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Frequency Fights: Howard Stern Invades Christian Radio

Broadcasters seek a massive FCC-mandated recall of satellite radio and iPod transmitters.

Jim Marshall was sitting in his car with his kids listening to a Christian radio station when suddenly 88.1 WAYF cut out and the Howard Stern show started coming through. "Before I could turn the volume down, there were words on there that terrestrial radio would get a fine for having on," Marshall said. Marshall, who is the regional general manager for The Way-affiliated station in West Palm Beach, Florida, said this is a problem that many Christian radio listeners have encountered, and they are not happy about it.

"When people turn to 88.1 they have an expectation for what they're going to hear, and they are upset when they hear something that's not just different from what they expected, but contrary to what they expected," Marshall said.

Ted McCall, a broadcast engineer in Greenville, South Carolina, explained that this problem occurs when people subscribing to satellite radio stations buy transmitters that transport satellite signals to their FM radios. Many of these transmitters are more powerful than the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) regulations allow, so the transmissions, meant to be contained within one car, end up overpowering whatever is playing on the same or similar frequency nearby.

The transmitters, which are used for iPods as well as satellite radio, typically work on the lower end of radio frequencies, the part of the radio bandwidth populated by non-commercial radio stations like National Public Radio and Christian stations.

McCall said that sometimes when he's driving, the FM modulators (often called "Part 15" transmitters, for the section of FCC code regulating the devices) in passing cars repeatedly overpower the station he's listening to.

The National Association of Broadcasters responded to the situation in mid-February by submitting a request to the FCC for a full recall of the offending devices. The FCC has not yet taken action.

"We're hopeful that they'll respond to this request," said Kris Jones, a spokesperson for the NAB. Jones noted that last year, the NAB asked Sirius and XM to recall some of the offending devices, but the radio services have not acted on the request. Sirius and XM have been drawing increased attention from the FCC following the February announcement of their planned merger.

According to Marshall, the bleeding over of satellite radio signals became more intense about a year ago, when Howard Stern moved to Sirius radio and Sirius experienced a surge in subscriptions.

Although the problem worsened recently, it still remains a small piece of a larger problem, according to Craig Parshall, senior vice president for the National Religious Broadcasters, which represents Christian TV and radio ministries. The bigger issue at hand is that Microsoft, Google, and other technology companies want to use wireless internet devices in the "white space" portion of the airwaves that will be freed up after television goes digital.

These white spaces are narrow, Parshall said, and it is not yet known if the proposed devices will be able to operate without bleeding over into the stations adjacent to them.

The FCC requested in December that companies begin submitting prototypes of these devices for testing to determine if they would operate in the designated spectrum or if the signals would interfere with other stations.

According to Parshall, any action the NRB might take will depend on the FCC's verdict. If the FCC's regulations, which are still being formulated, do not sufficiently protect TV and radio stations from bleeding signals, the NRB plans to take further action.

In the meantime, bleeding signals continue to be an annoyance for those listening to stations on the lower end of the FM dial. For some, however, the media attention attracted by this phenomenon has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Jeff Taylor, general manager of the Christian rock station WAYJ in Fort Meyers, Florida, told Christianity Today that a lot of people will probably tune in to his radio station to see if they can hear Howard Stern. While that may not happen, "They are going to hear Christian radio, and it might be their first introduction to it if they do," he said. "So I don't mind a bit that they're tuning in, thinking there's an off-chance that they might hear Howard Stern."

Related Elsewhere:

The NAB has more information about FM modulators and its request for a massive recall.

BusinessWeek covered the fight between the terrestrial broadcasters and satellite radio. Radio World also has several articles and opinion pieces on the subject.

Part15.us is a site for micro-broadcasters (not "pirates") looking to use their FM modulators for something more than just playing their iPods or satellite radio signals.

The New York Times, Associated Press, WBBH, and others have covered instances of Stern's satellite radio show appearing on terrestrial radio stations.

Other Christianity Today articles on radio and other media include:

Making Airwaves | Goodbye Old-Fashioned Revival Hour. Hello 'safe for the whole family.' Meet the company that's transforming Christian radio. (January 26, 2007)
Striking Out the Liberals | Conservative Christians are the hope of America, says Salem host Frank Pastore. (January 26, 2007)
Dollars and Sense | How Salem Communications makes its money (January 26, 2007)
What's Next: Publishing & Broadcasting | New media, old story: What evangelical leaders say are the priorities and challenges for the next 50 years. (October 6, 2006)
Playing Favorites | Court affirms that Daystar bid should have won TV station. (August 1, 2006)
Broadcasters Aim to Cool NRB Controversy | Dobson, Neff make gestures to mend wounds. (March 1, 2002)
NRB: Women Broadcasters Make Inroads, Slowly | Even though advertising surveys indicate that two-thirds of the Christian radio audience is female, the voices behind the microphone are overwhelmingly male. (March 3, 1997)

Christian Music Today's series on Christian radio is available on line.

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