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When your radio goes crazy

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology

Simple gray rule

When your radio goes crazy

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1989, The Syracuse Newspapers

A woman called me the other day and didn't wait for pleasantries before she went right to the point.

"Don't call me crazy," she said. "The cops think I'm crazy but I'm not.

Just tell me something. Can the guy downstairs do something to control my stereo?"

First I told her I didn't think she was crazy. Something was obviously driving her crazy, but that's not what we mean by "crazy," as in "nuts."

I asked her to tell me more. It turned out that something was happening to the radio. She was sure the guy downstairs was causing it.

Sometimes it would get louder. Sometimes it would get fainter. Sometimes she'd lose the station.

Was it a plot? Was he out to get her?

I didn't have any way of making judgments on the way neighbors get along or on the effect of feuds on community living. So I tried to reassure her that it was, indeed, quite possible that the guy downstairs was doing something to her radio. And it was very likely that he wasn't doing it on purpose.

Radios are the most fickle of our electronic companions. They depend on a source far away for their operation. If something gets in the way, they don't work.

It doesn't matter if everything else is hooked up right, if the transistors are transisting and the capacitors are capacitating and the batteries are batting 1,000.

No signal, no sound.

Those of us who enjoy the hobby of DX listening—that's technospeak for "long-distance radio"—know how fickle radios can be. And drivers who try to stick with the Stones on an FM broadcast know how big buildings and long tunnels can keep them from getting any satisfaction.

But radios have become so omnipresent that we often forget this failing. We push the button, turn the knob and expect Mozart or Larry King. It's almost a Constitutional right.

The biggest failing of radio can be blamed on the generosity of AM. The name comes from "amplitude modulation," meaning nothing more than loud and soft.

AM is generous because it lets any other loud and soft signals join in the fray. Who's there? A little static from a lightning storm 70 miles away? C'mon in! A little bleed-through from a station in Carnevales? Join the fun!

Worse yet, the interloper might be an electric motor up the street. Or in the apartment down below.

FM changed all that. It stands for "frequency modulation," which means the radio waves that make up the signal vibrate all over the place. If you can vibrate your own set of waves exactly right and make them just the right strength, you can horn in on an FM signal. But otherwise the door's closed, bub.

FM has a few weaknesses, too, but they're piddling compared with the woes of AM. That's why FM has turned AM into wimp radio all over the world. Turn on the FM and you get music—in stereo. Turn on AM and you get yak-yak. Now and then you get music—on WQXR in New York City, for example—but you have to work hard to find it.

Even AM stereo has all but disappeared. Nobody wanted it. It was a typical airhead idea: Take something that sounds bad out of one speaker and make it sound bad out of two.

As for my hapless caller, her worries were a lot less theoretical. When she mentioned the call letters of her favorite stations, I figured that AM was the culprit, even if her neighbor was not. Any appliance in her building might turn her radio into a buzzbox, and even a car passing by could make life miserable for her.

Was her radio in need of a tuneup? Maybe. But she said she was taking no chances and she hung up to call a private eye.

And no, I didn't laugh, even after I put the phone down. I was trying to pick up the news on my little Radio Shack pocket portable. All I was getting was the rasping of the big motors that drive the presses, one floor down.

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