AM/FM: Celebrate the car radio and the open road

Celebrate the 
car radio and 
the open road

Woman Using Car Stereo

Summer night, window down. Left elbow casually propped at 90 degrees.

Sun setting bronze and fuchsia, taking with it the crush of afternoon heat. Left hand lightly ventures into the onrush of air, dancing a slinky hula, an undulating sound wave, touching the velvet of descending cool.

Destination: anywhere. Everywhere. Nowhere in particular.

Road: It doesn’t really matter.

What does matter? Louie louie, oh no, say me gotta go, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah…

Singing along, of course, this is a given. Loud. Loud, loud, loud, reaching and screeching and turning it up and driving toward the sun in a river of summer gold.

All because there is a radio in the car.

A lot has been made lately about the car radio. Some tech futurists claim it’s on its way to extinction, some say it’s not going anywhere. At the annual Consumer Electronics Show held two weeks ago in Las Vegas, Chevrolet and Audi announced they would begin embedding 4G telematics in their cars starting this year.

Making the car, in very simplest terms, a drivable iPad.

It means Pandora and Spotify in the car instead of poking through pre-sets 1 through 6 and either staying put or moving on, depending on your feelings about Ke$ha.

All of which seems very far from Paul Galvin driving his Studebaker 800 miles from Chicago to the 1930 Radio Manufacturers Association convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Galvin, who with his brother, Joseph, owned the Galvin Manufacturing Corp.

He and a team of engineers — Galvin Manufacturing began as a company that manufactured battery eliminators — had been working with a radio parts company founded by William P. Lear to develop an affordable radio for automobiles.

“Radio was everything,” said Amy Gilroy, founder and editor of CEoutlook, a car electronics news service ( “It was before TV, so you can imagine what radio meant to people. It was their Internet, it was how they communicated.”

And with automobiles well into their ascendancy to the forefront of American life, with more people spending more time in them every day, it made sense to put radios in cars for news, for weather reports, for music.

Galvin’s team developed a radio that received a clear signal with the car running, and convention attendees ordered enough that Galvin Manufacturing could see future success for its so-named Motorola model 5T71.

“It was quite a big deal to get that stuff to work in a car because of the vibration,” said Mark Rumreich, an electrical engineer with Technicolor and author of “The Car Stereo Cookbook.” “Nowadays electronics are pretty insensitive to vibration and the environment, but the way things were done in the ‘30s, they used vacuum tubes, which were made of glass, which were fragile. A vacuum tube will turn a vibration into a sound and all I can tell you is it would have been quite an undertaking to make this stuff work.”

But it did work, and a seemingly insignificant deal came to symbolize a lot about what it means to have a radio in the car: In 1934, Paul Galvin made a deal with B.F. Goodrich to sell and install the Motorola in its tire stores. By then, the Motorola’s price was down to $55 from its original $110 (a new car then cost about $650).

So, tires and a radio. Put an engine between them and the heart of the American psyche beats just a little faster. Even before the 1930s, but escalating since then, America has been a nation on the move. And it has moved in vehicles with radios. And it has driven endless miles listening to wheat futures and sermons, doo-wop and politics, weather and football and that rock ‘n’ roll.

It seems inconceivable now to drive without a radio. And listen to what? The music of the road? When the radio breaks, it seems entirely reasonable to think about getting a different car.

Which is why the furor was understandable when, in March 2013, The Radio Agency CEO Mark Lipsky reported that three car companies were getting rid of AM/FM radios in their vehicles. Research done by MTV Scratch was cited, including the notion that “young people simply don’t use radio anymore and auto makers see no need to continue installing radios in their cars.”

It wasn’t accurate, Gilroy said.

“What you have to keep in mind,” she said, “is there’s a whole generation of kids who are very comfortable using bluetooth and getting Pandora and all the technology that’s coming up. But there was incredible backlash at Ford when they eliminated a lot of knobs on their radios. People were furious with the thing freezing and not working properly and making it hard to get to the AC controls, so on 2015 Mustang they’re including knobs on the radio again.”

And then there’s this: In the Infinite Dial 2013 Study done by Arbitron, which surveyed 400,000 people age 18 and older, 58 percent of respondents reported using AM/FM radio in the car “almost all of the times” or “most of the times.” The next closest media were CD players, which 15 percent of respondents used all or most of the time, and iPods/mp3 players, which 11 percent of respondents used.

The study further found that of the most popular in-car media, 84 percent of respondents used AM/FM radio, 63 percent used CD players, 29 percent used mp3 players, 15 percent used satellite radio and 12 percent used online radio.

And while the numbers of people using online and HD radio in their cars is growing, and while car audio is expanding technologically in futuristic and mind-boggling directions — developments not just in hardware but software — the essential truth is this: People want to listen to music or the game or talk radio while they drive to work or across the country.

Rumreich remembers being 16 and so anxious to drive that he was even willing to do it in his dad’s 1973 Vega. The thing was to get in the car and pop in the 8-track of Foghat or Led Zeppelin or Boston.

“We would go out and park somewhere and just listen to the car stereo for hours,” he said. “I don’t know if kids do that anymore now or not; they’ve all got iPods. But it was such a communal thing, the car and the music.”

That’s why, despite all the convulsions, fluctuations and tremendous changes in car electronics and technology in general, most agree that car radios aren’t going anywhere. They’re changing, sure, but there’s no way people are going to give up the elemental alchemy of driving and listening. Consider all the moments of it: a road trip through rural Kentucky and scanning through the FM dial, where it’s country, sermon, country, country, another sermon.

A satiny dark winter night, the stars like flashes of ice, and the perfect song for the drive to work, something mellow and sad and open to the horizon. The miles float by.

Driving home from the game, which was a blow-out, and the only thing that will do is something deafening and butt-kicking and yeeaaaaaahhhhh!!!

Staying in the car until the long-forgotten song is done, sighing with the memories. Clutching the steering wheel and yelling in anger at what this idiot is saying, but not changing the channel. Finding the game and hoping the signal lasts all the way across Nebraska. Scrolling down to the “Yo Gabba Gabba” music and hoping the kids will be soothed back there, because they still have two hours in the car.

Driving on a summer evening, the sun setting, a car full of friends, windows down, singing along without a care in the world.


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