The efficacy of the computer generated voice

I was just listening to the latest broadcast of severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings rolling in across WXL-37 for upstate NY:

Trouble is a brewing
Trouble is a brewing

It looks a little bit hairy to the north.  There is a lot of rumbling around to the west of us and we are prepared to head for the basement in event of a tornado in this area.

At some point in time, somebody decided that computer-generated voices were exactly right for emergency communications. Never mind some of the quirks that can be encountered.  These are mostly pronunciation errors for places like Saugerties, normally spoken as Saw-ger-tees but the NOAA computer voice says S-ouw-jer-tees.  That is understood well enough, but frankly, there are other place names that go by so fast that I cannot make sense of what the computer is saying.

Another good example of this is the Coast Guard’s computer voice confusion around the word “November.”  In the military (NATO) phonetic alphabet, November is the word used to express the letter N.  For some reason, the word itself seems to be a bit of a mystery to the computer, which sometimes renders the word November as “NOVEMBER OSCAR VICTOR ECHO MIKE BRAVO ECHO ROMEO.”  For those of us who have been in the military, this makes perfect sense.  Why just say “November” when you can say much more, waste time, and confuse the un-aware?  This particular computer voice is nick-named “Iron Mike.”

Computer-generated voices can be hit or miss.

Then there is the computer voice from Shannon VOLMET:

Even on HF Single Side Band, that voice is clearly more understandable than the NOAA voices in use today. The issue is, many broadcast stations now use the NOAA computer voice to broadcast weather alerts to their listeners.  If I were driving in my car with lots of background noise, I likely would not get most of the information being relayed by the broadcast station via EAS.  I suppose gone are the days of a professional broadcaster’s voice clearly imparting information and comforting the listeners during times of calamity.  Sigh.

Upgrading National Weather Service Radio transmitter

If you have ever wondered about those ubiquitous NOAA all hazards radio (formerly National Weather Service radio) stations, wonder no more. These stations transmit on one of five frequencies in the 162 MHz band with power ranges between 250 and 1,000 watts.  There are over 1,000 transmitters scattered throughout the country including outlying territories like American Samoa, Guam, Northern Marianas, Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.

The original 1958 plan was for these stations to transmit Aviation and Marine weather forecasts.  The system was expanded for use by the general public in the early sixties.  Since that time, it has been slowly expanding, with the most recent survey concluding that NOAA weather radio station can be received by 95% of the US population.

One of those stations in my neck of the woods is due for a transmitter upgrade. WXL-37 uses two Scientific Radio Systems SR-416P  transmitters, as a main and a standby.  The programming audio comes from the NWS office in Albany, New York, via TELCO line.  The old transmitters are tube type made by in 1976.   They are reliable transmitters, however, after 34 years of continuous use, they are getting a little tired.  They are also big and bulky and since Scientific Radio Systems went out of business, not been supported.

This year, NOAA is replacing these transmitters with a Nautel NG1000.  I have worked with Nautel’s military-grade transmitters before and found them to be extremely rugged.  Those transmitters are what the original AMPFET design was based on.  Nautel is not the only vendor that NOAA is using however, others include Armstrong Transmitters and Crown Broadcast.

Scientific Radio System SR416P transmitters
NOAA Scientific Radio Systems SR416P VHF transmitters

The Nautel NG1000 is a little thing, taking up about half an equipment rack with an outboard cavity filter and dummy load.  There are two drawers, a controller an antenna switch, and a remote control.  Each drawer is its own 1 KW transmitter.  The GUI is on a laptop, which is what I prefer.  If there must be some sort of computer-driven GUI, then make it removable, so that when lightning strikes the 1,000-foot steel lightning rod 25 feet away, it doesn’t get blown up.  Each transmitter is connected to a 30 AMP 240 Volt breaker via a 4-prong twist lock plug.

Nautel NG1000 transmitter
Nautel NG1000 NOAA transmitter

The antenna for this station is near the middle of this 1,000-foot tower, thus the station gets excellent coverage with a TPO of 1,000 watts.

American Tower, Highland, NY
American Tower site, Highland, NY

On a related side note, the computer synthesized voices normally heard on NOAA stations took several years to evolve.  Remember when this began back in the mid 1990’s with “Paul.”  Several years later, “Craig” and “Donna” were introduced.  Finally, “Tom,” is able to change voice inflections for emphasis.  When I was in the Coast Guard, we did high seas synopsis and forecast on HF without aid of computers.  At times, especially during typhoon season, it got a little busy in the weather broadcast position.  There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods.  Personally, I’d rather hear a human voice, especially in a crisis.

In the public interest

Once upon a time, usually during a license renewal period, a radio station listener might hear the following on the air:

On May 15, 2001, Radio Station KZZZ (FM) was granted a license by the Federal Communication Commission to serve the public interest as a public trustee until December 1, 2005. Our license will expire December 1, 2005. We must file for license renewal with the FCC by August 1, 2005. When filed, a copy of this application will be available for public inspection during our regular business hours. It contains information concerning this station’s performance during the last four years. Individuals who wish to advise the FCC of facts relating to our renewal application and to whether this station has operated in the public interest should file comments and petitions with the FCC by November 1, 2005. Further information concerning the FCC’s broadcast license renewal process is a available at the KZZZ offices, located at 555 Main Street in Smallville, or may be obtained from the Federal Communications Commission, Washington, D.C. 20554.

So what does “Granted to serve the public interest mean?”  Perhaps having a news department, or sponsoring a debate in the local mayor’s race, perhaps a Sunday morning church service.  Maybe some High School football or even broadcasting emergency information such as tornado warnings or a flood warning.

How about broadcasting a flood warning to your listeners that are taking part in a station promotion?  How about if said station promotion happens to be taking place in a flood plain, and warnings issued several hours before the promotion is scheduled?  No?  You can’t make this stuff up, no one would believe you:

A Clear Channel station in Grand Rapids, MI threw its annual B93 Concert Bash on June 20 in nearby Ionia by the Grand Rapids River, apparently oblivious to flash flood warnings issued by the National Weather Service.

No, nothing bad can come of this right? right?  Of course the inevitable happend.  The river overflowed its banks, causing concertgoers to flee for their lives and flooding the parking area submerging their cars.  Naturally, Clear Channel will pay those who had their cars towed out of the mud right.  Nope, you listeners are on your own, tough shit.

Then there is the now infamous Minot train derailing. For those not familiar, a train carrying anhydrous ammonia derailed and spilled its contents.  When local officials attempted to activate EAS, they couldn’t.  They then attempted to call the LP-1 station on the phone to get the information out, but nobody was home.  Clear Channel placed the blame squarely on the local law enforcement agencies stating that they had not installed their EAS equipment properly and had changed frequencies on their radio link without notifying the radio station.  Perhaps, but it seems there is more than enough blame to share.  Were station employees proactive with the local government officials?  I can’t say, but they should have been.  EAS is a team effort.

Not to pile onto Clear Channel too much, Cumulus seems to encourage their listeners to head outdoors, and enjoy the good weather.  During a tornado warning.  Nice.

By this, It would appear that the public is interested in fleeing for their lives, having their cars flooded, all the while wondering what is going on.

No matter how hard people try, nothing can replace radio’s role in alerting the public.  Mass e-mail systems, Blackberries, and other internet-based systems will fail when the power goes out and kills the supporting ethernet infrastructure.  Cellphones, PCS devices, and I-phones become unreliable during emergencies because the TELCO system that supports them gets clogged with traffic.  Many cellphone towers do not have backup generators.  During the events of 9/11/2001, I experienced firsthand the difficulties of trying to use the wired telephone network due to congestion.  Since the HDTV rollout, cable companies have become the backbone for the distribution of TV signals.  Coaxial-based cable systems rely on booster amplifiers every mile or two to keep the signal strengths usable.  Those amplifiers need power from the utility grid.  Not to mention, most TVs cannot run on batteries and lack portability.

Almost everyone owns a battery-powered portable radio.  When the shit hits the fan, they will turn it on.  What will they hear?

So where is the official outrage?  Why have not the big radio CEOs,  public trustees each, been dragged before Congress to explain themselves?