Sunday, December 11, 2005

All of us need a little [World]space

Despite my intermittent consciousness of the holiday season, Santa Claus hasn’t forgotten about me. In fact, he’s so on the ball that he’s decided to deliver international mail a little bit early.

I need to preface this missal with a little confession: I’m a news and information junky. One of the biggest Peace Corps challenges for many people has been giving up “my music;” now with the advent of IPods, people can bring their entire music collections with them. I, however, have never been desperately connected to a certain kind of music – I have a few favorites, but generally I can depend on what’s available wherever I am. For me the sacrifice has been programming of another sort.

For over two years I was dependent solely on static-y, unreliable shortwave radio reception with its complicated system of frequency changes depending on time and season as my source of timely information from the outside world. For those that have never used shortwave, it’s a fascinating technology because you can broadcast signals around the world which breaks down invisible barriers of time changes and distance. I often listened to broadcasts originating from Great Britian, America, South Africa, China, the Netherlands, Germany, and Australia, and it was interesting to compare what news stories were considered priority in a variety of cultures.

Unfortunately, the huge disadvantage to any technology that works over large distances is that so much more can go wrong with it. Shortwave radio waves are very susceptible to changes in the atmosphere; most PCV communication at their sites in Madagascar is reliant on CB-like shortwave (BLU) radios which are notorious for being able to communicate with points 600 km away while not being able to hear the neighboring town and vice versa. Quality of reception is influenced by the weather, solar and other atmosphere events and – as far as I can tell – the will of God, with very little underlying rhyme or reason. My sum experience with shortwave radio communication leads me to promise that my children will never grow up in the Australian outback attending the “School of the Air” which is administered by shortwave radio. It’s time consuming, inefficient and downright annoying.

Additionally, for reasons I’ve never quite understood, a shortwave radio station does not continuously broadcast on the same frequency throughout the day, or even for all hours of a day. Hence, the BBC may broadcast Africa programming in the morning in the 6000 kHz range, then go up to 21000 kHz at midday and disappear entirely until late evening when it comes back around 11000 kHz. And one day the reception on any on of these frequencies may be clear as a bell, while nonexistent the next. The resulting complex schedule of frequency changes are impossible to track accurately without access to the Internet – and once you do get the program figured out, an equinox arrives and they shift their schedule to a completely new set of frequencies and times. I could spend all day just trying to find a single station.

Finally, after much consideration and urging by fellow expats who have made the switch and will never go back, I made my Christmas request: a small satellite radio with a 1 year WorldSpace subscription. It arrived on Thursday with “Father Christmas” in the form of my officemate’s visitor from the States, I spent Friday setting it up, and when the first sounds came through I almost cried. Even Malagasy FM radio is never this clear. I’ve spent the whole weekend now surfing back and forth between BBC World, BBC Africa, and NPR (and there’s even CNN, Fox and Bloomburg stations), and checking out the world, classical, African and pop music stations. If I’m really driven, I can listen to Radio France International to work on my French or WRN German news and maybe learn a little German.

Perhaps you have to have experienced first hand the two years of fighting with really bad and unpredictable shortwave reception to really appreciate the clarity and reliability of a strong (non-shortwave, or even Malagasy FM) radio signal. Just to be able to know that I can turn on my radio at any time of the day and know that I will find the BBC or NPR or anybody is so worth it! My addiction can now be satisfied and my shortwave radio (which has served well, for what it is) can be retired to the guest bedroom.


Amy Calhoun said...

Hi Erica!

How often do you post? I keep thinking it's once a week, but I'll check and no new ones, and then I check and there are several new ones.

I'm doing well here in southern Iowa -- All I do is work, though (but you would know about that!)


Erica in Vietnam said...

Heya Amy!

Once I get this thing figured out, I think I probably will post about once a week, but right now I'm still playing with things and trying to make everything work, so sometimes it comes in bunches.

Even so my posting is going to depend on three major stars aligning:

* I'm not in the field and near a computer

* The internet connection actually wants to work

* I'm inspired enough to write anything

So we'll see regular I can be...chances are it will be like having a belly full of worms - hard to predict when everything's going to lock up or when it's all going to come flying out...

Just a note on the WorldSpace radio - I took it into the field with me this week as we were going down a pretty isolated road where absolutely no FM stations can penetrate. This usually would mean listening to my driver's cassette tapes...and if I had to hear the Michael Jackson/BeeGees tape one more time...well, let's just say this radio arrived in time to prevent all that.

It's a good thing that Madagascar is so deforested, because I'm betting the one place the radio wouldn't work is Wisconsin in the summer time - too many leaves. Any time we passed under a single branch the signal cut momentarily. But overall, it was a hit. I found out that my driver really likes country music, but will settle for "the best of the 80s, 90s and today," as long as it's heavier on the 80s and 90s. And I was happy as long as it wasn't the third time around on anything. Ahh, technology.