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Hackaday Links: June 9, 2024

We’ve been harping a lot lately about the effort by carmakers to kill off AM radio, ostensibly because making EVs that don’t emit enough electromagnetic interference to swamp broadcast signals is a practical impossibility. In the US, push-back from lawmakers — no doubt spurred by radio industry lobbyists — has put the brakes on the move a bit, on the understandable grounds that an entire emergency communication system largely centered around AM radio has been in place for the last seven decades or so. Not so in Japan, though, as thirteen of the nation’s 47 broadcasters have voluntarily shut down their AM transmitters in what’s billed as an “impact study” by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. The request for the study actually came from the broadcasters, with one being quoted in a hearing on the matter as “hop[ing] that AM broadcasting will be promptly discontinued.” So the writing is apparently on the wall for AM radio in Japan.

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Radio Frequency Burns, Flying A Kite, And You

Most hams can tell you that it’s possible to get a nasty RF burn if you accidentally touch an antenna while it’s transmitting. However, you can also cop a nasty surprise on the receiving end if you’re not careful, as explained in a video from [Grants Pass TV Repair].

It’s hard to see in a still image, but the RF burns from the kite antenna actually generate a little puff of smoke on contact.

An experiment was used to demonstrate this fact involving a kite and a local AM broadcaster. A simple calculation revealed that an antenna 368 feet and 6 inches long would be resonant with the KAJO Radio signal at 1.270 MHz. At half the signal’s wavelength, an antenna that long would capture plenty of energy from the nearby broadcast antenna.

Enter the kite, which served as a skyhook to loft an antenna that long. With the wire in the air picking up a strong signal from the AM radio tower, it was possible to get a noticable RF burn simply by touching the end of the antenna.

The video explains that this is a risky experiment, but not only because of the risk of RF burn itself. It’s also easy to accidentally get a kite tangled in power lines, or to see it struck by lightning, both of which would create far greater injuries than the mild RF burn seen in the video. In any case, even if you know what you’re doing, you have to be careful when you’re going out of your way to do something dangerous in the first place.

AM radio towers aren’t to be messed with; they’ve got big power flowing. Video after the break.

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AM Radio Broadcast Uses Phasor To Let Eight Towers Spray One Big Signal

If you’re in the commercial AM radio business, you want to send your signal as far and wide as possible. More listeners means you can make more ad revenue, after all. [Jeff Geerling] recently visited a tower site for WSDZ-AM, which uses a full eight towers to broadcast its 20kW AM signal. To do that, it needs a phasor to keep everything in tune. Or, uh… phase.

The phasor uses a bunch of variable inductors and capacitors to manage the phase of the signal fed to each tower. Basically, by varying the phase of the AM signal going to each of the 8 transmitter towers, it’s possible to tune the directionality of the tower array. This allows the station to ensure it’s only broadcasting to the area it’s legally licensed to do so.

The tower array is also configured to broadcast slightly differently during the day and at night to account for the differences in propagation that occur. A certain subset of the 8 towers are used for the day propagation pattern, while a different subset is used to shape the pattern for the night shift. AM signals can go far farther at night, so it’s important for stations to vary their output to avoid swamping neighbouring stations when the sun goes down.

[Jeff’s] video is a great tour of a working AM broadcast transmitter. If you’ve ever wondered about the hardware running your local commercial station, this is the insight you’re looking for. AM radio may be old-school, but it continues to fascinate us to this day. Video after the break.

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Pico-Sized Ham Radio

There are plenty of hobbies around with huge price tags, and ham radio can certainly be one of them. Experienced hams might have radios that cost thousands of dollars, with huge, steerable antennas on masts that can be similarly priced. But there’s also a side to the hobby that throws all of this out of the window in favor of the simplest, lowest-cost radios and antennas that still can get the job done. Software-defined radio (SDR) turned this practice up to 11 as well, and this radio module uses almost nothing more than a microcontroller to get on the air.

The design uses the capabilities of the Raspberry Pi Pico to handle almost all of the radio’s capabilities. The RF oscillator is driven by one of the Pico’s programmable I/O (PIO) pins, which takes some load off of the processor. For AM and SSB, where amplitude needs to be controlled as well, a PWM signal is generated on another PIO which is then mixed with the RF oscillator using an analog multiplexer. The design also includes a microphone with a preamplifier which can be fed into a third PIO; alternatively it can receive audio from a computer via the USB interface. More processor resources are needed when generating phase-modulated signals like RF, but the Pico is still quite capable of doing all of these tasks without jitter larger than a clock cycle.

Of course this only outputs a signal with a few milliwatts of power, so for making any useful radio contacts with this circuit an amplifier is almost certainly needed. With the heavy lifting done by the Pico, though, the amplifier doesn’t need to be complicated or expensive. While the design is simple and low-cost, it’s not the simplest radio possible. This transmitter sends out radio waves using only a single transistor but you will be limited to Morse code only.

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Portrait Of A Long Wave Station In Its Twilight Years

There’s a quirk of broadcasting in Europe left over from the earliest days of the medium, which our American readers may not have encountered. As well as the familiar AM band, Europeans and Africans also have a so-called long wave band, on which you’ll find AM broadcast stations between about 150 and 280 kHz. Long wave transmissions were an ideal solution in the 1920s and 1930s to the problem of achieving national coverage from a single transmitter, and were widely used by state broadcasters. In an age of digital streaming they are increasingly irrelevant, and [Ringway Manchester] takes a look at one of Britain’s last long wave transmitter sites at Droitwich not too far from Birmingham.

The site covers around 50 acres, and is home to a variety of both medium wave (AM, for Americans), and a single long wave transmitter carrying BBC Radio 4 on 198 kHz. As he takes us through its history in the video below the break we hear a rundown of most of the major events in British broadcasting, while few Brits will have visited this unassuming field it’s likely most of us will have listened to something sent from here.

The long wave antenna is a T-shaped affair strung between two masts. We’re guessing that the radiator is the vertical portion, with the bar of the T forming a capacitance with the ground to make up for the radiator being a fraction of the 1515 meter wavelength. The video is something of a tribute to this once-vital station, as the Radio 4 transmissions are likely to stop in 2024 and the medium wave ones over the following years. We have to admit to catching our BBC transmissions online these days, but we still have to admit a pang of sadness at its impending end.

This reminds us, we’ve taken a fond look at AM radio in the past.

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Transistor Radio Repair, More Complex Than It Seems

The humble transistor radio is one of those consumer devices that stubbornly refuses to go away, but it’s fair to say that it’s not the mover and shaker in the world of electronics it might once have been. Thus it’s also not a staple of the repair bench anymore, where fixing a pocket radio might have been all in a day’s work decades ago now they’re a rare sight. [David Tipton] has a Philips radio from we’re guessing the later half of the 1960s which didn’t work, and we’re along for the ride as he takes us through its repair.

It’s an extremely conventional design of the era, with a self-oscillating mixer, 455 kHz IF amplifier, and class AB audio amplifier. The devices are a little archaic by today’s standards, with comically low-gain germanium transistors and passives from the Ark. Injecting a signal reveals that the various stages all work, but that mixer isn’t oscillating. A lot of fault-finding ensues, and perhaps with a little bit of embarrassment, he eventually discovers a blob of solder shorting a collector resistor to ground. All isn’t over though, for the volume pot is also kaput. Who knew that the track from a modern component could be transplanted into one from the 1960s?

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Radio Apocalypse: Hardening AM Radio Against Disasters

If you’ve been car shopping lately, or even if you’ve just been paying attention to the news, you’ll probably be at least somewhat familiar with the kerfuffle over AM radio. The idea is that in these days of podcasts and streaming music, plain-old amplitude modulated radio is becoming increasingly irrelevant as a medium of mass communication, to the point that automakers are dropping support for it from their infotainment systems.

The threat of federal legislation seems to have tapped the brakes on the anti-AM bandwagon, at least for now. One can debate the pros and cons, but the most interesting tidbit to fall out of this whole thing is one of the strongest arguments for keeping the ability to receive AM in cars: emergency communications. It turns out that about 75 stations, most of them in the AM band, cover about 90% of the US population. This makes AM such a vital tool during times of emergency that the federal government has embarked on a serious program to ensure its survivability in the face of disaster.

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