Archive for December, 2005

Adventures In Amplitude Modulation – Part 3

Tuesday, December 27th, 2005

Rf2200_2Very few Americans listen to shortwave radio these days.Except for a brief popularity of including shortwave bands on late 70’s and early 80’s boomboxes, almost no general purpose radios sold in America receive shortwave. If you’re interested in hearing shortwave radio you need to go out and purchase a special receiver just for that purpose. However, before the rise of the FM band in the 1960’s, shortwave was a standard feature on many everyday radios in the U.S. Around the world shortwave radio remains a viable and important part of the media landscape. In some African countries almost every home has a shortwave receiver of some kind. And in many European and Asian countries well over half of the homes have a radio with shortwave band coverage.

Before satellite communications and the internet, the only way regular folks could hear broadcasts from around the world was shortwave radio. While AM (or medium wave) broadcasts reach a radius of hundreds of miles at night by bouncing of the ionosphere, with shortwave the effect is greatly increased and signals may travel thousands of miles, and even around the world. It’s not all that difficult to pick up international broadcasts from Australia and New Zealand here in the U.S.

Unfortunately, most of the shortwave stations now operating in the United States are Christian propaganda outlets (although some do feature some non-religious broadcasting on their schedules). However internationally, shortwave remains an important source for news, information and Sackville_towers_1 cultural features. Many countries (including the U.S.) have state run international radio networks that broadcast in many languages. And although there are fewer than there used to be, many are still operating powerful transmitters that can be heard broadcasting English language programs that reach North America..

While in future posts I may talk about some of the more obscure and annoying broadcasts out there (as well as a possible disscussion or two about the receivers themselves), this post will just include the audio from a few stations I picked up Christmas night twisting the knob on my Sony ICF-7600A up in the Hudson Valley. I wouldn’t call any of this DXing. Except for The Voice of Russia, all the radio I’ve archived here originated from the North American region. For example, the Chinese and Japanese programs captured here were broadcast from relay transmitters located in Sackville, New Brunswick.

Almost any shortwave radio worth anything (away from noisy electronics and city RF) should be able to copy these stations late at night here on the east coast. These broadcasts were received after 11 p.m. locally on the 49 meter band (5.9 to 6.2 MHz), which along with the 41 meter band (7.1 to 7.35 MHz) are usually the busiest shortwave bands at night.

So, if you listen to these MP3 samples, you get an idea what it might have been like if you had turned to your shortwave the other night for your media intake, instead of cable TV or the internet. What’s left out? All the damn Bible bangers spewing ignorance and fables across the dial. When they’re not humorous, it’s just plain sad.

1. China Radio International  17:58  

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The host (Paul James) is a Canadian. It’s not uncommon for international broadcasters to hire native speakers for their foreign language service. It’s “People in the Know,” a news-magazine program featuring some reflection here on the Bali bombings and the anniversary of the tsunami catastrophe one year ago.

In general, CRI broadcasts are almost always quite cheerful. You NEVER hear anything critical of the Chinese government or their policies on CRI. And although there is some criticism of the U.S. from time to time, it’s nothing like the cold war days when the international broadcasters of the west and the communist countries would incessantly criticize “the enemy” (each other). It was more exciting…

2. NHK Radio Japan pt 1  7:23

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The news– more on the anniversary of the Indian Ocean tsunami. And there was a major train derailment in Japan. Apparently North Korea has been abducting Japanese folks to cause trouble and make some money, and Japan is not happy about it. And for the first time in a long time, the economy in Japan is looking up.

3. Radio Habana Cuba  11:25

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Here, the cold war continues. The absurd and decades old U.S. government animosity toward Cuba makes every day at Radio Habana Cuba another day of heavy criticism of American policy. The Iraq War and the inhumanity of the Bush Administration gives them plenty to talk about. Here you hear Radio Habana get their kicks in, denouncing the recent revelations regarding the NSA spying on American citizens and the U.S. torturing “enemy combatants” on Cuban soil at Guantanamo. Special guest star in this recording– Fidel Castro.

4. Voice of America pt 1  6:57

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It’s the home team. The is a VOA broadcast aimed at English speakers in Africa, where it’s morning. Unlike any other country, the U.S. sponsored radio network is not allowed to broadcast directly to American citizens. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t eavesdrop on what we’re beaming overseas.

It’s news and weather. African weather. The news– looking back at the hurricane disasters on the Gulf Coast on the U.S. There’s a promo for a show called “Only in America” where they might talk about such typically American topics like “fast food” or “grizzly bears.” Sounds a like a damn cute program.

What you’re hearing is how America presents itself to ordinary Africans, at least ones who speak English.

5. Voice of Russia  16:38

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Back during the cold war, when this was “Radio Moscow,” it was so much more fun. Like China, Russia’s shortwave broadcasts are much friendlier these days. In this recording you get the heartwarming reflections of a cosmonaut, talking about what it’s like to hang out and fool around inside a space station.

6. NHK Radio Japan pt 2  3:58

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A Japanese professor talking about how you can turn your television into a super-duper internet device– one to many to many communications. Will the future be a communication wonderland, or an information maelstrom? As if cell phones hadn’t already caused enough problems.

7. Voice of America pt 2  16:16

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A snippet of official U.S. propaganda, a short bio of Harry Truman, a bit about Kwanza and then “Daybreak Africa” a thirty minute BBC/NPR-like news magazine on issues and politics of the African continent. The bumper music is a bit more lively than NPR.

If these samples of shortwave interest you, but you don’t have a shortwave radio, you might want to check out “The Shortwave Report.” It’s a half-hour weekly radio show that compiles news and features from major shortwave broadcasts around the world. You can download them right here. It’s a nice service.

Thanks for listening.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

God, Blob & Forgiveness

Monday, December 19th, 2005

Neil_1 Last week a minor miracle occurred on Miami radio– Two prickly old talk hosts were nice, to EACH OTHER. For Florida listeners who remember the on-air feud between Bob Lassiter and Neil Rogers a dozen years ago (an WSUN and WIOD), it was an unprecedented radio moment. Two of the greatest talents in talk radio who are not known for grace or forgiveness exhibited large helpings of both qualities to each other live on the radio. While much was made of Letterman and Oprah patching things up a couple weeks ago, THIS was the real thing. There was nothing superficial about it.

I lived in Florida back then, and listened for weeks on end as Rogers and Lassiter fired daily salvos at each other during their respective programs. Rogers’ show from WIOD in Miami was syndicated on WSUN in St. Petersburg at the time, and If you were listening in the Tampa area Lassiter would follow Rogers at two in the afternoon. As it dragged on, most days were filled with cruel jokes, accusations and ad-hominem attacks. Neil would kick it off in the morning, and Bob would follow up for hours. It was both compelling and kinda pathetic.

Young_bob_1 And what exactly was all this hostility about? Good question. From what Lassiter says, it started each host with serving up their own brand of indignant talk radio schtick to each other and somewhere along the line it turned into an ugly and real radio slap fight. As a listener, I really don’t remember the specific points of contention (and I haven’t heard any recordings from that time to help me remember). Of course it was a while ago, but what I do recall is two talented radio misanthropes going at each other with very little mercy. The argument at hand really became beside the point. It obviously wasn’t a joke.

But last Thursday, for over ten minutes, Bob Lassiter was back on the radio for the first time in six years. However, it wasn’t quite the same hearing Lassiter’s big voice on a little bleary phone line. But considering his health and the awkwardness of the moment, Lassiter sounded as warm and strong as I could imagine. And Rogers’ unstoppable string of insults were particularly good natured.

WQAM – Neil & Bob Back Together Again  11:13

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Besides being kind of touching, the call features Lassiter and Rogers discuassing the glory days of Lassiter’s meteoric career. And for completists, here the  the entire Neil Rogers show from that day. Bob is the topic of conversation for almost half the show.

WQAM – The Neil Rogers Show 12-15-05 pt 1  84:15

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WQAM – The Neil Rogers Show 12-15-05 pt 2  102:03

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A side note– although Neil’s show is broadcast on WQAM in Miami, when he mentions a foot of snow outside it’s not the coming ice age. He’s doing his show from his home in Toronto. He stays away from Florida as much as possible, and beams his show in from Canada or Amsterdam. When you can do that, you know you’ve hit the big time in talk radio.

If you’re wondering why I find two old windbags making nice so interesting, you might want to take a look at a couple of my previous posts, a short feature on Bob Lassiter and another post where I discuss the significance of Florida talk radio in general. A while back I produced a two-part documentary on Lassiter’s career  for WFMU’s “Aircheck” program. And if you know nothing about the man, these two hours will change all that. There’s lots of good clips in each show.

Aircheck – The Strange Career of Bob Lassiter (1 of 2)  07-17-03  59:59

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Aircheck – The Strange Career of Bob Lassiter (2 of 2)  07-24-03  60:00

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For further reading, and listening, here’s some links:

The Neil Rogers Website

The Neil Rogers Show MP3 Archives

Bob Lassiter’s Blog

Bob Lassiter Airchecks! (This just went online over the weekend!)

Bob_lassiter_1 With the arrival of the Bob Lassiter aircheck site, as well as the increasing popularity of his blog, there seems to be an upswing in Lassiter consciousness out there. Although Rogers was his mentor, Lassiter brought something strange and unique to talk radio that had never been heard before, and hasn’t been heard since. He is his own branch on the talk radio tree. And although Lionel at times comes close, no one has continued the Lassiter combination of talk radio tactics– entetaining the masses with balls-to-the-wall confrontation, while occasionally exposing his own human frailty for examination and forcing active listeners to do the same AND intellectually weigh their own opinions and behavior. It was nothing like a programming scheme that might have been cooked up in a corporate boardroom. It was a powerful and idiosyncratic approach to radio carried out by a flawed and talented guy.

That said, when Bob Lassiter wasn’t annoying, he was often great. If you ever knew somebody who made you mad, made you think, made you laugh, and every once in a while made you very happy, maybe you know what I mean. Some of the best things in life aren’t easy. And they’re never perfect.

So, that’s it. Have a great Christmas Bob. Thanks Neil. And everybody else…

Be good.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

Adventures In Amplitude Modulation – Part 2

Monday, December 12th, 2005

It was heartening and reassuring to get so many favorable comments (and emails) after my last post. The topic at hand is the avocation of DXing– taking advantage of the extended range of AM & shortwave broadcasts at night and listening to discover what can be heard over the radio  from your location. For better or worse, it’s one of those habits most people dabble in when they’re alone at night. And most of us who participate in this habit have close friends and/or partners who would probably be bored to tears or just openly annoyed if subjected to the challenging listen of trying to read a far off radio signal.

Once in my room I was sitting with a friend having a beer and just for the hell of it I switched on my old Trans-Oceanic and quickly zoomed into a faint English broadcast from Albania. For some reason I thought he would be half as curious about the discovery as I was, and for a couple of minutes I was hanging on to every word trying to hear the news from the Balkans over the noise floor in my apartment. Then I saw the pain in his face, and shut it down and put the music back on. He thanked me.

Albanian_qsl_card While there’s no shame in it, scanning the AM and shortwave dial for sport and recreation is an acquired taste. You have to be willing to put up lots of static, whistles, buzzes and some really stupid and boring radio. But it’s an offbeat way to sample some free (and sometimes fringe) media from around the country and around the world. And when you power up that receiver you never really know exactly who, what or WHERE you’re going to hear.

Winter is better in general for DXing the broadcast bands, and lately I’ve been getting better than usual reception. Since I recorded this scan of the NY upstate AM dial in late November, I’ve gotten strong readable broadcasts in New York City from several stations that eluded me that evening. But the reality is that every night is different That’s part of what makes it interesting.

Radio_locator_clock_1By the way, if you’re interested in playing along at home, let me pass along a few links. Years ago, you would have to invest in a few books or magazines to have the information to track down unknown and identified radio stations. Nowadays the internet offers up plenty of handy data.

Probably the most important site for tracking down AM & FM stations is the “Radio Locator.” You can search stations by city, frequency or call letters. The advanced search gives you more options. It’s damn thorough. Through this site you can access links to the station, webstreams and even look at coverage maps. Another good site for mediium wave is A.M. Logbook.com. While it’s a bit counter-intuitive. and the Canadian and American stations have separate sections on the site, it is helpful to get a quick look at the wattage of each station when you’re trying to figure out where a signal might be coming from.

Don’t forget that computers give off plenty of RF that interferes with radio reception. If you’re looking for information in real time you might be better off taping your reception and looking it up later, or at least keeping your radio across the room when you’re browsing on the net for information.

As I did last week, I’m going to go through the dial in text and offer an MP3 of the recording. Last week covered the beginning of the AM dial at 530 and ended at 750 KHz. It was recorded in the November 26, in the Hudson Valley just after midnight. I was using a 1980’s Sony analog portable, the ICF-7600A. This week I’ll start where I left off and work my way to 950 KHz.

Speaking of that, I should emphasize that I am not an expert or authority as far as DXing or the science of radio. I just fool around with a few relatively inexpensive radios now and then (and occasionally archive the results). Some of you who commented on the previous post are obviously a bit more serious about this stuff, and I really appreciate your feedback. And more importantly I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to read these posts.

TransoceanicThings like picking up AM stations in Europe and Africa from North America has so far eluded me, but it sounds like fun. And I should add that like any hobby, having the right tools can make all the difference. There are many more advanced receivers (and antennas) that I fantasize about playing with one day (from big old “boat anchor” tube equiped table top receivers to contemporary  computer based radios). But what I’d like to emphasize is that listening to the radio as an explorer doesn’t require a lot of fancy equipment, money or expertise. All it takes is an interest, some curiosity and a sensitive receiver.

As I said last week, I recommend an analog receiver for deeply sampling the AM and shortwave bands, at least for those on an entry level. Ebay is a great place to look for used radios, just because there aren’t many powerful radios with analog tuning being made these days. Well, actually I know of one pretty good one that has a digital display AND analog tuning, but in general all but the cheapest shortwave radios are all digital these days.

Why analog? Physically turning a knob ever so slightly allows you to precisely tune in on a station with your fingers and doing so quickly tells you whether an area of a band is active by listening as you zip through it. The “scan” function on digital tuners is typically unreliable for digging out hard to grab broadcasts and physically turning a knob and getting immediate results is more intuitive than waiting at every “step” to hear each digitally rendered spot on the dial.

Bad_cc_radio_displayThat said, there are plenty of high-tech digital receivers that offer features unimaginable on analog radios. They’re just generally more expensive and aimed toward more experienced listeners. Speaking of that, there’s a digital radio out there that is constantly marketed on AM radio specifically for serious AM listeners. It’s the CC Radio from C. Crane, and goes for over a hundred and fifty bucks. I have one. While it’s a sensitive radio, it is a bit overpriced. And then there was an issue with the LED display eventually crapping out. For people who owned this radio for a couple years or more this was a very common problem. It happened to mine, and eventually I couldn’t tell what station I was listening to. However, they’ve since remedied the problem, and they even fixed mine for next to nothin’.

In going through the dial scan I’m posting this week, it’s made me think about what really makes good radio happen. And I think the most important element is “service.” When radio faithfully serves a region, a group, or even perhaps an ideology, it’s about MORE than just money. AndBbc_logo unlike television, a calling to service has always been an integral element of the medium. Maybe that’s why they the BBC doesn’t call their shortwave arm the BBC World “Network.”

And although DXing is fun, its not the best way to hear many of the stations out there that still carry on a tradition of service. While driving around in the great fly-over spans of North America, don’t forget to turn on your radio now and then. There are hundreds of low-power (and often low-profit) radio stations that continue to carry on a useful relationship with their listenership. Really local media is hard to find these days, and now and then you’ll find radio stations that are still dedicated to working with and for the communities within reach of their broadcasts.

I’d like to add that feedback and email is welcome. If you’ve been (or will be) scanning the medium or shortwave bands and have MP3 archives I might be interested in hearing and/or posting your audio adventures. Drop me an email.

Meanwhile, here is the continuation of my casual scan of the AM dial starting at 760 KHz, going up to 950. It’s not spectacular, but it did happen.

Segment 2 – Hudson Valley AM Radio 11-25-05 (760 to 950 AM)  17:45

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760 – WJR Detroit, MI

This station has a helluva signal. Even though it’s snug up against WABC here in New York at 770, it’s still quite readable in the city. Growing up near Detroit decades ago, WJR seemed like Michigan’s official station in a very local and sophisticated way that’s hard to imagine today. It’s the station every grownup seemed to listen to. As a kid (with a rock and roll infected mind at the time) WJR seemed a little stodgy back then. But in retrospect it was really quite a radio station.

They called it "The Great Voice of The Great Lakes," and WJR really had an impressive air roster years ago– articulate gentlemen like J.P McCarthy and Karl Haas, sophisticated music and legendary announcer Ernie Harwell announcing the Tigers play by play. It was friendly, informative and adult radio on a commercial AM station. I guess people go to public radio (which is usually on FM) for this kind of Wjr_at_the_fisher_buildingformat now, but it’s not quite the same. The combination of professionalism, authority, warmth and entertainment that the great full-service AM stations of the past offered their listeners is rare enough anywhere on the dial these days, but a station offering almost all locally produced content and serving an entire region (instead of just promoting that it is) is almost completely a thing of the past. (A vintage video promoting WJR in its heyday is available for download here.)

(If you happen to have any interesting old recordings of WJR, especially Jay Robert’s “Night Flight 760,” I’d might like to swap airchecks with you. Drop me an email.)

Drlaura_2Today, WJR is just another Disney owned right wing news/talk station, like WABC or WLS (Once great stations as well.) And on this night I’ve run across Dr. Laura on WJR. Either she’s your “stay at home doctor,” or the most humorless bitch on the radio, either way Dr. Laura Schlessinger is ultimately a sadistic egomaniac who has no business offering help to strangers on the radio. Notice that even when she’s offering good advice for a change (telling a mother to ease up on disciplining her toddler into a swimming career) she still needs to berate the mother for bad parenting.

770 – WABC NYC

I’m not sure what this is, but they’re talking about George Best, an incredible soccer player who was done in by some bad habits. I didn’t stick around long enough to find out what they were selling. Commercials are offensive enough, infomericials are the ultimate in media prostitution. In a sense, it’s even worse than the Republican propaganda they broadcast all day long. Especially when you’re talking about a legacy station and frequency like WABC. But that’s exactly how WABC squanders their Friday overnight hours, with useless PAID programming. It’s bad enough when a low profit and desperate radio outlet plays informercials to survive, but when a Disney/ABC’s flagship station that covers eastern North America yields to this kind of whoredom is irresponsible and sad.

780 – Should be WBBM in Chicago, but not tonight

790 – Nothing Intelligible

Thebig8cklw800 – CKLW Windsor, ON

Although it’s in Canada, CKLW is the other major clear channel AM station in the Detroit market. Once a legendary North American rock/top 40 station, CKLW is now a talk station, specializing in advice, health and local issues. It’s soft around the edges, but refreshing compared to a conservative Disney propaganda outlet.The topic in this clip: Gall Bladders. Hey, they’re important!

810 – WGY Schenectady, NY

it’s the Albany area’s only clear channel AM station (also owned by Clear Channel Communications). And this is a bit from “The Phil Hendrie Show.” Although Hendrie isn’t on the air in New York City, he’s a national host with a unique approach to talk radio (WFMU featured his work on “Aircheck,” which you can hear with this link). Actually he has one real trick, and he does it well. Hendrie regularly has obnoxious guests who say outrageous things, and then he gets people to call up and argue with the guests. What makes it unique, is that Hendrie is the host and also pretends to be guest at the same time (deftly switching between the big radio microphone as himself and then to telephone and affecting a voice as he assumes the role of the “guest.”) Pretty funny, right?

I thought so too. Over the years it’s been a routine that’s provided lots of laughs to his many listeners “in the know.” And he admits his ploy on a regular basis on this show, but continues to generate callers who haven’t caught on to his puppet show yet. It’s a con game that almost gets some people to make fools of themselves arguing with a fictional character. However, it might be funnier if he wasn’t such an ass.

Hendrie_coulterHendrie’s concept of a radio show as a non-stop prank is a routine all his own, but lately he’s turning into a one trick pony. Like Lassiter, without his inherent humanity, Hendrie offers little or no good will on his program. What’s worse, Hendrie’s not a political talk host, but he just LOVES the Iraq War. I guess it all fits in with his radio M.O.– the big guy deceives and bullies the little guys, and everybody gets a good laugh.

While there’s always been a crude, misogynistic and even racist edge to many of Hendrie’s characters who serve as mock guests on this show, it was easy to assume it was all satire meant to make light of his “character’s” ignorance. However, these days it seems clear that his corral of fake guests are just permutations on Hendrie’s id. He gets to play the balanced and mediating host AND the rude and monstrous guest on the phone. Sometimes you wonder which one is really Hendrie.

Flood_street_1Like in this small edit caught in this dial scan. The “guest” Hendrie pretends to be alleges that his home has suffered some natural disaster and he making a big stink about how he’s not eligible for the same level of benefits as a Katrina victim. He even gets a joke in about people having to defecate in public in the Superdome. Funny stuff. And notice how his “guest” keeps referring to the New Orleans levees as dikes. I doubt Hendrie even knows the difference. His program is a showcase for ignorance masquerading as satire.

820 – (Not sure)

Don’t think it’s WBAP in Ft. Worth, but that’s a common catch in the Midwest. It’s the Police I think, some pop song. Sounds like it might be bumper music for a talk show, maybe a pre-show repeat of “Coast To Coast.” It ain’t WNYC.

830 – (A muddle of stations)

Might be WCCO in Minneapolis in this mess, but nothing ineligible.

840 – WHAS Louisville, KY

Another clear channel station readable across a huge chunk of North America. A news broadcast – An Iraqi cleric is upset about civilian casualties from a suicide bombing, ninety million girls around the world are excluded from primary school, and Japan is in the outer space business.

850 – WEEI Boston, MA

Sports talk. Maybe you like sports talk. I don’t get it. I think I’d rather hear a little more about Gall Bladders.

860 – (Nothing intelligible)

Another standard catch alludes me. CJBC, a French CBC station has been at this frequency as long as I remember. While I don’t speak French, I’ve heard a lot of intriguing and good music here over the years, and lots of French talkin’. But tonight, CJBC isn’t bouncin’ in like usual.

870 – WWL New Orleans, LA

Not coming in strong, but readable. The news– the Audubon Zoo opened that day, and apparently the animals missed the human visitors. The whole city must be missing human visitors. One of the most important cities in Americas will never be the same, and the human tragedy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrna is still a huge wound. Somebody might wanna tell Phil Hendrie that it’s still not very funny.

WwlFor over two months after the hurricane, WWL was the flagship station of "The United Broaders of New Orleans." It was a cobbled together disaster network– a joint effort of Clear Channel Communications and Entercom Communications that offered an on-air sounding board for the community and up to the minute information on how to survive and deal with the tragedy. In all the horror it was encouraging to briefly hear radio stations super-serving thier community in a time of need. It’s something AM radio can still do very well.

Before settling in New York, I lived in Michigan and the deep south and WWL was a dependable stop on the AM dial. And as I mentioned in the last post, I was a big fan of the overnight trucker’s show, the “Road Gang,” Originally hosted by Charlie Douglas, in the early 80’s the Dave Nemo took over the Road Gang. Never a provocative host, Nemo just provided a nightly radio home for trucker’s on the highway, and a bunch of great old country and western for everybody. Overnight, the Road Gang covered the whole route of I-75, from the Ontario border all the way down to Miami, and a huge portion of the country’s mid-section.

KenworthThis station blasts up into the midwest, and was the perfect home for a national radio show. Eventually the Road Gang was syndicated to other stations, and then Nemo moved his new network to Nashville.  That’s all over. Nemo has left the broadcast band for XM, but his WWL program really turned me on to a lot of old country music over the years.

880 – WCBS, NYC

Shopping on “Black Friday” is apparently an addiction, or so says a Connecticut shopper. It has nothing to do with the products. It’s the “process.” Has there ever been a more cynically devised pseudo-event than Black Friday?

890 – WLS Chicago, IL

Once a huge Midwestern rock station, clear channel WLS is just another conservative talk station on the AM dial. It’s just more powerful than most. As it of its time as one of the last big AM top 40 stations and before it became a right wing talk outlet, there was a period of seat-of-pants tomfoolery that made for entertaining listening. In the mid-80’s John “Records” Landecker would open up the phones at night in between rock and roll records and you never know what would happen. These days, those same hours on WLS are a bit more predictable and a lot less funny. You get time-delayed Sean Hannity and another local Chicago program which also follows the day’s Republican talking points to the letter.

Wls_1That local show is “The Deborah Rowe Program.” And on this night Teri O’Brien is sitting in. She’s lined up “incriminating” clips from a C-Span of interview of author Bill Press for the hour’s entertainment. His crime? He’s a LIBERAL! And what’s worse, she says he brags about being rich AND he doesn’t like the Bush tax cuts. I’m surprised he’s not in prison.

It’s third tier Republican smear radio, and during the day the AM dial is jammed with these clowns in between superstar propagandists like Limbaugh and Hannity. However, there is usually some relief from the Republican blather on late night radio. Usually after midnight, the only neocon blabbermouths you hear are a few stations that rerun some from the day schedule. I suppose most Republicans are in bed. But it’s not yet midnight in Chicago, and the Disney’s 50,000 watt propaganda machine is still getting a few kicks in before the national paranormal chatterfest called “Coast to Coast AM” gets underway at 12.

Notice the signal is being chewed around the edges by a Spanish station. I believe Galaxyrocketit’s “Radio Progresso” from Cuba.

900 – CHML Hamilton, ON

Like CKLW, CHML is a lifestyle talk station, focusing on health, finances, relationships and local issues. But every night for a few hours around midnight they use their huge clear channel signal to rebroadcast old time radio shows. It’s a great idea that takes you back to the days when people used to sit around and watch the radio. As you hear, I’ve caught the very beginning of an episode of the 50’s sci-fi series “X-Minus One.”

In case you’re into this sort of thing, or you just want to find out what a “Moklin” is and what it means to be one, have a listen to this whole and intact episode of the show.

X Minus One – If You Was A Moklin (originally broadcast 06-12-56)  23:22

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Meanwhile, back to the bandscan…

910 – (Nothing Intelligible)

930 – CKNS Espanola, ON

It’s 10,000 watts on the north shore of Lake Huron broadcasting into the great white north, but there doesn’t seem to be much information available about this station on the web. Sounds like contemporary country of some kind.

930 – (Sports)

No idea what or where this is.

940 – CINW Montreal, QC

It’s the pre-feed rerun of Coast to Coast AM. The show starts at one a.m. but some stations can’t get enough so they repeat some of a previous show until the fun begins. The topic: The Hollow Earth theory. They say there’s a sun inside the Earth and people and all sorts of stuff.
Although Art Bell is the original host and creator of Coast to Coast, lately he’s only been on once a week, and many of those are reruns too.

950 – WHVW Hyde Park, NY

Pirate_joe_1It’s an old rockabilly rave up broadcast just down the river from where I was making this recording. WHVW’s slogan boasts that they’re “The last independent, locally owned radio station in the Hudson Valley.” And they are. They’re also a complete anomaly. Run by former radio pirate and record collector “Pirate Joe,” WHVW reflects his musical vision– a format of old fashioned American roots: blues, jazz, country and all the stuff that would eventually evolved into rock and roll. It’s all run on a shoestring, but WHVW serves a bunch of upstate music fans with tunes they won’t hear anywhere else on the dial. I don’t know how they pay the electric bill for the transmitter with the scarcity of commercials on the station, but it’s been up and running this way for a few years now. It’s rare enough to hear AM stations feature music, but it’s extra special to hear such a spirited mix of raucous jukebox joy on one frequency. It’s a bit of blessing if you ask me.

Next week, I’ll either keep going on this dial scan, or I’ll dip into some samples of shortwave broadcasts. I haven’t decided yet.

Thanks for listening.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog)

Adventures In Amplitude Modulation – Part 1

Monday, December 5th, 2005

This is the first bandscanning post , inspired by my personal radio listening habits. However, you can relax. I won’t be offering up a “connoisseur’s” list of my favorite radio stations or bragging about my personal taste in music. At least, not exactly. Often I listen to radio as an explorer of sorts. and occasionally I record some of these aural ventures. In this post (and others that may follow) I’ll offer a taste of where I go and what I hear on these radio hikes, such as they are.

Sony_icf7600a_2 Other than the Internet and my occasional purchases of the New York Times, my main source of information & entertainment comes from radio. However, what makes my media intake more esoteric than most is that I exclusively listen to AM radio and shortwave broadcasts. I don’t watch television and almost never listen to the FM band. Generally, the TV content I do take in, I now gather from the Internet.

I suppose if I didn’t have all these albums, CD’s and cassettes laying around I might listen to FM more often, or even subscribe to (god forbid) satellite radio. For now, when I want music I listen to my own. When I turn on a radio I want something else. I want novelty, mystery, and most importantly something human. Every commercial music station on FM feels like it’s programmed by a committee of consultants. And even NPR sounds safe and tested these days. On AM and shortwave you're more likely to hear ad libs, idiosyncrasies, mistakes and raw conspiracy & rumor that isn’t always processed for pure potential profit. Oh sure, there ARE agendas and ulterior motives everywhere, probably just like where you work. Bottom line, most of U.S. FM radio is all about mindless listening and shameless profiteering, (Oh, and there's usually a few interesting non-profit stations at the end of the dial.) But AM and shortwave is about power, language, and cultural & ethnic identity. The “word,” whatever that’s worth these days still holds power on the traditional static-ridden bands that carry signals far distances. I like that.

Wlw_antenna_2That said, a large plurality, if not a majority, of AM radio and shortwave programming in America is pure propaganda– mostly Christian and/or pro-Republican. But like I said, it’s not just about commercials and "prayer offerings." It’s about the power of broadcasting “the word.” And even if the result is repulsive, at times it’s also fascinating. In the end, FM is “background” radio, and AM and shortwave is typically “foreground.” Either you listen, or you don’t hear it. You’re not just being entertained, you’re being engaged.

For the most part, I interact with the radio like normal people. At least when the sun is up. I tune in to specific stations and programs I like, listen, and go about my day. However, some evenings I turn on a radio to go exploring. Unlike FM (and TV for that matter), transmissions on the AM band (also known as “medium wave”) and the shortwave radio bands bounce off the upper layers of the atmosphere, and stations can be received from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. And as far as reception, the night time really is the right time.

Ionospherereflection_2While I’m not going to get into a lot of technobabble about things I barely understand myself (you can follow links I’m providing to learn more), I can explain the basic experience of listening to distant signals on medium and shortwave bands. For one thing, the ionosphere (the layers of the atmosphere the radio signals bounce off of) is a big strange and constantly changing thing. But it’s during the hours of darkness that the ionosphere has maximum reflectivity, and it’s the very best time to hear broadcasts from afar.

While there are a number of influences on what increases or decreases the reflectivity of radio waves on the ionosphere, the most significant factor is space weather. And the main force behind that is what’s happening on the sun, most specifically sunspots (and the 11-year sunspot cycle). Like I said, read up if you like, but the main affect a casual listener to these bands will notice is that the propagation of the broadcast stations varies quite a bit. In other words, on any given night you may find a station you’ve never heard before at that frequency, or you may not be able to find one you’ve found there before. It’s kind of a sport that way.

In fact, this “sport” has a name. It’s called DXing– the art of seeking and receiving far off broadcasts. While it’s not as popular as it once was, those who DX seriously spend A LOT of time and money on equipment to bag those distant transmissions. I’m way out of their league. I just play with a few portables when I get a chance and see what comes my way. If you want to get an idea of how serious DXing can really get, check out this guy’s log of AM stations he’s picked up over the years from San Diego.

The DXing hobby can get as exotic or quixotic as you can imagine. However anybody with a fairly sensitive AM radio can hear a fair number of “clear channel” AM stations broadcasting across the country. Traditionally, the FCC let these stations broadcast their full 50,000 (the maximum in the U.S. & Canada) of medium wave carrier on one frequency all to themselves. In the 80's, the FCC opened the rules up a bit and most clear channel stations now share their allotted frequency. Other stations at their point on the dial either use directional (and often lower power) broadcasting at night, or they're just far enough away to not interfere with the the multi-state coverage of the original clear channel outlet. There’s a list of these clear channel AM stations here and here. New York City, the nation’s largest radio market, also has more of these high power AM stations than any other city in the country (WFAN, WOR, WABC, WCBS, WBBR and WQEW).

Radio_disney_talentWhile you can hear a lot of stations on the AM dial on any given night in New York City, it is NOT an ideal locale for DXing. For one, there’s too many locals, especially those six clear channel stations which splatter into adjoining frequencies. For example, WCBS blasting at 880 Khtz makes it nearly impossible to hear WLS at 890 (another clear channel station in Chicago), or to be able to pull in another powerful station on the other side of the frequency (WWL New Orleans, LA at 870 AM).

I live so close to clear channel WQEW (now “Radio Disney”) that their inane programming occasionally comes in over the phone line. And if I have a bad cord coming out of my mixer goddamn Radio Disney weasels its garbage programming right into my sound system. Tuning across the AM & shortwave dial, “images” of mouse-eared WQEW show up all over the place. In general, it's torture.

Also, there's RF everywhere. What does that mean? Anywhere human beings setup camp, especially a city, there’s all sorts of infrastructure and gadgets broadcasting noise at various frequences, all the time. Ever notice that “FCC” sticker on your electronic toys? It's because on some level the thing broadcasts. Even wiring in general can make noise on your radio. And dimmer switches blast crackles and pops every which way. And your monitor, computer, printer and power supplies all emit static, buzzes and whines into the airwaves. You get the idea. And your neighbors have the same kind of stuff running too. It's radio spectrum pollution.

So if you’re going to try your luck with AM reception in the city, get away from your gadgets. Near a window is a good idea, and outside is even better. Often car radios have very good AM reception. Boomboxes often have sensitive radios, and most receivers with shortwave bands have decent AM reception too. In general (but not always), the older and bigger the radio the better. An don't forget that old tube radios can sound MUCH much better on the AM band. And unless you have a fancy digital radio, stay away from digital tuning. They're often less sensitive, and not nearly as much fun to tune. But a lot of radios can surprise you with their reception. Just try spinning slowly through the AM dial in the mid to late evening, and if you hear a number of faint stations in between the clear ones, and if you find spots where you hear 2 or 3 stations fading in on top of each other, you’ve got a sensitive receiver in your hands.

Oh, and one other important factor in tuning in distant AM and shortwave stations is the antenna itself. Just like tuning in FM, focusing in on problematic shortwave signals requires adjusting the antenna by pulling up the attached aerial and moving it around until the signal comes in the best. But AM is different. The antenna for that band is actually a ferrite bar inside the radio itself, usually right underneath the top of the unit. Adjusting the antenna for AM reception is accomplished by physically turning the radio around. Some DXing geeks actually utilize a lazy susan for this purpose. Now and then you can get a readable signal on two or even three stations at one frequency by moving the radio gradually around in a circle.

Soviet_radio_2As far as serious listening, it’s when I’m able to get out of the city that I really spend some time sampling the medium and short wave spectrum. I’ve specifically taken some camping vacations in the north woods under dark skies where the radio reception is clear and I get a sky full of stars as a bonus. It’s really a big change when I tune to a shortwave band and there’s near dead silence between stations. In the city, I usually have to hope the signal will overcome the inherent noise floor. Many of the weaker stations don’t make it over that hump.

During the Thanksgiving holiday I spent a couple of days in the Hudson Valley with relatives, and on Friday night I turned on the radio and noticed the reception on AM seemed pretty good. I picked up WWL in New Orleans more easily than usual. So later, after everyone was in bed I plugged in my headphones, hooked up a cassette deck and slowly scanned the AM dial to hear what was out there.

More suburban than rural, the area I was in is about halfway between Albany and New York City. The RF noise was tolerable. I brought one of my favorite radios, a small early 80's Sony 9 band analog portable (ICF-7600A). By the end of the 80's most of the better portable receivers went to digital tuning, which has many advantages, but when it comes to scanning the dial nothing beats the ability to finely tune signals with an analog knob. They don’t make analog portables like this anymore. This radio is a little heavy and feels like a finely tuned instrument in your hands, and can be found with some regularity on ebay for 25 to 70 bucks, depending on condition.

I started listening around midnight. But this recording is not completely in real time, as I stopped the tape a couple of times, and made a few edits. But the MP3 segment I’m posting here is a recording of the beginning of a journey through the AM dial that night, starting at the bottom at 530 kilohertz and working my way to 750 kilohertz. If I stay longer on a station I’m either trying to tune it in better or just identify it. Or maybe I found the broadcast interesting, or was grabbing a cold beer.

So, I’m not going to link the audio to every frequency, but if you stream this MP3 and follow along, it should all be pretty self-explanatory. You can also download it with the link provided.

Segment 1 – Hudson Valley AM Radio 11-25-05 (530 to 750 AM)  15:15

(download)

530 – Radio Vision Cristiana, Turks & Caicos (W.Indies)

I hear this all the time in the city, and I didn’t think it was from so far away until I looked it up. The signal itself may be coming from the Carribean, but the content is from the Bronx. It’s Jesus-type broadcasting, in Spanish. Sometimes the preaching on this station gets a bit hysterical and interesting. I suppose I might find it less intriguing if I actually understood Spanish.

540 – The News… from somewhere

I’m not sure what station this is, but some more distant sounding Spanish station is eating at it. I’d guess it might be WLIE out on Long Island, but they run directionally toward the ocean at very low power at night. A better guess might be KNOE in Monroe, Louisiana. I think I heard some reference to the Louisiana capitol, Baton Rouge, right before I turned the station.

550 – (Nothing Intelligible)

560 – (Nothing Intelligible)

570 – WMCA, NYC

A Christian call-in show, probably a rerun from daytime programming. It’s coming in poorly with a bad whine with some operatic singing from another station bleeding in. This used to be one of the biggest top 40 stations in the city years ago. Now it’s the home of Jesus and brokered programming. It’s now owned by the super conservative "family" style corporation,  Salem Communications, who also bought up WWDJ 970 AM in Hackensack, NJ.

580 – (Nothing Intelligible)

590 – WARM Scranton, PA

CBS News– A fatal ice skating accident in Wisconsin. Faint, but readable. Nice call-letters.

600 – (Probably) CICQ Montreal, QC

Some inspired classical music. Usually when you hear jazz, classical or something out of the pop music mainstream on AM radio at night, it’s probably coming from Canada.

(This is a correction. An outdated listing at Radio Locator said this station was CFCF, which hasn't been true since 1991.)

610 – Spanish Music

Sounds like 60's Spanish music, possibly Cuban. Don’t know where this is coming from. It could be WEXS in Puerto Rico, but I have no idea.

620 – WSNR, Jersey City, NJ

Yankees information. Barely coming in. Whatever.

630 – (Nothing Clear)

There’s something in English with old Spanish music on top of it. It might be the same song as on 610. Some Cuban stations broadcast the same network at nearby frequency intervals.

640 – WHLO Akron, OH

It’s CBS News and a story about a Cleveland area Sunni cleric who’s being deported because he’s suspected of terrorist ties. Broadcasting at only 500 watts from Ohio, as far as DXing goes this is a decent catch. The Kinks song is probably a bumper music lead-in to a talk show.

650 – WSM Nashville, TN

It’s heartening to hear George Jones on an AM station these days. Classic country used to be a mainstay of the band. Not anymore. WSM still broadcasts the Grand Old Opry every Saturday night, and it’s one of the last (if not the last) clear channel AM station that plays real country music. Four years ago they ALMOST switched to an all-sports format. It’s a legendary station that has so far kept their music heritage and bucked the trend turn over their 50,000 watts to knuckleheads talking about running backs or cheerleading Republican talking points. It’s a minor miracle.

660 – WFAN, NYC

Sounds like a Nets game.

670 – Radio Rebelde, Cuba

Cuban music coming in loud and clear from the Carribean. Unlike the states, Cuba doesn’t restrict their AM stations to 50,000 watts of power. Most likely there’s a lot more oomph blasting the salsa here. I remember when I worked at a small station in Louisiana and there was a Cuban station killing our signal when we went to low power at night. One day the FCC had us briefly shut down our transmitter so they could attempt to measure the power of the Cuban station. They estimated there were booming a half-million watts our way.

680 – (Probably) CFTR Toronto, ON

Weak signal with other stations bleeding in. An American is talking to somebody (w-British accent) about how the U.S. needs to establish a leadership role in stopping worldwide epidemics and poverty. Jeez. Freedom is on the march. You’d think that would be enough.

690 – CINF Montreal, QC

French language talk radio. And is “okay” the only word that is the same in every language?

This is a correction as well. Online, a number of online sources still list this station as CBF. When it was a CBC outlet, those call letters stood for "Canadian Broadcasting French."

700 – WLW Cincinnati, OH

It’s “America’s Trucking Network, with Steve Sommers.” Trucker shows have been a staple of late night AM radio since the 70's, but they used to play old country music, and give lots of traffic and trucker info. Now you have something like this, a HACK talk host in the tradition of Matt Drudge– chattering about hot-button non-issues which typically make fun of the underprivileged and underpowered. Here ol’ Steve is on his “soapbox” ridiculing “black Friday” shoppers who get up early to snag a sale item on the biggest shopping day of the year, and then ultimately stampede over kids and grannies to get thier booty. In his wisdom, he postulates that these shopping-crazed masses go through this absurd dance simply because they're just too lazy to get up early and get a real job. Oh. Now I understand.

While the "Black Friday" shoppers are kinda stupid, it’s a bit presuming to think they went shopping that morning BECAUSE they didn't have a good job. I had turned in to him before this and he was pointing out the (ever popular) evils of liberalism. Not only is this guy a wimp, but he’s obviously a radio amateur with a thin grating voice. This time slot on WLW used to be occupied by a guy who called himself the “Truckin’ Bozo.’ I think he was a bit of redneck too, but at least he was a professional who had more to say about truck driving than reading talking points about the evils of liberalism. He’s gone to XM, one of those satellite networks. Speaking of that, apparently Dave Nemo’s gone to XM as well. He did a wonderful trucking show for years that you could hear across the country on the AM band, featuring old country music and homespun humor. It's kinda sad. Now truckers without a satellite hookup are subject to blabbering hacks, like Steve Sommers.

710 – WOR, NYC

It’s Lionel, again taking on the bumper-sticker-playbook right wing morons, as he does so well. Notice the old Spanish music heavily intruding on this relatively nearby clear channel station. It’s probably the same “Radio Rebelde” I picked up at 670, with PLENTY of power. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get WOR to come in clearly.

720 – (Probably WGN Chicago, IL)

This usually comes in pretty good out this way. But tonight it was a muddle, with what seemed to be WGN easily overcome by at least two other stations.

730 – CKAC Montreal, QC

It’s a French talk show. Faint reception. I know. Where are my language skills?

740 – CHWO Toronto, ON

Also known as “AM 740.” It’s Dusty Springfield I believe, coming in HORRIBLY. I try valiantly to pull the signal together, but no go. I listen to this station a lot in the city, and it usually comes in quite strong. Since CHWO took over this legacy frequency from the CBC a few years ago, their format has been slowly morphing from a general big band/standards sound to more of a “music of your life”-middle-of-the-road oldies format. In the car, it’s a good stop on the dial, reminds me of what music on AM used to sound like, especially from the back seat of my parents car. They’ve got a fat strong signal that covers a huge swath of the U.S. & Canada. However, the propagation of AM varies quite a bit. And as you hear, sometimes the ionosphere doesn’t do the job and the trying to listen from a few hundred miles away just yields a static-ridden mess.

750 – WSB Atlanta, GA

Apparently snuffed out this night by a far off Spanish station. Like CHWO, WSB usually comes in easily after dark in New York City. In fact, WSB usually comes in strong up in the Hudson Valley too. But not every night…

Okay, that’s about a quarter of the AM dial. I’ll offer you up another chunk of this episode of broadcast listening next week, starting with WJR in Detroit.

Thanks for listening.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)