Litter on the airwaves | OPINION

Turn south off Highway 528 at the Nazarene Church. Drive south toward Soper Hill. Tune your car radio to any AM station and what do you hear? Static! Whole symphonies of static.

You’ll hear swishing like wind through fir trees, metallic intermittent buzzing, a percussive k-k-k-k like robotic woodpeckers attacking Marysville’s water tower and a looming tsunami of sound as you approach Highway 9’s power lines. Driving under them is rather like entering a factory where thousands of little machines mix their din to swallow AM broadcasting whole, no matter how high the volume is set. Take all that away and a filigree of delicate noise still whispers in the background.

Drivers find themselves in and out of it like weather changes in Puget Sound’s infamous convergence zone. Interference along I-5 is generally mild while elsewhere, as along 83rd Avenue, pockets of static litter the airwaves. We can’t see it but the here-and-there effect on the ear may be compared with the way clusters of political roadside signs offend the eye.

Hit a pocket of interference and it’s time to switch from AM to FM. Frequency Modulated radio has a short range capacity for blasting through interference unscathed — or at least less scathed than AM. This fact raises the question, why not just abandon AM? What’s so good about it?

Back in the 1960’s, I often drove to family gatherings in Spokane, choosing to drive at night when the kids would sleep the trip away. All across central Washington we’d listen to Larry King doing his first gig with KGO San Francisco. KGO reached Washington State because of the superior nighttime carrying power of AM radio, a phenomenon that lets Alaskans tune in to Seattle radio.

But time and technology are eroding at AM radio’s reach. Homes and industry have become so electronically gadgetized that the environment swarms with busy electrons as never before. Each time a switch is flipped they jump into motion and each time they find even a tiny gap to jump, they create microscopic bolts of lightning that we hear as static. The atmosphere is about as free of this action as air is free of pollution.

The worst problem used to be accidental spark-gaps in electric fences that surrounded Marysville’s cow farms. Those fences acted as huge static transmitting antennas that roving FCC investigators tracked down. Now, proliferating electric gadgets have so overwhelmed the FCC’s enforcement arm that all but the worst problems go unresolved

Broadcasters have been forced to compromise. When sound quality is needed, as with music, they turn to FM. When sending out rougher stuff such as traffic reports or political talk shows, they stick with AM. Yet there are some of us who want it all. We’d like to have crystal-clear AM without giving up static-producing electrical stuff that’s become necessary to our lives.

Static producers come in two varieties, those that are naturally noisy and others that generate interference because they’re out of whack. To a degree, it is possible to track down the out-of-whack culprits and maybe do something about them. This is especially doable if the offending device happens to be on your own property.

Take a cheap portable radio and set the tuner between stations in the low numbers. The cheaper the better because more expensive radios may be equipped with static filters. You are looking for a place on the dial that offers no intelligent sound, just noise. Next, prowl about, turning the radio this way and that, all the time closing in on the noise source. You can often pin-point the offending device this way but then comes the issue of dealing with it.

That approach might clear some static near home but the problem is global in scope. Big offenders include Marysville’s 13 cell towers, conflicting broadcasts, faulty electric fences, power tools gone bonkers, computers, fluorescent lights, spark plugs, furnace igniters, dimmer switches, power lines and TV sets. Tools that use on-again off-again compressors are notoriously noisy. It would help if stores offered products that don’t broadcast interference but that won’t happen so long as we choose to buy cheap stuff.

Electrical power tools account for some of the problem and the stocks of them in Big-Box stores tell us that electronic noise will be on the rise. More electronic noise equals worse radio reception. Yet we need to preserve some way for radio to communicate over long distances. Though FM is less vulnerable to static than AM, it does poop out within a few hundred miles.

How odd that the FCC gave up on Morse code, that cumbersome alphabet of dots and dashes that knifes through the worst interference.  SOS, or dit-dit-dit, da-da-da, dit-dit-dit, is no longer an officially sanctioned way to yell for help on the airwaves, even though it stands a far better chance of getting through than vocal sounds on either AM or FM.

There are ways to partially cut static. First, try a higher quality radio. Next, equip it with a static filter and a good antenna. Then accept that a certain amount of radio interference is unavoidable.

Comments may be addressed to robertgraef@comcast.net.


We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.

Read the Oct 22
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.