ARC 617 / DMS 606: Code + Space: Hertzian space, how radio modulates infrastructure and tunes communities

Approximate location of WQRZ, the low-power community station serving Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, which survived Hurricane Katrina.

Approximate location of WQRZ, the low-power community station serving Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, which survived Hurricane Katrina. Photo: NOAA/NASA

On August 27, 2005 Brice Phillips moved WQRZ, a low-power community station serving Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to the Hancock County Emergency Operations Center in advance of Hurricane Katrina. Of the 4 broadcast stations that survived the hurricane, WQRZ was the only station to remain continuously on the air. Transmitting from ground zero, Phillips disseminated information related to evacuation procedures, search and rescue operations, and distribution points for food and water. Nine months after the storm, WQRZ remained the sole broadcaster serving the area and to this day continues to be instrumental in sustaining and rebuilding the communities within its broadcast area.

When such natural disasters occur, the tenuous nature of the very media that underlie and support community become self-evident. Points of failure cascade quickly as power lines are downed, commercial stations knocked off the air, cellular networks fail, and the Internet falls silent. With the physical infrastructure in disarray, radio – possibly the most resilient of all media – plays a central role in maintaining order, ensuring safety, and reestablishing community. This invisible fog of electromagnetic activity predicted by Maxwell in 1867, demonstrated by Hertz a mere 20 years later, and harnessed most notably by Marconi soon after, not only became the first mass media but remains fundamental to the infrastructure of society today. We are living in a Hertzian space, a reality mediated by radio waves.

This Fall Code and Space will focus upon the Hertzian landscape, examining how this hidden infrastructure interconnects people, creates place, and defines community. Participants will survey the landscape with software defined radio (SDR), prepare and sit for their amateur radio (HAM) Technician's Class license, build LoRa and WiFi telemetry networks, intercept GPS and NOAA satellite communications, and participate in various off-grid simulations to illuminate the possibilities of this ubiquitous technology. Readings related to community media will provide a conceptual and theoretical background from which to frame topical discussions, while hands-on workshops afford practical engagement with the materials.