Is it just me or has AM radio reception gotten worse?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Sep 01, 1993

Dear Tom and Ray:

Why is reception on my AM car radio so poor? The last two cars I've owned (an '87 Sterling and a '90 Taurus) had wiring that enabled me to listen to my spark plugs and windshield wipers on the radio. The dealer's mechanic told me that "they were all like that." How do I find the car radios like those of my youth that enabled me to listen to Boston, Chicago, Richmond, and New Orleans from the streets of Cleveland? Or is there some FCC conspiracy to force us to listen to local AM stations only?

TOM: You'd think that after fifteen years of being on National Public Radio, we'd know something about radios, wouldn't you?

RAY: Why? After 25 years of working on cars, we don't know anything about cars!

TOM: That's true. Actually, we do know that AM reception has gotten worse in the last twenty years, Mark. AM always had some disadvantages. It's very susceptible to interference from electrical things like windshield wipers, directional signals, spark plugs, etc.

RAY: And there are a lot more things in the car that cause interference than there used to be. Not to mention more AM radio stations out there.

TOM: That's right. The FCC apparently DOES want you to listen to local AM stations, and they've allowed a lot more of them to be built. So where you once had a clear shot to Boston, Chicago, or Saipan, there are now lots of other AM stations between here and there on the same frequencies. So those big, old, powerful stations are literally being "interfered out."

RAY: Partly for that reason, FM radio (which is not susceptible to that kind of interference) has become much more popular in cars. And as manufacturers concentrated on making better FM radios, they put less effort into making good AM car radios.

TOM: As a result, according to some of our radio engineer friends, the typical AM radio you get in your car these days is not that good. And when you combine that with the increased AM interference, what you get is more static.

RAY: So what can you do about it? Well, you can pay more for an AM radio that's "AMax" certified. That's an industry designation for the higher quality AM radios.

TOM: Or, you can listen to FM. While AM reception has gotten worse over the years, FM car radios have been getting better and better. In fact, the only time you ever hear noise and static on FM these days is when OUR show is on.

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