Friday, February 1, 2013

Local Radio = Ham Radio

Growing up, I loved listening to the radio. As a young adult, I worked in radio. I lived and breathed radio. Audio fidelity, audio processing and audio editing were fine arts I appreciated daily. Creating aural engineering magic was an honored skill developed after many, many years of practice and use. Listening to proficient professional audio was like enjoying fine wine. My AM/FM tuner, record turntable, big McIntosh amplifier and cherished JBL speakers could take me to heaven. What a marvelous treat audio was!

Times have changed. How I miss good audio. Today, it is almost impossible to find. Most people listen to little iPod headphones, smartphone speakers or built-in computer speakers. Some desktop PCs have accessory speakers that attempt competency because they feign bass. People will sometimes augment their televisions with surround sound amplifiers and speaker packages, but the included speakers are often only good at being pretty. Accurately reproducing sound is a challenge they will never meet.

It is also difficult to find beautiful sounding new audio to play. Long ago we learned that digital audio sounds harsh. Sampling doesn’t capture harmonics and warmth the way it should. When you compress audio, you compress joy. I can look at a 72 dpi .jpeg of daVinci’s Mona Lisa and get the idea, but there is nothing like the real thing. Audio is no different.

The same is true for broadcast audio. Here in New York City, the first assault came when, decades ago, ABC’s WPLJ-FM started to use an elaborate three-band equalizer/processor to make them the absolute loudest station alive. Later, the broadcast industry decided to limit AM radio audio response to 9 kHz. ‘Compatible’ digital HD Radio has become a tireless assault on the art of radio audio whittling response to 5 kHz or less combined with an endless machine drone five channels wide. No retreat is in sight. All hope is gone!

The coming of computers took audio down to the basement. Digital studio-to-transmitter links, especially those using Internet connections, robbed music of fullness and life. Random playlists, requiring no human intervention, ruin all chances of every hearing ‘a perfect segue’ blending one song to another ever again. Heavily compressed music and talk, perverted further through today’s ‘smart’ audio processors, creates the aural equivalent of grizzle. Satellite radio really does sound like listening to the world through a reversed megaphone. Oh, my poor ears!

Even on a personal level, where can you go to hear good new recordings? High fidelity, these days, is 256 kilobytes per second with a 44.1 kHz sample rate. It’s nothing more than ones and zeros. Many iPod files are half that rate or smaller. (I love the iTunes option of using the Apple Lossless Encoder to ingest music!) Audio has fallen back to the quality I knew long ago listening to my first transistor radio. Shouldn’t sound reproduction be simply amazing in the year 2013? How could our aural standard be based on iPod earbuds? On-line audio may be disappointing, but radio audio is so sad and harsh. I may sorely miss ‘high fidelity,’ but this generation will never even know what ‘high fidelity’ is!

One thing is painfully clear: Greed is a powerful force. Radio, television, newspapers, billboards and signs are big business. To maximize profits, many think it is best to provide products with broad appeal that require the least investment up front. Corporate entities truly believe that even though the choices are few and quality is poor, public demand will continue. Or will it?

Is over-the-air broadcasting obsolete? I am beginning to think so. Technology is marching forward, but with so many deficiencies. I now use a smartphone app that allows me to listen to over 70,000 radio stations worldwide over the Internet. I can also listen to innumerable podcasts and see videos whenever I like. Does anything really need to be ‘live’ anymore? With digital transmission, there is no static or fading or fidelity. (When it drops out, it drops out completely!) What a miracle!

Forget your dreams about high fidelity; also missing is local exclusivity. Not only do radio stations and other audio feeds lack any local content, there is no longer any guarantee that people throughout your community are tuning in at all. Who knows? You may have listeners scattered all over the world or all situated in Mongolia. With thousands of on-line ‘stations’ and on-demand Podcasts to choose from, is everyone in ‘their own private Idaho?’ I’m afraid so! Case in point: During Hurricane Sandy, I had friends ask ‘Can I borrow a radio? My clock radio runs on electricity.’ When was the last time you bought a radio? Is there nothing left?

Local advertisers can no longer easily reach their potential customers. You and your neighbors are losing all avenues to discover local events and information. Delivering messages and alerts with immediacy has disappeared, too. With thousands of entertainment choices, it’s just not economically viable to continue local programming in the eyes of corporations holding the licenses of thousands of stations nationwide. It is so much cheaper to program them all alike.

Radio no longer has any local identity. In every city in America, radio stations have become unspecific and anonymous duplicates. Herein lies the darkest moment: No one wants to invest the time and effort needed to actually serve the public. Mass production is sufficient. ‘They will listen anyway.’ What a tragedy!

Today’s American radio could be distributed on a handful of nationwide channels without losing any variety. Listen to AM radio at night and you’ll witness dozens and dozens of stations all echoing ‘Coast-to-Coast AM with George Noory.’ It’s no different in the daytime. You’ll hear two or three talk show hosts broadcasting centrally from another part of the country repeating all over the dial. Consolidating further, local stations are now clustered into regional multiple station groups. It is so efficient and cost-effective. Right?

Even more mind-numbing and irrelevant to your world are Internet distributed music services with vague or non-existent identities. Have you ever wondered (or tried to find out!) just where Pandora, 181.FM, Addicted to Radio, GotRadio, Slacker and a million other services come from? Does it matter? Do any of them feature human beings? Is there any difference now between big corporation broadcasters and basement broadcasters? The endless lists of stations available via smartphone show no distinctions except one: The lesser entities have much lighter commercial loads! Most important: What is the business model for financially supporting tens of thousands of audio feeds? How do today’s advertisers reach anybody? How do you build an identity among 70,000 competitors? What will this all evolve into, or will broadcasting cease to exist?

Will any media service ever return their focus to local news and interests? Local newspapers are falling out of business. Locally produced radio no longer exists or is limited to a single weekday-only 6 am to 9 am time slot. During Hurricane Sandy or big snow storms, no local information was being conveyed to areas like Peekskill or Mt. Kisco. Peekskill’s local AM radio station was off the air for days! Long gone is any sense of local public service. Both of Mt. Kisco’s stations now relay 24/7 pre-recorded religious programming. How does this serve Mt. Kisco?

Yesterday, I heard my closest radio station, WREF in Ridgefield, Connecticut, on the air with only an open carrier all morning. They finally did turn the station’s transmitter off before noon but their broadcasts were silenced all day long not to return until the following morning. I guess the contract engineer was just too far away or too busy to be bothered. Mt. Kisco’s NPR relay of WAMC Albany is off the air again. After Hurricane Sandy, they were off the air for weeks. Will anyone ever rediscover the gold mine possible in local content? Is anyone listening? I wonder if I will live to see the day when local content becomes a new novelty. Imagine: A station on the air for your county and your county alone!

Television is not immune to this trend. Many families are deciding to ‘cut the cable’ and leave the world of cable or fiber-delivered subscription TV. Why pay for hundreds of channels that remain unwatched? Using a variety of Internet interface boxes, (like a Nintendo Wii, Roku box, Apple TV, a simple Blu-Ray player or, even better, an Internet-ready TV) viewers transcend cable and broadcast networks and watch what they want, when they want, on-line. With ‘cable’ subscriptions costing $200 a month or more, consumer savings could be sizable. Do television networks (or televisions themselves) need to exist? Not really. Who wants to see a continuous stream of shows, on a strict schedule in real time, when you can see everything on-demand?

Welcome to the year 2013: Your entire life is now reliant on the Internet. You may have a generator installed at your house, but this does not insure having Internet or phone connections when on-grid power fails. How will you communicate? If anyone could bring the Internet down, the world would be on its knees begging for mercy! Where would people go to find out what is going on? I believe the last link to immediate local news might someday be amateur radio! Amateur’s ability to provide emergency communications is becoming the only place for the public to hear what is going on as it happens on a local level.

Before you dismiss this idea, give it some thought. What other medium is poised to convey local news in an immediate way? A weekly local newspaper or monthly magazine? An automated radio station playing music from a computer or relaying a satellite talk show? A big city television station based 40 miles away? All ham radio operators have to do is press a button and they are on the air. It doesn’t get more immediate than that!

Now more than ever, amateur radio is vital in providing point-to-point communications. You won’t hear about local events anywhere else. Hams are prepared to communicate without grid power or the Internet! You’ll hear us conveying essential messages of road closures, weather conditions including National Weather Service Skywarn spotter nets, and public safety Radiogram messages relaying personal status or requests for emergency supplies or assistance over the air. No Internet or telephones are necessary! Amateur radio operators are professional emergency responders in every way. Their services can really make someone’s day. Listening to us work, as progress unfolds, can be a vital source of information like no other.

With such a lack of local broadcast radio, people may soon be tuning in to amateur chat nets for news. (Now you can hear ham radio repeaters on the same applications that deliver ‘radio stations’ to your smartphone like TuneIn.) Scanners are very popular where I vacation in Michigan. If your net meets on a daily regular schedule, you could become the talk of the town! Can you imagine overhearing someone say ‘Did you hear the Goat’s Net last night?’ I’m not saying that we have reached that point, but it’s starting to look like a pretty good alternative!

Listening to 2 meters is quite accessible to the general public. Battery-powered scanners are inexpensive and easy to obtain and use. Household broadcast band radios are now being marketed with integrated 2 meter receivers (most notably the C.C. Crane CC Radio-2 pictured above.) It is so important that amateurs continue to practice and maintain emergency communication nets and make the public aware of our presence! In many ways, we may become the radio stars of tomorrow! High fidelity audio and local radio may be only a memory, but ham radio will continue to provide sunlight all through this modern age.

I can only sit and wonder about the future. Yet another new television standard is on the horizon: 4K Ultra-HD. The TV industry is also rolling out digital mobile TV you can watch on a dedicated portable receiver or over a smartphone. (Portable TV? Didn’t we first do that back in the 1960s?) By the way, have you watched anything new on your expensive 3D TV lately? Can high technology innovations continue to be marketed if manufacturers can’t sell the miracles they create?

Tell me which of these innovations have actually revived or saved the radio industry over the decades: FMX, AM Stereo, NRSC filtering, FM Quad, compatible IBOC ‘HD Radio’, RDS, DRM, broadbanding AM antennas, ‘smart’ audio processing, data service packets and iTunes links. As an engineer, I admire the years of thought, development and dollars required attempt these improvements. Time has shown the secret to success is not in high technology. Basic AM or FM broadcasting is pretty good as first designed! All you have to do is open your microphones instead of relying on the drone of pre-packaged sludge. It takes more energy and effort, but the results can be amazing. Imagine a world where your entire surrounds were listening to YOU.

Also, consider just how far listeners have gone to replace what big corporation radio has taken away. We really don’t want to hear songs we have already heard ad infinitum for 30 or 40 years. Prank phone calls, dirty jokes and maniacal laughter do not create a morning zoo I want to visit. After watching our last hope, satellite radio, decay and die, we have now resorted to iPods, smartphones, mp3 players and anything else we can find to replace what we used to love. Now auto manufacturers are building in Internet interfaces to deliver Pandora and such.

Think of the money and effort we’ve spent to replace what was once ours for free! I remember loving my first transistor radio and knowing that everybody was listening to Dan Ingram or Cousin Brucie. I tried to explain to my daughters that everyone could listen to the same thing all at once. To them, it was quite a novel concept. What I would do to have local radio back again!

I have a dream that someday big business media will begin to understand that all new innovations in home entertainment can be negated if there is nothing compelling to watch or listen to. On YouTube, the blurriest images with the worst sound can be a sensation if there is something that you really want to see that everyone is talking about. If it is all about your neighborhood, the interest increases ten-fold. Content and relevance IS everything. When will they ever learn? Ham radio never fades away. We are local. We are relevant. We are not dependent on big corporations! It may be our last hope. This is why I am so proud to be a part of it.





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