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Solar flares: should broadcast radio stations be worried?

source: Space Environment Center Gallery of Solar Activity

This month saw an uptick in solar flares—huge Coronal Mass Ejections from our Sun that can spark gorgeous Aurora Borealis effects around the world, but also disrupt radio communications. By “radio” the experts often mean high frequency communications systems, but could broadcast radio stations be affected as well?

Well, according to the solarstorms.org site, one was disrupted on September 18, 1941, with disastrous results. In fact, the incident is known as the “Playoffs Storm,” because it took place during a home bout between Brooklyn Dodgers and the Pittsburgh Pirates:

During the day, baseball fans expected to hear the entire 4:00 PM broadcast on station WUR by Red Barber. With the game tied at 0-0, the station became inaudible for 15 minutes. When it resumed, the Pirates had piled up not just one, but FOUR runs. Within minutes, thousands of Brooklyn fans had pounded the radio station, demanding an explanation for the ‘technical difficulties’, only to receive the unsatisfactory answer that the sun was to blame. The effects of the ‘sunspots’ also appeared in the by-now usual problems with transatlantic short-wave communication to Europe, which was out for most of the day.

The situation got even weirder when, the next day, station WAAT tried to broadcast some recorded Bing Crosby tunes. Suddenly what were presumably telephone conversations began interrupting the stream. The first of these chats came and went and were accepted by the station’s engineers as an unavoidable annoyance:

But a few minutes after the men’s voices ceased, a new pair of voices emerged from Crosby’s singing. This time the conversation was far from mild. The topic of their conversation, overheard by millions of listeners, was a blind date, and the discussion was rather ‘spicy’, by all accounts. Although the cross-talk lasted only a few minutes, it was enough to cause listeners to again pound the stations switchboard demanding to know why such dialog had been permitted during a family listening time.

Calling all contemporary radio station engineers: could this kind of disruption happen again? Or have broadcasters sufficiently “hardened” their networks to prevent a repeat performance? All comments welcome.


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6 Responses to Solar flares: should broadcast radio stations be worried?

  1. Paul Thurst July 18, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

    Short answer: Yes, CME events can cause outages to broadcast radio. Would be be like those described above, no, not likely. More likely, commercial power systems and or network satellite systems would be effected. In the case of Network satellite systems, the most likely effect would be dead air on many syndicated AM stations, which might be a refreshing change to their format.

  2. John July 18, 2012 at 6:54 pm #

    I’m experiencing sporadic audio loss to many random satellite dish channels.

  3. John July 18, 2012 at 6:55 pm #

    Any connection?

  4. Dan KB6NU July 19, 2012 at 7:24 am #

    As Paul says, solar activity can indeed disrupt radio broadcasts. I experienced this phenomenon on the shortwave bands not long ago when operating my amateur radio set. All of a sudden the band just went dead, as if someone had flipped a switch. This is, of course, less likely to happen to regular radio broadcasts as broadcasters use more power than amateur radio operators, and the radio propagation modes are different.

    I don’t believe, however, that solar activity was responsible for the crosstalk described in the second half of your post. I’m guessing that the station engineers inadvertently connected the telephone line to the transmitter, then tried to cover up their mistake by blaming it on the solar flare.

  5. Stephanie July 19, 2012 at 9:37 am #

    Could this be the reason for all the interruptions in all cell phone services for the last 2 days?

  6. Roy Berger August 13, 2012 at 9:16 am #

    Matthew Lasar asks the right question. Should radio stations be concerned about solar flares? Yes. What can they do? I don’t know. Will it be a happy apocalypse?

    It’s well acknowledged in contemporary literature and experience that coronal mass ejections and solar storms have impacted facilities on earth. As our technologies advance, the solar charges have greater potential impacts. Part of the problem now is that a good size flare would take out everything electrical at once. The need to rebuild the depleted and ruined equipment, logistics and transportation would be overwhelming as would social aid. It could very well be a grim challenge.

    So, that would be nice to avoid. Hurricane Katrina wiped out media in New Orleans. Disorganized reporters came together forming the United Broadcasters of New Orleans all working on the shortwave radio bands and were the sole information provider.

    After a solar flare, primitive radio and technology would continue to work. Nineteenth century physics and its applications might be a natural point for society to rebound from…after the chaos…if we don’t burn too many intellectuals at the stake.

    Grounding, shielding, hardening are all words we hear related to protecting equipment from C.M.E.s. This would cost a great deal of money and resources. When the will is there, historically, money has rarely been an object. The money we may be with-holding from spending on protecting the electrical grid won’t be worth much, if the grid fails for any length of time. The threat and impact of solar flares may be a feature of post-modernity – as, they didn’t matter much in the past but we could return to the past in the blink of an eye. That’s quite a risk. The intuitive radio station may rebound and emerge heroic by dusting off a 1936 RCA transceiver and listen to Morse code radio. Do you know where your telegraph key is?

    http://www.amazon.com/Rabbits-Happy-Apocalypse-Shortwave-ebook/dp/B005CBFR9G

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