Improve Your Radio Reception

car radio listening
Both internal and external factors can lead to bad radio reception. PhotoAlto/Sandro Di Carlo Darsa / PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections / Getty

Question: How can I improve my radio reception?

My radio sounds fine when I listen to CDs, so I don’t really want to buy a new radio or speakers or anything. The problem is that whenever I try to listen to a radio station, it doesn’t sound good at all. It hisses and crackles and sometimes you can’t even hear anything at all. I guess it’s just bad reception, so I’m wondering how I can improve that.

Answer:

There are three main things that can cause bad radio reception, and of those three things, there's only one that you can really do anything about. The big problem with listening to the radio in your car are that weak signal strength and both natural and man-made obstructions account for most instances of bad reception, and if either of those are the problem that you're dealing with personally, then all you can really do is tune to a different station (or listen to a CD, satellite radio, or another audio source) when you aren’t within range of the signal. The other thing that can cause bad reception has to do with hardware on your end, and you can do something about that.

Head Unit or Antenna?

There are two major parts to the equation when it comes to listening to the radio. On one end you have a transmitter and an antenna, and on the other end, you have a receiver (or tuner) and a car antenna.

So when you start looking at ways to improve the radio reception in your car, you’re going to be looking at your antenna and your head unit, or “car radio,” which is the component that includes the radio tuner.

In most cases, radio reception issues are either due to external factors that you can’t control (like a weak or obstructed signal), or antenna issues that you can fix.

However, there are cases where they problem is actually in the head unit. Even if it works just fine as a CD player, there could still be a problem with the tuner that prevents it from working properly.

Checking Your Car Antenna

In most circumstances, the best and easiest way to improve your radio reception is to check the antenna. If the antenna is loose, then you should tighten it. If it appears rusted or corroded where the whip connects to the base plate or main antenna assembly, then you’ll probably have to replace it. Of course, an electric antenna that is stuck in the down position (or a manual antenna that was shoved in without your knowledge) usually won’t get the best reception.

If you find any issues with your antenna, then you should start off by fixing them. In most cases, that will result in an improvement in your reception, since a loose, rusted, or retracted antenna just can’t do its job.

Checking Your Antenna Cable and Head Unit

In the event that you can’t find any antenna problems, or you fix the problems and still have poor reception, then you might have a head unit issue. Before you write off the head unit, though, you might want to check out the antenna cable. If the cable that connects your antenna to your head unit is loose, that will also cause reception issues.

Boosting Weak Radio Signals

If there isn’t anything wrong with either your antenna or your head unit, then you’re probably just dealing with a weak signal, but you might also have a problem with obstructions. Since FM radio is a line-of-sight type service, tall buildings and hills can adversely affect reception by blocking, reflecting, and scattering the signal. This will often result in a sort of fluttering effect that’s known as “picket fencing” or multipath reception.

There isn’t a whole lot you can do to fix multipath reception issues, but you can sometimes make up for a weak signal by installing a car radio signal booster.

These boosters are powered units that you install between the antenna and the head unit in your car, and they effectively increase the gain of weak radio signals. You can’t boost what isn’t there, but you may find that a weak radio station comes in loud and clear after you install a booster.