Why Wireless?

Now that Television is the Opium of the Masses (and even television as universal panacea is steadily being replaced with ‘the Home Cinema Experience’) one may wonder why anyone (except perhaps microbiologists, who according to a recently seen bumper sticker ‘do it with culture and sensitivity’) would bother with the radio – otherwise known as the wireless, or sometimes TSF? Many would argue that anything broadcast on the wireless would be better with pictures as well – popular theory has it that a picture is worth a thousand words and television offers some 25 pictures per second, so must inherently be superior.

Sound alone might, according to this argument, have a place when pictures cannot or should not be viewed, when driving, shaving or ironing, for example. Background music might also have a place to soothe the nerves when shopping (although the prospect of being trapped in a lift with ‘suitable’ music is a factor in my avoidance of shopping malls), or to fill in conversational pauses at parties. But, according to this theory, broadcast sound should be finished – all these can be accomplished by CD - but the universal use of the car stereo by high-mileage representatives to mask the noise of their over-stressed cars and the popularity of the i-Pod or Walkman with joggers and public transport passengers suggests that sound-without-pictures does have a place.

There is no doubt that television does many things better than radio. The weather forecast, easy to follow on television, becomes a nightmare of timing and memory on the radio by comparison. Radio natural history programmes involve tortuous descriptions to ‘paint the picture’ for the listener. Cricket commentary may be enjoyable in the abstract: but abstract is what it often is without visual accompaniment, an enjoyable way to pass the time but of limited use to someone trying to follow the match. The same may be said of many sporting broadcasts.

By contrast it may also be opined that television is ‘viewed’ or ‘watched’ – essentially passive past-times, while the wireless is ‘listened to’, which may imply more engagement by the audience.

But – if you have read this far, you knew there would be a but, a big but – radio broadcasting still has a use, indeed many uses to many of us.

Leaving aside the use of music as a background and news or traffic announcements in the car, let us consider the value of high-quality radio reception in the home. If you enjoy the cinema, the theatre, or novels, there is a very good chance that you will enjoy radio plays, book dramatisations or readings. Many find themselves disappointed when they see the film of a favourite book, because the director’s imagination (or the budget, or many other factors) have made the appearance on the screen ‘wrong’ for the viewer. Theatre and to a lesser extent, film, require suspension of disbelief by the audience: if the radio listener can also suspend their disbelief (and possibly close their eyes) they may be pleasantly surprised to find that the scenery is there, after all.

Some children comment spontaneously that scenery is better on the radio! Good radio drama can be, so to speak, an eye-opener, to those who have known only television, especially when heard through a good ‘hi-fi’ system, and in Britain at least, the BBC provides several plays and book serialisations every week on Radios 3 and 4, as well as devoting much air-time to similar programmes on digital radio.

Turning to music: you may be a rap-freak or a house-fiend, I may prefer rock or baroque. The radio stations have plenty of high-quality air-play for both of us. Ask yourself a simple question: were you born with a love of the music you favour? Or did you somehow acquire it? On reflection, you may well feel that you learned your musical preferences by trial and error, by listening to a range of styles, some of which you took to, others rejected. The music your family and friends played will have been an influence – but your taste came through listening. You may also find that your musical taste is not fixed, that there may be other musical styles which you may come to enjoy. If so, however profligate your buying of CDs, you would have to spend a lot of time and money to come near the range available to sample on the air-waves. If you are rich enough in time and money – and have a slice of luck as well – you can fly to New York to hear opera at the ‘Met’, or to the South of France to see the Rolling Stones in concert. You might choose instead Glyndebourne, Grunge, the New Year concert from Vienna, the ‘Proms’ or the Pogues… the list is almost endless. But as an alternative, if you are less endowed with time, money and luck, you will probably find, broadcast somewhere at some time, the same concert either live or recorded.

Much of my childhood was spent listening to the wireless, from dramatisations of books for children via comedy programmes (some of which are now again aired on digital radio) to classical concerts and the true harbinger of Christmas, the Festival of Nine Lessons with Carols from King’s. Everyday valve radios always added something to the listening experience, usually hum, sometimes worse sounds or an ominous silence. Progressing to a radiogram with ‘magic eye’ tuning seemed very high-tech, (although that expression came much later) and in due course a variety of VHF sets brought noticeable improvement. When brave enough to use a soldering iron, my first circuit was a crystal set, one of the simplest projects possible in electronics and completely obsolete as a practical listening tool, but I came to understand just what the words ‘crystal clear’ really meant. (I will confess that while I have built several amplifiers and other circuits, that crystal set was the only radio I have ever built which worked). A few years later an old Hallicrafters communications receiver amazed me when I heard transmissions from Tokyo and Australia on short wave, while at much the same time a (frankly awful) transistor radio allowed me to listen to the (frankly awful) Radio Caroline under my bedclothes at night, an activity forbidden by both HM Government and by my parents.

My first stereo tuner-amplifier, a Goodmans One-Ten, was an off-the- shelf purchase: I had given up the struggle to build radios and had given up on valves, too, as they produced more heat and light than sound in my hands. But the sound of stereo radio was astonishing: if AM radio had been like evesdropping on events, FM resembled being in the doorway, but FM stereo was a step into the studio or the concert hall. Other tuners have followed, from Sonab, Quad, Bang & Olufsen and AVI amongst others. All have given much pleasure and, tuners generally being reliable components, all continue so to do.

The greatest value of radio broadcasts, in my view, lies not in enabling one to listen to music or plays which one knows one likes. While it is a great pleasure to listen to – say - a live relay of an opera from the Royal Opera House (or the Met, or Sydney…), or a concert from the Royal Albert Hall (whether Eric Clapton or Early Music) the greatest value lies in the availability of music which one does not like. Or, put differently, music which one does not yet like, or of which one has no experience. The brave listener may buy tickets and set off across town – or across continents – to experience an unknown musical genre, but most will not bother: tiredness, timidity, lack of time may put them off. With high-quality broadcasts available from many concert venues, often well-known to the broadcast engineers thus assuring good microphone placement and mixing, the listener may experience hitherto unknown music at little cost and less risk. If audition proves unpromising, other stations, the distractions of the kitchen or even the television are close at hand, while if the broadcast is enjoyed, even in part, something has been learned which may be put to future use. The educational value of radio, or its’ use as a resource for broadening ones’ horizons cannot be overestimated. The range of broadcasts is as wide as your imagination, if you seek it. Who would have thought that YLE in Finland would still broadcast the news in the 21st century – in Latin?

So, if you are convinced, even in part, that wireless may be wonderful, how best to listen to it? In the days when AM (Amplitude Modulated) broadcasts were all there was, the value of an expensive tuner was limited in High Fidelity terms. Listening to broadcasts was deservedly very popular, but with a high-frequency ceiling barely above highest notes on a piano, it was hard to justify the investment. With the coming of FM (Frequency Modulated) broadcasts, the treble soared up, though with stereo a limit had to be set at 16kHz with a ‘brick-wall’ filter to avoid those with good enough hearing (and their unfortunate pets) from hearing the 19kHz multiplex whistle. Even with this high frequency limitation, stereo FM can give a great deal of pleasure – on live relays the faint hiss which seems almost unavoidable on even the best equipment somehow contributing to a feeling of atmosphere, of ‘being there’. The soundstage at best is wide and deep, very convincing, although applause from an excited audience can be overwhelming and since it comes only from in front can interrupt one’s reverie. Sadly, by government edict, the days of FM are limited, although we have some years to enjoy it yet.

DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) offers a much wider range of stations covering most types of music and much for the spoken word enthusiast. While it was perhaps short-sighted of the Authorities to fix on the mp2 standard for digital broadcasting and still more unfortunate that many broadcasters reduce the ‘bit-rate’ as much as they do, we should try to make the best of it. DAB does offer a great deal of choice, a wider frequency range and a wide dynamic range. Some listeners find the sound-stage slightly two-dimensional compared with FM, but the complete absence of background noise is difficult to believe until one has heard, or rather not heard it.

Direct comparison between FM and DAB on the best tuners, with equally good amplifiers and loudspeakers shows both to be satisfying: after a few minutes listening one easily forgets the technology to enjoy the broadcast, at least until the unsuppressed pizza delivery moped or random pirate station intrudes on the FM reception! Sadly, there are quite a few indifferent DAB tuners on the market, many little better than the tuner in a ‘kitchen radio’, but the AVI example is a pleasure to listen to. Many broadcasting companies also provide audio streaming on the internet and may include facilities for listening to programmes which have been transmitted during the previous week, which can be useful if you forgot to listen, better still if you enjoyed it and would like to listen again. Digital radio can also be received from television satellite transmissions and from the set-top ‘freeview’ box which potential cessation of analogue television transmission is forcing us to buy. The two main disadvantages of this route are that television loudspeakers, including those for multi-channel home cinema are optimised (or optimistically equalised) for film dialogue and your radio listening will be in front of a blank or valueless screen – and much of the value of the wireless is in getting you away from the passive tyranny of the television, isn’t it?

By Dr A.P.S.Kimberley, M.B.,B.S.,F.F.A.R.C.S.,F.R.C.A.,M.R.I.