Getting In The AM Radio War Room With Don Elliot


Earlier this week, Radio Ink asked “Is AM worth saving?” We continue this series with Don Elliot. Don is a recognizable name in the world of California radio. He moved to LA in 1976 to switch KIIS to Top 40, and spent decades in the market as a talent, producer, voiceover artist, consultant, and syndicator. He’s also the owner of Schwab Multimedia, LLC. We sat down with Don to discuss AM’s future and war-time strategies for broadcasters.

Radio Ink: 81% of Radio Ink listeners agreed AM is worth saving, but there were a lot of different personal reasons. Political content, religious content, the Black Information Network, public safety, reach, it goes on. Those are very individualized reasons. Do you believe that those will be what saves AM?

Don Elliot: It’s going to take a lot of action to cause a mandate. You have all these little, tiny arguments – not much on their own – but if you can crumple one hundred little tinfoil balls  into a big tinfoil ball a couple feet in size, it has more impact.

I think the NAB is doing a great job of pulling some of these together, but the easiest way to an AM protection mandate is by way of safety. Think about FEMA. There’s been a huge investment in high power, large market, pulse proof transmitters recently. They’ve got a secure line direct to Washington’s input should there be an attack that puts the other stations off the air. With FEMA’s investment in that, you would think that they would be on the warpath.

Radio Ink: David Schutz talked to us about how AM has faced elimination from auto twice before – in the thirties and in the sixties, all due to interference. The first thing that saved AM was police radios. The second go-round in the sixties was just the consumers’ intense love of radios in-car. What’s stopping them from fixing it this time?

Don Elliot: They don’t want to. Automakers know how to filter out the noise because many other manufacturers are doing it successfully.

There’s a very famous agent in town who represents most of the radio people and a few voiceover people. He was on his third Tesla. The first two had AM, and he was so pissed off when he drove it off the lot, couldn’t find AM, and had to ask “how do I turn on AM radio in this thing? Didn’t have a problem in my last one.” “Oh, well this one doesn’t have AM this year.” Of course this guy represents a lot of people on AM. The reason that the dealer gave was that [Tesla owner] Elon [Musk] doesn’t like the look of the antenna.

But people live in rural areas that can only get their farm information, weather, and news from AM. They can’t be left out because the antenna looks bad.

Radio Ink: As far as perception goes, I think it’s safe to say that Teslas are not necessarily marketed to people out in rural America. But what about Ford? Westwood and Cumulus’ Active Audio Group just ran a study, one out of five Ford owners are above-average AM users and Ford’s going to yank AM out, too.

Don Elliot: I hope that somebody at Ford may end on the carpet over this. I don’t know. I’m just dreaming and imagining what we must go on behind closed doors. I don’t have a crystal ball, just a lot of prayers and hopes, but it takes more than that.

A comment that I saw on social media just a day or so ago, and I don’t know if this is a good piece of ammunition or not, said, “If there’s enough RF in the car that it interferes with radio reception, I don’t think I wanna be inside that car.” [laughs] But the point is right now radio is on the defensive. We need an argument that puts automakers on the defensive to open up better discussions about how you can really figure out a way to mandate AM because I don’t think the popularity contest of AM in the short haul is going to be quick enough.

Radio Ink: Talking about no crystal ball, there are whispered fears that if automakers cut out AM today, especially if they want to push to a subscription model. Is it possible to you that down the line in 10 years, maybe longer, it’ll be next? Obviously, worst case scenario. Do you see autos trying to push out FM?

Don Elliot: Well, maybe not push it out. Follow the money. Something standard before will be charged tomorrow. Cars are going out cheaper now to compete with one another, but if you want a heated seat, the dealer turns it on with software for a hundred bucks for the first twelve months.

With the dashboard and entertainment, I think they’re trying to ride on the coattails of SiriusXM. I could see them charging for radio or turning it off, especially with other content you’d have to pay for. It reminds me of Apple turning off the FM chips in iPhones. They’re in there but Apple worried it would cut into the sales of music. Free radio cuts into auto’s sellable listenership.

Keeping radio in cars is going to take clout; FEMA and the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, ideally combined with the FCC. It has to be congressional. A bunch are on the case already, like Markey.

But maybe it’s time for radio to fight back in other ways. I have a friend running an AM station here in LA. I got on their case for running Tesla ads. They’re running an ad for a car that doesn’t have AM in it! It reminded me of my time at KIIS when I pissed off the sales department for declining ads for MTV. They said, “It’s gonna happen anyway.” Well, we’re not gonna help them. Some money’s just not worth it to me.


  1. First of all, being a Ham Radio operator, there’s nothing that replaces HF Radio (long range) comm’s in a national emergency, not to mention VHF/UHF for local activity. As for AM broadcasting, unlike FM, here too is a mode that has the potential to pass information to a large audience over long (and local) distances, especially when utilizing Class A – Clear Chanel stations. Removing AM from car radios is a really BAD idea, and in modern car radios, the parts cost is probably well under $10 when incorporated in an FM radio.

    As for the economic viability of AM broadcasting as an entertainment and information outlet, there are some obvious limitations and cost benefit issues that must be addressed, but that’s for a different discussion.

    That being said, the internet has had a profound effect on the broadcast and hobby radio. Young potential ham radio operators are getting fewer and fewer, mostly because the allure of talking to someone half way across the world is as easy as using your smart phone to make a VOIP phone call. The over-the-air buzz has slowly fizzled the radio hobby.

    As most drivers also have smartphones, perhaps an alternative emergency information method should be considered. If the power that be insist that AM radio is no longer valid, then perhaps, an internet based national emergency notification and information system needs to be created, most likely in an app form, as some may have envisioned.

    However, as most know that when a natural disaster occurs, such as hurricanes, earthquakes, wild fires, etc., internet/cell service will most likely be down, leaving those most in need of critical and life saving information, without any.

    So, yes, AM radio is a vital and important means of information decimation. Whether auto manufactures, and well as broadcasters want to continue to serve the public, is anyone’s guess.

  2. We all know AM is the grandfather to all these modern conveniences, so if the Auto industry doesn’t feel the need to include AM radio I’ll just order a pocket a.m. transistor radio to keep in my glove box and perhaps patronize a Motor Vehicle that does have a radio otherwise my cc radio will be fine. And now I can compete for a better priced vehicle.

  3. I love talk radio while setting in traffic!
    Music you can enjoy for so long. After tapping your steeling device for 15 – 25 minutes you’re done!! But listening to a talk radio station a topic with different opinions this can take me all the way home in traffic from Orange Co to Glendale, which can take me up to 2 hours, with little anxiety! Love John & Ken!❤️

  4. Travelers Information stations are also a safety enhancement on many interstates and rural areas and they are all AM operations. Granted the lethargic operators of these low power stations sometimes don’t update the info but that would be an easy fix from a regional “hub” system that could remotely update road info and closures etc. Currently the FCC doesn’t allow for FM TIS operations so there is an entirely separate reason to keep the AM band active. Someone said that remedy for the interference is as easy as a 7.00 in line filter. And it is an entire group of radio operators that are getting discarded at the whim of cosmetic appearance and un-needed change.

  5. Be careful about what you wish for on a mandate from the government. Any mandate that does not include minimum receiver standards will just lead the car companies to install the cheapest, poorest quality receiver in vehicles. One area the FCC and Congress need to look at is making sure that all EV’s are not causing interference to other vehicles on the road, and that the battery chargers also do not cause interference.

    • A Florida group of broadcasters has gotten together on this topic recently, challenging the car manufacturers who surprisingly readily and openly admit that their vehicles are in fact causing interference beyond existing FCC regulations already in place. Test this for yourself next time you pull up at a stoplight next to a Tesla. Turn on your AM radio.

      • Don, when you’re driving along a highway with high power lines, take note of the interference they cause, drowning out even the strongest AM stations. Additionally, try placing your smartphone or watch near your AM receiver at home to witness the impact of electronic device noise. Despite the FCC’s challenges in enforcing interference rules, the proliferation of electronic devices globally has saturated the airwaves, making it remarkable that AM still functions. Since the 1970s, AM receiver bandwidth has been akin to a telephone line. FM interference has suffered from IBOC adjacent channel hash and the emergence of low-powered translators. Improving AM requires better receivers, stricter enforcement of interference regulations, and more appealing programming. While the top 10 revenue-generating AM stations thrive, others should make efforts to follow suit. Keep up the fight!

  6. Many areas of the country, particularly the wast and Alaska are data deserts and the suggested app replacement is useless.

    We need am radio inclusion for information equity in emergencies and local programming diversity especially in these data deserts.


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