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A mystery we couldn't resist: Why is KUOW causing Mazda stereos to glitch?

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KUOW studios
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

At KUOW, we often hear from listeners who say that their car radio is always set to 94.9. But now some drivers don’t have a choice.

Mazda owners from around the Puget Sound region have written to KUOW or posted on social media that for some reason their radio is permanently fixed on our station.

Scott Smith in Seattle returned to his car after grocery shopping recently one night and found the car’s “infotainment system” going whacky.

The menu on the screen kept cycling through options, and wouldn’t stop.

“I tried rebooting it because I’ve done that in the past and nothing happened,” Smith said, “I realized I could hear NPR, but I can’t change the station, can’t use the navigation, can’t use the Bluetooth.”

Ears held captive by his local, public radio station, Smith is only able to adjust the volume.

“Luckily I am an NPR listener so that’s fine,” Smith said.

We’re flattered, but it still might be a good idea to have access to the navigation system.

Smith, who drives a 2016 Mazda CX-5, isn’t alone in this new KUOW purgatory. Other Mazda owners who spoke to KUOW also drive cars from around that year.

Service managers at three local Mazda dealerships said they’ve been flooded with calls during the last three weeks about this issue. One employee said it’s a sore subject, and they’ve been getting calls about the issue for weeks.

So who, or what, is responsible for trapping these Mazda owners in a public radio echo chamber they can’t escape, even by car?

It still isn’t clear why specifically KUOW’s signal is affecting some specific Mazda cars. One theory points to the recent rollout of 5G technology for smartphones. A few weeks ago cellphone companies — and KUOW — switched to a 5G signal. But many cars are still only equipped with 3G and glitch when faced with the newer 5G. Some car companies put out advisories to customers last year ahead of the switch that an issue like this could arise.

But the 5G theory still doesn’t answer why some Mazdas are only affected by KUOW.

Michaela Gianotti, a spokesperson for KUOW, said in a statement that the station is “in contact with Xperi, the company who owns the technology behind HD Radio, and have given them complete access to our transmitters to investigate what is causing this issue.”

Mazda drivers stuck will have to wait a while for a fix. Mazda USA did not respond to a request for comment, but service managers at various dealerships said a replacement part could be available in a few weeks.

When Smith, a Mazda driver, called his dealership for an estimate on the repair, the service employee put his name down on a list.

“I was one of hundreds, he said, of other people he let know that there was a problem,” Smith said.

So… thanks for listening?

Why you can trust KUOW