Connected by Radio

I spent a lot of this summer sitting in a small room in an NGO office, listening to a high frequency radio as people from across Haut Uele, one of the northeasternmost districts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, would check in with one another about the security in the region. News would come in every day – sometimes everything was fine; sometimes there were concerns related to health, weather, or other hazards; sometimes there were security incidents involving rebels – and the network of radios posted across the region kept everyone informed.

As I transition from my previous work on FM radios to focus on the HF radio network, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the radio fits within the media ecology – the range of media options that people can choose from. When I described my research to one Congo scholar, he expressed confusion as to why the phonie system still exists since cell phones have largely replaced it. But then I remember watching a driver for an NGO wandering up and down the street trying to get a signal to call the office and ask if the road was clear for the last leg of my trip to my field site. He would call, the call wouldn’t do through, so he would take a few paces over to try again. Vodacom only reaches so far.

I then also remember being in a small rural town where a HF radio was being fixed. We stopped by to greet the chief and the NGO staff explained that they were fixing the radio; the chief seemed grateful and said it was important to keep the town connected to the rest of the region. Almost to emphasize this, as we left someone handed a letter to our driver, asking that he take it back to town. There are few reliable ways to send messages even to the next town. When I was studying FM radio, I found out that one of the radio stations I was studying had asked listeners to respond to a sort of questionnaire. While some responses came via SMS, many came via motorcycle taxi or a chain of family and friends.

In a place where getting news from the next town over can be difficult or can take time, the HF radio does a lot of work. I’m still thinking about what all of this looks like, and what it means to be connected amidst violence (see also). As I continue to fumble through a year of courses, grants, readings, and exams, I just thought I’d take a moment to think aloud on here. More soon.

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All Aboard for Public Infrastructure

Over the last nine months, I have spent about 275 hours on trains. I usually take the Metro-North, a state-operated railroad service whose trains have been involved in multiple crashes since I moved to the area. Sometimes trains hit cars. Sometimes trains hit each other. Sometimes there are seemingly preventable accidents, like when a train goes 82 miles per hour through a 30 mph turn and catapults towards the Hudson River.

I usually take the Metro-North, but last month I got to take the Northeast Regional, an Amtrak train that is notoriously late and inevitably tries to make up time however possible. That’s probably why an Amtrak train was going 106 mph through a 50 mph curve Tuesday night when it derailed and crashed, killing several passengers and wounding more.

While trains are safer than cars and are crashing less and less often generally, this isn’t true in the New York City area, where crash rates haven’t really declined at all.

At the New YorkerJohn Cassidy writes that “the United States has been allowing its public infrastructure to decay” for decades. The government spends half as much on infrastructure as it did in the 1950s-60s. Of course, the government spends less on a lot these days, as public service provision continues to shrivel and programs get cut more and more. Infrastructure – and safety – for people to move around the country should be a priority.

Instead, Congress slowly breaks off chunks of infrastructure one bill at a time. From International Business Times:

Seven years ago, in the face of growing evidence that the American rail system was dangerously vulnerable to derailments and collisions, Congress passed a law requiring that railroad companies add to their tracks new technology designed to limit such accidents. Absent such technology, federal transportation authorities said last year, “everybody on a train is one human error away from an accident.”

In the years that followed, some sections of the rails threading the crowded Northeast Corridor gained the so-called Positive Train Control (PTC) technology. But in late March, a Senate committee approved a bipartisan bill to delay by an additional five years the requirement for the new technology. Among the sections of the system that were then still without the safety gear: the tracks stretching between New York City and Washington.

And then, in the aftermath of Tuesday’s crash, Congress rejected a proposal to increase Amtrak’s funding.

Public infrastructure is supposed to be just that – public. It should serve the public good, and it should move the people safely and at a reasonable cost. It should help the country move. Inhibiting that does us no good.

I still have a few dozen train rides over the next month, so let’s see how I fair. In the meantime, there are some rails that need repair, investment, and technology.