Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Interview with Gary Frost about history of FM

Gary Lewis Frost was born in Idaho (USA) and studied to be an engineer at California State University--Fullerton; later, he received a Ph.D. in history at the University of North Carolina--Chapel Hill.
The Johns Hopkins University Press published his book called "Early FM Radio: Incremental technology in Twentieth-Century America". I won't pretend i read his book (i haven't but i'm willing to) but i asked him few questions about it.

1) How would you describe the main point of the book "Early FM Radio: Incremental technology in Twentieth-Century America" ?

A: Most readers, I hope, will credit the book principally for correcting errors in the traditional history of FM radio's origins. For more than half a century, historians have claimed that practical broadcast FM technology sprang from the mind of one man, Edwin Howard Armstrong, during his solitary quest to conquer static noise. They have also claimed that by the time Armstrong patented his system in 1933, only he had not abandoned frequency modulation as unworkable. Early FM Radio debunks these and several other false claims.

2) If the commonly accepted history of FM radio is wrong, why did this account last for more than 50 years?

A: For one thing, any serious historian who desired to take a fresh look at early FM really had to understand how radio technology works. I'm not the first person to possess the technical knowledge required to write a book about FM radio's origins, but historians like me have probably comprised a very small group, perhaps a handful of individuals. Second, the most important archive of primary sources, the collection of Armstrong's papers (stored at Columbia University, New York), has been especially difficult to research. It's several hundred boxes of sketchily-indexed papers and microfilm, and only recently have Columbia's archivists had the funding to begin cataloging the collection adequately.

Finally, ever since 1956, the year Lawrence Lessing introduced the traditional history of FM in his engaging biography of Edwin Howard Armstrong, those who might have aspired to overturn that history have encountered a psychological obstacle. Lessing played on his readers' sympathies by describing Armstrong as a man of singular genius and moral integrity, who after inventing FM radio in 1933 courageously fought the heartless mega-corporation (i.e., RCA) that attempted to suppress his creation. Later, RCA tried to rob him of credit for inventing FM, and he spent a fortune defending his patents. Lessing also implied that Armstrong's suicide during the patent trials amounted to an act of martyrdom in defense of individualism, anti-corporatism, and technological progress. If my own experience is representative, it can be emotionally difficult even to think about questioning this story.

3) When was your interest for radio born? and How?

A: Although I listened to shortwave radio when I was a boy, and later worked as an electronic engineer, my interest in the history of radio surfaced only after I entered the humanities. I was seeking a historical topic for my master's thesis, and my graduate school advisor suggested early radio. I ended up writing about Reginald Fessenden, the Canadian who first transmitted the human voice using something like amplitude modulation in 1900. When it came time to choose a topic for my doctoral dissertation, I was open to almost anything, but I committed to FM radio quickly. Only a few hours of research revealed that although without exception every book that examined FM radio's history derived from Lessing's Armstrong biography, that book failed to provide citations, and contained several serious contradictions and omissions. Originally, I set out only to resolve those contradictions, and to fill in gaps about the actual technology. I never imagined that I'd eventually publish a book arguing that Lessing was wrong about so many things.

4) In developed countries they are trying to start digital modulations (mostly Ibiquity in US and DAB/DAB+ in Europe) but the listeners don't seem to be happy about it; what's your opinion about the transition towards digital radio?

I'm not familiar with the specific problems of Ibiquity and DAB/DAB+ that you mention, so I'll venture to guess why some listeners might express dissatisfaction with digital audio in general. The history of FM radio suggests both technical and nontechnical reasons. Perhaps somewhere along the signal path--from studio microphone to the listener's speakers--shortcuts have been taken that degrade audio fidelity. A wobbly sampling frequency or some other distorting factor created by an inferior analog-to-digital converter for example, will cause distortions on playback. So will the misuse of digital audio technology. Lowering the sampling frequency narrows the audio bandwidth. An excessively “lossy” method of conversion discards too much data to preserve fidelity. Again, I'm making these guesses solely on what the history of FM teaches us. In 1940 RCA proposed that the Federal Communication Commission establish an FM broadcast service with a maximum allowed frequency swing of 100 Khz. We should be thankful that the commission rejected that proposal and adopted a standard of 150 Khz instead. Otherwise, FM radio today would not sound as good as it does.

I want to add that by broadening our perspective beyond just the hardware, we'll almost always find non-technical factors that influence technical choices. Audio engineers and listeners typically have limited budgets, which motivate them to use cheaper (and thus too often inferior) apparatus. And then there's the sometimes bewildering factor of listener psychology. During my research I discovered many people in the 1940s and 1950s who expressed a preference for AM radio over FM. Their explanations resemble those of many people today who object to digital audio on principle: FM, they protested, sounded sterile and cold, and even “ghastly in its realism.” I don't know if this kind of thinking accounts for much listener dissatisfaction with Ibiquity and DAB/DAB+ today, but I've heard many people who have nothing but entirely subjective reasons to back their assertions that analog audio always sounds better than digital sound.


Anonymous said...

Good article. Does anyone know Gary Frost's academic affiliation today (i.e. where he teaches) or location or how I can reach him about Edwin Armstrong?

Fabrizio said...

hi, write me your email and i will pass it to him, ok?

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