Todd Lockwood, a 56-year-old writer in South Burlington, Vt., often finds an annoying hitchhiker in his Audi when he tunes in to his local National Public Radio station. The outbursts of Howard Stern’s program, which airs on Sirius Satellite Radio Inc., sometimes blare from the dial and are particularly unwelcome when his three children are in the car.
“It will literally replace the station,” Lockwood said of the shock jock’s signal. “It’s starting to feel more and more like an intrusion.”
The invasion is caused by wireless devices that people use to listen to their portable satellite radio receiver, iPod or other MP3 player through their car radios. These devices, called modulators, are sometimes so powerful that they inadvertently send signals into nearby vehicles such as Lockwood’s.
The interference has been a major problem for NPR because many “plug-and-play” modulators come preset to the 88.1 FM frequency, which is used by 36 NPR stations, including WXLU in Peru, N.Y., which serves the Burlington area, and KKJZ, which broadcasts from the Cal State Long Beach campus.
“The complaints really started coming in the past year and a half and have kind of been at a steady clip,” said Toni Beron, a university spokeswoman. A handful of listeners to the classic jazz station complain each week, usually about interference from Stern’s show.
Ken Stern, NPR’s chief executive, wrote to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin J. Martin on Oct. 12 to ask for a technical review of the devices and for a recall of any that transmit with too much power. His recall request echoed one last summer by the National Assn. of Broadcasters, which complained that stations elsewhere on the dial also experienced interference.
Just how widespread is the problem?
Mike Starling, NPR’s chief technology officer, estimated that 3.4 million modulators were sold in 2005. “It looks like it’s such a huge problem we want to make sure they pinpoint the most likely source ... and hopefully recall the ones that are still in the marketplace,” Starling said of the FCC.
The FCC is reviewing the matter, spokesman Clyde Ensslin said.
Modulators are sold as accessories to some portable satellite radio receivers, or separately for as little as $20. They plug into a vehicle’s cigarette lighter and transmit from the receiver or MP3 player to the car radio.
Modulators are supposed to operate at low power so they do not cause interference. Higher-powered modulators allow for clearer transmission of a satellite program or MP3 recording within an owner’s car because they are less likely to receive interference from other signals.
Manufacturers are required to send the FCC a report showing the devices meet technical standards. The FCC does not pretest modulators, but allows manufacturers to sell devices only after the agency has approved their report. Those companies that sell overpowered devices are subject to penalties ranging from forfeiture of the devices to fines as high as $200,000.
Getting manufacturers to comply with the rules is a better solution than ordering a product recall, said Julie Kearney, senior director and regulatory counsel for the Consumer Electronics Assn., which represents some modulator makers. She said a recall “would just cause huge disruption to consumers.”
The group has notified its members and has been working with the FCC since being made aware of the problem this summer, she said.
Sirius and XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc. acknowledged in Securities and Exchange Commission filings this year that some of the devices packaged with their radios were too powerful. Both said they had been working with the FCC to address the problem. This summer and fall, XM and Sirius announced new FCC certification for some of the portable radios.
Satellite radio and MP3 players built into cars are not a problem because they don’t use wireless transmitters. XM spokesman David Butler said all modulators now being sold for use with the company’s radios included a wire that connected to the car antenna to avoid interference. For wireless modulators still in stores, XM has provided special beads that can be attached to reduce signals’ power.
“The radios currently being produced by XM have been certified by the FCC and we continue to work with the FCC on this,” Butler said.
NPR Labs, which Starling runs, studied the interference problem this summer. It found that about one-third of modulators operating at 88.1 FM or 87.9 FM, another common preset frequency, were too powerful. He said the number of devices over the power limit made it “not likely the result of isolated manufacturing errors,” as some manufacturers had suggested.
A National Assn. of Broadcasters study in June found that 76% of the modulators tested were over the power limit.
In an SEC filing in July, Sirius said an internal review uncovered some company personnel who requested that manufacturers violate FCC guidelines. Sirius said in the filing that it was taking steps to assure that didn’t happen again. Sirius spokesmen did not return calls for comment.
Starling said there was a “huge spike” in interference complaints to NPR stations starting in January, probably because many drivers got modulators during last year’s holiday season.
“Virtually all of our stations on 88.1 and some on 88.3 reported the problems,” he said.
Bob Sauter, chief engineer at North Country Public Radio, a network of NPR stations in upstate New York, was thrilled when WXLU was able to move from a 200-watt signal at 88.3 FM to a 1,000-watt signal at 88.1 in June. But with the new signal reaching more listeners, and at the most common preset frequency for modulators, the complaints started rolling in.
“The big example was the soccer mom saying ‘I’m driving my kids to school in the morning listening to “Morning Edition” and all of a sudden Howard Stern is on with his expletives,’ ” Sauter said.
Lockwood was one of those who complained to WXLU, and said that lately the interference had happened almost daily. All types of programming bleed into his radio, but his most frequent intruder is Stern, which is a problem when he’s driving his kids, ages 9, 12 and 16, to school.
“There’s been a couple of instances where I actually had to turn the radio off if we were stuck at a light or something and Howard was doing his usual shtick,” he said. At those times, “you want to roll your window down and let the guy next to you know he’s walking on your reception.”