What Technology Wants for the Future of Broadcast Radio
Grundig S450DLX Field Radio
I read a review of a new AM/FM/SW radio that will soon be on the market. The person writing the review questioned why “anyone” would want a radio with Shortwave. Perhaps that is a legitimate question. For that matter, why would anyone want AM? Or even a more extreme view, why would anyone want a “radio” at all? By “radio” I mean a dedicated device to receive an RF signal in the traditional frequency spectrum assigned to the AM/FM/SW broadcast bands.
What technology wants
I have heard this term, “What technology wants”. As if technology has a “mind” or “intention” (Hegel/Geist). Perhaps people think that they are in charge. Technology is created in the service of man. But, the creation (or discovery) of a new technology has many unintended consequences as well as a few surprises waiting. The surprises are “what technology wants” and these may be unexpected and disruptive.
Can you get your 35mm film developed anymore? Running low on chemicals for the home film developing lab? Do you need some more photographic paper? Did you check the catalogs lately to see what new enlargers or lenses are on the market for your darkroom in the spare bedroom? At some point, if you talk about any of the above the number of people who know what you are talking about will diminish as time goes on. Does a teenager know what “dialing” a telephone number means and the origin of the term? Do you shoot “footage” with your digital video camera? What is “footage”? (Read related: Kodachrome)
Did Eastman Kodak want their film business disrupted by digital photography? No. But it happened. Technology wanted something that Eastman Kodak could not anticipate. Eastman Kodak was late to the game and was not a leader when technology first made its intentions clear. What technology wanted in digital photography was “inevitable” and no power on earth, let alone Eastman Kodak, could stop it.
Once technology is unleashed who or what sets the path of all the events to follow? Who is in charge?
What is “Radio”?
Perhaps it will be the same with “radio”. What technology wants, and what is inevitable and unstoppable, will lead to a challenge and clarification of what “radio” is. International broadcasters such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and others picked up on this opportunity more than a decade ago to clarify the definition of radio and their mission as international broadcasters. With alternate delivery mechanisms one could finally see in “radio” the distinction between content (programming) and delivery (RF) and how these could be separated. What opportunities await? What does technology want?
So, what is at the core of an international broadcast radio station? That is an interesting question. There are two ways to look at this. First, from the perspective of listeners. Second, from the perspective of broadcasters.
From the perspective of listeners there are two subgroups. Lets call one subgroup “technology people’ and the second subgroup “content people”. Technology people are those folks who listen primarily because RF is a cool technology – fascinating really, from the perspective of physics. And, 100 years ago, it was all the rage – as much as the Internet was all the rage in its infancy 2 decades ago (and the flower is still on the rose today). The content people wanted to listen to, well, the content – the programming. For content people, the technology (RF), at times, was a “nuisance”. The nuisance was that you had to look up the frequency, deal with bad RF signal propagation, and then change frequency from time to time as the broadcasters brought up and down different transmitters in different geographic locations throughout the world during the 24 hour day. What a pain.
From the perspective of the broadcasters the mission of the “radio” station was clear. It was about content. Was the technology a “nuisance”? It was a nuisance to the extent of the cost of the distribution technology (RF) – millions of dollars of capital and operating costs to get the programming (content) to the world using RF transmitters plus giant antenna arrays with were expensive in capital and maintenance. What about the engineers to run the RF-based content distribution and take care of all the equipment? Are these folks and the expense involved central to the core mission of the international broadcaster? No. They are there simply as support for a particular form of content distribution.
What if the cost of distribution of the content by the broadcasters was nearly “free” (as compared to traditional costs)? What if the listeners could listen to the programming in crystal clarity without fading and without finding the frequency? Win-Win? Only for some listeners.
The only people who lose out in this separation of content from distribution are the technology people – those who are fascinated by the physics and the phenomenon of RF. If the international broadcasters could find a less expensive distribution media then they would ditch or diminish their reliance on RF for content (programming) distribution. What technology wants is Internet distribution.
Clarity of mission of international radio broadcasters
So, in a sense, from one perspective, the reviewer of the new radio was accurate in his question: why would anyone want a radio to listen to Shortwave? Underlying this sentiment is the idea of the separation of content from delivery with the idea that “shortwave” (RF) is so much an impoverished delivery mechanism given the current alternatives. Why would anyone use a radio to listen to shortwave? An analogy would be if Nikon produced a camera that had an option to use 35mm film in addition to digital photography. Why would anyone want such a thing? To preserve the use of film for no other reason than to preserve film?
Photography is to film as Radio is to RF. What technology wants to reveal is that photography is really about images and radio is really about content. Photography is not about film and radio is not about RF. Those who preserve old radios as RF devices reveal something very important about themselves. Those who write in a review of a new radio that they can’t comprehend why someone would listen to shortwave on such a device reveal just as much about themselves.
Technology provides clarity of what things really are and direction of what will happen next. Can anyone stop what technology wants?
Curators of Radio
Curator (from Latin cura, care), means manager, overseer.
Traditionally, a curator or keeper of a cultural heritage institution (e.g., gallery, museum, library or archive) is a content specialist responsible for an institution’s collections. The object of a traditional curator’s concern necessarily involves tangible objects of some sort, whether it be inter alia artwork, collectibles, historic items or scientific collections. More recently, new kinds of curators are emerging: curators of digital data objects, and biocurators. (Wikipedia)
If eventually the internet is the preferred delivery mechanism of what has been traditionally known as “radio stations” or “international broadcasters” then, in a sense, it (the Internet) will be the undoing of traditional radio just a digital photography was the undoing of film. But, the internet can also be radio’s best tool for preservation.
The Internet has given rise to various “Curators” – those who keep and preserve the knowledge and collections of societal and cultural artifacts. There are various radio curators out there on YouTube preserving the techniques and knowledge needed to keep these artifacts of traditional radio alive.
I stumbled across a few videos created by a couple of radio technology curators. Got an old radio from your grandparents or something you found at a flea market or hamfest? It may not be that hard to get that old radio aligned and up and running before technology does the final deed on traditional RF distribution. Check out the videos below.
To sample the future of radio, check out Reciva and the web sites of a couple of long time international “radio” stations.
The Internet Ionosphere – the future of radio
Deutsche Welle “Radio”
AM Radio Alignment with a signal generator and VTVM
How to use sweep generators, marker generators, and demodulation probes
General AM Radio Troubleshooting by signal tracing back to front
FM Radio Alignment
Don’t forget these two e-books on Radio Repair.
The first is a classic from 1934
The second is a more modern book by Richard McWhorter which is excellent