Listening to the Border Radio
March 20, 2012 4:30 PM   Subscribe

How do does one complain effectively to the FCC concerning interference by one FM radio station with another one? An aged relation in a rural area is upset that a new religious station is interfering with her reception of the closest public broadcasting station.

BTW, I did look around on the FCC's site, figuring this had to be routine -- but frustratingly found only the most rudimentary options for radio complaints. Must be doing something wrong.

Also BTW, I suggested to her that she first bring this to the attention of the station she preferred, figuring that they would be likely sponsors of a station-based complaint, but I gather that hasn't produced much yet.

Thanks for any tips!
posted by Clyde Mnestra to Law & Government (15 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Not the question you asked, but another approach to solving her problem might be to get a radio with a more powerful antenna or a more selective tuner.
posted by box at 4:39 PM on March 20, 2012

Assuming the religious station is licensed by the FCC and operating under the power rating of the license, complaining to the FCC won't do much because the station is operating under its license parameters. That your relative was able to receive the other station earlier isn't really relevant.

NPR stations are often broadcast on different transmitters in rural areas. Your relative should try tuning into the other frequencies and/or get a better antenna/radio. If she's in a dead zone for NPR, she should definitely let the station know because it may help with their planning of new transmitter areas. If she's between two different NPR station's service areas, she might get better luck from the second station.

If your relative thinks the new station is some sort of pirate station stepping on the local NPR station's frequency, complaining the the FCC is the proper course. A letter to your relative's congress person might get through the FCC's gatekeeping website. However, depending on the representative that might be a whole new gatekeeper where the relative gets a letter back either pro- or -anti public broadcasting.
posted by birdherder at 4:58 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Box, tried exploring that route, and may have to do so again. It's claimed that this is as good as it gets.

Birdherder, your point -- that they may just be doing what they're supposed to be doing -- is what I fear. I just didn't know if there's any way of exploring whether they are operating precisely within their license (and don't know how much deviation is common), or whether this might be regarded as an unintended consequence subject to mediation.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 5:09 PM on March 20, 2012

Birdherder is correct. The only grounds for a complaint to the FCC is if the new station is unlicensed or operating outside the parameters of its license (which I'd say is unlikely). Definitely contact the public radio station, though -- they may be able to recommend another frequency, and they may just be glad to know of the issue. They will also likely have better resources to determine if the new station is operating beyond its license. That is not rally something your relative will be able to determine.

Though Congressional assistance can be useful in dealing with the FCC, it really shouldn't be if this is a pirate station -- the FCC takes those kinds of complaints VERY seriously. If it is a pirate station, letting the NPR station know of the problem will probably do more than contacting a Congressperson. (IAACommunicationsL, but IANYCommunicationsL).
posted by devinemissk at 5:17 PM on March 20, 2012

I don't know anything about the FCC, but have you thought about getting her an internet radio?
posted by jcrcarter at 5:25 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another non-answer, but maybe you should look into getting this radio, which will stream NPR stations without a computer: Grace Digital Wi-Fi Music Player

There are other similar radios as well, but reviews look good on that one. Squeezebox would work as well but might require more setup. I'm guessing she is not very technical.
posted by iamscott at 5:27 PM on March 20, 2012

The reason I suggested the Congressional assistance thing is Clyde's FCC link went to some form that eventually ended up on a powerpoint slide title "Complaints by Type" with those broad categories that may never be read by a human. The "Unauthorized, unfair, biased, illegal broadcasts (does NOT include Obscene, Profane or Indecent material)" is probably filled with people complaining about Fox News and NPR being biased and "illegal." But perhaps they have someone scanning for that type of outlier to get attention.
posted by birdherder at 5:29 PM on March 20, 2012

I don't think complaining about a station possibly operating outside of power regulations or having the antenna pointed such that it's impinging on other frequencies falls under the "Unauthorized, unfair, biased, illegal broadcasts (does NOT include Obscene, Profane or Indecent material)" category, but I would definitely try calling the number listed for customer service. I would also contact the affected FM station, they would probably like to know about the problem and might be dealing with it. Complaining can be good!

I volunteer at a college radio station and when another local station was recently sold we paid for an engineering study to show how their proposed transmitter changes would affect us. This meant our core area where we are recognized by the FCC was protected, but some of the outlying areas that received our signal due to luck/weather/whatever were affected.
posted by kendrak at 5:45 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm a lawyer who deals with the FCC, but I am not your lawyer (or your aged relation's lawyer).

If the station that your relation is listening to is an FM translator (i.e. translating the signal of a full-power station), then it must accept interference from full power stations. You can figure out what kind of station it is here (hint: FX is FM translator, FM is full power FM).

I would recommend that she complain to the station that she listens to (assuming it's a full power). They are very interested and motivated in getting these things worked out.

If she is listening to an FM translator, then she's out of luck, unless they stream online and she can get it that way.

Feel free to memail me.
posted by Leezie at 6:10 PM on March 20, 2012

Anecdotally, the only times I have heard of anyone having luck with the FCC's Enforcement Bureau is when they have basically presented an iron-clad case to them, with a lot of technical documentation -- basically an engineering study -- of the alleged interference, its source, attempts to rectify the situation with the owner of the interfering equipment, etc. Just reams of paperwork. (These were mostly attempts to resolve interference from poorly operated Part 15 equipment, causing interference with Part 97, aka the Amateur Radio Service. They might take interference with a public broadcast service more seriously or they might not, I've no idea.)

I don't think that you are going to get any reaction out of them at all just by filing a complaint from afar. If you are really interested in digging into this, and have the appropriate test gear (and knowledge of how to use it), you could perhaps gather enough information to convince someone at the EB that the other station is operating outside its license (assuming, of course, that it really is operating outside its license, which it might not be, in which case you're SOL).

Working with the public broadcasting station is probably the best route if you do not have the equipment, time, and physical presence required to do that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:23 PM on March 20, 2012

Are they on the same frequency or just close frequencies? You may be able to make a notch filter if they are are different frequencies (though they may be too close to do so)
posted by bottlebrushtree at 6:39 PM on March 20, 2012

Contacting the public radio station is probably your relative's best bet. The station's engineering department is in a far better position to know the terms of everyone's licenses and has a vested interest in making sure that their signal reaches as many listeners as they are allowed. If they don't get back to her, a paper letter to the station might help.
posted by zachlipton at 7:21 PM on March 20, 2012

You can try calling 1-888-CALL-FCC, and they should be able to tell you if there's grounds for a complaint and point you to the correct form.

Depending on the frequency and geographical spacing, a filter or directional antenna may help.

On a longshot, if you can find an amateur radio operator in the area, they may be able to determine if the station is broadcasting outside of its license.
posted by ckape at 11:46 PM on March 20, 2012

A few years ago I experience the same thing living in a Chicago suburb. I wrote the Chicago NPR station (91.5 WBEZ) to ask if the religious station could be doing something to intentionally interfere with their signal. Here is the reply I got:

"To answer your question, I don't think that's the case here.

You may be aware that dozens of stations across the country share each FM channel. The FCC spaces them aoart geographically and considers each station's power level and distance to minimize interference. There is a licensed Christian station in Pekin, Illinois that is on 91.5, but they are too far away to cause interference to WBEZ under normal circumstances.

Abnormal circumstances happen from time to time. Layers of inverted temperature in the atmosphere can refract FM signals and make them appear in far away places. This can also happen with increased solar activity (more often in the summer), or during medium to strong meteor shower activity. Fortunately, it cuts both ways: the manager of the Pekin station called me a few years ago asking why WBEZ was interfering with his signal in central Illinois.

Religious broadcasters are competitive and determined to get as much listenership as possible, and are generally well supported by their audience. They are keen to take advantage of any legal opportunity to place new transmitters or increase power where they already are. They have been quite successful, and unless the FCC revises its definition of "noncommercial" and "educational", they will continue to share the bottom 20 FM channels with non-religious public stations.

It's unlikely that there has been a transmitter power change for the Pekin station. They would risk losing their broadcast license if they altered their licensed power without permission. I think one of the above phenomena is to blame for your reception problems. My suggestion is to try moving the radio to another spot and see if your reception improves."

I ended up getting a better radio and never heard the Christian station again.
posted by Fred Mars at 6:34 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Fred Mars's letter brings up a good point: solar activity. It's a bit of a hocus-pocus answer, but there has been some strong solar weather over the past week or two (my understanding is that it has quieted down now, but IANAAstroPhysicist). Has the problem gotten any better lately?
posted by zachlipton at 10:10 AM on March 21, 2012

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