Hurricane Sandy’s Radio Days

Battery powered radios—and batteries--were in short supply in the storm-struck Northeast; is it time for FM chips in cell phones?

3 min read
Hurricane Sandy’s Radio Days

My son rarely listens to “real” radio; he’s more likely to be listening Pandora on his iTouch. When we’re in a hotel, he scrambles for the iPod dock, not a favorite radio station. But I think he—and I—got a new appreciation for radio in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, when we traveled for a family wedding to a storm-struck, electric-powerless region of New Jersey two weeks ago.

The Internet didn’t work, cell phone coverage was spotty, and TVs had gone dark. We stayed at my mother’s house, where her land line telephone worked just fine. But I couldn’t call to check on my elderly aunt; Verizon had upgraded her to its fiber network, and without power in her house, that was useless. The entire region, it seemed, was dark, cold, and silent—except for radios.

My mother has an ancient boombox in her kitchen—with a slot for (way too many) D batteries. She was ahead of the game. As the storm threatened, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate, on CBS This Morning urged the up to 50 million people living in areas meteorologists predicted would be impacted by the storm to stay informed by tuning into local broadcasting, radio in particular. "Probably one of the things you don't really think about anymore is having a battery powered radio or a hand-cranked radio to get news from your local broadcasters…" Fugate said. "Cellphones may be congested. Radio is oftentimes the way to get those important messages about what's going on in the local community."

My aunt hadn’t heard Fugate’s advice; she figured out for herself that she’d need a battery operated radio. She hunted through stores, ending up with a jogging radio on an armband (and her very first pair of earbuds). It wasn’t quite what she had in mind, but it kept her informed throughout an entire week without power.

People who failed to get a battery operated radio before the storm hunted in vain afterwards. Hunkered down to watch election results in a local bar where power had been restored, I talked to one gentleman who was taking a break from his ongoing search for a battery operated radio. He was getting particularly desperate, figuring he’d be wanting to listen to election news long after the bar closed. (Fortunately for him, the presidential race was called well before closing time.)

And indeed, if you did have a battery-operated or hand-cranked radio (I’m never making fun of those NPR pledge gifts again), you did have something to listen to, because, by and large, radio stations stayed on the air. Radio towers are designed to be hurricane-proof, with backup power for eight to 10 days. (That’s something the cell networks could learn from: post Katrina, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) had proposed that cell towers be required to have backup power, but the cellular industry resisted, citing the high cost. Post Sandy, one in four cell sites in the affected region failed. So folks used to turning to their smartphones to find out what’s going on were pretty much out of luck.)

Though radio stations, for the most part, were prepared with generators and backup generators, a few did go down.  New Jersey Broadcasters Association President and CEO Paul Rotella told Radio World that “If you have 10 feet of water, a station will go down. But if a station does go down, it doesn’t matter so much because one station alone can reach millions of people. So if you have hundreds of stations and one goes down, people are going to hear it, they are going to get their information. That’s what the ubiquitous nature of radio is all about.”

Rotella called for cell phone manufacturers to include FM chips in cell phones, or to enable chips already installed in the case of emergencies. He’s not the only one arguing for FM chips in phones; some are looking to Congress to mandate the chips' inclusion as a safety issue. Jeff Smulyan, CEO of Emmis Communications, an owner and operator of radio and television stations, has long been lobbying for such a requirement, and the FCC is starting to see things his way

Again, the cellular companies are resisting—people listening to Internet radio through cell phones pay for that data stream.

I’m rooting for Smulyan, Rotella, and their compatriots. Put those FM chips in a cell phones; we can charge them from our car batteries if the power is out; we won’t have to grope around on closet shelves to find them in a blackout since they’re likely to be in our pockets; and, the next time a hurricane is bearing down people like my aunt and the guy in the bar, they won’t have to scramble to find battery operated radios.

If you have power and Internet, follow me on Twitter @TeklaPerry. (And thank you to the National Association of Broadcasters for pointing me to some of the information used in this post.)

The Conversation (0)

The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.