LAS CRUCES, N.M. — Not only do people still listen to the radio today, but it is also the root of all forms of wireless communication and a valuable tool in the face of an emergency.
“Some people thought that satellites would do away with all the land-based communications and that simply hasn’t happened,” said Robert Bennett, a member of the Mesilla Valley Radio Club, a group of local amateur radio enthusiasts, also called ham radio operators. “Satellites serve a purpose — they have a niche, and so does the AM broadcast and FM broadcast radio.”
Unknown to many, radio has a robust history in the Mesilla Valley that MVRC hopes to showcase through its current exhibit, Wireless Wizardry: A History of Radio in the Mesilla Valley, on display through Oct. 12 at the Branigan Cultural Center, reported the Las Cruces Sun-News (http://bit.ly/2dYXCJd).
NM’s 1st station
The beginning of broadcast radio in the Mesilla Valley began with radio pioneer Ralph Willis Goddard, who came to New Mexico State University, then New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, to become head of the electrical division at the college in 1914, said MVRC member Charlie Welch.
“(Goddard) put the first radio station in New Mexico right here on (NMSU) campus,” Welch said. “That was 1919 and at that time, he and his students formed a radio club, which is now the call sign W5GB.”
The hand-built radio station was one of the first radio broadcasts west of the Mississippi, and the first ever in New Mexico, according to NMSU College of Engineering. Before voice radio, all radio communication was in Morse Code — letters represented by combinations of long and short signals of light or sound.
“In 1920, (Goddard) became dean of engineering at NMSU, and in 1922 he established the radio station KOB, which was the first commercial station in New Mexico, and that station is now in Albuquerque,” Welch said.
By 1928 KOB was the largest college radio station in the world and one of the first radio stations to air a play-by-play broadcast of a college football game, according to Welch and NMSU.
“Ralph Goddard’s legacy here includes not just the station that ended up in Albuquerque and became KOB-TV, but also KRWG-FM here locally and KRWG-TV are his initials in his honor,” Welch said.
Goddard Hall, the engineering building at NMSU, was named in his honor.
Another aspect of Mesilla Valley radio history is the development of experimental radio-equipped rockets.
In 1946 NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory was organized. “That was right after (World War II), when the V-2 (the Germans long-range guided ballistic missile) assets had been brought by the Army over here to White Sands, and PSL was organized to do telemetry (automatic measurement and wireless transmission of data from remote sources) and data reduction for the rockets,” Welch said. “The telemetry from there was radio — radio telemetry, because you can’t run wires up to a rocket. That was another big use of radio here in the valley and they are still doing it.”
While telemetry was being done in other places at that time, much of it came together in New Mexico with PSL involved in building working telemetry systems for V-2 flights, according to Welch.
“White Sands was involved, the government was involved, a lot of contractors were involved in early telemetry right here, which very few people know,” Welch said.
PSL continues to manufacture specialized antennas and telemetry systems to this day, said retired PSL engineering manager Bernie McCune, who assisted the MVRC in putting together the exhibit.
McCune said telemetry demonstrates the evolution and many uses of radio and wireless communication.
“It was a new era that was different from radio broadcast, but it was all radio,” he said.
Another little known part of the Mesilla Valley’s participation in radio communication is NASA’s ground terminal for the Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS). This system provides radio communication with space vehicles anywhere around the world, Welch said. The TDRSS ground segment is located near Las Cruces, at the White Sands Complex, and is the main connection with the six satellites in the system, according to the NASA website.
The first TDRSS satellite was launched in 1983 into an unusable orbit because of a malfunction of the launch vehicle. NASA devised a plan to correct the orbit and local ham operator and MVRC member Dave Hassall, who worked for TRW (Thompson, Ramo, and Wooldridge) Inc., was made test conductor for the rescue mission. Several other ham operators were also on the teams that successfully corrected the orbit, Welch said.
TDRSS is instrumental today in space communications and part of the Mesilla Valley’s contributions to radio, Welch said.
Help when needed
While members of the MVRC pursue amateur radio or ham radio as a hobby, the club also serves as a resource in certain emergency situations and members acquire and practice skills useful in unexpected situations, Welch said.
“That’s one of the reasons that the FCC continues to license us for ham operations,” he said. “We have our own particular frequency bands within the spectrum and those frequency bands are highly sought after and they still reserve them for us because we are a resource in various aspects.”
Bennett said the government has purposely retained a lot of AM broadcast stations, specifically for emergency purposes. “You can get to the public with AM when everything else is not functioning,” he said.
According to pbs.org, the difference between AM radio and FM radio is how the carrier wave is modulated, or altered. While AM receivers are much simpler than FM receivers, AM radio is more susceptible to audible static, which is why most radio stations today are FM.
However, in an emergency situation, AM radio is ideal because it has a longer range than FM, Bennett said.
“You can pick up AM stations, if conditions are correct, from most places in the U.S.,” he said. “It is really broad coverage. FM is not; it’s in a higher band — it’s definitely local.”
Shortwave radio — radio using shortwave frequencies just above the medium wave AM broadcast band — is especially useful in a large scale emergency, in which cell phone, internet and other forms of communication have been lost, Bennett said.
“If you want to use cell phones, that requires a very elaborate, very complex infrastructure to function,” Bennett said. “(Shortwave radio) is capable of standing alone. You can load it into the back of your truck with either a battery pack or a generator (or use a solar powered shortwave radio), and you can go out in the middle of nowhere and you can communicate for a long time. That’s one of the major problems in an emergency, is that you are depending on a fixed infrastructure to support all the cell phones.”
You can learn, too
Mesilla Valley Radio Club serves as backup communication for Doña Ana County emergency services and communications support for local search and rescue teams. Because radio remains such an important communication tool, the MVRC hopes to get younger people interested in learning about radio. Along with regular monthly meetings, the club also provides classes for FCC amateur radio licenses and mentoring classes for new radio amateurs, according to Welch.
For information about MVRC, call club president Sven Breden at 575-635-0414 or visit n5bl.org. The club operates from their N5BL club house, 6609 Jefferson Ave. For information about the radio exhibit at Branigan Cultural Center, call 575-541-2154. For more information about PSL, visit psl.nmsu.edu.
Information from: Las Cruces Sun-News, http://www.lcsun-news.com