Mixed signals

If you hear Howard Stern instead of NPR, bad satellite radio equipment is to blame

April 28, 2006|By FRANK D. ROYLANCE | FRANK D. ROYLANCE,SUN REPORTER

Startled fans of National Public Radio stations and Christian broadcasts at the low end of the FM dial are complaining that satellite shock-jock Howard Stern has burst in on their morning drive-time listening.

"Usually they're upset, because they don't know what's going on. This isn't what they tuned in to [hear]," said Charles W. Loughery, president of the Word FM Radio Network, a group of "contemporary Christian" stations in eastern Pennsylvania.

Normal car radios can't pick up signals from satellite-based subscription services such as Sirius, which carries Howard Stern's show. Instead, engineers blame badly installed, intentionally altered or defective equipment that transmits signals from Sirius receivers into their owners' car radios on FM frequencies.

Under the wrong circumstances, these gizmos can turn cars driven by Sirius subscribers into rolling FM broadcast stations.

As they move through traffic, their satellite radio programming is relayed, however briefly, to any radio that's tuned to the same frequency. Often, that's 88.1 MHz, or nearby frequencies reserved for noncommercial, religious or educational stations.

The interference might last only a second or two - but it can go on much longer if the sending and receiving vehicles are close enough and moving at the same speed.

Four of Loughery's six small radio stations have reported broadcast interference from Sirius Satellite Radio, with Stern and his potty-mouth the most oft-mentioned offender. Public radio stations across the country are getting the same complaints.

Anthony Brandon, president and general manager at 88.1 WYPR, a National Public Radio (NPR) affiliate in Baltimore, said he's shipped 60 complaint letters from listeners to the Federal Communications Commission.

"When Howard Stern went off terrestrial radio and onto satellite radio [on Jan. 9], it seems that is when we had the most complaints, due to the shocking material, in contrast to normal NPR programming," he said.

The FCC says it is investigating the problem.

In the meantime, it is causing some listeners considerable consternation, according to Neil Hever, program director for 88.1 WDIY, an NPR affiliate in Bethlehem, Penna.

"Back in December, a gentleman called from Warren County, N.J.," Hever recalled. "He said, `I'm not going to turn you in, but I take offense to the rap music you're playing.' We said, "We don't program gangsta rap.'"

Hever said he's forwarded 38 listener complaints to the FCC, along with one of his own. "We're upset because we know it's aggravating our listeners, and we know it [interference with a licensed broadcaster] is against the law."

FCC violation

He also worries about his own liability.

Unlike satellite radio, Hever said, "We are subject to FCC rules relating to content and language." He fears the station will be named in a complaint to the FCC because of obscene content that listeners hear over his stations' assigned frequencies. "The toughest thing about that is we're guilty until we can prove ourselves innocent to the FCC."

Sirius Satellite Radio did not respond to repeated requests from The Sun for comment. But radio experts say it may be getting the most attention because Stern has so many listeners and his voice and schtick are so recognizable - even in short bursts. But it is not the only source of the interference.

Mike Starling, chief technology officer at NPR, said Sirius' chief competitor - XM Satellite Radio - can also be an offender. He said NPR has been speaking to Sirius and XM about the issue, and "they've offered their full support to look into the problem."

But the problem may extend beyond satellite radio. Starling said interference at the bottom of the FM dial can also come from MP3 music players - or any portable audio device - if it's using a built-in or aftermarket "FM modulator" that enables it to play through a car's FM radio.

The modulator's job is to take the original signal - either from a satellite or from the player - convert it to an FM frequency, and move it into the car stereo. Many are wireless, transmitting the last few feet to the car's antenna via the FM radio band.

Newer models enable owners to choose any FM frequency, from 87.9 MHz to 107.9 MHz - but they come with an admonition to pick one that's not being used by a local broadcaster.

Older models typically have a switch that can select from a handful of often-vacant frequencies below 89 MHz. Some come from the factory tuned to 88.1 by default. Unfortunately, Starling says, that frequency is used by about 80 public radio stations or their repeater towers - and just as many religious broadcasters.

It shouldn't be a problem. On paper, the FCC's "Part 15" rules strictly limit the broadcast power and range of these unlicensed transmitters.

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