Sandy’s Lesson

As I meteorologist, I watched with interest as Sandy came ashore across New York and New Jersey this week.  Certainly, it was not unprecedented and it was not underforecast. We could see this storm coming days in advance. Nevertheless, the event has the potential to transform from a strong storm into humanitarian disaster.

Flooded subways and ruined cars are inconvenient,  but what’s really disastrous is the preventable lack of electrical power.  The “government” is not there to help. In fact, it’s New Yorkers with some level of preparedness or capacity to do so, helping other New Yorkers. Exactly as it should be.

San Francisco, and especially the Richmond neighborhood is unlikely to suffer the same failure mode of flooded sub-basements knocking out electrical building distribution. But don’t think we are immune here.  Earthquake is the most probable natural disaster that would knock out power for an extended period around here.

Without going into a long discussion of vulnerability of the electrical grid and the need to be able to generate your own power, let me just ask if you are prepared to survive for many days without access to grocery stores and restaurants? When our power is lost, we will have to be able to live on the food and water we have on hand.

What do you have on hand?

Is it enough for your family? Is it enough to share with your neighbor? Do you know who your neighbors are? Sandy should be a reminder to all of us to have a store of non-perishable food and water in our homes and apartments.

But what does all of this have to do with radio? You ask.

Without power, most home internet and wifi connections will be down. Cell phone service “might” still be available, but it will be spotty and overloaded. The real problem is that without power, cell phones, iPhones, Blackberry’s will soon run out of juice and be not usable to get information and communicate with the “outside world.”

That’s where old fashioned, “obsolete”, analog radio comes in. Most people have at least one portable, battery powered radio around the house. At least you should have!

That’s great, you have your radio turned on and are listening to one of the big news-talk stations that’s back on the air. What are they reporting on? They’ll be talking about Oakland, San Jose, San Francisco and the issues affecting our region. If they do any local neighborhood reports, who knows how long you’ll need to listen in order to hear the useful report for our neighborhood?

This is my motivation for building Richmond Radio. A low power station can cover the neighborhood. A low power station can run using batteries for a long time. And most importantly, neighbors can use the station to communicate with neighbors to send and get information that is local and helpful in a time of need.

For this station to be of use, it must be built before the disaster hits. It needs to be tested regularly. And, the neighborhood needs to know of its existence and availability in time of need.

Internet Audio Streaming

We’ve started to experiment with streaming over the internet as an alternative to terrestrial broadcasting. I have mixed feelings about doing this. One one hand it’s a legal way of getting our program (whatever that may be) to the ears of our listeners.

On the other hand, it’s not radio. Radio is magic. Internet streaming is mechanical.

Also, while streaming can reach a wider audience than a Part 15 station, listeners can be geographically far removed from our neighborhood. I’d be happy if someone from Barcelona were listening to our stream, but I doubt a Richmond District focused program would be of much value.

Streaming is less likely to be available in the event of a natural disaster like an earthquake. Hey, today is October 17th. , anniversary of the Loma Prieta quake. Internet streaming relies on a lot of infrastructure. Real radio is surprisingly tough.

Then there is cost. Our initial investigatory forays into internet streaming have been done with the connection in my home. The outgoing bandwidth of even a small internet streaming operation would quickly be more than I could handle.  A colo or VPS hosted stream server would be required and those cost some money.

Let’s not forget the ongoing cost to the listener to be able to receive an internet stream. Sure, you have to “buy” a radio, but there is no monthly bill from Verizon or AT&T for using your radio. Yes, you’ll need batteries or grid power, but your radio isn’t going to cost you hundreds per month to listen to.

Our streaming test setup consists of an old Dell 810 laptop with a funky screen, running Debian 6. The stream server is Icecast2 and the client is Ices2 , running on the same box. The current program is just re-broadcasting whatever is coming over my shortwave set via the sound card line in.

All present success with streaming, both Line-In and Playlist, have been with the Ogg-Vorbis format. The next challenge is to figure out how to deliver an mp3 stream.

It’s good to get the technology sorted out and have the ability to route our program to an internet stream even if it’s not our preferred method of transmission.

What programs should we broadcast?

The primary purpose of Richmond District Radio is to provide a “low tech” means to disseminate information vital to Richmond District residents in times of natural or civil disaster.  Thankfully, disasters are infrequent. So what to do the rest of the time?

The station needs to be prepared to go on the air any time and under emergency operating conditions, I would like to see a regular emergency preparedness program used not only to provide information and encouragement for neighbors to be prepared but also to provide a means to continually test the station’s on-air readiness.

News of the neighborhood is always useful. However, just ask any regular broadcast station, producing news is time consuming and expensive.  I would like contributors from around to neighborhood to be able to send in audio content to share over the neighborhood radio station. The web could be useful for this.

Community meetings could be broadcast. We could broadcast conversations with people that aim to represent our neighborhood to government.

What do you want to hear on a local neighborhood radio station?

Part 15 Not Good for FM

We really need something between Part 15 and LPFM. The coverage of Part 15 isn’t going to be much better than a couple of hundred feet. The Inner Richmond is an urban neighborhood with a mix of apartment buildings and single family homes. So even with Part 15, my signal could reach a couple of hundred people.

Even so, I want to reach a wider audience. My ideal pattern would be to cover USF to east, Park Presidio to the West, between the Park and Geary Boulevard.  Ideally, I could just run my 1 Watt “barefoot” – no amplifier – but there is no service that lets me do that without a license.

LPFM seems out of reach, both in terms of allocation and the station I am prepared to construct. It would be nice to have a service between Part 15 and LPFM. Such a service would not require coordination, but perhaps a minimal authorization so as to avoid being a higher power Part 15.

I don’t expect anything useful to come from the Federal government, so I have to consider my options.

Maybe I could do better, in terms of range, with AM instead of FM. The downside of course is that I would have to construct an AM transmitter. Besides, AM can sound really good. On the other hand noise is a real problem for low power AM in the urban environment. Just about everything plugged in is generating noise these days.

I guess I’ll proceed with construction of the FM station and just see how far a Part 15 signal goes in the neighborhood and take it from there.

Getting Started

The first steps to getting Richmond District Radio on the air are mostly technical. We have a transmitter and some rudimentary studio equipment that can be put on the air.

We need to spend a little time to find a spot on the dial where we can put our signal and not interfere or be interfered with unduly by other stations. Not much chance in a Part 15 station interfering with other stations but our little signal may get bruised no matter where we locate.

Need to put up and antenna of some sort.

Our first broadcasts will really be tests to determine where in the Inner Richmond our little station can be heard.

We’ll actually need to make our transmitter LESS powerful. The transmitter we have puts out 1 Watt, which if not reduced exceed the limits of Part 15 operation. We’ll need to fashion and attenuator to reduce our signal strength. A long feed line will help.

After getting the basic station operating under Part 15 conditions, we’ll need to schedule some broadcasts and invite neighbors by word of mouth, street lamp flyers, etc, to try and tune in the station and submit programming content.

Our transmitter is like this one pictured.

Like this  pictured transmitter, ours will need a proper enclosure.  The Veronica 1-Watt PLL transmitter has some nice features that will be helpful for our little station. We can put the transmitter on any channel in the FM band using the switches on the transmitter board.

The PLL circuit give us a stable operating frequency. Even though we’re a little peanut-whistle station we should still follow good engineering practice with respect to our signal. The transmitter can operate from batteries for a good long time. This is vital for keeping the station on the air in times of emergency.

We have an Orban Optimod 8000A Stereo Generator/Processor. This unit was salvaged from a now defunct FM station. It’s overkill for what we’re trying to build, but hey, we might as well use it. The stereo generator consumes much more power than our transmitter and will not run off batteries directly. So if the power fails, we’ll loose the stereo part of our broadcast. (at least until we get a back-up stereo generator).

We have an Optimod FM to generate stereo and make our station sound good.

Audio programming can come live from microphones and from computer, tape, or other sources through a cheap little mixer we have.

Given our part 15 status, there’s not too much money that needs to be spent on the transmitter side. That means that if we spend money on the station it will be in the area of studio equipment. This can be used for production of podcasts or other “off air” things.