Modern Communications for
the Journalist in the Field

by Roger Williams

From fire signals used by the ancient Romans, to flags flashed on battlefields in more recent memory, the transmission of information over distance has been a continuing challenge. Now, with the extraordinary rapid-fire advances in communication technology today, distance is becoming less and less of an obstacle. 

Using a computer we can send pictures and email around the world, and join chat systems that reach people in the most remote areas. However, what if we want simple inexpensive voice communications? The analog cell phone, and newer digital versions of wireless radio phone systems have been available for some years now. Unfortunately, they don't always work, because of the sender's location or lack of relay stations. These systems can also be expensive. For short-range communicating we have FRS (family radio service) systems, as discussed previously in The Digital Journalist, but this system's range is, at best, about a mile.

There are inexpensive devises for the journalist to use which will give him or her a range of many miles, crossing county and state lines without cost.  The recent revision of licensing requirements for Amateur Radio has allowed communications over distance to become available for under $250 for a small, pocket-sized unit. The license is simple to acquire. A few hours study with a manual, written by the American Radio Relay League available in most local radio shops for $19, will provide the reader with sufficient information to take a test administered locally, usually at no charge. The license is given free of charge, on the spot, and is good for 10 years (no code is required for this license level). Each communicator needs his or her own personal license, but the examination is so simple that there are six-year-olds who have passed the test and are communicating. 

Now that we have our license what can we do? If a journalist is in Phoenix, Arizona, and needs to talk to his news office in Los Angeles, he picks up his small $250 radio, pushes the mike button, and calls a specific individual in his office. The connection is made through a series of relay stations called "repeaters" which carry the signal over the mountains, with a crystal clear FM sound--as clear as your local FM radio station's music system.  The location of the sender is normally not an issue. These radio system frequency bands are such that transmission from most any place--through walls, out of high rise-buildings, in canyons--can be achieved. The radios consume little energy when in "listen mode" (FM systems make no noise when in this mode). Spare, inexpensive battery pacs can be carried to prolong field life. In addition, the "no business rule" has been relaxed to a point where most journalistic communications will present no problems.

Because of higher power capabilities, the radio-to-radio communications, (called simplex) are extended from one mile, for the FRS systems, to about five miles. In the car, higher powered units and a simple magnetic antenna can provide range from radio-to-radio without going through repeaters of up to 50 miles. These units also cost around $250. An outside magnetic antenna can be added to the palm-sized hand-held units providing approximately a 10-mile range from car-to-car. Lapel mikes, headset systems, and earpieces are available for privacy.

The experienced Radio Amateur knows how to use these same units with satellites, providing no-cost intercontinental communications with any other amateur licensee. Also, relayed teletype systems called "packets" can be employed throughout the world in a similar fashion to a computer mail-system where there is no phone line host available. This is not as efficient or as fast as a computer, but it is available when computer communications are not. These systems will probably not be employed by the casual user, but are available for those interested, with no further licensing required.

The entry-level amateur can always upgrade his license, learn Morse code, with the assistance of a computer program called "Morse Tutor," and get a long-range radio for national and international communications, radio-to-radio.

During an emergency: earthquake, storm, war, etc., this is the simplest and most efficient communication system available. Conference calls are simple--a roundtable meeting can be set up at the drop of a hat. The radios can signal-page each other, and in some cases turn each other on. Inexpensive portable repeaters can be quickly set up in war zones and used by hundreds of operators.

The modern palm-sized radio has about 100 programmable memory channels, easy to shift, and to learn to use. These radios have expanded listening capabilities out of the amateurband, and will replace the need to have a basic police scanner. All international weather frequencies can be listened to, along with most highway patrol systems throughout the U.S. European shift frequencies are also available within the listening capabilities of these amazing little radios. 

Now, you can sit at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, talk to the boss in D.C. and someone in the White House pressroom simultaneously, at no charge. There are many licensed amateurs in the field of journalism, and with the latest revisions to the communications code we can all enjoy complete no-cost communication.

Next time, we will review many of the radios available--their differences and capabilities.


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