There Is No Cat

Hollering into the void since 2002

Friday, December 12, 2003

The right prescription for what ails radio?

Doc Searls has a lucid explanation of how soil conductivity affects daytime reception of AM radio signals, plus how signals travel farther at night due to a completely different mechanism involving the ionosphere. I read this shortly after reading an article in the New York Times about how the Earth's magnetic field is fading, possibly in preparation for a reversal that would place the magnetic North Pole roughly where the magnetic South Pole is today and vice-versa. The Times article says that there's really nothing to worry about regarding the changes in the magnetic field, but I'm not so sure. That ionospheric reflection that Doc talks about is dependent on the magnetic field functioning as it has; if it disappears, is it possible that you wouldn't be able to receive distant AM (and shortwave) signals any more? I'm going to have to ask some friends of mine who understand this a bit better than me.

Doc uses his musings to exercise one of his recurring hobby horses, the idea that the net is "radio"'s natural habitat and that old school radio is a dinosaur. It's an intriguing thought, but I can think of at least one major problem with it, at least in the short- and medium-term. Net radio doesn't scale well. The sunk costs that you need to spend to get started may be low, but every single listener you get costs you money. Become successful with a mass audience and it may kill you, just as a web site can be killed by the costs involved in being Slashdotted (and I know about this one first hand). Traditional radio, on the other hand, costs a lot to get started in (land, transmitter, antenna towers, etc.), plus some ongoing costs like electricity for the transmitter, but once you're on the air, your costs are fixed. It doesn't matter whether you have one listener or one million. If you can manage to cover your fixed costs (something that most radio stations manage one way or another), you can grow as large as possible within your service area without incurring extra costs. That's something that's not possible for net radio, and may never be possible (unless bandwidth becomes too cheap to meter, which I don't think will ever happen; it's possible to disagree on this count, which is why I say this argument holds in the short- and medium-term rather than forever). Net radio is a neat idea, and I love the possibility of having a virtually unlimited number of stations, not to mention stations that target audiences solely by interest rather than by geography, but I don't see it taking over from traditional radio any time soon. The economics dictate otherwise. I think it's much more likely that the current situation will continue, where traditionally-delivered radio dominates mass audience programming, while net radio evolves to serve small niche audiences that don't cost too much to support.

Posted at 10:27 AM

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Note: I’m tired of clearing the spam from my comments, so comments are no longer accepted.

I lived a couple of blocks away from a college radio tower for a year and a half, which was an awful experience. we got radio reception on every device you could possibly imagine. (that class 15 "must accept interference" thing...yeah, that's what we're talking about. speakers, phone, answering machine, TV, etc.)

but I did notice that the strength of the signal varied with the weather, and was usually stronger on rainy days.

in Washington. yeah, that sucked.

Posted by Elaine at 1:16 PM, December 12, 2003 [Link]

I know exactly what you mean, Elaine. I lived across the street from a commercial AM radio station and their transmitter for six months the year after I graduated college. Sometimes you could hear them on the stereo when it was turned off. I tried wrapping tin foil around my speaker leads, around the phone cables, etc., but nothing worked. Maybe if I had grounded the tin foil.... Come to think of it, I could have used a tin foil hat....

Still, it wasn't the oddest place I lived. That honor goes to the place I lived in for a year and a half on campus, an old WWII-vintage quonset hut right across the street from a nuclear reactor. Yes, really.

Posted by ralph at 10:13 PM, December 12, 2003 [Link]

Across from a nuclear reactor? Nice. (I spent two years in an apartment across the street from an electrical substation, but your story beats mine for sure. But hey, isn't it nice to be in our own houses now?!)

Posted by Elaine at 6:10 PM, December 18, 2003 [Link]

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

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