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NAB’s Curtis LeGeyt: Ford Decision ‘Means A Lot But The Fight Is Not Over.’

Just over two months after Ford Motor Company sent shockwaves across the industry with an announcement to exclude AM radio from most of its new and updated models, the automaker on Tuesday reversed course. In an interview with Inside Radio, Curtis LeGeyt, President and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters talks about the carefully orchestrated campaign to keep AM radio in cars, what’s likely to happen next on Capitol Hill, and how broadcasters can support the cause.

How were the NAB and lawmakers able to convince Ford to reverse course?

What we've seen over the last four weeks in reaction to more public awareness around the potential loss of AM radio in automobiles, particularly in Ford automobiles, has been absolutely astounding. More than 200,000 listeners have sent emails to lawmakers in Washington, DC; more than 100 lawmakers turned around and sent letters to these automakers, including Ford; you've got a bipartisan, bicameral bill [the proposed AM for Every Vehicle Act] introduced by significant bipartisan members. And all of that brought real attention to Ford’s C-suite on the importance of AM radio to communities across the country. I don't think it's any one thing, it's the confluence of all of it, in terms of raising public awareness and ensuring that these automakers understand that this is a really important medium.

Why is this reversal by Ford so important to the future of AM radio?

The fact is AM radio lives in the car dashboard and Ford is an extremely influential and relevant automaker for listeners of AM radio. If we are being honest about it, it is critical for the medium for our audiences to have access to AM in every dashboard. Ford is an industry leader. And the fact that they so quickly were able to reconsider this decision and reverse course – I commend them for it. They heard us, they heard the industry, they heard their listeners. And my hope is that other automakers will follow suit. This demonstrates to Washington, DC lawmakers that what the legislation that was introduced by Senators Markey and Cruz and Congressman Gottheimer seeks to accomplish is eminently reasonable. And that there's a real public safety argument for it. Ford obviously heard the call on that. It means a lot but the fight here is not over.

Will it motivate other automakers to follow Ford’s lead?

Let me make an important point about Ford, which is the fact that their announcement includes enabling this in electric vehicles. This is significant in demonstrating that that issue is eminently solvable. And as it relates to the other automakers, I'm really interested to see how they are going to respond to [the letter sent by Reps. Bob Latta (R-OH), Greg Pence (R-IN) and 100 of their bipartisan House colleagues] urging them to maintain AM radio receivers in all their vehicles. I haven't seen their response to that letter. And there's a lot of very detailed information sought in that letter. Each of those automakers has the opportunity to clear this up and give very specific information about their plans with regard to AM radio in their automobiles. That’s the next step here, to see what those responses look like.

Ford said it will keep AM radio in future vehicles as it looks at innovative ways to deliver emergency alerts. Does this mean that AM radio merely bought some time until Ford develops another way to ensure its customers receive emergency alerts?

Listen, we are all for innovation. But we've got to ensure that every AM listener in the country has the ability to access the medium in the automobile. And I'm not aware of any technological solution that is going to provide the same public safety benefits that AM's current infrastructure does. I interpret that the same way that you do, which is that Ford is giving themselves some flexibility. Obviously, we welcome a dialogue with them. But I don't think that any of that will change the need for access to AM radio’s indispensable role in the emergency alerting system as the backbone. And the fact that legislation really continues to be necessary to ensure that system remains in place.

We’re hearing from several groups that oppose the AM In Every Vehicle Act, including the Zero Emission Transportation Association, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, and the Consumer Technology Association. They point out 97% of Americans have a cell phone, which is designed to receive the Wireless Emergency Alerts. Does this concern you?

I'm really surprised that these industries that are leaning so much on Washington, DC for subsidies would decide to put their individual members’ bottom lines above public safety. And in terms of the merits of it, the reality here is that in times of disaster, when other forms of communication – including cell phones, including internet – fail, the EAS system is set up with AM as its backbone for a reason. And it's that our stations stay on the line. So there's a real public safety, public interest benefit to keeping AM stations viable. And this legislation would achieve that.

What happens next? And what should broadcasters be doing to ensure that AM radio, as the bill’s title says, is available in every vehicle?

What we should be looking out for is the other automakers’ response to the recent House letter. In terms of what we can be doing, every broadcaster should be encouraging their member of Congress to sign on as a co-sponsor to this legislation. I am confident that the committee leaders in both chambers are eager to give the legislation formal consideration. We know that Congress is focused on a lot of other things right now and we've got to make sure that this issue stays top of mind. To get the momentum that's going to be necessary to get consideration in the Congress committees and then, ultimately, on the House and Senate floors, every broadcaster needs to engage with their legislator and tell them that this is incredibly important. And it's important not just for our businesses, but for our communities and for public safety. I couldn't be happier with the news that I think validates all the work we're doing. But we’ve got to work together here to make sure that no one lets up on the urgency, that local broadcasters don't take this as a victory. We’ve got further to go.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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