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Attack of the satellite radio

It happens to me over and over and over again:

I am listening to something intently on NPR: news analysis, perhaps, some point being made on a talk program or a hilarious exchange on "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." Suddenly, rap blares from my speakers, or maybe the exhortations of a fire-and-brimstone preacher, or the expletives of a show host taking advantage of the non-existent decency standards in satellite radio.

Can nothing be done about the intrusion of satellite broadcasts into my favorite public radio programs?

The problem is that electronic device in the car called the "modulator." The modulator for satellite radio comes from the manufacturer set at 88.1. This is the frequency occupied by WYPR, the NPR station here in the Baltimore area. The same frequency belongs to stations in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania (WDIY), Chattanooga, Tenn. (WUTC), Saint Louis, Mo. (KHDX), Las Vegas, Nev. (KCEP), Long Beach, Calif. (KJAZZ), and other stations throughout the rest of the United States, both north and south.

Most of the stations broadcasting at 88.1 belong to colleges and universities, as did YPR in its former life as JHU. All of them serve small, local constituencies and as such have little clout in their battles with the behemoth XM/Sirius organization's impingement on that frequency.

Perhaps even worse is the satellite subscriber's tendency to jack up the power to his or her transmitter. In theory, the signal needs to travel at best a few feet inside the car. In practice, a satellite subscriber will amplify the signal until the car becomes a mobile broadcasting tower.

If you are stuck near such a vehicle on the interstate, it can be extremely difficult to get far enough away from it to break the connection between its modulator and your antenna. If you are near a home or business supplying satellite to every corner of the property, certain stretches of road (for example, I-95 between exit 85 and the Maryland House, or the intersection of Beards Hill Road and route 22 in Aberdeen) become a no-WYPR zone.

I regard this hijacking of my radio much the way I feel about deluxe automotive sound systems played at full volume: I hate it all. Those systems are a public nuisance and an invasion of my privacy. If I am in my car, my yard, and certainly inside my house, I do not expect to have to listen to some stranger's choice of music. The sound created by your equipment should not be audible in my car, behind closed windows. Your taste in radio should not invade my privacy, either by the brute force of your subwoofer or by stealth of your satellite receiver.

In 2006, Frank Roylance of the Baltimore Sun reported on the problem. According to Mr. Roylance, "A field study by NPR Labs found that nearly 40 percent of [modulators] have signal strengths that exceed FCC limits. A separate investigation by the National Association of Broadcasters found that more than 75 percent of the devices it tested violated the power limit."

Mr. Roylance went on to point out that Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. formally acknowledged in 2006 that "some of its modulators were too powerful" and that some suppliers had been explicitly asked to "ignore FCC rules in building the devices."

The solution? Give satellite radio companies their own darned frequency. Make them pay for it and create a stream of income for the Federal Communications Commission. Make it possible for every vehicle operator and every person at home to decide what comes in through the radio by guaranteeing them that the station they choose is the station they get.

I just want to listen to what I want to listen to.

Thanks for listening.

Ellen B. Cutler is a writer and art historian based in Aberdeen. E-mail: ellen@ellenbcutler.com. Website: http://www.ellenbcutler.com.

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