As promised, this post is a continuation from last week’s shortwave listening sessions from September 2004. These radio recordings offered here were received on a Tecsun BCL-2000, and the location of reception was a small town on the Hudson River not too far from Albany, New York.
As before, after the jump you’ll find more MP3 samples of shortwave reception to sample, but first I want to talk specifically about the radio that I used to make these recordings. It’s a practical gadget that’s not too expensive.
The BCL-2000 itself can only be purchased in the U.S. via ebay. However, a couple of almost identical radios under the Grundig (or Eton) name are available in North America at a somewhat higher price and are only slightly different . Just to avoid confusion, from here on in I’ll describe these receivers as the BCL series of radios, and point out differences when appropriate.
The BCL series is a recent invention, developed and built in China and first released in 2002 (the American version, the Grundig S350 went on sale in 2003). Just like almost every other new electronic gadget, most shortwave radios are now made in China. While purists loudly bemoan the loss of new European and American receivers in the marketplace, the Chinese are making some damn good radios these days and often at an affordable price. Although the trend in shortwave has been toward digital tuning for years, the BCL radios buck this trend and have proven a popular alternative to the abundance of digital shortwave sets for sale.
While they don’t really have any features that haven’t been seen before, the BCL radios offer a unique combination of options that make it a lotta fun to scan the bands. The main difference between these radios and any other affordable receivers available today is that they offer analog tuning WITH a digital display. And the LED display is also relatively large and there’s a switch to lock the display light in the on position on these radios, which makes it great tool for searching out distant frequencies in the dark.
And some will ask, if the display is digital why not just get a digital radio? Well, when I bought my first digital shortwave receiver a few years ago I quickly began to realize how much I appreciated analog tuning. Going through each 5 KHz step with a digital tuner gets tedious very quickly. And then if you want to zip across the band and get a feel for the reception available, forget it. Each step requires a fraction of a second to be heard, with a “phhht” sound as the radio renders each frequency up, and I believe it adds a bit of background noise as well. The alternative you get is a scan function, which silently automates the scanning process and the turner will stop when the radio’s software decides there might be a broadcast at that frequency. It ain’t the same. And as you might imagine, weak signals can be easily skipped and stray RF can be mistaken for a radio station.
Okay, I know that with better digital tuners some of these problems aren’t as bad, and miserable Sangean ATS-505 isn’t the best example. However, I’d still rather do the scanning very manually sometimes.
That’s not to say that digital radios aren’t amazing in other ways. Many have hundreds of presets, and if you know the frequency you’re looking for you can usually punch it up immediately. And for the most part, the best shortwave receivers made have been all-digital for quite a while now. While BCL radios are NOT the very best receivers in any technical sense, they are very easy to use and reasonably priced.
Besides not having presets, the BCL radios also don’t have another feature dedicated listeners desire– SSB. While I’m not going to get into a technical discussion I’m not qualified to offer, I’ll just say that SSB (Single-sideband modulation) is another way of broadcasting other than amplitude modulation which is more efficient in long-distance transmission and is popular with ham operators and some international broadcast services. Some listeners love to eavesdrop on the hams (if you don’t know what "ham" is, look here), and others just like to have all the options.
The truth is, the BCL radio design borrows a lot of its layout and operation from a popular analog receiver from the 1970′s, the Panasonic RF-2200. While the RF-2200 did not offer a digital display, the template for the radio’s controls is very similar. And both are very good medium and shortwave receivers. Ideally, I would hope that future versions of the BCL radios would incorporate more of what made the RF-2200 great– like SSB, as well as the pop-up rotating antenna for AM, and dual conversion circuitry that would reduce the one other big complaint about the BCL radios, “images” from strong broadcasts popping up on other locations on the band.
The original BCL-2000 was released in China in two colors, black and a bright and cheery red shade. The U.S. version, the Grundig S350 was only offered in a utilitarian gadget silver. The initial release was plagued with “drifting” issues, as the tuning is a string and pulley affair where physics are at play on the variable capacitors and once you’ve settled on a frequency the radio would tend to drift off signal eventually. The Chinese Tecsun versions addressed this issue early on, and that fact combined with the more appealing casing colors made the Chinese version a popular item on ebay in the U.S., despite the fact they aren’t available in the stores here.
What’s interesting is how this radio was marketed in the U.S. BCL stands for “Broadcast Listening,” and that’s what the radio was meant to do, provide easy access to the old broadcast bands. In fact, the Tecsun version says “Enjoy Broadcasting” right on the face. The Grundig however, was called a “field radio” and was promoted for it’s “military” and “retro” look. Which makes you wonder why it didn’t come out in “camouflage” pattern, or at least in army green. Could the military marketing approach had anything to do with the current obsession with warfare and patriotism in the states? Makes you wonder.
However, things have changed. While the original radios are still for sale, there are new versions available which have addressed the “drifting” problems in a more direct way. In America, the new radio is called the Eton (not Grundig, but it’s just a nameplate anyway) S350DL. Instead of adding all the technical features real radio fans might desire, (SSB, dual conversion) they’ve again gone for a more superficial approach. The radio is slightly bigger, with a larger speaker AND it comes with a set of headphones. And guess what? The S350DLs aren’t silver at all, but are RED or BLACK, just like the Tecsun versions. However, the knobs are silver now, instead of black. Not exactly an improvement.
The new Chinese version is no bigger and has no headphones. It’s called the BCL-3000, and now only comes in black. From everything I’ve read, these radios are no more sensitive than the previous model. There is a technical solution to the drifting problem which I’ve heard is problematic. When you stop on a station, the frequency locks. However, the locking is buggy and can be a pain in the ass when you’re trying to tune something in incremental knob nudges and the tuning locks up or jerks at inopportune moments. I’d rather deal with the slight bit of drifting myself.
While the BCL-3000 is still roughly the same price, around fifty bucks plus shipping from China (roughly 80 some dollars total). The S350DL however, is now $150 dollars, a jump or fifty bucks from the list price for the S350. And just to keep your radio buyin’ eyes off of China, there’s been some arm twisting over at Tecsun headquarters and all newly manufactured BCL-2000 and BCL-3000 radios are no longer labeled in English. They’re covered with Chinese text, and you may need to refer to the translated manual to figure out the knobs and switches. The controls aren’t that complicated, but it is an annoyance for the non-Chinese radio consumer.
I ’ve not only gone in detail about these radios because I happen to like them, but I also think they are very good entry level DX radios. The AM performance is actually a little better than shortwave and FM reception is very good. But what they do offer the shortwave listener is an intuitive analog interface to the tuning, while providing an accurate digital readout of the frequency in real time, which can be strategic in trying to identify a station in the shortwave jumble of frequencies. No presets, it’s true. But a little knob twisting will get you anywhere you want to go. One other plus– these radios run forever on 4 D cell batteries. The digital portables suck power at a much higher rate.
Okay, on to the audio clips. These stations were received in the evening in upstate New York on the weekend of September 11, 2004. And although I was using my BCL-2000 I did not make notes of the actual frequencies received. I’ve never been one to keep logs, or collect QSL cards. But all my respect to those who do. Suffice to say most of the signals received were probably in the 49, 41 01 – Sweden Todaand 31 meter band. Possibly the 25 meter band as well.
01 – Sweden Today 4:09
It’s Radio Sweden International broadcasting in English for North America at 6010 KHz in the 49 meter band. (Thanks Mr. Announcer) It’s a news magazine program and the lead story is about one of the unexpected side-effects of the European Union– more intoxicated Swedes.
02 – Voice Of Turkey 18:08
While Radio Sweden notes a unplanned downside to being a part of the European Union, on the Voice Of Turkey broadcast you hear repeated references to how strong the desire is for the Turks to merge their country into the EU. Over and over again in this extended segment you can hear how Turkey has been bending over backwards to satisfy their European’s neighbors that they are worthy of membership in the Union. It’s not only mentioned in every element of this extended clip, but there’s even a regular segment here specifically focusing on the latest news regarding Turkey’s application to join the EU. It is so odd in this era to hear such yearning on behalf of a Muslim nation to join into such an intimate relationship with western powers.Turkey’s shortwave service runs a strong transmission to North America, and I’ve heard some great music there more than once. The reception on this recording requires a little patience, but it’s all there. And it’s traveling over 5000 miles.
03 – Deutsche Welle-Inside Europe 25:06
More on EU issues in this clip as well. Not the kind of news you’re likely to hear much about in American media. Deutsche Welle offers an excellent English service, and sadly they recently made the same decision as the BBC World Service made a few years ago– to dramatically curtail their broadcasts to North America. The statistics of U.S. shortwave radio listenership aren’t exactly a motivating influence for international broadcasters. And cutbacks in funding toward broadcasting to North America from overseas has made the Christian-crazy packed U.S. shortwave scene a little less interesting lately. It’s a goddamn shame.
The big story here is about halfway into this file. While Turkey is jumping through flaming hoops to entice the EU to let them in, while the Prime Minister, a devout Muslim, was trying to pass a law at the time making adultery a crime. See the conflict? If you just heard the Turkish broadcast before this you might guess what happened next. There’s a couple small drifting/tuning issues in this recording. The off-frequency moments are brief. The reception is fair.
04 – Catholics & Protestants 2:20
Most of the Christian prescience on shortwave is decidedly Protestant. A lot of King James Version faithful who offer you the choice between the fluffy clouds of heaven and the fiery pits of hell. However, EWTN’s Global Catholic Network is a little more chatty than their Protestant counterparts. Instead of preaching, they talk about stuff on EWTN. On this clip you hear the spiritual wisdom of “Dan.” He sounds like he’s at least 17 years-old. And then two more Protestant type stations. A hymn and little pulpit thunder.
05 – Parking Lot Miracle – Ukraine Signs Off 4:33
Here’s little slice of band-scanning, going through some Jesus-casters and ending up overseas. It starts off with a mind-blowing miracle involving God expanding a church parking lot just in the nick of time. Also some gospel passion and World Harvest Radio’s offer to ship you a free Bible so you can play along at home.
And then there’s Radio Ukraine International signing off at the end of their broadcast to North America. While I can’t speak authoritatively about Ukraine’s English shortwave service, I always love hearing it. There’s something home-baked about it, lots of Ukrainian culture, history and music, and it sounds like radio from decades ago. For some reason, it’s like radio comfort food for me, and hearing it on the internet just wouldn’t be the same.
06 – (Unknown Station) Christian Election Advice 2:28
This saddened me at the time. It’s some type of Christian talk show, slightly paranoid in the shortwave tradition. Talking about the upcoming Presidential election, one co-host remarks to the other that voting for the “lesser of two evils” is wrong for Christians. And while I could have been pleased with concept of Christians boycotting an election en masse, the idea of telling people not to vote because each candidate is imperfect just plays into the hands of political smear tactics in general. Like so many ideas brought up every day on Christian radio it’s the product of immature thinking and lacks moral clarity.
07 – WBCQ-More Timtron 14:28
Last week I featured a bit of Radio Timtron Worldwide, arguably one of the best shows on shortwave radio, broadcast on WBCQ in Maine. This is part of another show (The Real Amateur Radio Show/Piss & Moan ) he hosts which is always some discussion of his life in radio, and a few tips and tricks for listeners as well. And it’s like nothing you’ll hear anywhere else.
Another show on WBCQ that offers colloquial details on the outlaw-fringe side of radio broadcasting is “Allan Weiner Worldwide,” hosted by WBCQ founder Allan Weiner. Allan’s program is an informal “around the house” kind of talk show, with Allan talking about the station, the state of radio, or whatever’s going on in his life. And he does take calls, but it sounds like it’s really just a small group of chronic middle-aged geeks who haunt the phones. But when you listen to these shows you become privy to the realities of seat-of-the-pants broadcasting that is both infectious and inspiring. They both have GREAT stories of both their pirate radio days as well as anecdotes about the everyday goings on with maintaining WBCQ. Just the offbeat techno-slang and vernacular they use when they talk about their years of pirate radio shenanigans, or relate the behind the scenes details of maintaining a bunch of high-power transmitters. Just listening makes you feel like your part of things up there in Maine, and in the process you learn a few things about the business and science of radio.
And that’s what you get here with Timtron, technical talk with attitude and a bent sense of humor. Maybe only on shortwave would the esoteric musings of radio engineer be so appropriate and so entertaining. He makes advanced radio engineering sound as easy as putting together a high school science project. Just another reason to check out WBCQ. By the way, online archives of WBCQ programs can be found here.
Thanks for listening.
(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)