Shortwave Pirate Broadcasting

And now, something completely different. It seems there is quite a kerfuffle going on in shortwave (AKA HF) pirate land.  It seems there has been some FCC enforcement action of late, leading to at least one HF pirate being closed down, while some others are pointing fingers at another saying he is a rat, or a rabbit.  Or something.  I dunno, it gets a little hard to follow.

Anyway…

I have written about this in the past; Pirate Shortwave broadcasting. It is a very interesting phenomena that compels a person to gather together all the parts necessary, usually at some expense, and assemble a station.  Further, keying the transmitter and broadcasting without benefit of a license is a violation of federal law, which can bring heavy sanctions.  While most pirate broadcasters seem to get a slap on the wrist, this lax FCC attitude can change.  There have been several steep fines lately for repeat offenders in the FM band.  At least on the FM band and somewhat the AM band too, a unlawful broadcaster is assured of some public audience.  On the shortwave bands, a pirate broadcaster’s audience is limited to only those that are looking for them, which is a very narrow segment of  the population.

What are they trying to accomplish?  Most of the shortwave pirate broadcasts that I have listened to are limited to a couple of songs from one particular genra, send an ID and then are off.  Some will send a QSL card via slow scan TV.   What compels these operators to go through all the trouble for a few minutes of irregular operation?  Some of them have well equipped studios to go along with the transmitting equipment.  Then there is the clandestine nature of the undertaking, often with mail drops and spoofed e-mail addresses.

Some seem to exult  in sticking it to the man, that man being the FCC, big media corporations or any authority that tells them they are doing wrong.  Acts of civil disobedience against authority perceived (rightly or wrongly) as oppressive or evil.  Others seem to have some need to perform, no matter how small the audience may be.  Some are just fooling around and do it simply because they can. Finally, others like the challenge of building a low power shortwave transmitter from scratch and seeing it to through to it’s end.

If the so said station is broadcasting with any appreciable power, it will get noticed quickly and sooner or later, the FCC will pay a visit.  That is a foregone conclusion.  The FCC has quite a few new tricks up its sleeve when it comes to direction finding and RF finger printing.  That’s right, RF finger printing, it is exactly what it sounds like.  Super resolution HFDF eliminates the need for triangulation, multiple vehicles, and wasting a lot of time driving around neighborhoods trying to figure out which residence an illegal broadcaster is using.

While I understand the compulsion to broadcast free radio; the need to inform under served communities, the fact that what we used to rely on for information and news is gone, a once vibrant and exciting art form has been reduced to a hollow shell of its former self, however, we have not yet reached a Magna Carta moment. There are still some legal methods of getting the word out on radio, both conventional and shortwave.  International Broadcasting stations WBCQ and WRMI offer time brokered programming and are pretty liberal in the types of programs they accept.  Not all US shortwave broadcaster are thus, many allowing only religious programming.  Those shortwave stations have large coverage areas and existing audiences.  There are also may AM radio stations that will do block programming over the weekend, for a price, of course.  Then there is the possibility of setting up an internet station.  Eventually, the new Low Power FM (LPFM) rules will go into affect and interested groups will be able to apply for licenses in that service.

The point is, while the deck is stacked against the local or community radio broadcaster, it is still possible to get the word out in a legal way.  The cost of buying block programming will likely be the same or less than buying all the equipment to set up a pirate station.  Further, if the programming is compelling, you may get noticed and be able to flip the equation and actually get paid to do it.

VOA to end HF broadcasting

Several places have reported that The Voice of America will sunset it’s shortwave broadcasts in the not too distant future. Boing Boing reported yesterday, based on a paper titled “Broadcast Board of Governors 2010-2012 BBG Technology Strategic Plan and BBG Technology Update – 2009” received via FOIA last January.

The 2009 study notes that the weekly audience for radio is 101.9 million listeners, TV is 81.5 million and the Internet 2.4 million weekly listeners.  I don’t know how much that has changed in the last two years, but I’d imagine some shift towards the internet has taken place in light of recent shortwave transmitter site closings.

There are several interesting aspects of this report, notably the disparity between what is termed “Classic Engineering” and “Classic IT” fields.  This is the concept that radio engineers toil on RF and transmitters, while the IT guys work with computers.

As the dependence on shortwave continues to wane and the distribution focus shifts to third party operations, satellite and other direct-to-consumer methodologies, the skill sets of some engineering personnel become less and less relevant to the agency.

This issue is further compounded by the relatively difficult transition from a traditional RF, antenna, transmitter design, and maintenance knowledge base to the technologies involved in digital satellite and IP-based networking systems.

Perhaps that is how it is done in government circles, but I have found in private sector, most radio engineers know at least the computer automation systems that run the stations.  Of course, everyone has preferences and we tend to gravitate toward things we like to do, especially in a field as diverse as broadcast engineering.  When I was in the military, somebody posted the “Eleven Rules of Success.”  The only one that I can remember now is this: “Pick the thing that you hate and become proficient at it.”

In order to stay relevant, broadcast engineers have to keep up with the technology while remaining proficient with RF and audio skills.  Computers and automation programs are not terribly hard to understand, but each one is different and operates differently.  Most, if not all automation companies offer some type of training, which is fine.  Nothing can beat hands on installation and trouble shooting for learning the important details, however.

The report also mentions that morale is an issue for several reasons.  First, it is noted that:

Despite several recent high profile station closings, the organization continues to employ shortwave as the most important transmission mechanism to many of the target areas around the globe. Often surge activities are enabled byvadditional shortwave transmissions that end up as an integral part of the ongoing schedule. Effectively, this diminution of transmission resources accompanied by no reduction or even an increase of reliance on this transmission methodology creates overburdened schedules and often the deployment of less than optimal assets for transmission into target areas.

This additional operational burden likely extends to other disciplines within the agency where programming staff must expend substantial additional effort to produce or adapt content for a multiplicity of transmission methods.

In essence, the decision process for station closing does not appear to follow an overt decision and stated plan to reduce shortwave usage.

That is known as the “more with less” paradox.  In the private sector, more with less has been going great guns since the first loosening of the FCC’s ownership rules in 1994.  For those that are used to working in optimum conditions, anything less is a shock to the system.

The issue of low morale is palpable and often present in conversations that address historical perspectives on a particular station closing, transfer of technologies around the network and any other such topics. Precipitated by the long periods of employment that are relatively standard in the Engineering area and perfectly understandable, this grieving process is a natural consequence of the pride involved in creating a state-of-the-art technical facility only to see it being dissected piece by piece as technology continues its relentless creative destruction.

An interesting statement and it shines a light on several things heretofore unsaid in broadcast engineering.  We love our transmitters, as strange as that may seem.  We love our towers and antennas.  Parting with something that has become an integral part of our working environment is difficult to say the least.  Watching something be signed off for the last time and then hauled to the scrap heap is very disheartening, especially if there is no replacement.

On the IT side, things are not so good either.  The main concern is the infrastructure of the IT backbone.  Several deficiencies are noted in the cabling and router; the cabling is in serious disarray and there is only one router for the facility.  There is also other problems noted with personnel and lack of project management experience and/or IT department goals.

Overall, moving into new media fields makes sense.  There are, however, many places where new media is unknown or at best, mostly unavailable.  Moving content delivery from over the air broadcast to IP based distribution may be far less expensive to operate, that is true.  It is also far more susceptible to being disrupted by accident or design.  In those areas where the internet is spotty, shortwave radios are abundant and relied upon.  If the VOA is not on the air, then some other station will be.

I will listen to the shortwave broadcast, but not the web stream

Here’s a secret to all those broadcasters that think streaming on line is the answer to all the worlds problems: It isn’t all that.  I used to like listening to Radio Netherlands (Radio Nederland) on the shortwave.  They have some excellent programs like The state We’re In.  One problem, the only way to get it these days here in the US is via webstream.

The same for many other world broadcasters like the BBC, CBC, HCJB, et. al.  Most of these former big shortwave broadcasters have greatly reduced their operating hours or left the air waves all together.

Issoudun HF antenna, courtesy wikimedia
Issoudun HF antenna, courtesy wikimedia

Streaming content on the world wide web is not broadcasting, nor can the quality and reliability be compared.  Web streaming is far less reliable and offers lower quality than does HF broadcasting.  The former broadcasters which have abandoned the airwaves to the likes of Radio China International will say otherwise, but that is their spin on the situation.  Of course, using and maintaining high powered broadcast transmitters is expensive, especially for governments that are faced with tough financial decisions.

First and foremost, streaming requires that I use my computer as a radio while I am trying to do other things on it.  I bit of background on my computer; I have a 8 year old Dell Inspiron 5150 that I purchased when I was working on my degree.  When I got it, I asked our IT department guys what was the best course for buying a new computer.  Their answer was to get the best, fastest processor available because everything else can be replaced/upgraded.  I did just that, with a 3.06 GHz intel mobile P4.  I have replaced the hard drive with a 200 GB unit and upgraded the RAM to 2.2 GB.  The keys have most of the letters worn off, it has very distinctive wear marks on the case where I place my hands, etc.  It has lived up to my expectations for serviceability and then some.

Even so, it does have it’s limitations.  Listening to streaming audio of watching streaming video is not one of it’s strong points, especially when engaged in other tasks.  Often, when listening to streaming, there are drop outs and other interruptions and the audio just doesn’t sound great coming from the computer speakers.  Even external speakers leave something to be desired, quality wise.  Something about the digitized sliced and diced bit reduced stream that I find annoying and worse yet, fatiguing.

We live out in the sticks.  Our local phone company, in spite of being the largest dial tone provider in the nation, has some reliability issues when it comes to their DSL service.  Several times, the DSL goes out for not apparent reason, returning several hours or days later without comment from the TELCO.  If you call in outage, they always act like they never heard of the problem.

Listening to my shortwave receivers offers better reliability and quality than streamed audio.  I know I am not alone in this regard as several others have made the same comments.  Listening to shortwave is listening to real radio, listening to tinny thin audio over a computer or smart phone is crap.

There is an ever dwindling selection of English shortwave broadcasters listenable in North America.  Nature, as is said, abhors a vacuum.  Therefore, in come the religious broadcasters, false prophets, anti government crack pots, hucksters, other governments with money like China and Russia, pirates and others to fill the void.  That is all well and good I suppose, but I do miss that day that I could get BBC news at the top of the hour on 15400 KHz.

Stay tuned, 1994 redux

In case you haven’t heard, May 21, 2011 will mark the beginning of the end of the world. It is on this date, according to Harold Camping, the rapture will begin. For those not versed in bible lore, this is when God will take all of the saved souls directly to heaven, body and all. Further research reveals that it will begin at 6pm local time, in every time zone.

I’d imagine you can listen for updates on Family Radio stations or shortwave if there aren’t any local stations to listen to.  Those on the west coast may want to tune into the shortwave broadcast (transmitters are in Okeechobee, Florida) for a preview of coming events.  You can try:

  • 5950 KHz 22:00 through 0100 UT (6pm through 11pm EDT)
  • 11470 KHz 22:00 through 23:45 UT
  • 15440 KHz 22:00 through 23:59 UT

The full shortwave schedule is available here.  I am setting my clock so I can tune in and see what happens because I am curious; dead air? station sign offs?  I really want to know how a station plans for the end of the world.  Hopefully it will be marked by some program, announcement or something special.  Operations as usual would be very boring, as most Family Radio programming is mundane and predicable.

Frankly, Camping has made these predictions before, the last was September 6, 1994, when the faithful gathered in the Alameda’s Veterans Memorial Building, bibles open, hands out stretched, awaiting the moment.  After a while, it became clear that something was amiss and everyone went home, wondering what went wrong.  There have been many religious based predictions for the world ending: 1806; October, 1844; December 21, 1956; November 1982; January 1, 2000: etc.   The Jehovah’s Witnesses alone have predicted the end coming in 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975 and 1994.

It’s either a really good radio stunt, which would go down as one of the greats of all time or they actually believe it’s the end of the world.  In the case of the latter, does this mean they will be selling their radio stations?  There are several around here that I’d be interested in getting my hands on.  I’d even give a fair price, considering the circumstances and all.

Update: How do radio stations prepare for the end of the world?  T -40 minutes and the answer appears to be play canned programming, or in other words, business as usual.