As a radio programmer of many years' experience (that was me hosting FDR’s “fireside chats”), I’ve always counted on a captive audience — drive-time commuters. What else were they going to do in their cars as they inched along the highway, especially in the years before CDs? Up against the cassette and 8-track, FM radio fared pretty well as in-car entertainment.

Flash forward to now. Cars don’t have radios, they have “infotainment systems,” with satellite services, online music and Web-enabled navigation and graphics. I can access 95,000 of my uploaded songs through the Amazon Cloud Player. I can use Spotify to stream just about any new album I want. HD Radio? No problem.

Somewhere on all the cars out today, is plain old AM and FM, but is it being overshadowed by popular cell-based services like Pandora? So say the auto audio moguls at the recent Radio Ink Convergence conference. Eric Rhoads, a publisher and longtime radio guy, got the word from a panel that included an unidentified General Motors source, a Gartner Research auto expert, as well as other industry professionals.

Rhoads heard this: “AM and FM are being eliminated from the dash of two car companies within two years and will be eliminated from the dash of all cars within five years.” Wow, really? There goes half my audience. It’s not exactly welcome news for NPR, which counts on a big commuter audience for Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

dashboard of an old car

The panelists also said that “young people don’t use radio anymore, and automakers see no need to continue to put radios in the car. The kids want Pandora, Spotify and other audio services, and if they want radio they can get it on TuneIn or iHeart or a similar service.”

Sorry, I know it’s self-serving, but in my experience teenagers and pre-teens listen to a lot of radio in the car. I’m a dad’s taxi guy, who’s been moving young women around for a decade, and most of the time (when I let them) they listen to local FM hit radio, and an equal amount to the same on satellite (if available). That’s why I have Bruno Mars and Taylor Swift baked into my brain. Yes, they plug in their cellphones and iPads, too, but I haven’t yet seen a big rush to Pandora and Spotify in the 18-and-under suburban teenager. It may depend on where you live.

The automakers are being cagey about their intent. “We love radio,” Ford technology spokesman Alan Hall emailed me. Chris Naughton of Honda added, “I can say, emphatically, that in the near term we are not removing AM/FM from our cars. Quite the opposite. We've been adding more options for playing content in our cars. First with auxiliary inputs, then USB connectivity, then Pandora capability and now on the new Accord HondaLink with Aha.”

Indeed, Chris, but those other options are what threaten to derail good 'ol AM/FM. According to Rhoads, GM uses youth consultants MTV Scratch, which has been plying the big automaker with information about the lack of interest in terrestrial radio among youth.

But GM denies any big change is imminent. According to GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan, “Our Global Connected Consumer team at General Motors is responsible for setting the strategy for infotainment systems across GM. While we are excited about the possibilities of Internet radio services and other emerging services, we understand that AM/FM radio is still a significant source of news and entertainment. In fact, it is an expected feature.
 
“We can’t speak for other automakers, but to be clear, GM has no near-term plans to eliminate AM and FM from GM vehicles [emphasis in the original]. We expect AM/FM radio to be one of the choices consumers have in our vehicles.” Note that both Honda and GM qualify their comments with the phrase “near term.” They’re not doing it now, but that doesn’t rule out doing it in the middle term.

Jim Buczkowski, a technical fellow for electronics at Ford Research, says that "AM and FM are free for listeners, and people are still happy with local talk and news broadcasts. Plus, the digital tuners we have today have improved quality and added features. As long as radio is a good value for customers, it will be there." That's qualified, too.

I haven’t gotten feedback from MTV Scratch, but this makes sense as a trend that also includes the elimination of the in-dash CD player in the near future. Doug Berman, who produces Car Talk for my other gig blogging at NPR, comments, “I see everything — radio and TV — going to an on-demand format. Not sure two years makes sense though. Radio is still a huge business. And remember, there were cassette players in cars in the early 2000s. But yes, definitely happening.”

TV is obviously moving toward on-demand, and the network “schedule” may soon go by the boards. How can waiting for your favorite programs compare to using an iPad to click on an always-ready episode? The future is Netflix uploading all 13 installments of David Fincher’s "House of Cards" in one go.

Radio can be delivered that way, too, and it will work great with weekly programs like Car Talk, less well for 24-hour music and news outlets.

Rhoads says that the Arbitron ratings don’t confirm a drop in the youth radio audience, though he’s seen some personal evidence of it. Of course there will be some erosion, because it’s so easy to plug in personal devices.

I think radio will linger, because it’s not much of a cost center compared to the CD hardware. Buczkowski agrees that the CD mechanism is expensive, mechanical and prone to failure — automakers can't get rid of it soon enough, since listeners prefer other digital sources. Older car buyers will still want it, even if the youth do turn away. Stay tuned, as they say.

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