Changing with the times
Hundreds of members of the Radio Club of America (RCA) traveled to Washington, D.C., in November to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the organization, which has seen changes that has reflected the growth of the wireless communications industry it represents.
This celebration marked a significant milestone for a club that had the humblest of beginnings more than a century ago — and was not focused on radio at the time.
In 1907, four boys in their early teens interested in aviation formed the Junior Aero Club, with the idea of flying model planes. These aviation efforts “were not particularly successful,” according to the RCA Web site, and the boys found themselves spending more time working with equipment designed to send wireless messages. The club was reformed as the Junior Wireless Club Limited on Jan. 2, 1909.
The following year, the teenaged members of the club gave testimony during a Senate hearing that helped defeat a bill that effectively would have prevented the development of amateur radio. In 1911, the club was renamed the Radio Club of America.
Just as the focus of the original charter members changed dramatically within a few short years, the organization also has seen its mission and makeup similarly be altered as the wireless industry has evolved.
As radio was in its infancy, the Radio Club attracted members of the amateur-radio community whose enthusiasm for all things wireless helped pave the path toward modern communications. Among the RCA members’ accomplishments was participation in the first transatlantic amateur communication in 1921.
Such amateur-radio breakthroughs paralleled the development of commercial broadcast radio and public-safety radio. RCA members were at the forefront of many breakthroughs, including Fred Link — dubbed as the “father of two-way radio” by many — who served as RCA president from 1968 to 1992.
“We’ve had so many people, and these old-timers were known for what they did in the radio industry,” said Mal Gurian, a wireless-industry consultant and a 40-year member of RCA. “Everybody was an inventor, it seemed like, in the club years ago.”
And the innovative spirit of RCA members was not restricted to a single aspect of the wireless industry — a tradition that has made participation in the RCA more rewarding to its members, said John Powell, a longtime RCA member who is chairman of the interoperability committee for the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC).
“You’ve got to realize that the Radio Club [represents] the entire gamut of radio, from the broadcast industry to television to land mobile to defense,” Powell said. “If it has to do with wireless, there’s a spot for it in the Radio Club.
“It allows everybody that’s a member of the club to see what everybody else is doing, when the proceedings come out and the presentations happen. It allows a lot of people who otherwise might not get to know each other to be in the same room together.”
Such an environment was especially attractive to innovators during the middle portion of the 20th century, as the wireless industry blossomed in all sectors, Powell said, recalling the stories he heard from Link and other RCA members of the era about detailed presentations of the latest technologies.
Today, the realities of the industry make it more difficult for individuals to realize breakthroughs on their own — most research is done in corporate labs rather than an individual’s garage or basement — and the delicate world of intellectual property rights forces innovators to be more guarded in their statements than in the past.
“We’ll have the Marty Coopers of the world talking about their cutting-edge technology, but they’re not sharing the details like they used to,” Powell said. “It’s a global market, and that didn’t used to be the case. If they were out in the open talking about everything that they were doing, somebody else in the world could all at once build it.
“They can share general ideas, and they do that … but they can’t talk in any detail.”
Craig Jorgensen, an RCA fellow who has been a longtime leader in public-safety communications, acknowledged that the need to protect intellectual property has had a limiting factor on the type of information shared between RCA members, but he believes the exchanges are still relevant to the further evolution of the wireless industry.
“There’s still a free exchange of visions,” Jorgensen said. “We still have a lot of that. What we don’t have is the detailed exchange of intellectual property. But that doesn’t mitigate, in any way, the role of the Radio Club. It’s still important that people of vision be able to come together and talk about the future.”
As the various sectors of the radio industry have changed, so has the RCA’s membership. One notable change occurred in 1973, when Vivian Carr became the first female member of the organization. But beyond gender issues, a more significant trend within the RCA has been the evolution of the roles that the membership plays within the wireless industry.
“It’s a different kind of membership now,” Carr said. “They’re as highly educated as we had before … but, in the past, we had a lot more inventors — people who did a lot more engineering stuff.”
Powell noted that one possible reason for the shift is that the complex nature of communications research means an increasing number of breakthroughs occur in corporate labs — “it’s just not possible to do this stuff in your own garage anymore.” Others believe the current RCA membership not only reflects the scientific and technical side, but also includes the ever-growing ecosystem that has been created as a result of the technological advances.
“We have so many people in the club today that are in sales or marketing,” Gurian said. “Years ago, it attracted all of the scientists and inventors — they all were members of the Radio Club of America. Today, if you go down the membership list, a majority of the people are in sales or maybe management. You do have technicians and engineers, but the makeup of the people is completely different than it was years ago. I believe it’s just the nature of the times.”
For Bob Moesch, president and owner of console vendor ModUcom and a 25-year member of RCA, the current mix of technical and non-technical information shared through the organization is very beneficial.
“RCA is a very good organization for information that helps keep me up to date on things,” Moesch said. “They work well with the regulatory agencies, and they keep all of us informed about what is going on and what’s coming up — and that gives us an idea where we should go.”
Jorgensen echoed this sentiment, noting that the perceived de-emphasis of the science of radio within the organization has been a concern that he’s heard from some longtime RCA members. But Jorgensen said the club continues to invest in the technical aspects of wireless communications — through its technical presentations, educational programs and scholarship support — while broadening its horizons in a manner that is beneficial to the first-responder community.
“Whereas telecommunications technology — and technology in general — is an attribute to allow people to enjoy a better life or a more convenient life, in the public-safety environment, communications is a lifeline. So it’s critical to us that we continue to emphasize student development and, in turn, product development and, in turn, product enhancement.
“The Radio Club is an umbrella that brings all of those attributes together — not in a competitive forum but in a collegial forum, so we can work together for the common good of the communities that we serve.”