Are You Receiving KOZY On your Electric Toothbrush?

Every now and then, I get a call from someone who wants to know why the heck KOZY is broadcasting into their cordless phone, their TV set or their toaster. This reminds me of the episode on Gilligans Island where Gilligan gets a conk on the head that jars one of his fillings, and it becomes a radio receiver. There are literally hundreds of ways that radio signals can turn up in places you don’t expect and don’t want them to. I also get calls about why people hear OTHER radio stations or TV stations in wierd places, like in their electric organ, or their guitar amplifier.

I thought this would be a good time to share some information about RFI – radio frequency interference – because that’s what is happening. I have been involved with radio broadcasting, engineering, and “ham” radio for over 30 years. RFI is not an unusual problem, and it can be annoying as heck, but there are some things you should know.

When someone becomes the victim of RFI, they immediately blame that *@#%*# radio or TV station, or that guy down the street with all the ham radio antennas on his house. In 99.99% of these cases, the problem is NOT the fault of the person or station transmitting. In the case of commercial radio and television stations, very strict federal rules are in place to ensure that a station is operating within legal parameters. The operating characteristics of a radio or TV station transmitter are closely monitored so that they operate within the law. Oh, sure, there are instances where due to some mechanical problem a station may go outside specifications for a very short while, but because everything is monitored constantly, any deviations from the norm are fixed at once. Even if a commercial station was operating out of tolerance, the odds of this causing your RFI intereference in your household equipment is quite remote. Ham radio operators too must operate within rules and guidelines set forth by federal law, and if they’re operating legally it’s not really their problem.

Most of the time when RFI is encountered (static on your TV, hearing radio music in your organ, picking up a radio station on your TV) it’s usually a problem within the consumers electronic device or installation. Why? Electronic devices are manufactured to make a profit for the company making them. In any area where they can cut corners to increase profits, they do. Making equipment safe from interference is one area where most manufacturers have been skimping for many years. After all, if they sell 1 million TV sets, and only 856 of those sets wind up in homes near enough to a transmitter to be affected by RFI, they figure why spend an extra $2 per set to make them safe from RFI, at a cost of 2 million dollars to the company, just to avoid trouble with 856 sets? This has been a problem for many years with TVs, radios, cordless phones, stereos and other devices. Virtually all consumer electronics operate under Part 15 of the F.C.C. rules. The short version of part of this rule is that the device must accept any interference created by legally operated, licensed equipment, and that it NOT generate interference that can interfere with a licensed service. Translation: If your cordless phone, for example, picks up KOZY, that is to be considered possible and normal. BUT if your neighbor picks up your PHONE on his RADIO then YOU are interfereing with a licensed service and must repair, replace, or stop using the device. Look on the back of your radio, phone, computer, or other always mentnions Part 15 of the FCC rules. It’s not allowed to generate any interference with a licensed service, and must accept interference FROM a licensed service.

Also, the installation can cause trouble. If you’re getting radio on your TV, it can be a loose antenna connection, an outdoor cable connection that has gotten wet and corroded, or any of a zillion other things. Interference can be caused by an old connection on a power pole or in a transformer. RFI can be picked up in long speaker wires from a stereo, a long power cord for an electronic device, the list is endless.

A radio station, TV station, ham radio operator, or other operator of a transmitter has no obligation to solve your RFI problems, IF they are operating within the rules which apply to them. I can tell you in nearly all cases a commercial broadcasting station is operating within those rules, or they would have been notified by the Federal Communications Commission of a problem and would have to correct it as fast as humanly possible or shut down. Also note that local law enforcement has no jurisdiction to enforce these federal laws, or stop someone from broadcasting.

So what can you do? Many things. If the trouble just started, think about anything you’ve changed recently. Added an antenna? New cable outlet? Long power cord? Experiment a bit and see what happens. Maybe Junior knocked the antenna connection on the side of the house when he parked his bike. Unplug that new VCR or DVD player from the cable service or TV set. If the problem goes away, that’s where it’s getting in. Remember, the air around us is chock full of countless radio signals, any of which could cause interference given the right circumstances. If you’re receiving radio transmissions where you shouldn’t, and you can determine which radio station it is, call them. Be polite. Tell them what’s happening and ask to speak to the engineer. Odds are the engineer won’t be there, as they’re generally called in only when there is a problem, or to do routine maintenance. The staff at the station will know if they’re operating within specs. If you ask they will have the engineer get in touch with you. Many area radio stations have an engineer on hand every business day. Remember that the station has no obligation to assist you if they’re operating legally. BUT most WILL be glad to help you. It’s good for them, it’s good for you. It’s good public policy to help in these instances. If you’ve really got a problem and you can’t figure it out, and they have given you their best ideas over the phone, their engineer just MIGHT come out and see if he can help. Maybe not. But you increase your chances of free expert help when you call and politely explain the trouble and ask for help. Remember, if they’re operating legally (and they most likely are) it’s legally your problem to fix, or your annoyance to live with.

The same goes for RFI from ham radio operators. Listen to try to find out who it is, or contact your local ham radio club and ask for help. Hams are especially happy to help if there’s a problem. Often a very simple and inexpensive filter can be added to a TV, phone, etc. that will solve the trouble. But calling your local police and shouting “That blankety blank radio nut up the street is screwing up my TV…I want you to go shut him down” won’t help. The police may visit him, and ask him to shut down. He may just do so to be polite. But if he’s operating legally he has every right to be transmitting, and local authorities can not force him to stop.

Bottom line is, most RFI troubles are the fault of the device receiving the interference, and most TV/Radio stations, and amateur “Ham” operators are happy to help if you ask.