The Amateur Amateur: Garbledegook

By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
October 2021

ITU phonetic alpahbet
ITU phonetic alpahbet
There's a "Yankee" but no "Doodle"

Since becoming involved with ARES® (Amateur Radio Emergency Service) I've become acutely aware of the importance of clear communications, and the general lack thereof. It's not just within ARES, of course, and not even restricted to Amateur Radio. Miscommunication seems to take place everywhere. Just stop and listen to any two people who are holding a conversation. The chances are that person 'A' will be talking about one thing, and person 'B' will be talking about something else altogether. They will repeat what they say over and over, waiting for the other person to acknowledge that he or she understands.

As aware of the situation as I am, I frequently do exactly the same thing. As Amateur Radio operators, and especially within ARES, we are taught that at least half of communicating is listening. That seems like such a simple thing, but apparently it isn't. Oh, we may give the other person equal time, but are we really listening? And if we think we're listening, are we really comprehending what the other person is saying?

Here's a quick test: What was the title of this column? Was it 'Gobbledegook'? No, it was 'Garbledegook', as in garbled communications. Did you get it wrong?

It's not a trick, it's just how our brains work. They look for patterns. They try to match up what they see or hear with things they've already experienced. For example, my mother-in-law's first name was Meda. When I was first introduced to her I went through several iterations of trying to force her name to be Leda, Anita, Leela, and every other vaguely similar sounding name I'd heard during my lifetime. Even when she spelled it for me, my brain kept rebelling, insisting that her name must be Nita and that she simply couldn't spell. It took me a while before my brain accepted her actual name and added 'Meda' to my mental vocabulary.

Thank goodness it was a short name, not something like Kondapuram Sampathkumaran. (I actually did work with a brilliant scientist by that name. For some inexplicable reason I was always able to get his name right.)

Okay, back to Amateur Radio. What happens when we can't understand someone's transmission? We ask them to repeat what they said. And the chances are 50-50 that the sender will say it exactly the same way, making no effort to speak slower or more clearly. It's still muffled or distorted. If we ask again, the sender is likely to talk louder. Now, instead of 'muffled' we hear 'MUFFLED!'. Asking them to speak more slowly results in 'MUUUUUUUUUFFFFFFFFLED!', with a touch of irritation thrown in.

Well, the solution is obvious.

They should text each other.

Ha-hah! Just kidding! We ask them to spell out the words that we didn't catch. And predictably, it comes out 'AAAffff - OOOffff - UUUffff..' and so forth.

ARRL Radiogram
Practice ARRL Radiogram

So, why does the sender avoid usng the phonetic alphabet? At a guess, I'd say that they never bothered to memorize it, figuring that it was just for people communicating over 2000 miles or more. But who knows? Maybe they did learn it, but rarely need to use it. And when they do need it, they end up making up phonetics for all the letters that they've forgotten.


And yes, I actually have heard transmissions like this. I don't know if the senders are trying to be clever, or really can't think of anything except off-the-wall words. Either way, I usually just drop my pen, shake my head and give up after the second letter. Mentally translating this mess on the fly is worse than trying to decipher 'AAAffff - OOOffff..'.

The way to burn the standard ITU phonetic alphabet into your memory is to practice. You could start by always using phonetics when giving you name and call sign on the air. But unless your name is something like Kondapuram Sampathkumaran, you're probably not going to use many letters of the alphabet.

Phonetics are only part of clear communications. Some operators talk too fast. Some talk too softly, or too far away from the microphone. Some are so close to the microphone that every breath, wheeze and 'P' sound comes through as an explosion, every sibilant sounds like a tsunami, and you'd swear that you can hear their tonsils rumbling.

Although clear communications are desirable, how important are they? Going back to the first paragraph of this column, we can see that people have muddled conversation every day and still survive. We know, however, that some communications must be as clear and understandable as possible. Banking transfers, for example. Intelligence reports to battlefield commanders. Communications in a hospital operating theater.

But in Amateur Radio?

Well, yes.

Radio operators passing radiograms through the National Traffic System strive to be as accurate as possible. An incorrect address means that a message won't go through. Or a garbled message either won't make sense to the recipient, or worse, may convey the wrong meaning.

FEMA ICS-213 form
Practice FEMA ICS-213 form

Volunteers providing emergency communications during times of emergency need to be especially vigilant. They may not be paid professionals, but professionalism and accuracy during disasters is vital. That is why Amateur Radio Emergency Service teams hold regular nets and exercises. Here in the St. Louis area, both St. Louis Metro ARES and Madison County Illinois ARES also send practice messages on a weekly basis. They are extremely useful learning tools.

Okay, I think I've shown that clear communications are of particular interest to me, and not just because I'm involved with ARES. I get annoyed when I hear someone remark, "Say again?" and the sending station makes no effort to slow down, speak up, use phonetics or do anything else to make their transmissions clearer. It's just irritating. Hiram Percy Maxim himself (the founder of the American Radio Relay League) was known to have frequently complained about "rotten" transmissions replete with terms that sounded like "wouff hong" and "rettysnitch".

One last note. I should point out here that I don't run the local weekly practice traffic nets, Dedicated operators Dolores, KD0CIV; Brian, KE0EYA; and Bob, AA9FQ take on those tasks.

I do, however, write the messages that are used for the St. Louis Metro ARES practice message net. And I'm almost always right up against the deadline. Stressed as I get, I still try to make the messages relevant (hey, you try coming up with a new disaster every week!), but I do get kind of flighty when I type in to whom the message is going and from whom it originated. Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, and various characters from movies and novels frequently make an appearance. I think I may have even used old Hiram Percy himself once or twice.

Perhaps I should focus on the message itself instead and see how accurately the net participants handle it:


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