Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Why I will never give up completely on traditional SW/LW/MW radios

Over the past few weeks I have been thinking increasingly about this arcane subject, having first begun to think about it seriously a few years ago. Like many people I have at least one ordinary radio in every room in my home (including bathrooms), with all of them capable of receiving long wave (LW), medium wave (MW) and frequency modulation (FM) transmissions; I also have several radios capable of receiving short wave (SW) transmissions - one of these is a pretty sophisticated multi-band short wave radio although it is very large and heavy, so I rarely use it nowadays and indeed it generally lurks on a bookcase shelf in my garage. Obviously I also have a radio in my car, able to receive LW/MW/FM transmissions.

About 4 or so years ago I got my first digital radio, also capable of receiving FM analogue broadcasts and a couple of years ago a second digital radio, also with FM analogue capability.

A year or so ago I got my first internet radio and it can be plugged into a broadband router or connected to it wirelessly; this allows easy radio reception from more or less every country on the planet with a huge range of stations available from most countries with very high quality audio; obviously a broadband internet connection is required to make this work. I now have two of these radios.

Long wave transmissions have been broadcast for many decades, although are much less used nowadays, but they have a quite big reception radius (for example I used to listen to BBC Radio 4 LW when I lived in Paris and know that signals can be picked up as far away as northern Spain with adequate clarity under most weather conditions; the number of separate stations that can be fitted into this broadcast spectrum is quite limited though so there is great risk of interference if too many stations try to broadcast on similar frequencies because of the long reception range. Medium wave has a smaller, but still quite large, reception radius, whereas FM has a smaller reception range still, but provided a decent quality signal is available and the aerial is angled correctly, can provide much better quality reception that is hiss- and crackle-free. Short wave broadcasts can be picked up world-wide, but are very dependent on atmospheric conditions and time of day, with different short wave bands being used at different times of day when signals are being beamed to particular parts of the world.

Digital radio is a definite 'advance' (in some respects) on MW/FM broadcasts in particular; the reception is generally crystal-clear, but only domestic broadcasts can be listened to and only those which are carried on the digital platform and this is by no means all of them. I did take one of my digital radios to Spain a few years ago, but the digital receiver did not work there (I understand the technical specifications for digital broadcasts for different countries are different), although I was able to use it for FM broadcast reception, but because of the lack of digital reception capability there I brought it back to the UK to use it to its fullest extent.

Internet radio is mostly a marvellous advance - a huge range of domestic and worldwide broadcasts can be picked up easily - and the sound is of [equally] high quality whether one is listening to voice radio from the UK (such as BBC Radio 4) or similar kinds of domestic and international broadcasts from places such as New Zealand, Australia or Canada; the same is true of other kinds of broadcast such as classical music for example. Without an internet broadband connection however it will not work.

So why am I writing this article, specially with the title I have chosen? I certainly recognise the advantages of both digital and internet radio broadcasts - high quality audio with both and with the latter the capability of easy reception of broadcasts from all over the world. However, digital radio does require a decent signal and I have occasionally experienced signal break-up under certain atmospheric conditions, specially during the summer (I did query this a few years ago with the BBC technical people and was told that atmospheric conditions should not affect reception quality, but in my experience this is simply not true; to digress for a moment this signal fall-off also occurs in summer on Freeview TV reception). I live within line of sight of the broadcast transmitters for both radio and TV and it is not very many miles away, across water, so the signal strength is generally excellent. As for internet radio, it is excellent most of the time, but occasionally reception will break-up, even though there is a broadband signal and occasionally too a broadcast will not be available for "legal reasons" - this happens from time to time on BBC Radio 4 'Today' and whether I happen to be listening on my internet radio here in the UK or the similar radio I have at my home in Spain.

This last point brings me to the crux of my whole article:
- Digital radio is suitable only for listening to domestic broadcasts and not all domestic broadcasts are carried on this platform. We live in the UK in a pretty liberal democracy; the same is true of [most of] Europe and a number of other countries and regions (which I generally classify as North America, Australasia [Australia and New Zealand] and Japan/South Korea/Taiwan/India, plus perhaps a few others, for example parts of South America), but there is no getting away from the fact that one is with digital radio only able to listen to what the licensing authority in one's country chooses to allow one to listen to. The increase in reception quality that digital radio undoubtedly makes possible is at the price of being limited to only domestic broadcasts and only some of those;
- Internet radio is generally wonderful, except when one's internet connection is interrupted, which also of course means when the electricity supply is interrupted (which doesn't happen often either here in the UK or Spain, but it does occasionally), because although the radio itself can work for many hours on its rechargeable lithium battery, the broadband router cannot. Internet radio is also dependent on the proper functioning of the internet, which occasionally suffers technical problems resulting in a temporary interruption of connectivity, but is [more than] theoretically subject to political or perhaps commercial interference here or elsewhere.

Of course conventional radio broadcasts (SW/LW/MW) are also subject to some of these same problems as signals can be "jammed" more or less effectively by governments who do not wish their citizens to listen to certain (usually foreign) broadcasts, often in time of war, but also during peacetime or periods of "cold war". But generally speaking these methods of broadcasting are less-dependent on the full functioning of an advanced technological society and less subject to efforts to stop one listening to them for whatever reason, benign or not. So whilst I make full use of digital and internet radio, I never want to lose my ability to make use of less advanced technology - one never knows when this might become crucial, as people in some countries where governments block some of the internet already know all too well. Whenever there are breaks in my internet radio reception of BBC Radio 4 'Today' (referred to above) for 'legal reasons', I can easily switch to my digital or FM radios, but that may not always be possible under all circumstances. I prefer to retain my freedom to circumvent whatever controls may sometimes be placed on these more advanced broadcasting technologies. My motto is always to be as prepared as possible and not to become complacent - recent events around the world have only hardened this determination on my part.

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