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A WTOP Test Interrupted Lots of DC Radio and TV Stations Last Night

Photograph via iStock.

A technical error led to a signal from WTOP being broadcast on other stations Monday night. The disruption occurred between 9:30 and 10 PM. WAMU, WETA FM, WETA’s four television stations, WTTG, and WDCA all confirm they were affected. It affected lots of people’s viewings of Chernobyl on HBO as well—perhaps the worst show you could interrupt with an enigmatic alert! A Washingtonian employee who was watching The Bachelorette on WJLA last night says her screen went blue.

So what happened? WTOP management hasn’t replied to a query, but the station’s Technical Operations Manager, Brian Oliger, apologized on Twitter last night to people who were baffled by the intrusion, including former Hillary Clinton adviser Philippe Reines.

In his replies, Oliger described the incident as a “simple human error” and said the station was testing its Emergency Alert System and accidentally broadcast its regular programming instead. Rob Bertrand, WAMU’s senior director of technology, explains to Washingtonian that the Emergency Alert System is a chain, and that WTOP is a local primary station. If a test is transmitted from a primary station, it will propagate throughout all stations on the chain until a signal to resume normal programming is transmitted. That didn’t appear to happen, Bertrand says, but the system includes a failsafe that kicks in after two minutes and returns stations to their regular programming. Bertrand, who was watching Chernobyl on streaming last night but noticed something going haywire on his Tivo, says he sympathizes greatly with WTOP: “It has happened, unfortunately, to most of us at some point,” he says.

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute, TBD.com, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.