Why You Have Bad Radio Reception

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.

Two people listening to radio in the car
Laurence Mouton / Getty Images

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. It's not quite as bad as having your car radio stop working altogether, but it's still no fun.

Nobody likes bad radio reception, so here are eight of the most common reasons why your radio reception might suck (and what you can do about it):

01
of 08

You Have a Bad Antenna

The Problem

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.

The Fix

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 Has Poor Quality

The Problem

This has absolutely nothing to do with musical taste and everything to do with hardware. Specifically, the hardware your favorite radio station uses to pump your favorite tunes out over the airwaves. That, of course, means you might be able to pile the blame for your reception woes right on your favorite station’s doorstep.

The Fix

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.

The bad news is that there's no fix for this. You may be able to get a little relief with a higher quality antenna and head unit, but a weak signal is a weak signal, and you can't do anything about that.

03
of 08

Powerful Local Stations Make for Bad Neighbors

The Problem

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.

The Fix

More bad news here, because the relative signal strengths of neighboring radio stations are totally out of your control.

The only possible fix is to use a head unit that has an analog tuner mechanism. This kind of tuner allows you to set the exact frequency you want to listen to without the electronic pixies in your head unit deciding on their own to lock onto a stronger neighboring signal.

The problem here is that even if you do manage to stay on the frequency you want, there's probably going to be interference.

04
of 08

Someone in Your Back Seat Insists on Making Daiquiris

The Problem

If you’ve ever witnessed a television “fuzz out” when someone turned on a hairdryer, 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.

The Fix

Locate and obliterate any sources of RF interference in your car. The most likely culprit is the alternator, but there are other possible sources. This may require assistance from a mechanic.

05
of 08

You Live in a Big City (Or a Hilly/Mountainous Region)

The Problem

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.

The Fix

Short of moving to a rural area, there isn't a lot you can do about this type of interference. It's just one of the prices you pay for big city life.

06
of 08

Your Antenna Rusted out and Fell Off

The Problem

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.

The Fix

This one has an easy fix: replace your antenna, or clean up the corroded connections.

07
of 08

The Car Wash Attendant Retracted Your Antenna and Left It That Way

The Problem

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.

The Fix

So yeah, if this ever happens to you, we'll just go ahead and blame it on the car wash guy and call it good. Extend the mast, and you'll be back in business.

08
of 08

You Have a Broken Head Unit

The Problem

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.

The Fix

While it is technically possible to fix most broken head units, it usually doesn't make sense in terms of cost. Find a new head unit you like, slap it in there, and say so long to awful radio reception.