PAT McAfee stunned the sports world when he left an All-Pro career in the NFL aged 29 to become a media personality.
The Indianapolis Colts punter was due to earn nearly $6 million over the following two seasons when he made a surprise decision to work with Barstool Sports in 2017.
But that calculated gamble has paid off handsomely with McAfee having emerged as one of the most popular – and best paid – sports broadcasters in the United States.
Earlier this year, McAfee joined ESPN in a five-year deal worth a whopping $85 million, which works out around $17 million per year.
The agreement includes his self-titled daily show, which will air on ESPN’s cable channel, YouTube and ESPN+ as well as his weekly spots on College GameDay.
Such is his influence that McAfee, 36, walked away from a four-year deal with FanDuel worth a cool $120 million to move to ESPN.
Here is a look at McAfee’s incredible rise from NFL superstar to WWE personality and sports media multi-platform sensation.
Getting his kicks with Colts
After starring as a field kicker for West Virginia, McAfee was selected in the seventh round in the 2009 NFL Draft by the Colts.
McAfee was expecting to play as a kicker for the Colts but was stunned when told he would be the next punter.
He went to an empty high school field the next day with his dad and a bag of footballs.
“We had to figure out how to (expletive) punt,” McAfee recalled.
Over the following eight seasons, McAfee honed his craft to become the greatest punter in franchise history, with a punting gross average of 46.4 yards.
He was also skilled at onside kicks, quick-witted enough to pull off fake punts and strong enough to tackle opposing players.
After earning $4.77 million during his first five seasons with the Colts, McAfee signed a five-year, $14 million contract in 2014.
Such was his outsized personality that McAfee began to make a name for himself as a standup comic, local radio personality and social media presence on Twitter.
McAfee was named to the Pro Bowl in 2014 and 2016 but knee injuries began to take their toll, with three operations in four years.
The NFL star also became frustrated with general manager Ryan Grigson, leading to his move to quit the league at the height of his career.
Becoming sports media superstar
McAfee’s first move into sports media was with Dave Portnoy’s Barstool Sports in 2017.
But after making a name for himself at Barstool with his podcasts and digital content, McAfee abruptly left the company a year later for undisclosed financial reasons.
As a free agent, the offers soon came flooding in for McAfee, joining ESPN as a college football analyst in 2019.
He also launched his hugely popular three-hour digital show on SiriusXM’s Mad Dog Sports Radio channel as well as on YouTube.
Such was its success that he secured a monster $30 million-per-year sponsorship deal with FanDuel before he took his talents to ESPN earlier this year.
McAfee is now considered one of the most important members of the ESPN family alongside the likes of Stephen A. Smith, the Manning brothers, Troy Aikman, and Joe Buck.
McAfee’s daily show debuted on ESPN earlier this week, on tape delay in a bid to combat swearing.
The show even with a disclaimer apologizing in advance for any NSFW words.
The pressure on McAfee in particular to succeed at ESPN is immense.
Many sports fans on social media pointed the finger at McAfee and his contract, amid ESPN’s mass layoffs earlier this summer.
Speaking on Twitter, the former NFL punter said he was “reflecting about our show’s journey while I was getting murdered on the internet today.”
He added: “We’re very pumped to be joining ESPN and our goal is that ‘Mass exits’ are never a thing again (and) we hope to help that.
“Obviously that’s a lofty goal but, that’s how I truly look at life.”
Living childhood dream in WWE
One of McAfee’s dreams growing up was to become a professional wrestler.
“If it wasn’t for finding out that my right leg could kick a ball really far, which is what I did, I am 100 per cent certain that I would be attempting to be or would be a professional wrestler,” McAfee said.
McAfee first joined WWE in 2018 as part of the NXT TakeOver pre-show panel in a multiyear deal.
In 2020, McAfee’s childhood dream came true when he made his in-ring debut at NXT TakeOver: XXX against Adam Cole.
He amazed fans with his displays of athleticism, including leaping off the top rope.
In 2021, McAfee joined the WWE Smackdown commentary team.
But he was forced to leave the job last year after landing a full-time gig to co-host ESPN College GameDay.
McAfee had made cameos at SummerSlam 2022 and WrestleMania 39 but it seems his time in WWE has come to an end, at least for now.
In March, McAfee became a father for the first time with the birth of his daughter Mackenzie.
For all his success, McAfee is hugely grateful for the opportunities he had been given since leaving the NFL.
“I’m not supposed to be here. There’s no way I’m supposed to be here,” he told Sports Illustrated.
“I’m very happy with what I do.I enjoy the stupid decisions that my friends and I make.
“Everything for me is either a learn or a win. I just keep moving forward and that’s about it, honestly.
As the music streaming business matures, the way people listen to music could determine how artists get paid. Sitting back and letting a streaming service choose a song will result in a lower royalty than choosing the song yourself, if this week’s news of a new streaming model is any indication.
It’s not a phobia toward algorithms that’s driving the change. Rather, the approach rewards those artists who create the most active engagement. Songs that play in the background are deemed to be less valuable.
On Tuesday, French music streamer Deezer and Universal Music Group announced a partnership to reinvent how Deezer calculates UMG’s streaming royalties. The partnership will “[reduce] the economic influence of algorithmic programming” and reward “engaging content” with greater royalties, according to the companies’ press releases.
When they say, “algorithmic programming,” they mean the streaming service’s personalized recommendations about what song will play next. That’s a more passive, lean-back approach to listening than hunting and pecking on the app’s user interface to choose a song.
At some point between the launch of internet radio platforms and the present battle for better royalties, passive listening got a bad rap. What has the world come to, some people fret, when dreaded algorithms are deciding what music gets heard? What gives an algorithm such an important role in determining how royalties will be paid?
But algorithms are a common way to stream music. When given an on-demand streaming service, people often let an algorithm do the hard work of picking the next song. A 2021 MusicWatch survey found Spotify Premium users spent 25% of their time in “lean-back” listening rather than “lean-in” listening. That figure rose to 31% for Apple Music users and 32% for Amazon Prime Music users. In all, 48% of time spent listening to music was “lean back” listening on streaming services, broadcast radio and satellite radio.
Algorithms also drive helpful products such as Spotify’s Discover Mode, a promotional tool that allows artists and labels to find new listeners in return for a lower royalty rate. It works by increasing the likelihood a song will be recommended to a listener. It’s popular, too. From the first quarter of 2021 to the first quarter of 2022, Discovery Mode had a 98% customer retention rate, Charlie Hellman, Spotify’s vp/global head of music product said during the company’s 2022 investor day presentation.
When a streaming service does personalization well, it adds great value to a listening experience. Pandora was revolutionary when it launched in 2005 because it had a spooky sense of what people wanted to hear. Its Music Genome Project, a proprietary technology that classifies recordings’ various musical traits, gave it the ability to pick the right songs based on a history of giving other songs a “thumb up” or “thumb down” vote. Pandora took away the effort in digging for songs and provided a much broader catalog than broadcast or satellite radio.
Today’s music streaming services are superior to their predecessors — and their own previous iterations — specifically because they have mastered passive listening. Consider how far Spotify has come since it was launched. Spotify used to recommend songs based on a user’s social network — kind of an “if your friend likes it, you’ll like it” approach to song-picking. But it wasn’t a good listening experience. Spotify’s decision to acquire music intelligence startup The Echo Nest in 2014 was the cornerstone for a new approach to providing a personalized listening experience.
The proliferation of smart speakers only adds to the need for algorithmic listening. About two-thirds of U.S. smart speaker owners wanted to own the devices to discover new songs, according to a 2022 Edison Research survey, and their share of time spent listening to audio through a smart speaker increased 400% over the previous five years. The joy of owning a smart speaker is allowing the device and streaming service to do all the work — it’s passive listening at its best.
Most Americans use their favorite streaming service when doing things around the home such as cleaning, relaxing, cooking, eating and entertaining guests, according to the same MusicWatch study. Most people stream music when exercising. More than half of people also use their favorite streaming service when driving, although satellite and broadcast radio were preferred in the car over streaming. Streaming service Songza, acquired by Google in 2014, was built on the premise that people chose music for moods and activities. That approach to curation has since been adopted by most — if not all — streaming services.
The UMG-Deezer partnership is evidence that background listening is on its way to getting a demotion. Deezer will remove tracks of white noise, which account for 2% of its streams, from the royalty pool. That leaves more royalties for professional artists who depend on streaming to earn a living. Throughout the year, UMG has been calling out “functional music” — a term that has come to mean low-cost or generic music built for moods or activities — and drawing a distinction between artists who draw people to streaming services and sounds that people play in the background.
Taylor Swift and Drake may rule the charts, but functional music is mainstream, too. Of U.S. music streamers who listen to playlists, many of them listen to playlists for white noise (36%), rain sounds (45%) and relaxation (61%), according to a 2023 MIDiA Research survey. In recent years, streaming services have broadened their playlists and radio stations to address the fact that consumers want a variety of sounds.
Artists with small followings will get less, too. Deezer will “boost” the royalties of “professional” artists with at least 1,000 streams per month by a minimum of 500 unique listeners. That will relegate hobbyists and artists early in their career development to a different tier. Exactly how many artists will be affected isn’t clear, but Deezer says just 2% of artists on the platform have more than 1,000 monthly unique listeners.
UMG and Deezer aren’t exactly taking an innovative stance, however. The music industry — at least in the United States — has already determined that active, on-demand listening is more valuable than passive, non-interactive listening. The Deezer-UMG partnership merely codifies for an on-demand service what is standard at internet radio. In the United States, non-interactive internet radio streams from the likes of Pandora pay 0.24 cents per ad-supported stream (and 0.3 cents per subscription streams). That’s less than any on-demand stream from a premium streaming service such as Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube Music.
In effect, a streaming service pays less for non-interactive streams because it gives the listener less value than on-demand services. To qualify for the lower royalty rate, a non-interactive streaming service cannot have the same robust features as an interactive one. At Deezer, a listener can stream any song from any artist any number of times. They can listen to playlists and build playlists, too. They can listen to songs shared by friends through SMS or social media. That’s all lean-in listening, and it’s more valuable because people will pay $11 a month to do it.
Until now, on-demand services’ standard pro-rata model hasn’t separated passive from active listening. When labels negotiated licensing deals with streaming services, they have always treated one stream the same as any other stream. A stream from a user-curated playlist is treated the same as a stream from an algorithmically created radio station. Whether the listener actively hits the play button to listen to a particular track isn’t taken into account. Right or wrong, that’s how the pie has been divvied up.
A couple of decades into the life of the pro-rata system, Deezer shows there is a greater willingness to treat active listening differently than passive listening. MIDiA Research’s Mark Mulligan called this demotion “a very welcome and long overdue move” that will “disincentivis[e] the commodification of consumption by rewarding active listening.” There’s certainly a logical argument to be made here: The artists people actively seek out arguably provide the most value — give the streaming service the most foot traffic, so to speak — while less popular artists play the important but less financially valuable role of giving breadth and depth to music catalogs.
Time will tell if and how other streaming services follow Deezer’s lead. An alternative already exists: In 2022, Warner Music Group adopted the user-centric model that SoundCloud rolled out to independent artists the prior year. That system pays royalties based on an individual subscriber’s listening rather than pooling all subscribers’ fees into a larger pool. So, a subscriber who listens to out-of-the-mainstream or independent artists is assured their money is not going to popular artists.
Over the next few years, labels and services are likely to experiment with different approaches to calculating streaming royalties. But regardless of how the dust settles, streaming services and rights holders should respect what passive listening brings to their listeners.
Tohono O’odham citizens now have access to wireless internet options thanks to a partnership the Tohono O’odham Utility Authority established with Baicells Technologies to provide high-speed broadband connectivity to villages across the largely rural Tohono O’odham Nation.
“Understanding our remote location and lack of service by any existing carriers, we knew it was up to us to address this issue of broadband access,” Kristan Johnson, the operations manager for the Tohono O’odham Utility Authority (TOUA), said in a press release. TOUA has been offering internet services since 1998.
The Tohono O’odham Nation is 4,460 square miles, about the size of Connecticut, and roughly 28,000 Tohono O’odham people live on its tribal lands in southwestern Arizona.
The Tohono O’odham Nation is divided into 11 districts that are made up of 72 villages. Due to the rural conditions, the tribe has faced challenges bringing access to high-speed internet in many parts of tribal land.
The tribe has largely relied on simple WiFi connectivity set up in limited locations, and residents relied on internet speeds as low as 2 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload, which often left the community unable to access critical service.
With the help of federal funding, the TOUA has been able to overhaul and upgrade its infrastructure, and has been able to build out its network plan through wireless connection.
TOUA reached out to Baicells to partner with them to get the network established, but according to the press release, the tribe is the one behind the wheel because they planned, deployed and now operate the network.
“We have experience and a track record of solving these types of challenges for our communities,” Johnson said. “A private network that we can manage on our own was a great fit since we are very accustomed to operating our own infrastructure.”
The TOUA already operates key utility infrastructures like electricity and water, Johnson said.
“In today’s age, internet access is just another utility,” she added.
The tribe launched its project to build the wireless network in 2020, according to the press release, and started testing Baicells technology in 2021. Since then, the tribe successfully deployed a dual-band private 4G LTE network.
Johnson said that they are still working to build out a fiber optic network, which is expected to be completed in 2024, and the wireless system allows customers to have access to the internet until then.
The Tohono O’odham Nation has approximately 50 base stations set up across its land, and it has the potential to serve an estimated 3,000 homes.
“The primary objective of this initiative is to enhance communications and access to content and educational services, with the high-speed connectivity provided by this network,” Minchul Ho, Americas CEO at Baicells, said in a press release.
“Baicells core mission is empowering unserved communities and bridging the digital divide with affordable solutions,” Ho added. “The success of the partnership with the TOUA showcases the company’s dedication and commitment to this mission.”
According to Baicells, the Tohono O’odham Nation is able to maintain tribal sovereignty over its network infrastructure by leveraging a private LTE network.
The Tohono O’odham Utility Authority was interested in getting service across the community sooner rather than later, said Tony Eigen, vice president of global marketing for Baicells.
“They knew they could do this with a wireless kind of network,” Eigen said, and Baicells is helping the Tribe get connected through the wireless technology they provide.
Eigen said Baicells went out to the Tohono O’odham Nation this summer to work with the TOUA to set up more towers in their network, and the tribes’ choice to go wireless gave them the ability to get their communities connected faster.
Since the project launched, Eigen said they’ve been able to cover a large portion of the community, unlike fiber optics, which takes longer to build out and costs much more.
Customers will have a transmitter set up on their house that talks to the radio transmitters and then broadcasts WiFi in the house, Eigden said, which is vastly different from digging and laying down fiber cables.
For example, a mile of fiber costs roughly $5,000, but connecting a similar amount of endpoints using wireless networks costs only about $500.
“The cost is very much based on the population density that you’re trying to serve,” he added. “There is major differences in those two approaches.”
News deserts are expanding. Nearly two decades ago, the United States had about 9,000 newspapers; as 2019 came to a close, it had 6,700. Of the country’s 3,143 counties, over 200 have no newspaper or other sources of credible news. Half of these counties only have one newspaper and two-thirds do not have a daily newspaper. These losses have been especially glaring in the Midwest and the East.
A lack of access to credible news facilitates the spread of disinformation and drives up political and social polarization. It erodes trust in the news media and can exacerbate the digital divide between residents with good internet access who can seek out diverse sources of news and people with poor or no connectivity.
Residents who speak very little or no English who live in communities dominated by local news outlets that only provide news and information in English confront another serious problem: They live in linguistic news deserts. These residents are usually left behind when it comes to finding out about critical government, school, business, and other key developments and events in their communities.
More from Emma J. Murphy
In Missouri, over 19 percent of the state’s population is Hispanic or Latino and nearly 22 percent of Missourians speak a language other than English in their households. About 33,000 people, nearly 3 percent of the state’s population, speak Spanish. More than 15 percent of people in Sullivan County in northern Missouri speak Spanish, the highest in the state; 8 percent have limited proficiency in English. But the county has only one newspaper, a weekly called The Milan Standard, which publishes in English.
Missouri has only ten media outlets that serve specific cultural and ethnic communities, but these are concentrated in St. Louis and Kansas City. For example, Red Latina, a digital daily news website (it also offers a monthly magazine) provides national and local news for the St. Louis area. It also covers state elections and legal developments, as well as cultural and entertainment events like the Missouri State Fair. The paper also has a companion radio program, “Radio Red Latina,” that features music and news updates.
Midway between St. Louis and Kansas City, Columbia’s nearly 190,000 residents have a healthy selection of English-language news outlets to choose from with about two newspapers, two magazines, four radio, and three television stations. But there are no publications providing news exclusively in other languages, even though about 10 percent of Columbia residents speak a language other than English at home, 3.7 percent of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, and about 6.5 percent of the residents in Columbia were born in another country.
The existence of multiple news outlets does not mean that all residents have access to news.
Kassidy Arena works at KBIA, the NPR affiliate in Columbia, Missouri. Last year, she produced “¿Dónde está mi gente?” a six-part Spanish-language news project that spotlighted Hispanic and Latino communities in central Missouri. For Arena, the definition of what constitutes a news desert is too narrow; the existence of multiple news outlets does not mean that all residents have access to news. The language barrier is just one issue: Often, Latino communities don’t see themselves or their issues reflected in the media.
Nick Mathews, a professor of journalism at the University of Missouri, writes that the presence of a local newspaper helps to foster broader connections: When people cannot access local news, the community connections and bonds weaken. They can end up isolated from their neighbors, resources, government leaders, and more. Without access to news, they cannot fully participate in their communities.
Community groups, social services, and local religious groups all play a role in disseminating news to people who can’t readily use existing English-language outlets. When COVID-19 peaked, many Latinos, who were disproportionately affected by the disease, lacked good access to Spanish-language public-health information about how to protect themselves from the virus and how to get vaccinated. Religious leaders stepped in to fill the gap. One pastor, Francisco Bonilla, founder of Casa de Sanidad, a church in the southwestern city of Carthage, ran a Spanish-language radio station that offered sermons and music. During the pandemic, he offered interviews with nurses and health experts.
College students are also leading efforts to broaden access. Four journalism students at the University of Missouri’s flagship campus in Columbia launched De Veras, a digital news website, earlier this year to serve central Missouri’s Latino communities. The social media–centered project translates local news as well as information on accessing resources for the region’s Spanish-speaking population. The students met with community members in towns outside Columbia with large Latino populations to better understand their needs. They also partnered with statewide online publications, like the Missouri Independent.
How can newsrooms bring down language and cultural barriers? Some New Jersey news outlets take advantage of special programs like the NJ News Commons Spanish Translation News Service, which brings English- and Spanish-language news outlets together to provide news and information first produced in English to Spanish-speaking communities. Public radio is also a valuable source of content. Radio stations are in a unique position: They are often available across large portions of the country and are accessible to people without reliable internet access. Iowa Public Radio, where Arena once worked, has established a beat for news, culture, and events for the state’s Latino and Hispanic communities. The NPR affiliate also translates some regional and statewide stories on the site into Spanish.
Hola, America, an independent online publication, has local affiliates in Iowa, Illinois, and the Quad Cities (a region on the border of Iowa and Illinois). This website offers all of its news in both Spanish and English.
News outlets should aim to create a specific beat or assign a reporter to an underserved community. Having regular contact with a journalist covering their issues creates a sense of trust between the community and the media. But these efforts must be sustained or any trust built up will fall apart. “We just have to figure out the sustainability part before we make promises that we can’t keep,” says Arena.
Digital Realty announces a new cooling tower initiative
Digital Realty announced a new cooling tower initiative at its SIN10 data centre that aims to pioneer new levels of water conservation and efficiency in its data centres in Singapore. This initiative is the first of its kind to be implemented in Singapore’s data centre industry. Employing a process known as DCI electrolysis, Digital Realty eliminated the use of chemicals to treat blow-down water discharge – water that is drained from cooling equipment to remove mineral build-up – from the cooling towers in its chiller systems.
This allowed Digital Realty to triple the number of times the same pool of water can be used at its SIN10 cooling towers before it is discharged as wastewater, resulting in 1.24 million litres of water saved monthly. Since the implementation of DCI electrolysis in February, Digital Realty has reduced monthly blow-down water discharge at SIN10 by 90%. Water usage efficiency (WUE) at SIN10 has improved by 15%, besting the Singapore Public Utilities Board’s industry benchmark of 2.6 Cu.m/MWh for data centres by 30%.
QNAP’s new six-bay NAS comes with AI-powered video and image recognition applications
QNAP’s new TS-AI642-8G six-bay NAS is powered by a 64-bit ARM Cortex-A76/-A55 SoC octa-core processor with up to 6 TOPS NPU (Neural network Processing Unit), 8GB of RAM, and an ARM Mali-G610 MC4 graphic processor.
This helps accelerate AI image recognition, surveillance video analysis, and smart surveillance applications. Users can achieve a 200% performance boost in AI image recognition in QuMagie photo management, significant performance boosts in capturing text in images with AI OCR in Qsirch full-text search engine, and increase cameras for real-time analytics in QVR Face Insight facial recognition and the QVR Human people counting solution. The TS-AI642 is a professional Surveillance NAS, allowing you to install QVR Elite to deploy 2 free channels or up to 64 channels through purchasing additional licences. With its dual-port HDMI, users can play and switch between multi-channel videos on two monitors.
The TS-AI642-8G is available in Singapore at S$1,500 from Convergent Systems and comes with a three-year limited warranty.
Local businesses not using AI as an excuse to replace staff
A study released by SS&C Blue Prism shows that despite negative headlines about generative AI taking over people’s jobs, businesses in Singapore are turning to automation to support their workforce and better serve their customers, rather than cutting jobs, with 77% of local businesses are likely to make changes to their business model to contest the challenging economic climate today, only 18% said they will look to reduce the size of their workforce. More than two in five (44%) decision-makers say the primary use of automation is to remove repetitive tasks so that workers can focus on more valuable work.
Singapore leads the way in online privacy and cybersecurity awareness
According to new research by NordVPN, Singaporeans are first in the world in terms of cybersecurity and Internet privacy knowledge. However, results show that the world’s online privacy and cybersecurity awareness is declining every year.
Research showed that Singaporeans are good at creating strong passwords (98%) and know-how devices get infected with malware (94%). They also know what kind of sensitive data they should avoid sharing on social media (93%), or how to deal with suspicious streaming service offers (91%). However, only 8% of Singaporeans are knowledgeable about online tools that protect digital privacy, and only one out of 10 know what data ISPs collect as part of the metadata.
The annual National Privacy Test (NPT) is a global survey aimed to evaluate people’s cybersecurity, and online privacy awareness, and educate the general public about cyber threats and the importance of data and information security in the digital age. It gathered 26,174 responses from 175 countries this year.
Zyxel unleashes a trio of cloud-ready networking products for SMBs
Zyxel Networks has unveiled a trio of cloud-based networking solutions that are designed to be cost-effective, dependable high-speed Wi-Fi solutions for small businesses: the SCR 50AXE Tri-band Wi-Fi 6E Secure Cloud-managed Router, NWA90AX 802.11ax Dual-Radio PoE Access Point, and GS1915 GbE Smart Managed Switch.
The SCR 50AXE Cloud-managed Router combines security, Wi-Fi 6E technology, and cloud management in one affordable device. It comes with best-in-class security out of the box, with no extra subscription or licensing costs. It is also cloud-native, allowing even non-IT staff to seamlessly manage connectivity and security via the Nebula app.
The NWA90AX Access Point ensures SMBs of any size can enjoy the game-changing benefits of WiFi 6, including faster speeds in crowded areas, wider ranges, and greater IoT capacity. The user-friendly design means it can be installed, configured, and managed easily by any employee.
The GS1915 Smart Managed Switch continues the theme of simplicity without compromise. Its effortless deployment and easy-to-use interface make it ideal for SMBs looking to maximise efficiency without the need for dedicated IT teams.
The SCR 50AXE, NWA90AX, GS1915 are priced at S$399, S$249, and S$379 respectively from Insiro Pte Ltd.
A former Furze Platt student has landed his dream gig of a BBC Radio 1 breakfast show.
Sam MacGregor, 24, who grew up in Gringer Hill and also attended Claires Court, will co-host with his best friend of more than six years, Danni Diston.
The pair have been standing in for various presenters over the past three years, working freelance roles while juggling day jobs until they were offered their own weekly spot.
Sam said: “You can believe in yourself all you want, but there’s so many factors that have to come into play to make this happen.
“I had this written down as one of my goals for years and years and it really is a dream come true to see it happen. I am super proud.”
A longtime listener of BBC Radio 1, Sam said Scott Mills became his ‘radio idol’ and he ‘religiously’ listened to his content for 13 of the 24 years that he was on air at the station.
He said: “When you listened to his show, you always felt like part of a community and part of something really big and fun. I thought, if I could be a tiny part of that, it would be like I never had a job. I’d just be laughing with mates and playing my favourite songs.”
In secondary school and sixth form, Sam would create internet radio shows on a laptop in his friend’s kitchen.
When he moved on to study geography at Cardiff University, Sam got involved with student radio from day one.
He won best male presenter at the National Student Radio Awards in 2019, an award also won by Greg James.
Whilst studying abroad in Sydney, he hosted a late night radio show, and by the end of his final year in Cardiff, he was running the student radio station and cover presenting in stations across Wales.
He said: “Any time I wasn’t in the library, I was in the pub or at the radio station. I spent my whole life doing it, and absolutely loved it. It was so fun to chat with your mates through a microphone and not know who’s listening.”
Sam met Danni at university in late 2017 and the pair first hosted on BBC Radio 1 in 2020 for the Christmas Takeover, before covering Boardmasters Festival in 2022 and the Big Weekend 2023 in Dundee.
“It’s an amazing thing – we’ve both independently had this dream of having a Radio 1 show but being able to do it together is really special,” he said.
Talking about live broadcasting, Sam said “I quite like the pressure. I’m lucky that I get to do it with Danni.
“ I know I’ve got someone to bounce off and someone to have fun with and that’s important. It’s meant to be a laugh, and things do go wrong – and that’s magic because that’s live radio. Radio isn’t perfect but it is natural and authentic.”
The show, airing for the first time on Saturday, will be the first weekly BBC Radio 1 show to be broadcast from Wales.
Sam said: “It’s really important to represent listeners and every aspect of the UK. We have so much different stuff to chat about from Cardiff and South Wales. Our lifestyles will be different and we can reflect that as well.”
He said it ‘means so much’ to them that the show will be broadcast from the city where he and Danni became best friends, began presenting and now call home.
Aled Haydn Jones, head of Radio 1, said: “I’m so excited to hear Sam and Danni’s new Weekend Breakfast show from Cardiff.
“They’re already key members of the Radio 1 family, this just makes it official.”
Sam added: “It was surreal to have my family and friends recognise that this has always been my dream and for them to see it come true. I don’t take for granted that I’m very, very fortunate.”
Sam and Danni’s new Weekend Breakfast show will air every Saturday and Sunday from 7am to 10am on BBC Radio 1.
By most obvious gauges, the monthlong surge was a failure. Polls now show DeSantis worse off just about everywhere, even struggling to hold onto second place. Indeed, the insurgent seems no closer to figuring out how to position himself to either peel off Donald Trump’s supporters or consolidate support from those already backing other opponents in the 13-candidate field. A once-formidable contender is starting to look like just another also-ran.
Yet embedded in that outreach was a massive research experiment designed to illuminate a path through a bewildering political media environment in which broadcast television and radio have lost their centrality, but, for political advertisers at least, the internet has failed to live up to its promise as a replacement. The peculiar design of the surge — intentionally imbalanced, with some areas excluded for use as a control sample — permitted the campaign to measure the relative effectiveness of different methods of communicating with voters, and how they interact with one another. The results are already shaping how Never Back Down spends the remainder of what is still likely to be the largest war chest in Republican primary history.
“Sifting through 330 million consumers to find 34.7 million Republican primary voters is a Herculean task,” says Never Back Down chief strategist Jeff Roe. “You can only do that with a deep commitment to data. And you can’t do that without understanding exactly how to apply that directly to voters when you can no longer do it in the simplest and easiest way possible in the past.”
Never Back Down is not the first political entity to try to build a large-scale experiment into its operations, but the $17 million surge certainly stands as one of the single largest such research projects ever. Earlier this year, Roe imagined the findings not only shaping a plan for helping DeSantis unseat Trump atop the Republican Party. Envisioning the start of a how-we-won-the-White-House narrative, Roe and the organization’s data director, Chris Wilson, even talked about writing a book about the project.
Today, however, few around DeSantis are thinking about post-election victory laps. Media coverage of the campaign has been rife with reports of once-enthusiastic donors souring on DeSantis’s prospects. Never Back Down and its putative allies on DeSantis’s campaign responded with some unusually overt finger-pointing about the other’s ability to follow directions and spend money effectively. (The two entities are forbidden from coordinating strategy but can exchange cues as long as they are not communicated in secret.) “They were taking a hard shot at the PAC, for whatever reason, and we were worried that they were going to, like, kill us in the crib with donors,” Roe says of DeSantis’ Tallahassee-based campaign.
Now Never Back Down will put what it has learned into practice. This week, the super PAC begins another, even larger communications push that could either drive DeSantis back into contention or give already quivering donors a reason to flee his candidacy for good. The springtime research informs an autumnal move off the airwaves and straight to voters’ pockets, where an artificial intelligence chatbot is entrusted to push the pro-DeSantis message.
Roe, however, is not guarding the study behind the tactical shift as a competitive advantage. Rather he is desperate to demonstrate publicly that Never Back Down’s aggressive spending has not been all in vain and that he has a plan to exploit the resource advantage that may offer DeSantis’ best hope yet for catching up to Trump.
“That’s why we’re talking,” he said recently over dinner in Atlanta, not far from the super-PAC’s headquarters. “It is a little CYA.”
In 2013, Wilson had signed up to target voters for Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott when he learned the campaign’s leadership was ready to leave its targeting up to the fates.
Abbott’s chief strategist, Dave Carney, was already an enthusiastic and prolific sponsor of political science research, having invited four academics into the 2006 reelection campaign of Texas Gov. Rick Perry to test any campaign function they could possibly randomize. Ultimately, for a short period during the primary season, they took full control of the candidate’s schedule and his television advertisements. (At one point, Perry’s travel over a 12-city barnstorming tour was determined entirely by chance.) The academics hoped the randomized-control trial would address one of the most vexing arguments in political science — to what extent are election outcomes shaped by campaign activity as opposed to structural conditions? A career campaign operative, Carney was driven by a more self-interested curiosity: How could he make sure he was spending money in a way most likely to win votes?
The experiments revealed that the campaign moved public opinion in Perry’s direction with paid and free media coverage but that any gains wore off quickly. The years that followed, however, brought new vectors for reaching voters: online advertising networks, social media platforms, individually addressable cable boxes and satellite dishes. Directing Abbott’s campaign to succeed Perry in office eight years later, Carney brought back one of the political scientists to test whether the novel technologies — which each promised greater efficiency and precision than broadcast ads — might have a different impact on voters’ perceptions of Abbott and the likelihood they would cast a ballot in the general election. Once again, the focus of the research would be not on what a campaign might say to a voter but where it would be said. “If we test a potential message now and then again three weeks from now, who knows what we’ll find?” said University of Texas professor Daron Shaw. “We thought mode was a little stickier, at least in the context of a single campaign.”
Shaw isolated Texas’s 17 smaller media markets and matched them into four clusters based on demographic and political similarities. Within those sets, he randomly assigned one in each to receive varying combinations of campaign contact, including control samples that went untouched. (Carney insisted on excluding Dallas, Houston and Austin, which he determined were too important to the governor’s strategic interests to sacrifice for research.) The broadcast airwaves in Abilene were blanketed with Abbott commercials, while those in San Angelo saw only digital ads and Wichita Falls did not hear from his campaign at all.
The experiment’s findings might not have been conceptually groundbreaking but proved valuable to the strategists overseeing Abbott’s general election budget. As Shaw and two of the campaign’s consultants, Christopher Blunt and Brent Seaborn, detailed in a 2018 article in the academic journal Political Research Quarterly, voters in cities where Abbott advertised grew more favorable to him and more likely to vote, especially when the ads were delivered across various media in combination with one another. A $1 million investment in digital advertising, the paper estimated, would increase Abbott’s net favorability rating in the 2014 race by nearly 13 percent.(Abbott was ultimately elected in a landslide.)
Wilson was largely a spectator during Shaw’s experiment, but when Abbott protégé Ted Cruz sought the presidency the next year Wilson was in a position to act on its findings. Working with Roe, the campaign manager, to guide Cruz’s path through a crowded Republican field, Wilson found the narrow precision of online advertising uniquely appealing. He split the Iowa caucus electorate into 150 distinct segments, on personality characteristics and issue priorities, including some boutique causes like relaxing Iowa’s restrictions on fireworks use. (The psychological profiling was performed by employees of the firm Cambridge Analytica, whose manipulation of Facebook user data became a scandal when publicized in 2017.) Cruz outfoxed Trump to win the Iowa caucuses, stitching together a wide-ranging conservative coalition largely on the basis of individually targeted communication. “I thought digital had tremendous potential,” says Shaw. “It did, but it may have hit its apex right around that time.”
Surprisingly digital advertising has become less useful to campaigns since then. Facebook and Twitter (now known as X) have at times prohibited campaign ads, changing their policies unpredictably and inconsistently, while TikTok and LinkedIn have upheld permanent bans. Google has imposed limits on the use of voter registration data for targeting, including on its YouTube platform. Apple has promoted privacy protections on its devices through an “Ask App Not to Track” option, crippling the ability of advertisers to target individual users through unique mobile-device identifiers.
Even as more voters spend time online, it has become harder for campaigns to profile and reach them. In the years since, while working for Republican candidates in statewide and congressional races nationwide, Roe has paid especially close attention to survey results in which voters were asked whether they had seen one of his candidate’s ads. “That number just kept on coming down and coming down and coming down,” says Roe. “The reality is we’re not penetrating.”
When Roe signed on to help elect DeSantis, he agreed to run the super PAC — which can raise unlimited funds from both individuals and corporations — and implement a more capacious vision of what such an organization could be. Over their decade of existence, super PACs have typically been dedicated to airing television ads that amplify a candidate’s existing message or attack his opponents, work that can be capital-intensive but scales up with relatively little additional effort. When a well-funded super PAC has emerged, the official campaign typically reverts to labor-intensive duties, like those that involve directly interacting with voters. With Never Back Down, Roe has inverted those standard economics. A number of core campaign functions are now managed from Atlanta rather than Tallahassee, including aspects of the candidate’s schedule (DeSantis has regularly appeared as a “guest” on Never Back Down bus tours) and a massive field organization built to knock every potential Iowa caucusgoer’s door four times.
To target those interactions, Roe brought on Wilson and Conor Maguire, who had served as the Republican National Committee’s liaison to candidates for voter data during the 2016 primaries. The two took over a room in the corner of Never Back Down’s office-park suite, papering the walls with maps of the first four states to vote and filling a small bookcase with an unlikely library that intersperses titles like Lead Like Jesus: Lessons for Everyone from the Greatest Leadership Role Model of All Time among a collection of books about Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. Wilson has been rereading the Obama books particularly closely, with an eye on how the younger, well-funded insurgent overcame Hillary Clinton’s dominant position to win the Democratic nomination. “You know, he didn’t start to move until October,” Wilson explained. “So maybe some of it is a little bit of solace.”
Their first task was profiling the electorate in the 18 states that vote before the end of next March, through statistical models that predict each voter’s likelihood of supporting DeSantis or Trump and of casting a ballot. Based on those individual-level predictions, Wilson and Maguire broke the electorate into categories of potential voters: those whom Trump or DeSantis could consider “in the bank,” those deciding between the two and those whom either candidate would see as supporters but remained unreliable enough they required get-out-the-vote nudges. (A final group, labeled “disengaged” for its low likelihood of casting a ballot and expected indecision among candidates, would be a low priority for any outreach.)
In the first four states, there were 5,552,851 people whose votes appeared to be gettable for DeSantis, and all were targets for the springtime surge. Never Back Down would work to persuade and mobilize those whose votes were in play, while the in-the-bank bloc would be targeted for recruitment as volunteer county chairs. “We decided, because we knew roughly when the governor was going to get in, to spend a bunch of money to help him get him in the best spot,” says Roe. “We have analytics and the ability to do this. Now let’s go and test all this shit and see what works.”
But the super PAC’s strategists were not prepared to fully yield control in the interest of research. Instead of randomly assigning contact, as Abbott’s successful campaign had done, the matter of how to allocate treatments and controls became the subject of fraught negotiations between the super PAC’s strategists and its analysts. (Having the results appear in a scholarly journal was not a priority.) The strategists were not ready to concede major markets covering the early states, especially Iowa, for use as a control sample. So Iowans in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids and New Hampshirites within range of Boston were exposed to a full-strength campaign: broadcast and connected television ads, targeted direct-mail leaflets and text messages. The use of streaming services was the closest the experiment came to online advertising.
It was the smaller markets, or those in bordering states that campaign targets find inefficient regardless — like Portland, Maine, whose signals stretch into small parts of two New Hampshire counties — that the strategists were willing to sacrifice. A few of the smaller and border markets were used for boutique variations: seven direct-mail pieces rather than four, or advertising on rural radio stations. No South Carolina-based market went without broadcast ads, but the roughly 4 percent of the state’s residents who watch television stations in Charlotte, North Carolina, would not have seen any.
The committee’s staff tracked their progress on a large flat-screen monitor that Wilson and Maguire set up outside their office loaded with software developed by their firm WPA Intelligence. Every time Never Back Down made contact with one of its targets, a dot lit up on the flat-screen map, a yellow pinprick on a dark background, swelling together as a blob around the suburban population centers of the early states.
Across them, enough voters would be exposed to similar outreach that the analysts were confident they would be able to learn something from the variations. After a month, Wilson’s team would revisit the modeling scores, informed by updated, post-surge survey data, and use a statistical regression to identify patterns. Differences in voters’ movement toward DeSantis would be attributed to the type of contact targeted at them, allowing the super PAC to assess which were most efficient at changing opinions.
“If used to maximum value, these findings should dictate everything from messaging to media mix to when and where to spend,” said Scott Tranter, the data science director of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign. “Dedicating 5-10 percent of a campaign’s voter-contact budget to testing would pay exponential dividends in how the remaining 90-95 percent is spent. If used properly, it can certainly be an edge a campaign needs to claw out a win.”
On Tuesday, April 25, phones in New Hampshire’s Grafton County — which receives its broadcast television signals from Burlington, Vermont, rather than Manchester or Boston — started lighting up with the same text message from an unfamiliar number. “We must remain relentless in our fight for freedom. We must never back down. Join us today,” the message went on, addressing the recipient by the name used on his or her voter registration. “Join our team of concerned patriots working to protect liberty and the future of this country.” At the bottom was a snippet of the “Anthem” ad and a link to a Never Back Down webpage featuring the entire thing. Similar messages arrived nearly every day for two weeks; a voter who typed back a response at any hour was sure to get an answer.
Those text messages turned out to be the unexpected star of the surge experiments. Broadcast television ads were the most persuasive mode tested, with the average voter exposed to them six-and-a-half percentage points more likely to support DeSantis as a result. But it was possible to replicate much of that impact by sending the ads directly to a prospective voter’s phone. Receiving a sequence of text messages over the course of two weeks made the average voter about three-and-a-half points more likely to support DeSantis; bombarding an individual with 10 had appreciably more impact than five. “The key finding,” Wilson and Maguire said when presenting the experiments to super PAC leadership and donors, “is the value of text as a substitute for broadcast where broadcast is infeasible.”
The idea that one can swap out television ads for text messages is a fortuitous insight for a super PAC now struggling to meet its once-grand goal of raising and spending $230 million on DeSantis’ behalf. Placing television ads is an inefficient use of any independent group’s resources, as stations are required under federal law to grant only candidates preferential access to ad inventory and sell it to them at discounted rates. Every gross rating point, the standard unit for measuring advertising exposure, used to boost DeSantis will likely cost significantly more if purchased by his outside supporters than by his campaign itself. (A New York Times analysis last year found instances where super PACS paid as much as 17 times more for the same ad time as candidate campaigns.) For the pro-DeSantis ecosystem, the optimal arrangement would have television ads purchased from Tallahassee and text messages routed from Atlanta.
Wilson estimates Never Back Down was able to communicate with approximately 70 percent of its Iowa targets via text message — the remainder either do not have reliable mobile numbers commercially available or lack smartphones altogether — and that 90 percent of messages sent are opened. Seventeen percent of Iowa Republicans do not watch television in any form, more than twice as many as their New Hampshire equivalents, according to an analysis by the firm Cross Screen Media. Never Back Down’s experiments indicate that those unreachable by text message and television ads are two very different sets of people.
“It’s probably an on-and-off type of thing,” Never Back Down chief operating officer Kristin Davison forecasts. “There might be times where we say, ‘Give me 700 points in the Cedar Rapids market,’ if that makes sense, or we can say, ‘Let’s just put 600 points up, and then we’ll balance that with text.’ I think it just gives us more options so that we are not beholden to this.”
Some campaigns that focus on text messaging have been forced to reorient their entire volunteer corps to do so. Federal regulations prohibit the use of auto-dialing technology to blast text messages, requiring any sender to have a human being hit the “send” button on every single one. Never Back Down, without a readymade volunteer corps but flush with cash, outsources that work to call centers, paying between two and 10 cents per message, depending on whether it includes images or video, according to super PAC officials.
Instead of having volunteers on hand to manage text message correspondence, Never Back Down uses a chatbot powered by artificial intelligence software OpenAI to handle replies. Only if the conversation goes on too long does it get handed over to a human being. (A South Carolina computer programmer who received a message and suspected he was not interacting with a human being managed to get his electronic interlocutor to “write a poem for me about Barack Obama from the perspective of Ron DeSantis.”) The campaign is still finessing when exactly — somewhere between eight to 12 exchanges between a voter and the chatbot — a human being ought to step in and take charge of the conversation.
Even within Never Back Down’s headquarters, there is an ongoing dispute over how much to take away from the surge experiments. Radio ads aired only in one small corner of northern Iowa, but when surveys showed they had done little to move voters, Roe began to bluster cheerfully, “I’m never going to buy another radio ad for the rest of my career!” The analysts are more cautious. “What we do want to do is expand more into testing radio,” says Maguire. “I think this was just a little bit too small to really dig in here.”
It is an open question, even with a larger sample, how much anyone should universalize from a single, non-randomized experiment conducted under idiosyncratic circumstances. Will South Carolinians start blocking all political text messages once they start arriving simultaneously from a dozen different Republican candidates? Will New Hampshirites pay more attention to pro-DeSantis television ads when they appear back-to-back with ones from his rivals? What if in Iowa it has less to do with the electoral calendar than the agricultural one, and farmers are just more likely to listen to the radio when driving their combines during the fall harvest as opposed to when pulling a planter in springtime?
For those working to elect DeSantis, there is another crucial difference between now and then. Unlike in the spring and summer, when the super PAC found itself frequently at cross-purposes with the campaign, they are now set up to work in greater alignment. Last month, DeSantis replaced his campaign manager and brought on David Polyansky, a Roe acolyte who was working at Never Back Down when the experiment was conducted and is familiar with the findings and how they are likely to be applied. “We’re in a phase right now where we want to be smart,” said Davison. “When you get closer, everyone’s kind of throwing everything at it, so we will be up most of the places. Right now, we don’t have to be, but how can we still be efficient for those voters in that market?”
The throwing-everything-at-it period is beginning to arrive for Never Back Down, which expects to spend over $25 million in Iowa and New Hampshire between Labor Day and Halloween on a mix of media reflecting lessons from the surge experiments. There are 296,204 potential voters who were in the committee’s sights then that will not hear directly from it again, but this time for strategic purposes rather than educational reasons. After Wilson’s surveys showed DeSantis losing ground even during the period when the super PAC was spending heavily there, Never Back Down has abandoned its operations in Nevada. “Our control sample is going to be another state,” said Roe. “And now we know what state to use.”
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In early 2020, as the coronavirus spread, schools around the world abruptly halted in-person education. To many governments and parents, moving classes online seemed the obvious stopgap solution.
In the United States, school districts scrambled to secure digital devices for students. Almost overnight, videoconferencing software like Zoom became the main platform teachers used to deliver real-time instruction to students at home.
Now a report from UNESCO, the United Nations’ educational and cultural organization, says that overreliance on remote learning technology during the pandemic led to “staggering” education inequality around the world. It was, according to a 655-page report that UNESCO released on Wednesday, a worldwide “ed-tech tragedy.”
The report, from UNESCO’s Future of Education division, is likely to add fuel to the debate over how governments and local school districts handled pandemic restrictions, and whether it would have been better for some countries to reopen schools for in-person instruction sooner.
The UNESCO researchers argued in the report that “unprecedented” dependence on technology — intended to ensure that children could continue their schooling — worsened disparities and learning loss for hundreds of millions of students around the world, including in Kenya, Brazil, Britain and the United States.
The promotion of remote online learning as the primary solution for pandemic schooling also hindered public discussion of more equitable, lower-tech alternatives, such as regularly providing schoolwork packets for every student, delivering school lessons by radio or television — and reopening schools sooner for in-person classes, the researchers said.
“Available evidence strongly indicates that the bright spots of the ed-tech experiences during the pandemic, while important and deserving of attention, were vastly eclipsed by failure,” the UNESCO report said.
The UNESCO researchers recommended that education officials prioritize in-person instruction with teachers, not online platforms, as the primary driver of student learning. And they encouraged schools to ensure that emerging technologies like A.I. chatbots concretely benefitted students before introducing them for educational use.
Education and industry experts welcomed the report, saying more research on the effects of pandemic learning was needed.
“The report’s conclusion — that societies must be vigilant about the ways digital tools are reshaping education — is incredibly important,” said Paul Lekas, the head of global public policy for the Software & Information Industry Association, a group whose members include Amazon, Apple and Google. “There are lots of lessons that can be learned from how digital education occurred during the pandemic and ways in which to lessen the digital divide.”
Education International, an umbrella organization for about 380 teachers’ unions and 32 million teachers worldwide, said the UNESCO report underlined the importance of in-person, face-to-face teaching.
“The report tells us definitively what we already know to be true, a place called school matters,” said Haldis Holst, the group’s deputy general secretary. “Education is not transactional nor is it simply content delivery. It is relational. It is social. It is human at its core.”
Here are some of the main findings in the report:
The promise of education technology was overstated.
For more than a decade, Silicon Valley tech giants as well as industry-financed nonprofit groups and think tanks have promoted computers, apps and internet access in public schools as innovations that would quickly democratize and modernize student learning.
Many promised that such digital tools would allow schoolchildren to more easily pursue their interests, learn at their own pace and receive instant automated feedback on their work from learning analytics algorithms.
The report’s findings challenge the view that digital technologies are synonymous with educational equality and progress.
The report said that when coronavirus cases began spiking in early 2020, the overselling of ed-tech tools helped make remote online learning seem like the most appealing and effective solution for pandemic schooling even as more equitable, lower-tech options were available.
UNESCO researchers found the shift to remote online learning tended to provide substantial advantages to children in wealthier households while disadvantaging those in lower-income families.
By May 2020, the report said, 60 percent of national remote learning programs “relied exclusively” on internet-connected platforms. But nearly half a billion young people — about half the primary and secondary students worldwide — targeted by those remote learning programs lacked internet connections at home, the report said, excluding them from participating.
According to data and surveys cited in the report, one-third of kindergarten through 12th-grade students in the United States “were cut off from education” in 2020 because of inadequate internet connections or hardware. In 2021 in Pakistan, 30 percent of households said they were aware of remote learning programs while fewer than half of this group had the technology needed to participate.
Learning was hindered and altered.
Student learning outcomes stalled or “declined dramatically” when schools deployed ed tech as a replacement for in-person instruction, the UNESCO researchers said, even when children had access to digital devices and internet connections.
The report also said students learning online spent considerably less time on formal educational tasks — and more time on monotonous digital tasks. It described a daily learning routine “less of discovery and exploration than traversing file-sharing systems, moving through automated learning content, checking for updates on corporate platforms and enduring long video calls.”
Remote online learning also limited or curtailed student opportunities for socialization and nonacademic activities, the report said, causing many students to become disengaged or drop out of school.
The report warned that the shift to remote learning also gave a handful of tech platforms — like Google and Zoom — extraordinary influence in schools. These digital systems often imposed private business values and agendas, the report added, that were at odds with the “humanistic” values of public schooling.
Regulation and guardrails are needed.
To prevent a repeat scenario, the researchers recommended that schools prioritize the best interests of schoolchildren as the central criteria for deploying ed tech.
In practical terms, the researchers called for more regulation and guardrails around online learning tools. They also suggested that districts give teachers more say over which digital tools schools adopt and how they are used.
As Atlantic Canada gears up for another hurricane season after a year of unprecedented disasters linked to climate change — including post-tropical storm Fiona last September — amateur radio operators say a simple technology can play a part in the response to disasters across the region.
When Fiona hit Nova Scotia, it affected electrical grids and telecommunications networks, leaving some people unable to call for help. That experience in particular prompted a renewed interest in amateur radio — also known as ham radio — which allows non-professional users to send messages without requiring the internet or cell phone networks.
“I think it’s kind of an unsung hero in communications that gets forgotten in the noise of disaster when it comes to, ‘Well, how do we get that message out?'” said John Bignell, president of the Halifax Amateur Radio Club.
Radio operators say the technology can help Nova Scotians respond to the increasing risks of extreme weather, as climate change forces a reckoning with communications infrastructure across the country.
Communications failed following Fiona
When Lyle Donovan became emergency management co-ordinator for Victoria County in 2008, the municipality’s emergency plan included amateur radio, drawing on the expertise of a local group.
“They were an older generation, but they were active in amateur radio and we utilized them,” he said.
In time, that group petered out. With no operators left in the county, Donovan removed the section on amateur radio when he redid the municipality’s emergency plan in 2016.
“What’s the point in having it in our emergency plan if we had no operators?” he remembered thinking.
In the past, amateur radio held more appeal, Donovan said, but other forms of communication had become ubiquitous in the meantime, and amateur radio no longer seemed necessary.
More to the point, Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada more broadly already have a highly stable radio network, Donovan said. All frontline emergency services in the province use the trunked mobile radio system, which was put in place after the SwissAir disaster in 1998. Donovan calls it “the best communications systems in the world.”
“So we got kind of complacent to think that we have this system, we have VHF, we have satellite telephone and of course, we still have our cell phones and not all of those systems are going to go down.”
Then post-tropical storm Fiona struck.
The day after the storm made landfall in the province, Donovan, who is a paramedic, woke at 5 a.m. to prepare for work. Attempting to turn on the TV, he realized there was no power; turning to his phone, he found there was no cell service either. Because the local radio tower was down, local emergency services could talk to each other but couldn’t send messages outside of the immediate area.
“That’s when I knew we were in trouble,” he said. Then, with communications interrupted, “Lo and behold, [there was] a cardiac arrest.”
The family of the victim was unable to call 911. While their neighbour was an RCMP corporal with a TMR radio, they were unable to call for help because they couldn’t communicate with the wider network.
Eventually, someone was able to get a message to Donovan via the local fire chief. But by then 40 minutes had passed and the victim couldn’t be saved.
“I have a close personal relationship with the family,” he said. “We went on to discover that [medical attention] wouldn’t have helped anyway, but it’s just sheer fact that people were not able to call 911.”
In the aftermath of Fiona, Donovan said they started asking how the situation could have been avoided, and — after connecting with a longstanding amateur radio club in Halifax — started looking to amateur radio.
“Somebody from my area could have called someone in the Halifax area, and they could have called 911 for us, to get emergency services rolling,” he said.
The Halifax Amateur Radio Club is one of the oldest amateur radio clubs in North America, dating back to 1932.
Bignell first got interested in amateur radio as a teenager. He said its simplicity is part of its enduring appeal.
“The ability to build your own radio and then send a message that bounces around the atmosphere and be able to talk around the world with a simple little wire, it’s kind of cool,” he said.
But amateur radio is more than a hobby; because it doesn’t require a service provider such as a telecommunications company, or extensive infrastructure, it can step in during disasters when other systems fail.
This has been true with disasters in the past. Bignell said his club has played a role in every major disaster in the province going back to the Moose River mine disaster in 1936.
Amateur radio has also been essential elsewhere. Amateur radio operators were instrumental in relaying messages around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina knocked out telecommunications networks. In Mozambique, a recent series of storms has prompted the government to set up a network of amateur radio operators to help with disaster response.
While communications infrastructure has steadily improved in the last 20 years, Bignell said amateur radio still provides an additional layer of safety.
“We have some really robust systems in Nova Scotia and in Canada, but there’s always that one moment where you go ‘Oh this isn’t going well, we need a backup,’ and that’s where amateur radio plays a real key role.”
Bignell said amateur radio also works with more modern technology through tools such as Windlink, which radio operators can use to send emails, weather reports and information bulletins over the airwaves, without internet.
Amateur radio is undergoing a renaissance, Bignell said, in part because the ability to connect amateur radios to laptops and cell phones has greatly increased what it can do.
That surge of interest is coming at a time when Canada is taking a closer look at the resilience of its telecommunications infrastructure.
The federal government recently began a process to improve the resilience and reliability of telecommunications networks, citing disasters such as hurricanes Fiona and Dorian in Atlantic Canada, the forest fires in Alberta and B.C. in 2021, and the derecho storm that struck Ontario and Quebec in 2022.
In a notice of consultation, the CRTC noted that the increasing risks posed by climate change have made it necessary to build a more robust telecommunications system.
Jason Tremblay, community services officer for Radio Amateurs of Canada, a national volunteer-based network of amateur radio operators, said that the organization is pushing for amateur radio to be included in more conversations about strengthening communications systems.
“Being able to work with government agencies, work with NGOs and members of the community, it’s a way for us to understand what their needs are — it’s a way to better our service.”
He said as technologies and climate conditions change, amateur radio operators are taking on new methods and challenges in disaster response.
“There’s been an explosion of interest from emergency managers,” he said. “I think there will always be a call for amateur radio; it’ll always adapt and be there.”
Bringing ham radio back
In Victoria County, Donovan is now looking to re-introduce amateur radio to the municipality’s emergency management plan, and has heard there’s at least one radio operator in the county who is interested in helping out.
Donovan is also hoping to bolster interest in an amateur radio club in the county.
He stressed that what happened to emergency communications after Fiona was a rare occurrence.
Still, he thinks amateur radio could form an additional layer, to help the public feel safe in the disasters to come.
“Amateur radio is certainly still a benefit to Nova Scotia. It’s a backup system, and in the event that something happens, it’s something that we could use.”