Trunk Line

Entries Tagged as 'History'

On Infrastructure as a MEGO

September 24th, 2022 · No Comments

MEGO in journalism stands for My Eyes (or Ears) Glaze Over. According to William Safire , a MEGO os “a subject of great importance which resists reader interest.”

Infrastructure is a one-word MEGO.

So I haven’t written much about infrastructure, including here: on a blog created by Christain Sandvig when we were both fellows at the Berkman Klein Center. It was meant as a place where learned folk who care about infrastructure could hold forth. A variety of those was recruited to participate, and approximately none did, including me. I’ve kept it alive in recent years by posting here occasionally, mostly with stuff that I think fits better here than anywhere else I tend to write.

In the meantime, I have kept an active site on the topic going: a Flickr account with the name Infrastructure.  My chief interest there is in showing the plasticity of infrastructure over time: how it changes or gets replaced. I am especially interested in forms of infrastructure that are out of sight, mind, or booth, but on which we depend completely. These include water, gas, electricity, waste treatment… all the usual.

Plus broadcasting. Because that’s the form of infrastructure I know best, care about most, and see disappearing. Nobody else seems to be on this beat, so I’m stepping up.

“Compulsions are easy to come by and hard to explain,” John McPhee explains in a New Yorker essay that visits his compulsion to collect stray golf balls. I am likewise compelled to take pictures of transmitter sites. I came by my interest in transmitters when I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, observing the Manhattan Skyline from across swamps populated by dozens of transmitting towers for New York’s AM  radio stations. I loved radio and was so curious about the sources of signals that I would ride my bike down Route 17 (dangerous and dumb, but I survived) to WABC in Lodi, WINS in Lyndhurst, and WADO, WBNX, and WHN on Patterson Plank Road in Rutherford and Carlstadt. There I would gawk at the towers and sometimes knock on doors of the buildings feeding signals to the towers, so I could talk shop with the engineers who answered. The compulsion stayed with me. So, after I could drive, I visited countless other facilities, including mountaintop FM and TV stations.

But I didn’t begin shooting lots of photos of broadcast transmitters until digital photography became easy, along with publishing details about them. (One of the most active groups on Facebook is titled, no kidding, “I take pictures of transmitter sites.” It has over fifteen thousand members, most of which, I gather, are active or retired engineers like the ones I would visit as a kid.)

In the last few years, I’ve also come to realize that I’m documenting a medium in decline. Radio is being eaten on the music side by streaming (Apple, Amazon, Spotify, Pandora) and on the talk side by podcasting. Broadcast TV moved almost entirely from antennas to cable decades ago, and now cable itself is being replaced by the Internet. TV stations maintain transmitters mostly to satisfy “must carry” rules for cable. (Your station can’t be on cable if it’s not on the air.)

So now my transmitter site photography has a documentary purpose: keeping up with what’s going down.

The example at the top tells the story of one transmitting three of Santa Barbara’s AM stations. Here’s what the tower looked like for most of its life, when it was 198 feet tall and proclaiming itself a landmark with bright red and white paint. And here’s what it looks like since December of last year, at just 128 feet tall, painted dark green to camouflage it among surrounding palm and eucalyptus trees.

This tower was lucky. AM stations across the country have been going dark or operating from diminished facilities because listening is declining while land under many transmitter sites is worth more than the stations using them. In this case, the tower stands in the city equipment yard, taking up almost no room on the ground, and the shorter tower works almost as well as it did at full height. But it’s an example of a ratcheting down of importance.

Had this been 20 or more years ago, the tower, which was slightly bent, would have been replaced or straightened. The new configuration is also interesting for engineering reasons. Twelve-foot-long “whiskers” attached to the top of the sawed-off tower increase its height electrically without doing so physically. Listeners, I am sure, can tell no difference. Nor did they notice when WBBM/780, Chicago’s alpha news station, dropped from 50,000 watts to 35,000 watts in the daytime and 44,000 watts at night, from the tower of sister station WSCR/670. The station’s owner made that move so it could sell the land under WBBM’s old tower.

Among the deceased:

Those are harbingers toward a time when AM is gone completely, as it already is in much of Europe. FM and TV are not far behind. But streams will remain, as the most popular radio already is the smartphone.

And I want to document as much of the change as I can.

By the way, I am also firing up this blog because it is also starting to show up in some RSS feeds. Greetings, feedsters!

Important: RSS is hugely important infrastructure. Dig:

Nothing with that many results can’t matter.

Tags: Future · History · Industry · Media · Radio · Television

Testing

June 27th, 2020 · Comments Off on Testing

I’m reviving this blog to see what happens.

If readers are interested I’ll see if any of the other writers (including the readers who write in) are interested in re-joining. Or, if we want to move it elsewhere. Or something. Not sure. Ideas welcome. If you have some, write me at my first name at my last name dot come. Thanks!

Tags: History · Industry

Coming from everyhere

June 27th, 2020 · 2 Comments

To answer the question Where are SiriusXM radio stations broadcasted from?, I replied,

If you’re wondering where they transmit from, it’s a mix.

SiriusXM transmits primarily from a number of satellites placed in geostationary orbit, 35,786 kilometres or 22,236 miles above the equator. From Earth they appear to be stationary. Two of the XM satellites, for example, are at 82° and 115° West. That’s roughly aligned with Cincinnati and Las Vegas, though the satellites are actually directly above points along the equator in the Pacific Ocean. To appear stationary in the sky, they must travel in orbit around the Earth at speeds that look like this:

  • 3.07 kilometres or 1.91 miles per second
  • 110,52 kilometres or 6,876 miles per hour
  • 265,248 kilometres or 165,025 miles per day

Earlier Sirius satellites flew long elliptical geosynchronous orbits on the “tundra“ model, taking turns diving low across North America and out into space again.

Satellites are also supplemented by ground repeaters. If you are in or near a site with repeaters, your Sirius or XM radio may be tuned to either or both a transmitter in space or one on the ground nearby. See DogstarRadio.com’s Satellite and Repeater Map to see if there is one near you.

In addition, SiriusXM also streams over the Internet. You can subscribe to radio, streaming or both.

As for studios, those are in central corporate locations; but these days, thanks to COVID-19, many shows are produced at hosts’ homes. Such is the case, for example, with SiriusXM’s popular Howard Stern show.

So, to sum up, you might say SiriusXM’s channels and shows are broadcast from everywhere.

I should add that I’ve been a SiriusXM subscriber almost from the start (with Sirius), and have owned two Sirius radios. The last one I used only once, in August of 2017, when my son and I drove a rental minivan from Santa Barbara to Love Ranch in central Wyoming to watch the solar eclipse. After that it went into a box. I still listen a lot to SiriusXM, almost entirely on the phone app. The rest of my listening is over the Web, logged in through a browser.

Item: a few days ago I discovered that a large bill from SiriusXM was due to a subscription for both the radio and the Internet stream. So I called in and canceled the radio. The subscription got a lot cheaper.

I bring this up because I think SiriusXM is an interesting one-company example of a transition going on within the infrastructure of what we used to call radio and would instead call streaming if we started from scratch today.

In The Intention Economy (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012), I saw this future for what we wouldn’t call television if we were starting from scratch today (or even when this was published, eight years ago):

Intention Economy chart

Today we’d put Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube TV and Apple TV in the upper left (along with legacy premium cable staples, such as HBO and Showtime). We’d put PBS stations there too, since those became subscription services after the digital transition in 2008 and subsequent spectrum sales, which reduced over-the-air TV to a way for stations to maintain their must-carry status on cable systems. (Multiple “repacks” of TV stations on new non-auctioned spectra have required frequent “re-scans” of signals on TVs of people who have antennas and still want to watch TV the old-fashioned way.)

Over-the-air radio is slower to die, but the sad fact is that it has been  terminal for years. Here’s the diagnosis I published in 2016. I’ve also been keeping a photographic chronicle of radio in hospice, over on my Flickr account for Infrastructure. A touching example of one station’s demise is Abandoned America’s post on the forgotten but (then) still extant studios of WFBR (1924-1990) in Baltimore.

Like so much else, over-the-air radio is being subsumed into Internet streams and podcasts (in the two Free quadrants above).

Want to have some fun? Go to RadioGarden and look around the globe at streams from everywhere. My own current fave is little CJUC in Whitehorse, Yukon. (I list many others from earlier explorations here.) All of those are what we call “on” the Internet. But where is that?

We can pinpoint sources, as RadioGarden does, on a globe, but the Internet defies prepositions, because there is no “there” there. There is only here, where we are now, in this non-place, a functionally vast but geographically absent non-place: a giant zero with no distance and no gravity because its nature is to defy both. I’m in Santa Barbara right now, but could be anywhere. So could you.

On the Internet, over-the-air TV and radio are anachronisms, though charming ones. Like right now, as I’m listening to Capricorn FM from Polokwane, South Africa. (“Crazy up-tempo hip-hop” is the fare.) But I’m not listening on a radio, which would need to tune in 89.9fm, within range of the transmitter there. I’m here, on (or in, or through, or pick-your-preposition) the Internet.

Or consider the case of KSKO/89.5 in McGrath, Alaska, population 319. Here’s how it looks on Radio.Garden:

ksko

Geographically, McGrath elongates the meaning of “isolated.” No roads lead there from elsewhere. Visitors come and go to other parts of the world by plane, dogsled, or boat during months when the Kuskokwim River isn’t frozen. (The name is derived from the Yup’ik words for “big slow moving thing.”) In Coming Into the Country, the best book ever written about Alaska, John McPhee says “If anyone could figure out how to steal Italy, Alaska would be the place to hid it.” Power-wise, KSKO is just 90 watts, with an antenna on a pole beside the station. Since the population of McGrath is just 319, and nearly all are within shouting distance of each other, it doesn’t need to be bigger.

What matters, however, is that I’m listening to KSKO right now in Santa Barbara. (Before that I was digging the equally community-involved KIYU in Galena, 130 miles away, where the station a few minutes ago reported a temperature of -30°f. With “freezing icy fog” coming, a high of -15°f and a low tonight of -40°f. Fun.)

A few years ago my teenage son asked me what the point of “range” and “coverage” was for radio stations. Why, he wondered, was it a feature rather than a bug that radio stations’ signals faded away as you drove out of town? His frame of reference, of course, was the Internet. Not the terrestrial world where distance and the inverse square law apply.

Of course, we’ll always live in the terrestrial world. The Internet may go away, or get fractured into regions so telecom companies can bill for crossing borders and not just for use, or so governments can limit what can happen in their regions (as we already have in some countries, most notably China). But the Internet is also an infrastructural genie that is not going back in the bottle. And it is granting many wishes, all in a new here.

 

Tags: Geography · History · Media · Radio · Television

Digging Andrew Odlyzko

June 20th, 2010 · Comments Off on Digging Andrew Odlyzko

For anybody interested in the history of infrastructure, and lessons to be learned from many points in the history of the Industrial Age, Andrew Odlyzko, of the University of Minnesota, is required reading.

Here is a reading list.

Note the pieces on railway mania. Highly relevant stuff.

I’m writing this right now while leveraging one of the older forms of Industrial Age transport: canals. We are currently on one in Lorraine, France. Built in the early 1800s, it remains in use occasionally for barges, but is better known now for leisure boating. That’s what we’re doing here. It’s a small but thriving industry.

Tags: History · Industry