Radio, television, and the content we consume have changed enormously since I was a kid. This is a podcast about the physics, and the metaphor of this change and how we can change too, but only if we want to remain resonant. 

Hey, it’s Andrew, and this is Safety on Tap. 

Since you’re listening in, you must be a leader wanting to grow yourself and drastically improve health and safety along the way.  Welcome to you, you’re in the right place.  If this is your first time listening in, thanks for joining us and well done for trying something different to improve! And of course welcome back to all of you wonderful regular listeners.

There used to be just a handful of TV stations, and a handful of radio stations. It was kind of easy as a kid, because the TV guide fit onto a single page in the newspaper, and the discussion about what to watch was easier because there were only a few options to choose from. Cartoons on Channel 7 on the afternoons we were allowed to watch TV, then Channel 2 at 6pm for the ABC news, on Wednesdays the highlight of the TV week was a bit of police drama with Blue Heelers on Channel 7 at 8.30, and Friday night football on Channel 9 kicked off the sporting entertainment of the weekend. 

Bandwidth used to be a constraint.  On the radiomagnetic spectrum, there are only a limited number of frequencies which TV or radio could use to broadcast their content to you.  Even if you have a digital radio in your car or at home, you can still see the remnants of this bandwidth constraint, when a radio station includes a number in the name – Mix 106.5, 104.1 Today FM. 

The number is the actual frequency (measured in Mega Hz for FM stations), the actual number of times the wave goes up and down per second.  That number meant it was easy for you to tune into the right station, to listen to what they had to offer, loud and clear.  If you were one point off, one tweak of the dial, and not only did you have the wrong frequency, you had garbled, snowy, or no radio content to listen to. 

There is no doubt that the use of the radiomagnetic spectrum for communication, and its associated constraint of a limited number of frequencies, shaped our culture enormously. 

Until the constraint disappeared.  With the internet we went from limited bandwidth to broadband – because we jumped off the radiomagnetic spectrum and entered a world of limitless channels to choose from, unlimited space for broadcast, and people who were more than happy to no longer be constrained to the 3 or 5 channels they used to have to choose from. 

Along with this change came an entirely new way to approach the transmitter and the receiver. 

The antenna on your radio or the roof of your house was designed to pick up limited frequencies, and the huge towers in big cities transmitted their content to match the frequencies your antenna could receive. 

Which brings us to the importance of the word ‘understanding’. 

If you had a lot of radio static or a fuzzy picture on the TV, it’s not as if the device had an understanding problem, it had a frequency problem, a tuning. You had the understanding problem.

It’s pretty common to hear health and safety professionals talk about understanding, or lack of it, usually in reference to the important stakeholders we are seeking to serve. 

They don’t get it (which means, they don’t understand).  If only they understood. The incident has finally gotten them to understand. The training will help them understand. The client doesn’t understand. The Regulator regulates with a strange kind of hope that understanding will magically appear from punishment. The workers don’t understand. Notice how it sounds a lot like we are making the understanding problem their problem?

A lack of understanding, or mis-understanding, is a strong undercurrent of the kind of work people like us do. 

Resonance is a concept we can learn from, which lives at the heart of electromagnetic physics.  If you studied music you may have come across a tuning fork, a hard two-pronged piece of metal which, when struck, creates a single note at a specific frequency. The weight and dimensions of the tuning fork permanently fix the frequency of that note in the object, which is great when you have something like a guitar, since the strings on even the best guitars will start to get out of tune as soon as you tune it.  A tuning fork is a point of reference, hit it on the heel of your hand, place the end on the body of your guitar, and it will sound the note you need to tune the first string, which enables you to tune all the other strings off that point of reference. 

What’s cool about tuning forks, is that if you have two of the same frequency and strike one of them to get it vibrating, it will induce the tuning fork placed next to it to start vibrating, because they are the same frequency, they are resonant with each other. 

The beauty of resonance in a pitch perfect note is matched by the power of resonance in large engineered structures. Nature is full of frequencies, not just electromagnetic, but in weather cycles, waves in the ocean, and when the wind blows. One of the most impressive examples of resonance I’ve seen is on the Tacoma Suspension Bridge.  Bridges are designed to move, to account for the movement that happens in the earth and its footings, in the loads it carries, and the forces it has to withstand, including winds.  This video shows the bridge responding to the wind, which causes it to vibrate, then twist and sway. The vibrations, seen in the up-and-down wavering of the bridge, start to amplify, where the bridge looks like an actual wave, rolling side to side and end to end, until ultimately, it collapses under the force of the vibrations it was never built to withstand. 

I’ve included a link to the video of this so you can see for yourself the power of nature over man-made things.  What this failure shows us is the power of resonance – when one force and a receiver are tuned into each other, what is being transmitted become resonant, with sometimes impressively power effect. 

Back to our radio or TV – how did you tune into the right channel? It needed a few things. 

When cable TV arrived the customer’s existing antenna wasn’t even capable of receiving the number of channels that started to be available.  Instead, the television companies realised that they needed to use new technology in order to help you receive what they had to offer, to open up the channels you were able to access, to help you tune in better. 

So you need a transmitter and a receiver that are on the same band of wavelengths.  What happens with a traditional radio or TV is when the transmitting and receiving antenna are frequency matched, the power of the transmitted signal creates resonance in the receiving antenna, effectively moving the signals across the air and recreating them in your radio or TV. 

Have you ever said these kinds of things before, or heard them, when we are talking about things other than TV or radio?

We are on the same wavelength? They totally tuned out of what I was saying? That person or idea or concept or story really resonates with me?

When it comes to the change we seek to make, we aren’t talking about electromagnetic physics or the internet, but the physics not only gives us language we already use, the whole metaphor can help us get better at what we do. 

So let’s connect the metaphor with our day to day work.  I’ll give you a start, with some examples to get your reflective juices flowing. 

The first is frequency, and the difference between choosing to transmit at a frequency of our choosing, or to match the frequency of what people can receive.  The whole thing only works when the wavelengths you are on are matched.  You will experience frustrating results, unhappy internal customers, and missed communications when there is a mis-match. 

When are our stakeholders able to receive the frequency we are transmitting at? Are they receiving during meetings, during bids or tenders, during planning at someone’s desk, in the drive with someone between sites, or throughout day to day operations? When do your messages get ignored, when do your messages seems to get through? The tricky bit is that the frequency people are able to receive at will change, so its useful to pay attention to when the message is getting through and when it’s not.  They don’t have a listening problem, you might have a frequency problem. 

Next, we have channels.  In the time since my childhood TV watching days, I still enjoy a well-made cop show in the tradition of Blue Heelers. But sport? I watch almost no sport on TV these days, and when I do, its almost always field hockey, broadcasting the state premier league games via social media, the national hockey competition almost no one has heard of called Hockey One, or international test matches which could be on Kayo one time, on 7 sport the next, or YouTube live another time. 

The content changes AND the channel changes too.  There channels as different as books on cat hair knitting to an entirely new ASMR category made up wholly and solely of crisp and amplified everyday sounds like sharpening a pencil or chewing potato crisps.  Alcoholics anonymous have never had a traditional media channel but they have a million channels – plain rooms in church or community halls with a circle of chairs set up every Thursday evening – that’s their channel.  So instead of the channel being defined by the limited frequencies available, there is an infinite number of channels to choose from based on the content they are transmitting. 

Health and safety related stuff is still stuck in limited-channel thinking. The ways we communicate can be counted on one hand – alerts via email, reports via powerpoint, risk assessments in table format in word docs (or, if you object to that generalisation, risk assessments in table format in the expensive database program you use that basically replicates what you did in word docs), classroom training for inductions and training, maybe a little or a lot of e-learning (which isn’t a channel itself but a small collection of channels, combining words, pictures, and maybe video). We quickly finish the list of the channels we use. 

When the message doesn’t get through, remember how the cable companies didn’t criticise the consumer for their old antenna but gave them new ways of receiving the transmission?

I guarantee you that there are already examples of creative and innovative ways your people are using multiple channels in ways you have never seen. Project teams on what’s app. Whiteboards. Slack. MS teams spaces. The best-English speaking person on the crew who is the translator for the rest. The Friday afternoon drinks gathering. The bonnet, or the hood, of the work ute scribbling plans for the site and plans for the day.

These are all channels, where effective communication is happening. So you now have two problems. The first is the number of channels is infinite, which seems scary. The second problem stems from the first, which is, figuring out which existing channels you can earn permission to use, and seeing whether the transmission gets through. 

And finally, resonance. 

When your frequency and the receivers are in tune, when you are on the same channel, your ability to be resonant is enormous.  Like it or not, incidents change what people tune into, which amplifies your ability to be resonant with the people who can make change. It also might create problems, which is the same old message on the same old frequency – respond to bad stuff, ignore the otherwise successful work including all its adaptations, look for blame, ignore the factors in the system of work which amplified towards destructive forces for the people who do the work – it’s a double edged sword. 

You know when you have said something, done something, presented something, that has resonated. You know because there is an obvious, detectable shift, from the receiver getting nothing, to the receiver being tuned into you and responding favourably.  You know when they all of a sudden start picking up what you are putting down.

The thing about resonance for us, versus the basic physics of sound, is that the tuning is matched, but the message might change.  A single note on a tuning fork will only ever be that – but radio and television producers realised that once people were tuned into their channel, what they did or didn’t say or do on that channel was up to them. 

Which brings us to this infinite channel situation, remember that these are now defined not by the transmission frequency but by the content on the channel? That’s where you have the opportunity to test what might be resonant with the people you seek to serve. If you transmit the same old stuff the same old ways, don’t be surprised if they tune out. If you transmit new ideas, concepts, theories or ways of looking at the world, new data or stories or metaphors, pay attention to where and for whom the message resonates, and double down there. 

And remember, it’s not all up to you, so stop trying to be an old media company.  When there were 3 TV stations and 5 radio stations, they invested heavily and took great responsibility for what the chose to transmit.  Now, everyone is their own media company, if you have a smartphone and an internet connection, and inside organisations you don’t even need these to be a cultural influencer.  You are no longer the sole transmitter in your organisation, so stop acting like it.  Look for resonance, amplify that, and they in turn become transmitters through all sorts of new channels to reach people who you would never have been able to. 

Thanks so much for listening.  Until next time, what’s the one thing you’ll do to take positive, effective or rewarding action, to grow yourself, and drastically improve health and safety along the way?


Transcript – Ep216 Resonance and Understanding, with Andrew Barett

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