The Mazda-Breaking Radio and Podcast Mysteries


As long-time readers know, on Fridays — like, you know, today — I do a week-in-review type of thing. Today, I’m going to share a story I learned — but let someone else tell it. Because they did a better job than I could have, and really, I’d just be respinning their work.

Earlier this week, I found this article from KUOW, Seattle’s NPR station. The title is “Stuck in KUOW purgatory: Seattle Mazda drivers can’t change the radio dial” but the URL is both funnier and more descriptive: it says “We didn’t mean to ruin your Mazda’s stereo.” 

The basics of the story are simple. Let’s let KUOW — which, importantly, broadcasts at 94.9 FM — tell it:

Over the past couple of weeks, some people who listen to KUOW in their Mazdas say their car radio is permanently stuck on 94.9 FM. It’s only affecting KUOW, Mazdas from 2016, and we have no idea why.

This is one of those weird problems that shouldn’t happen. If you have an old FM radio around, this wouldn’t happen. There’s simply no way that any radio station could do anything to that radio that would get it permanently stuck on their station absent a lot of glue (or the equivalent), and that requires more than you just listening to their broadcast. 

While KUOW was at a loss for an explanation, the issue was so oddly specific — only Mazdas (and, for that matter, Mazda models from2014 to 2017) and only their radio station. So it wasn’t hard to figure out what the solution was. The KUOW article hit at about 4:30p on February 8th, and before 7p, the Seattle Times reported that the car company had figured out the cause. I’m not going to tell you what it was, though, because, incredibly, this isn’t the first time a problem like this happened. And I want to share that story first.

In April of 2019, the Reply All podcast covered that similar story. An owner of a 2016 Mazda was a fan of the 99% Invisible podcast, hosted by Roman Mars. (Both podcasts are good, by the way; I’ve mentioned them both in previous Now I Knows, and will share some of my favorite episodes/ones that have inspired stories in the longreads at the end of today’s email.) The car owner started playing Mars’ podcast on the car’s infotainment system and… the infotainment system rebooted. He tried another podcast, and it was fine, but 99% Invisible was breaking it every single time. This wasn’t an isolated incident, either; Reply All received at least one other complaint, again from a Mazda driver, and again about Mars’ podcast. It’s similar to the KUOW story, except the offending audio is a podcast, not a radio broadcast, and the consequence is a rebooting infotainment system, not a stuck radio.

The Reply All podcast goes into great depth to try to diagnose the problem and ultimately succeeded. The problem, it turns out, is similar to but not identical to the KUOW problem. The damage in the KUOW story is permanent — those infotainment systems are broken; the Roman Mars one was somewhat easily fixed.. But the underlying cause of the two issues is enough where once you learn what happened in one case, you’ll basically understand how what happened with the other. So if you want to know quickly, read the Seattle Times story. But if you want to really explore the mystery, listen to the Reply All podcast first. 

The Now I Know Week in Review

Monday: The Boo Racket: The problem with paid fakery is that it can be used against you later.

Tuesday: The Pearly History Behind Chinese Takeout Boxes: There’s so much in this story that surprised me. 

Wednesday: The History of Being on Hold: Bad wiring leads to bad music?

Thursday: The Border Dispute That Vanished: The story of a maritime dispute with a likely bad ending.

And some other things you should check out:

Some long reads — and, as promised, those podcasts — for the weekend.

1) “The Case of the Missing Hit” (Reply All, 50 minutes, March 2020). This may be the best podcast episode ever recorded. I know I’ve shared it here before but I do not feel at all guilty about sharing it again. It’s that good. 

2) “Guerilla Public Service Redux” (99% Invisible, 25 minutes, December 2017). The story of a man who redid some Los Angeles highway signs… without permission. Also, check out his TED Talk (again, previously featured in my newsletter), an 18-minute talk titled “Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed” from May 2015.

3) “Her dad died. So her favorite NFL star took her to the father-daughter dance.” (Washington Post, 7 minutes, February 2022). This is such a great story, even if it does involve a player from a Philadelphia team.

Have a great weekend!