Why You Have Bad Radio Reception

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Long ago, when the earth was green, and the roads were mostly brown and muddy, radio was pretty much it as far in-car audio entertainment was concerned. To this day, head units are still referred to as “car radios” even if the tuner component is just one minor feature (or even absent altogether.) But even as alternatives like CD players, MP3 players, satellite radio, and other audio sources are becoming more and more common, we still listen to a whole lot of radio in our cars.

In fact, the chances are pretty good that you’ve known the pain, at least once or twice in your life of happily driving along, listening to your favorite station only to have it start whining with interference, flutter uncontrollably, or even drop out altogether. With that in mind, here are eight common reasons why your radio reception might suck:

01
of 08

You have a crappy antenna

new car radio better reception
Laurence Mouton / PhotoAlto Agency RF Collections / Getty

Some cars come with flat, window-mounted antennas that are safe from vandalism and don’t break the silhouette of the vehicle. Unfortunately, they also tend to not work quite as well as old fashioned whip and mast antennas. If you find yourself unable to tune into your favorite station, and you have one of these “window antennas,” the solution might be as simple as installing a more conventional aftermarket option. There are a lot of different kinds of car antennas out there, so don't limit yourself to something that just doesn't work.

02
of 08

The radio station you're listening to sucks

When I say that the radio station you’re listening to sucks, I in no way mean to impugn your musical tastes. What you listen to in the privacy of your own car is totally up to you, but the fact is that if you’re having reception problems, you might be able to pile the blame right on your favorite station’s doorstep.

Every radio station has to have a license in order to operate, and those licenses specify both the frequency they can occupy and how much power they are allowed to use. If your favorite station is on the weaker side in terms of transmission power, or it’s especially far away, then your reception problem is probably just a matter of a weak signal.

03
of 08

Powerful local stations make for bad neighbors

In addition to weak, distant radio stations, you can also run into problems with especially powerful local stations. If you want to listen to a station that’s in another town, but a nearby station is broadcasting in a neighboring frequency, the tuner in your head unit may try to lock on the closer, more powerful signal.

04
of 08

Someone in your back seat insists on making daiquiris

If you’ve ever witnessed a television “fuzz out” when someone turned on a hair dryer, microwave, vacuum cleaner, blender, or another appliance, you were looking at radio frequency (RF) interference. Maybe you don’t make a practice of allowing your passengers to make blended drinks in the back seat when you’re driving around, but even if nobody actually has a literal blender plugged into a car power inverter back there, there are still a ton of different kinds of RF interference that you can run into out in the wild.

05
of 08

You live in a big city (or a hilly/mountainous region)

Radio signals can be blocked by large objects like buildings and hills, but they can also bounce off and reflect in unpredictable ways. The former can create “dead zones” where you will lose reception, and the latter can result in a whole lot of weird multipath reception issues like fluttering or “picket fencing” where your tuner attempts to lock on to multiple versions of the same radio signal.

06
of 08

Your antenna rusted out and fell off

You’d probably notice if your antenna literally fell off, right? But what if the electrical connections just became corroded or rusted over time? Some antennas can also loosen up over time due to vibration, which can also result in a poor electrical connection. And if your tuner isn’t able to make a proper connection to your antenna, your radio reception is going to suffer.

07
of 08

The car wash attendant retracted your antenna and left it that way

Car antennas come in four basic flavors: window-mounted, electric, stationary, and manually-retracted whips. Manual whip antennas can be pushed in to prevent damage from things like car washes, and most conscientious car wash attendants will push yours in if you didn’t already do it yourself. If the attendant on the other side forgets to pull it back out, you may well drive away spic and span but completely unable to tune in to your favorite radio station. So yeah, if this ever happened to you, we'll just go ahead and blame it on the car wash guy and call it good.

08
of 08

You have a busted head unit

Car audio head units are pretty resilient little pieces of technology, but they still go bad from time to time. And if the tuner in your head unit is on the fritz, you’re going to find yourself listening to the sound of silence—unless you have other audio source choices, like a CD player or auxiliary inputs.