Photo of an early AM-only car radio.

“No Particular Place to Go”

When the 2021 Cadillac Escalade was introduced, the vehicle manufacturer didn’t make a big deal out of the fact that this is a BIG SUV—the passenger volume is 168.4 cubic feet, which doesn’t mean a whole lot until you know that your Honda CR-V has more than 60 fewer cubic feet for people, and we’re talking about the regular wheel base Escalade, not the extended model—as much as it touted “Escalade’s industry-first curved OLED display” that “offers more than 38 inches of total diagonal display area” including “a 7.2-inch-diagonal touch control panel driver information center to the driver’s left, a 14.2-inch-diagonal cluster display behind the steering wheel and a 16.9-inch-diagonal Infotainment screen to the driver’s right.” Cadillac, presumably wanted to emphasize that this isn’t just a vehicle that, depending on the engine selected, has fuel economy of 13 mpg, but an entertainment experience, as it had Spike Lee introduce the vehicle at an event in Los Angeles.

Another point it emphasized was that the SUV features an audio system from AKG that includes 36 speakers driven by three amps that deliver 28 channels. Notably there is what is called “Studio 3D Surround.” The speakers are placed such that it delivers “sound like being with the artist in the recording studio.” AKG, which was founded in Vienna in 1947, invented the dynamic cardioid microphone that became popular in recording studios; its capabilities in the recording studio space garnered it a Technical Grammy in 2010. Although there is something to the fact that Mozart spent a considerable amount of time in Vienna and died there which makes microphones and speakers from a company that was founded there, in 1994 AKG was acquired by Harmon International. AKG Vienna was shut down in 2017 and the HQ moved to Northridge, California, the same year that Harmon was acquired by Samsung.

Automakers across the board are banking on things like screens and entertainment to attract people to their models. While there had been radio head units in the dashboards since the mid-1930s when Motorola was established (there was a 1922 Chevy with a radio, but Motorola made radios an accessible option), by and large they have disappeared, giving way to screens of different sizes and configurations.

One of the elements of early radios—automotive and otherwise—is the vacuum tube. Hyundai features a graphic of vacuum tubes on the screen for its infotainment offerings, something of a steampunk execution that is far more charming than the sterile robotic appearance of the interface used by most automotive companies. For some reason automotive interface designers have convinced themselves that they are simply making giant iPhone analogues (even when Apple CarPlay isn’t being displayed).

There is an inextricable relationship between motor vehicles and audio systems in the U.S. And this is a massive relationship. According to the U.S. Census, 92% of American households own at least one vehicle. Federal Highway Administration statistics show that there are 271,834,070 private and commercial motor vehicles registered in U.S. Undoubtedly most, if not all, of those vehicles have a radio.

For example, someone who is going to buy a base model 2023 Ford F-150 XL—sometimes referred to as “the contractor special,” given that it is the sort of thing that landscaping crews and construction companies opt for as it is capable yet economical because it isn’t loaded up with amenities but is the bare-bones (comparative) choice—yes, there will be a standard screen in the center of the dash—an eight-inch capacitive touch screen—but there are also two knobs below the screen: Tune and Volume. There is standard AM/FM. Sirius XM is an available option, which probably has a low take rate unless the vehicle is being driven by the owner of the contracting company.

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One of the most famous vehicles in musical history is the Cadillac Coupe de Ville in Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.” The protagonist in the song, who is chasing Maybellene’s Cadillac, is driving what’s simply described as a “Ford V8,” catches her:

Cadillac sittin’ like toad on a lake
At 110, a half mile ahead
The Cadillac lookin’ like it’s sittin’ still
And I caught Maybellene at the top of the hill

Ford has done well in music. In 1966 Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” was released:

I bought you a brand-new Mustang, a 1965

Realize that the Mustang was introduced in 1964, so clearly that car had a level of importance that resulted in Pickett writing a song about the vehicle within a couple years of its introduction.

Soon the seventh-generation Mustang will be introduced, a 2024 model. It has a 12.4-inch digital instrument cluster (think: speedometer) and a 13.2-inch infotainment screen. Two linear feet of digital information.

What it doesn’t have are Tune and Volume knobs.

What it doesn’t have is AM radio.

That’s right: the vehicle audio staple that arguably drove the careers of people including Chuck Berry and Wilson Pickett will no longer be an offering—not even optional—in America’s classic pony car.

Although this may seem sensible, with AM and even FM giving way to alternative modes of infotainment, a survey released by Edison Research in July 2020 (yes, things may have changed between then and now, but there would have to be a significant change to modify the results) has it that 55% of Gen Z listeners listen to AM/FM, and almost half of that listening is done in a car. What’s more, another study The Infinite Dial, this released one year ago, has it that “73% of those in the U.S. age 18+ who have ridden or driven a car in the last month use AM/FM radio as an audio source in-car, far outpacing the next-closest audio source, owned digital music (used by 53%).”

And more to the point, according to Nielsen, some 47-million Americans listen to AM for at least two hours per day.

Some carmakers—Tesla, Audi, Porsche, Volkswagen, Volvo—have eliminated AM radio from their electric vehicles because of electromagnetic interference. Ford had it in its electric F-150 Lightning but took it out this year.

It is not a difficult fix to provide shielding, but that adds expense. According to Kelley Blue Book, in February 2023 the average price paid for an electric vehicle was $58,385, so it is hard to imagine anyone noticing static mitigation measures added to the cost.

The 2024 Mustang is not an electric vehicle, so that’s not it.

It probably isn’t necessarily a cost savings measure, either. (You can buy an AM head unit for a car from Walmart for $24.99, and a major automaker can probably obtain a considerable volume discount.)

Possibly it goes to the notion of vehicles as being more about technological wizardry than something about which Chuck Berry once sang:

Cruisin’ and playin’ the radio
With no particular place to go

If that’s not the beauty of owning and driving a vehicle like a Mustang, what is?*

*To be sure, there are negative environmental consequences to just driving around in a vehicle**–imagine the deleterious effects if everyone was aimlessly driving around in 13-mpg Escalades–but were cars simply modes of transportation rather than being (as they have long been) places of individual choice, there would be purely functional utilitarian vehicles and a whole lot more public transportation. Clearly not the case. Anywhere. 

**The statistics about AM listenership notwithstanding, there is a small likelihood that there would actually be sizable number of people listening to that radio band, as it has become dominated by people talking about politics, news, traffic, weather, home improvement and a raft of other things without a whole lot of melody. That said, given the surprising resurgence of vinyl–the RIAA recently reported physical album sales were up 17%, to $1.2-billion in 2022, which marks a 16 year in a row increase–perhaps there could be a similar return to radio as it once was. Again, not likely, but who would have imagined the vinyl trend–albeit a fraction of streaming–would have been more than a passing fancy?

 

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