Mazda Drivers In Seattle Experience HD Radio Snafu


Updated at 12:50pm PT to include a comment from Xperi Corp.

On Sunday, January 30, an owner of a 2016 Mazda hatchback was driving in Ballard, Wash., when his in-dash entertainment system suddenly went awry. For some strange reason, the HD Radio his vehicle was equipped with would only play the main NPR member station for the Seattle-Tacoma market.

This driver wasn’t the only to experience the exact same problem. Is the glitch something every station equipped with the Xperi Corp.-owned product needs to be concerned about?

In short, the answer is No.

In a statement from Xperi sent through its outside public relations firm, the company said, “Our current assessment is that there was a formatting issue with the transmitted data. We have worked with the station to address it, and we do not believe there are any ongoing issues with car radios in the market.”

While no forthcoming problems are expected, “hundreds” of Mazda vehicle owners who listen to the HD1 feed of KUOW-FM 94.9 in Seattle are impacted. It seems a faulty HD Radio signal emitted by the public radio station “locked” the receiver onto KUOW’s HD1 signal.

Was there a bad file in the HD stream? Is a vehicle’s computer system susceptible to a cyberattack?

Those are questions many may be asking. But, just what transpired for these Mazda vehicle owners? KUOW reporter Casey Martin on Tuesday afternoon offered a two-minute report on how Seattle Mazda drivers are “stuck in KUOW purgatory.” According to Martin, “dozens of people who own 2016 Mazdas say their dial is now permanently stuck on our station.”

Seattle resident Scott Smith is one of the impacted Mazda owners. He drives a 2016 Mazda CX-5. His reaction when telling others of his predicament? “Oh my god that’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard.”

KUOW agrees. One early theory held that some vehicles get their radio’s signal through 3G technology. A few weeks ago, when KUOW and several cellular services companies switched to 5G, some systems began to experience the glitch. That said, it didn’t explain how KUOW listeners were the only ones affected, as opposed to those with Mazda vehicles who may tune to other stations using HD Radio in the Seattle market.

HD Radio choices in Seattle-Tacoma are abundant and range from Jazz noncomm KNKX, “Community Radio” KAOS, and popular Nathan Hale High School-run Dance Pop “C89.5” to Adult Alternative tastemaker KEXP, Top 40 KQMV “Movin’ 92.5,” Soft Adult Contemporary KSWD, Classic Hits KJR, and News/Talk KIRO-FM.

KUOW says it contacted Xperi and granted access to the station’s transmitters to help address the issue.

What can Mazda do? A replacement part is “weeks away,” due to supply chain issues in the automotive industry that include chip shortages.

In the meantime, Smith is unable to use the in-car navigation system and his Bluetooth access is not functioning.

In a statement, KUOW said, “Our operations team is doing everything they can to support them in finding a quick resolution. We also appreciate the assistance of listeners who helped alert KUOW to this issue and have provided additional information to aid the investigation.”

Dave Welding, the Mazda driver the Seattle Times spoke with, shared his vehicle’s problem. “The lower right field of my vision was seeing like a TV screen going on and off. Over and over, the screen showed the Mazda logo, then there would be a flash, then the logo split into five new logos.”

Welding then contacted Lee Johnson Mazda of Seattle, “They told me that there’s nothing they can do about it, that I needed a new [Connectivity Master Unit], that it cost $1,500 and that they didn’t have the part,” he told the newspaper.

While repairing the vehicles may take a while, a quick fix of the HD Radio encoding by Xperi is likely, according to Dan Tappan. The member of Eastern Washington University’s Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering told the Seattle Times that, based on his conversation with Mazda, KUOW “sent image files with no extension” to vehicles tuned to its HD1 signal.

These files typically include the “rich metadata” and images associated with a song, or recording artist, or another sort of programming. In the case of the 2016 Mazda entertainment systems, Tappan believes KUOW sent a file that did not identify its format, such as a *PNG or *JPG.

While the vehicle computer should not have opened the file, perhaps it attempted to.

While KUOW and Xperi Corp. are already working closely together and future issues appear to be resolved, Seattle Mazda vehicle owners with their entertainment systems stuck in perpetual reboot mode may be stuck with KUOW, bringing new meaning to the 1980s-era tag line, “Lock it in … and rip the knob off.”