Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Opinion: Is Radio Still Relevant?

I recently read the Beloit College "Mindset" list, an annual back-to-school publication that chronicles the worldview of young people entering college, in terms of what they know and experience, compared to that of their elders.  The primarily focuses on cultural references that college freshman would be unfamiliar with, but also delves into areas of the technology.

The Mindset list, focused on the college class of 2016, makes a couple of mentions of radio.  To today's college freshmen, radio is an obsolete, seldom-used technology that has been replaced with digitized music, audio streamed over the internet, mostly heard over mobile devices like smart phones.  The idea of listening to music or talk broadcast in analog over the airwaves, on a standalone box is as quaint as the notion of hand-writing a letter with pen and paper, or reading a printed newspaper.  Something their parents or grandparents did in the Olden Days.

At first reading this was very depressing. I've been in love with radio since before I was a pre-teen.  For my 10th birthday I received an RCA AM/FM transistor radio which became my constant companion.  I loved listening to news and weather reports.  I'd keep it under my pillow at night to listen to "The Big 8" CKLW, or the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings in season.  A little later on I caught the AM DX bug, hearing clear channel stations from Cleveland, Chicago, New York, St.Louis and more.  Radio was the thing that took my outside my not so happy childhood and adolescence.

While I can argue that these college freshmen are wrong about radio, I have to admit that my arguments are kind of hollow.  Fact is radio as I knew it as a kid is really gone. The technology is clunky.  That's evidenced in the fact that today, when I turn on the radio, I have a hard time hearing very much without going to great effort.  Overcrowded bands airing mostly the same tired old talk and music on frequency after frequency.  Noise - AM and shortwave are a morass of noise and electrical interference, FM beginning to be so as well.  If I want to hear interesting or unique programming, and hear it clearly, I have to go on-line.  I'm surrounded by radios - I have a listening station set up with about a dozen different sets, and many dozens more in my collection. Yet I spent 90% of my listening time on line. The old radio has become rather lame.

But I have to remember that the technology, the delivery system is just half of the equation.  The content is the more important aspect.  As to that, what's sadder to me is that I sense from the Beloit list that young people aren't interested in much audio programming beyond music.  While they are certainly plugged into the latest audio delivery technology, I expect most of that is spent listening to music.  Little or no time is spent listening to news,  informational or educational content.  There's a pervasive disinterest in what goes on in the world beyond their immediate situation.  That bothers me.  While not wanting to go into a "kids these days" diatribe (because, quite frankly, a lack of interest in what goes on in the world is not limited to the young), I do feel that it is unfortunate that even with the rich array of radio available through digital delivery, it's wasted on many or most people. 

Which is part of the irony of the situation:  while traditional radio is losing relevance, the fact is that there has never been a wider array of audio programming available than there is today.  I remember years ago coming up with a grid that listed times and frequencies with the goal of being able to hear the BBC World Service 24 hours a day.  I came up with about 18 hours that I could maybe hear the station, between shortwave and local broadcasts.  Today I can hear them round the clock, through numerous means.  I still haven't solved the portability, listen whenever-and-wherever-I am problem (not wanting to pay the costs associated with a smart phone) but I expect even that will become cheaper and more convenient soon. 

Radio is still there, is still important.  It's just that old radio graybeards like me have to adapt to it. Which isn't really a bad thing, is it?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Shortwave Still Works - Radio Havana Cuba

Whatever I might think about Cuba's politics and propaganda, I have to admit that Radio Havana Cuba is one of my oldest radio friends.  It was among the first stations I picked up when dabbling with shortwave radio as a kid. Being able to hear Havana in the middle of a Michigan winter seemed so exotic.

I can't say I listen all that much to it these days, but it is among the most reliable stations in terms of a listenable signal here in the Pacific Northwest.

Here is a video of a recent reception.

RHC doesn't really do the internet thing all that well.  Their web site is frequently down, and the streaming audio is is less reliable than their radio.  If you want to hear what they have to say, or thier great Cuban music, you'll have to go to shortwave.  A good example of shortwave radio being at least a little relevant.

It might be worth keeping an ear ear peeled to Radio Havana Cuba.  When Fidel Castro finally passes on, I expect it will make for some interesting listening.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Gamer AM Radio

Recently I was perusing the used electronics section of the local Goodwill store (where you can occasionally come by interesting radios) and found a rack of something called “The Gamer AM Single Frequency Radio.” These are small, stick-it-in-your-ear radios designed to be worn at sporting events while exercising, etc. so you can follow the play-by-play of your favorite sports team. The oddest feature of the radio is that it is pre-tuned to a single frequency.

The radio looks something like a hearing aid, or perhaps a variation on those in-the-ear Bluetooth phone units you see everywhere. There’s a loop that goes over your ear trumpet; a tiny power switch, volume and fine-tuning control. The unit has a small protrusion that I assume is the ferrite AM antenna. You can swivel the unit to find the most comfortable position. (“Comfortable” is a relative term. The Gamer AM is about as comfortable – or as uncomfortable- as typical earbud-type earphones.)

The radios were being sold for only $1.99, so I bought one of each frequency they had available. Of course, none of them were for local frequencies, so I was going to have to test them in a type of ersatz DXing.

To its credit, the radio does stay in and on your ear once you put it in. It definitely would stay put while you were jogging or otherwise in motion. The controls (on/off switch, volume and fine tuning) are a bit difficult for big clunky fingers. The fine tuning control didn’t seem to do much, but perhaps has more effect on local signals.

The primary impression you get using it is that the radio lacks sensitivity. I tried a couple of different units, 1120 KHz an 1330 KHz at right around sunset. Both channels are relatively open at my location. I couldn’t hear much on either frequency, although I got a tentative signal from 5 kw KKPZ from Portland. The teeny, tiny ferrite antenna does give the radio some directivity; signals were a little louder, depending on which way I turned my head. But the diminished sensitivity would only make this radio suitable for a local signal. I suppose one could consider rigging up a hat with a passive loop antenna (Select-A-Tenna, etc.) as a way to boost sensitivity, but that is a subject for another post…

At the GAMER AM website you can order the radio, in theory at least. You can select a specific frequency (not all AM channels are available, and one FM frequency, 100.7 MHz, can be had) or you can search for a suitable unit by selecting your state and favorite sport. You get a definite feeling from the web site that the project has been abandoned. Not all the links on the site work, so I suspect that the Gamer AM is no longer actively sold, nor is the seller still in business. I’d be wary about putting my credit card number into it.

You have to wonder about products like this: somebody, somewhere, thought enough of it at one time to undertake the financing, development and marketing. Once upon a time you could find a number of tiny in-the-ear radios, so perhaps there was a market for them. Funny little radios like the Gamer AM are definitely a thing of the past.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Shortwave Still Works, Part I

The other day I came across my old copy of The Complete Shortwave Listener's Handbook by Hank Bennett, long out of print, and spent a few minutes leafing through its pages.  Once upon a time shortwave radio really was the information superhighway, and if you followed it, you were very much in the know on world events, a bit ahead of everyone.

Reading the part of the book that introduced individual stations, I marvelled at the broadcasters who are gone, or mostly gone from the shortwaves.  Swiss Radio International.  Armed Forces Radio. The venerable BBC World Service.  Old friends I've spent hours with over the years.

Mostly a sense of nostalgia.  But also one of loss, as there was (and still is) a never-ending thrill over hearing a radio signal over the air from thousands of miles away.  As much of a fan as I am of web radio, it still doesn't have the magic of analog.

Yet looking through that book, it occurred to me that there still is shortwave radio to be heard, if one wants to take the trouble.  It isn't as plentiful, or as easy as it used to be (due to a variety of factors) but shortwave radio still works.

So, in the coming months I'll dust off the old shortwave sets and see what's out there to be hear.  And post about it here.

First off is a station that I think of as so near, and yet so far.  CBC Radio established a few shortwave outlets decades ago to provide service to Canada's hinterlands.   CKZU from Vancouver is one such station.  Located in Vancouver (about 150 miles from here) it is relatively low power (500 watts, per the World Radio TV Handbook) and beams CBC Radio One to rural British Columbia.   It used to be a regular visitor here in the Pacific Northwest; when I first came to Seattle in the late 1980s it put in a better signal than its CBU 690 KHz mediumwave counterpart.  But thanks to growing electrical noise and interference levels, it is rarer and rarer, and signals aren't nearly as strong as they used to be.

Here's the station on a recent tune-in during October 2011.

Not the best of signals, but listenable, at least with headphones.

I don't know why, but it makes me more optimistic about the world to know that I can still turn on my shortwave receiver and reach out to hear the world.  I don't do it as much as I used to, but maybe it's time I went on a little rediscovery tour.

I hope you'll join me in my quest to rediscover the shortwave dial.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Welcome To Radio Enthuisast

Thanks for checking out Radio Enthusiast. This blog and its soon-to-be launched companion web site is here to help radio listeners of every interest get the most out of monitoring. The focus is information, reviews and commentary on radio and resources related to it: books, web sites, equipment, discussion forums, and more. I started Radio Enthusiast to help you find the wide range of information and material you can use to make your radio explorations more rewarding.

Although it is ubiquitous in our lives, radio isn't what it used to be. The march of electronic technology is changing how audio communications are delivered. For its first seven decades of existence, it was delivered solely via analog signals sent over the airwaves to a box in our homes, cars, or on our person.

In the last ten years or so, that model is slowly but inescapably being transformed. Today, analog over-the-air broadcasting is beginning to be replaced (or at least complimented) by digital broadcasting, satellite radio, internet radio, wifi radio, podcasts and other delivery methods.Though I am personally a passionate enthusiast of over-the-air analog radio, Radio Enthusiast endeavors to cover the full range of the spectrum and methodology, both old and new. Electronic transmission of music and the spoken work have played a central role in our history and culture. It will continue to do so, however it is delivered. The medium is not the message, it is the messenger. Radio Enthusiast helps you find interesting and unique resources on both the message and messenger.

Radio broadcasting is mostly seen as being a one-way medium. This blog, however, is two-way and I hope you will take advantage of the blog to post your comments and questions.Thanks for finding Radio Enthusiast. You can contact me through the blog, or email me directly.

Good Listening,

Jim Tedford
Radio Enthusiast
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