Public radio seeks recall of FM devices used in cars

October 26, 2006|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN REPORTER

Citing widespread interference on broadcast frequencies used by its member stations, National Public Radio has asked the Federal Communications Commission to order recalls of millions of FM modulators that drivers use to play satellite radios and iPods through their car stereos.

A field study by NPR Labs found that nearly 40 percent of those devices have signal strengths that exceed FCC limits, enabling them to break into FM broadcasts in nearby cars with unwanted programming. A separate investigation by the National Association of Broadcasters found that more than 75 percent of the devices it tested violated the power limits.

In a filing this summer with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. acknowledged FCC findings that some of its modulators were too powerful. It also admitted that some of its employees had asked suppliers to ignore FCC rules in building the devices.

The interference has spurred complaints from listeners whose favorite public radio and Christian broadcasts have been briefly interrupted by satellite radio shock-jock Howard Stern and other offensive fare.

The illegal FM modulators "have contributed to ... unacceptable degradation of the audio quality of public radio stations," NPR's chief executive officer, Ken Stern, said in an Oct. 12 letter to FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin. A copy of the letter was obtained by The Sun.

"Left unaddressed," he continued, "these modulators post a significant threat to the provision of public radio's free, over-the-air public and community service."

He urged the FCC to look beyond satellite radio sets and conduct a "thorough technical review" of the most popular FM modulators on the market, and to pursue a recall of all those found in violation of FCC rules.

The violations are so widespread, he said, that they raise "fundamental issues of misrepresentation" in the paperwork that manufacturers submit to the FCC to gain certification for their "low-power" products, he said.

FM modulators, either built-in or add-on, take the original digital signal from the satellite radio receiver, or MP3 music player, convert it to an analog FM signal, and send it into the car's stereo. Some are wired directly to the FM receiver; others act as mini broadcast stations, transmitting to the car's radio antenna.

FCC spokesman Clyde Ensslin would say only that NPR's request "is under review, just as this matter [of over-powered modulators] is under review."

SEC filings by XM Radio - Sirius' chief competitor - also admit some of its modulators are out of compliance. Both companies said they have ordered suppliers to suspend production and shipment until their products comply with FCC rules. Both said they were working with the FCC and hoped to avoid supply interruptions to retailers.

Meghan R. Henning, a spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents 2,100 electronics manufacturers, said, "This is a serious issue and we're acknowledging it. ... It's well within the FCC's rights to speak to the wrong-doers."

If the FCC ordered a recall of devices found by commission technical reviewers to be overpowered, Henning said, "the CEA would be fine with that."

The problem first drew public attention in January when Howard Stern joined Sirius.

Almost immediately, listeners who were tuned to public radio stations and some Christian stations broadcasting at the bottom of the FM dial began to complain about unexpected bursts of foul language and bad taste on their car radios. The stations forwarded the complaints to NPR or the FCC.

Neil Hever, program director at WDIY-FM, 88.1 MHz in Allentown, Pa., called the complaints "alarming."

Len Parkin of Palmer, Pa., was on a Saturday afternoon drive with his wife three weeks ago, listening to "World Rhythms" on WDIY, when the show was interrupted by obscene rap lyrics. He fired off an e-mail to Hever, saying: "Tell me why I shouldn't turn you in to the FCC."

Hever explained the problem to Parkin, who redirected his ire to the FCC. But the angry notes keep coming. "The perception is that we're airing filthy material," Hever said. "I am just so tired of hearing this. ... I feel the FCC is very slow to help out stations like ours in the noncommercial band."

WYPR-FM in Baltimore is another NPR member station broadcasting at 88.1 MHz. "We are continuing to hear complaints from listeners," and forwarding them to the FCC, said station President Anthony Brandon.

Newer FM modulator models can be tuned to use any FM frequency, from 87.9 MHz to 107.9 MHz, posing a risk of interference anywhere on the FM dial. But most of the problem stems from older devices that offer consumers a choice of only a handful of frequencies below 89 MHz - a section of the FM broadcast band reserved for non-commercial radio.

Some come from the factory tuned to 88.1. Unfortunately, says, Mike Starling, executive director of NPR Labs, that frequency is also used nationwide by about 80 public radio stations, and just as many religious broadcasters.

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