The Amateur Amateur: Garbledegook
By Gary Ross Hoffman, KB0H
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
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
"WARTHOG - HOCKEYSTICK - ARMAGEDDON - TRAFFICJAM -
DONKEY - ITCHY - DOOFUS - YODDLE - ORC -
UKELELI - SNORT - AFTERSHAVE - YIPPIE.... QUERY?"
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
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
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.
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?
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
Practice FEMA ICS-213 form
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
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:
"AAAFFFF OOOFFFF UUUFFFF........."
E-mail Gary Ross Hoffman