Today in Tedium: This week, the Federal Communications Commission dropped the hammer on cable-TV giants ESPN and Viacom, fining them a combined $1.4 million for running an ad for the movie Olympus Has Fallen. The reason? The ad featured tones from the Emergency Alert System (EAS), and the FCC was not cool with allowing an advertiser to use the tones. They weren't the only ones to face the fine—NBCUniversal got nailed by a $530,000 fine in 2014. This whole saga struck me as unusual, and piqued my interest in weird noises. If you hear a buzzing noise, it's because you're reading this email. — Ernie @ Tedium
An emergency hobby
It's a good thing that the FCC's jurisdiction doesn't extend to YouTube, because a few channel owners would be screwed. Particularly the guy who created The EAS Experience, the work of a dude who creates fake emergency warnings and/or replicas of the real thing. The creator describes it as a place "where weather and creativity collide."
There's creativity, alright. Sure, the channel has a lot of mundane stuff, like simulations of thunderstorm warnings. It takes an interesting mind, however, to come up with 26 different examples of what might come on your TV screen if a nuclear attack happens, including one that lasts 14 minutes and creates an entire scenario around what a viewer in Kansas City might see and hear the night the U.S. gets bombed.
But even the YouTube channel's owner hasn't been immune to pressure about their creations. Last year, the website for The EAS Experience announced that the videos would no longer include Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) header tones—I.E., the loud noise that emanates when an emergency message is being disseminated through radio or television. That header, generally, includes data about the information being transmitted. Fittingly, the author was coy about the move.
"This is a conscious decision that was made for several reasons which cannot be disclosed," the author stated.
The EAS Experience is far from alone on this front. Mockups of TV broadcasts of nuclear attacks, particularly those involving the BBC, are semi-common.
The highest frequency the average wired telephone can generally transmit, which is really high-pitched. Here's what that sounds like. Want to test your hearing? See if you can hear this 60kHz-pitched audio file. (I couldn't hear it, but I could make out this 56kHz one.) Speaking of things that are loud and go over a telephone, here's an explanation of how a dial-up modem works.
Five sounds you may hear if the world is ending
- Hope you like "Nearer My God To Thee." As unearthed by current Jalopnik writer and onetime Situation Room intern Michael Ballaban, Ted Turner created a video for CNN to play in case the world ended due to nuclear war. The clip, grainy and weird, features a military band performing the song reportedly that Titanic passengers reportedly heard as the ship sank. At least it's not as weird as the Goodwill Games.
- Speaking of grainy and weird, the U.S. National Archives posted the actual audio of a nuclear bomb going off in 1953. The New York Daily News, when describing the sound, called it "similar to a shotgun blast followed by thunder."
- During the Cold War, a number of air-raid sirens—produced by Chrysler and Bell Labs and powered by V8 engines—were installed in cities across the country. These sirens, which produce high-pitched buzzing sounds at extremely high volumes, have mostly been removed, but at least one is still operational in Oakland, California. It's tested during the first Wednesday of each month; here's a sample.
- The U.K. had air-raid sirens, too—they were implemented during World War II, and for decades were key parts of the country's nuclear warning system, something called the Four-Minute Warning. At least one of those sirens is still active for unrelated reasons, but what might be a bigger danger is the sound of former BBC radio personality Peter Donaldson, whose voice was used to in creating this message, meant to be disseminated during a nuclear attack. Donaldson's message is no longer online in its purest form (I looked for 45 minutes), but it was dubbed to a clip of this Radiohead song, also called "Four-Minute Warning."
- If Earth ever gets sucked into a black hole, there's a chance it might sound like this, according to NASA.
The number of times waves from the loudest-recorded sound in history, the 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano in Indonesia, circled the earth. The eruption was so loud that eardrums burst from the noise from 40 miles away. “So violent are the explosions that the ear-drums of over half my crew have been shattered," the captain of a nearby ship stated of the explosion in his captain's log. "My last thoughts are with my dear wife. I am convinced that the Day of Judgement has come.”
Do you have a shortwave radio? Don't be shy. Raise your hand. We won't judge you if you do.
If you don't have a shortwave radio, you may not be aware of the stuff you can hear on it, but it's generally pretty interesting. News broadcasts from Ukraine? Check. Propaganda from a rebel alliance in Cameroon? Probably. Music from Brazil? Good chance you'll find it. Spy broadcasts from Cuba? You betcha.
In fact, those spy broadcasts from Cuba are one of the last vestiges of a bizarre-but-fascinating tradition. Since World War I, shortwave radio broadcasts of unknown origin have gone out over shortwave radio, often broadcasting nothing other than numbers or obscure codes. These "numbers stations," as they've been called, were useful during the Cold War, as they were an effective, relatively untraceable way of getting sensitive information to spies.
For most people, their only real exposure to this phenomenon is through the Wilco album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which sampled audio from numbers stations on some of the album's tracks. But those who want to dig a little bit deeper might be better off checking off the album where Jeff Tweedy and company sampled those weird tones, The Conet Project. (Some examples of its tones are also on Soundcloud, if you're curious.)
Most countries have shut down their stations in recent years—with one of the most famous numbers stations, the Lincolnshire Poacher, going down sometime in the last decade. But Cuba continues using these stations to this very day, despite the fact that it's one of the few countries whose official usage of the numbers stations has been publicly exposed. (It happened back in 1998, when the U.S. government arrested the "Cuban Five," who disseminated information using a numbers station.)
Anyway, enough history. Want to annoy your roommates and possibly find some news broadcasts from an obscure part of the world—or maybe just try out a fully disrupted technology? Well, good news—here's a website that allows you to listen to shortwave radio anytime you want. Good luck tuning it.
Before we go, quick question: How old is your LCD monitor on your computer or laptop? Is it high quality, or is it kinda dated and stuff? Does it make any noises? You can always check to see if it does. Just open up this webpage, maximize your browser window, and see if you hear anything. Odds are that you might.
We'll try to keep things a little less noisy and destructive next time around. Promise. See ya next week, kids!