Network. He even enjoyed stints as a General Sales Manager with WBBM in Chicago, and WCCO in Minneapolis.

Altogether, Bob has worked closely with almost 500 Georgia Television and Radio Stations during his three plus decades of experience in the broadcasting industry.  

In a conversation with Barrett News Media, Houghton highlights the importance of collaborative efforts behind the scenes to save the AM band. He stresses that the fight to preserve AM is more significant than most people realize.

Ryan Hedrick: Last week was significant for the industry and supporters of the AM Radio for Every Vehicle Act of 2023. Discuss the importance of the law and the advocacy efforts driving it forward.

Bob Houghton: Last week was the culmination of an incredible three months. As someone who’s been around Washington, I’ve never seen something move as fast as this. The energy co-sponsors Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) brought to this bill have been amazing. We make no mistake that AM was the battle and radio is the war. Most of us feel that if AM radio goes away, radio will be the next thing.    

RH: Do you believe that if AM radio disappears, FM radio will be next? If so, what are your reasons for thinking this? 

BH: The real goal is not [the attempt] to remove static from the car. The real goal is that they want to provide revenue opportunities when you buy a new car. They (automakers) want to be in a position to charge a fee as they do for SiriusXM, which they get a portion of. They would like to see that extended to other forms of entertainment in the car. They feel the free version of radio is a challenge to that.  

I’m referring to manufacturers. This is not a dealer issue; some of the dealers are on our side. The people who build the cars are trying to take the radio out of the cars.

RH: What strategies can broadcasters employ to enhance their creativity and produce exceptional content on AM radio? Moreover, how can they make it challenging for automakers to eliminate AM radio from their vehicles? 

BH: Over 80 million people listen to AM radio every month. They listen primarily to local information and community service. If you’re in a rural area, agriculture is important. If you’re in an urban area, talking is important.  

RH: Can AM radio revamp its image and appeal to younger audiences?  

BH: I have spent most of my career in AM radio. What we used to say is that when you’re 25 and going to the bars, you’re probably not listening to AM radio, but when you’re 35 and have a mortgage and other debt and children, you’ll start listening to AM radio. There are so many ways to get information today. I think we’re talking about primarily serving the underserved. The age is not as important as the content.  

RH: In your opinion, what kind of influence has AM radio had on our society? 

BH: One of the greatest advantages of AM radio is that it offers a low threshold to ownership because most AM radio stations are priced lower than FM stations. Most radio stations that have an FM translator, the AM signal goes further than the FM signal. What happens is stations that have both bands use FM to saturate their primary listening area. That’s 80 percent of the stations that have an AM/FM combination. The AM band has some natural advantages that FM doesn’t.  

RH: Do you think political interests drive the attempt to remove AM radios from vehicles? 

BH: No. The fact that we have co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle proves that. I think the fact that we have a 50/50 split in terms of support goes a long way to dispel that. Yes, most news/talk radio is conservative, but at the same time, that’s not the reason that anybody is trying to [take AM radios out of cars] and we want to keep it that way.  

RH: Can you explain the role that AM radio plays in mass communication and emergency service alerts? 

BH: In the Emergency Alert System (EAS), a vast majority of the primary stations are still AM radio. AM radio is the primary entry point for emergency alerts, Amber Alerts, flash flood warnings, and so on. The system works because the alert goes in and comes out from the primary entry point for a specific reason. AM radio is the last thing to go off the air. The towers for AM radio are the most secure because FM towers are usually on buildings. The first thing the AM signal does is go into the ground and bounce. Therefore, it makes it the most unlikely signal to be lost.  

One of the best examples I can recall is what happened in Southwest Georgia. Everything was off the air. The general sales manager was in the basement with her children, husband, and dogs, and the only signal that they could get was the AM radio. They were able to pick up the Georgia News Network, and it just so happened that they were able to pick up a was formerly a television news anchor on her station. The voice of a local person describing what was going on in your area brought amazing comfort to her.

She couldn’t get the television on the internet; the only signal she could get was an AM signal.  

Here’s a timeline of important events regarding the issue of keeping AM radios in electric vehicle dashboards: 

In December 2022, Senator Ed Markey wrote to twenty Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) to ask about their stance on the matter. Markey was concerned about the lack of response from the Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). 

In March 2023, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and the National Association of State Broadcasters Associations (NASBA) held discussions on how to address the issue. 

In May, two bills were introduced: HR3413 in the House and SB1669 in the Senate. 

In June, over 150 broadcasters from a “super majority” of states met in Washington to discuss and meet with members of Congress. Bipartisan support for the bills came from both the House and Senate. Additionally, Ford reversed its decision and announced that AM radio would remain in all vehicles for 2024. 

In July, Congress received over 300,000 communications from constituents supporting the legislation. The Senate took up the process of “marking up the bill,” and it was forwarded out of committee with near-unanimous support. 

Currently, over 150 members of Congress are co-sponsors of the bills, with 28 Senate members and 137 House members supporting them. 

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