Archive for November, 2007

Down Under, Up And Over

Friday, November 30th, 2007

When get to fooling around with a shortwave radio I usually don’t have much of an idea of what I might come across, or where the broadcasts I may find will come from. If you happen to be hunting up something originating (or relayed) from a hot nearby transmitter, shortwave listening is almost as predictable and practical as AM or FM  However, the real fun in scanning these forgotten bands is hunting for broadcasts from far-flung regions of the globe. It’s all about surfing those skywaves.

Instead of patiently scanning a SW broadcast band, this particular evening last July, I was quickly scanning several bands with my Degen 1103 looking for something, ah… exciting.

Okay, maybe “exciting” is the wrong word. I was fishing to find some exotic broadcast from far away, and preferably one in my native tongue. I’m sure there are other shortwave listeners who know what I mean. What gets my attention right away when trolling the HF bands is coming across an unfamiliar English language broadcast on a carrier marked by the scars of bouncing off the upper atmosphere a few times. Sure, It’s important that the reception has enough clarity to be understood, but shortwave radio waves from far over the horizon are infused with the sounds of the electrical and magnetic activity surrounding our planet. The audio itself often has an edge, even when listening with agile and fancy receivers. An aquired taste, the sonic anamolies of distant shortwave broadcasts have an inate musicallity, which you may appreciate  once your ears adjust to them. And the last time I heard the clear mutated throb of s strong distant transmitter traversing the globe was last July. I was sitting under the stars in the Michigan countryside when from over eight-four hundred miles away, New Zealand came calling.

RNZI (Radio New Zealand International) doesn’t seem to have any worldwide coverage mandate like CRI (China), the BBC or VOA or something. Their main purpose is as a regional service for the South Pacific. Dotted with a scads of far-flung islands, their broadcast zone actually covers a huge swath of the Earth’s surface. So just by making a point of covering this region well, RNZI is a major player in international broadcasting. (And sadly, I can’t remember when I picked up the BBC World Service as well as I heard New Zealand RNZI that evening.)

From my casual and primitive DXing experience, many powerful shortwave stations from around the world can be picked up from Eastern North America, as long as the signal doesn’t originate from anywhere directly blocked by the massive mountains of the top three quarters of the North American Continental Divide. In other words, with a booming transmitter from the closer sections of Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South America are the most likely catches from overseas. Deeper into these zones and continents (and Asia in general) are difficult terrain for DXing rewards from here. That said, with my limited portable equipment I’ve been able to pick up signals from at least three of the major broadcasters from the Southern Orient– India, Australia and New Zealand. I’ve always assumed that these signals ride skywaves over the lower mountains of the Southwest and Central America. But I’m no expert.

I do know that all the overseas states located directly west of the tall Rockies who are serious about reaching US citizens via shortwave rent relay transmitter time from Canada, as well as sites in the Carribean and Europe). In fact, if you happen to come across international broadcasts  from Vietnam, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan or Thailand on shortwave in Eastern North America, you’re probably hearing a relayed transmission from several hundred miles away. But the recording I’m offering here is of reception from from far across the world. Considering the distance travelled, the reception here is fairly healthy. A little hairy, but practical. And there’s no local RF noise getting in the way. You really can hear the details it if you pay attention.

Radio New Zealand International pt 1 – 9615kHz – 07-07-07 0644 UTC 15:05

(download)

This first bit is an interview with Canadian chemist and author Penny LeCouteur discussing her book about molecules that have changed the world. Of note here– the legacy of how James Cook and ascorbic acid made the south seas safe for European explorers and colonists.

Then the cassette came to an abrupt stop, and the part two of this recording begins with the flip of the the tape. At the onset of this archive the interview is aborted in mid-sentence and a female announcer formally announces that Radio New Zealand International is closing on this frequency. After twice insisting that I “re-tune to six-zero-nine-five kilohertz in the forty-nine meter band” (followed by a clipped “This is New Zealand”), it all sounds so damn official that I felt compelled to follow the instructions. Although I knew that just because RNZI was booming in on 31 meters didn’t necessarily mean it would come in so strong (or might even be heard) on the 49 meter band.

You hear RNZI’s interval signal (the call of the New Zealand Bellbird) after the station ID, and then the signal at 9165kHz goes dead. I then put the tape deck on pause and punch up 6095kHz on the Degen and release the pause button. And there it was! The call of the Bellbird is quite clear there as well, although a nearby signal is chewing on the edges of the reception a bit.

Radio New Zealand International p2 2 – 9615 & 6095kHz – 07-07-07 0658 UTC 28:55

(download)

Whoever is running the board down there in the South Pacific was a little sloppy that night. After the interval signal the board-op starts to pot up the interview again (which is still running on one of the channels). But the mistake is corrected in a fraction of second, and it’s the news with Phil O’Brien. The lead story, a nationwide “Drunk Drive Blitz” the night before had netted over two-hundred inebriated kiwis on the highways down there. And an update on the aftermath of an unprecedented swarm of tornados that ravaged the North Island a couple of nights earlier.

After the news, it’s the beginning of a program I can barely believe I’m hearing in 2007. A faux flapper-era theme song launches a “nostalgia packed selection of favorites” that will saturate the skies of Oceania for the next four hours. While I love a lotta old music, the whole idea of “nostalgia” can get a little silly. Although I must say that old Joe Franklin used to pull it off with some charm on WOR here in New York City before he gave up the show a few years back. It’s really an approach to radio that’s all but dead here in the states. But apparently not in New Zealand.

As you’ll hear if you brave through this chunk of pulsing and buzzy DX radio, there are a couple of corny numbers to wade through. But I gotta tell you, that sitting outside in the middle of the night with an artifact-drenched AM signal from the other side of the world filling my headphones, it felt reassuringly twentieth-century. Maybe you’ll hear what I mean. And the Paul Robeson and Mills Brothers seemed quite appropriate.

I guess a little nostalgia isn’t so bad.

Trucking Radio, As It Used To Was

Friday, November 16th, 2007

Once you get the bug to DX the AM band, out of your expanded choice of stations you typically find yourself a regular listener to some far-flung station after the sun sets. When I was a kid in southeastern Michigan, I got hooked on WCFL in Chicago, specifically listening to Bob Dearborn night after night. He had this late-night feature “Long Gold" where he’d play the full album version of a song that would normally abbreviated on top 40 radio (or perhaps not played at all). Seems silly now, but hearing the full version of the Animal’s “House of the Rising Sun,” or “Sky Pilot” seemed pretty heavy back then. (Remember when “heavy” was a good thing?)

Anyway, my longest DX love affair with a far-off radio station came a few years later. While still in Michigan, I came across the “Road Gang” on WWL in New Orleans one night in the mid 70’s. And for the next twenty years or so, WWL was always a signal I’d seek out when I could get my nocturnal fingers on a tuning knob.

Booming up the Mississippi basin, WWL comes in like a local many nights in the Great Lakes region, around a thousand miles to the north of the transmitter. In my listening experience, WWL at 870kHz has been the most dependable long-distance DX on the AM band. Although the reception isn’t nearly as reliable or clear here in the northeast.

Certainly, the original appeal of picking up the Road Gang back then was just how exotic it was to a Midwestern kid in the suburbs. The host back then was a guy named Charlie Douglas, and the music was old shit-kickin’ country music. Better yet, I discovered a whole country sub-genretrucker music. Songs like “Girl on the Billboard” and “A Kiss and the Keys,” are still favorites here at the house.

Then there were national weather reports, given by state and interstate highway. And commercials for every aspect of the trucker lifestyle. There was a time travel appeal as well. The whole approach to radio was from an era before I was born. Each time check was tagged as “King Edward Cigar Time.”

Actually, The Road Gang kind of started a radio format– the all-night trucking show. Today there’s a number of them, and none nearly as good. Douglas hosted the program for 13 years, until moving into some big national gig in Nashville. And weekend host of the Road Gang, Dave Nemo, moved into Charlie’s weeknight spot. And despite the rambling chatter that got me this far into the post, I’ve finally gotten around to the subject at hand– The man who moved into Nemo’s weekend slot on the Road Gang: John Parker.

Now considered radio legends, Charlie Douglas and Mr. Nemo were fun to listen to at the helm of the Road Gang– homespun showmen for the working class. But for a bundle of reasons John Parker was absolutely my favorite host on the show. With a big rugged baritone and a grab-bag of cornball slang and 18-wheel idioms, Parker was a humble charismatic voice in the night. A true radio companion for truckers, night owls and country music lovers.

So, let’s get to the meat of the matter. Here’s a full ninety minutes or so of Parker on WWL (in two parts) from January of 1988. As I said, WWL in New Orleans has a heck of a signal into the Great Lakes Region. Hear for yourself. Radio waves traveling roughly 920 miles arrive amazingly intact upon arrival. One thing you get used to when spend much time listening to distant AM stations, is "fading." You find that even loud and clear signals sometimes slip away into near nothingness (or reveal other faint stations on the same frequency). But the gaps are usually brief, and like so many things with AM & SW listening, often unpredictable. But the fading in this reception is pretty forgiving, and and doesn’t happen all that often. I think I made this recording because the signal was just so damn strong that night.

(download)

This aircheck is unscoped, meaning nothing was edited out, including the news and commercials. As you can hear from the “Interscan” weather reports, it was a cold snow flurry kind of night across America. And John himself was nursing a cold, but it hardly dampened his spirits. It’s Dave Nemo’s voice you hear on the truck stop commercials. I remember when I first set foot in the Slidell Union 76 trucks stop after hearing those ads from afar for so many years, I felt like I was on hollowed ground or something.

(download)

Yes, all the the trucker trappings of the show were a lot of fun, both for the real working class authenticity, as well as the corny mythos of American Trucker. But it was all the the great music that kept me coming back to the Road Gang over the years. This one program is responsible for making me a lifelong country music fan. The music format of the Road Gang was deep into the history of C&W– pin-balling all night from honky-tonk to old-timey to western swing, bluegrass, Nashville, Outlaw… The whole 40 acres. Each night a unique rich patch of tunes.

Then late each Saturday night, Parker held court for two hours on the AM dial with one of the finest music programs I’ve ever heard on the AM dial– "Country Music The Way It Used To Was." No slouch in music history, Parker was assisted by a musicologist or two in putting the show together. And each week he conducted a freewheeling country and western seminar, featuring hits and rarities from the first 40 years of country recordings. What a great program this was. So often, a deep musicology driven radio show like is presented by some excitable geek host, or a dispassionate or unprofessional one. And they’re like shiny museum exhibits on FM. With Parker you get history, music and great radio, and his program is on the historic AM band, where the music was first heard.

So let me offer you a couple of 47 minute chunks of "Country Music The Way It Used To Was." This first aircheck comes over a year after the first two in this post. And in that time I had actually moved from Michigan to New Orleans. So instead of having to put a special radio in a special place at a special time to pick up WWL, it was now a loud and clear local. So these two episodes of "Country Music The Way It Used To Was" are crystal clear AM broadcasts. However these airchecks are slightly edited. When I made these recordings I edited out most of the commercials, as well as the weather and news.

The first selection comes from February 26, 1989. (You may note that Parker makes note of their new satellite connection/syndication with KRVN in Lexington, Nebraska. It was a way of opening up the west to the Road Gang (foreshadowing the show’s eventual national syndication).  Nice eclectic mix in this hour– some tasty Texas Playboys, wacky Lew Chlldre and a bit of very early Johnny Cash (Little Woolly Booger?).

(download)

The next offering is from "Country Music The Way It Used To Was" broadcast August 13, 1989. Some solid from Hawkshaw Hawkins and Cowboy Copas, who were also passengers on the fatal plane crash that snuffed out Patsy Cline’s life as well. But what always gets my attention when I hear this archive are the songs by Hank William’s wife, Audrey. Wow. I never knew she was talented that way.

(download)

In ended up in Florida for the first half of the 1990’s, and despite the fact that WWL’s transmitter is a few hundred miles closer to Tampa, the signal doesn’t have nearly the oomph it does beaming toward the north of New Orleans. I rarely picked it up while I was there. When I moved to New York City in ’97 I totally lost track of the Road Gang until I got home internet a year or two later. Then when looking online I discovered the program itself had relocated to Nashville. And although it was still syndicated on WWL, Parker had fallen off the schedule

In the summer of 1999, I sent a few emails to some folks at WWL trying to find out what happened to Parker and whether he was still on the air somehow. When I finally did get a response, it wasn’t good news. “John Parker still works for us,” the woman wrote. “He’s the overnight board operator… on from 11pm to 5am.” Board operator? One of my favorite radio voices was reduced to pushing buttons and adjusting levels? Don’t get me wrong, I think radio engineering is a noble profession. But it was distressing to hear that a great radio talent was reduced to technical duties.

The email from WWL gave me the number to reach Parker at the controls and assured that if I called in the middle of the night “John might be inclined to pick up.” As much as John Parker was an inspiration, I wasn’t inclined to reach out as a fan on the phone. I mean, what would I say?: “I thought you were really great on the radio. What happened?”

One thing I did learn from my time in New Orleans is how hard it is to leave the Crescent City. Especially if it’s always been your home. If you’ve never been there you might not understand, but suffice to say New Orleans has a sustaining quailty for those who love its humid maternal grace. (Which made the Katrina fiasco all the more tragic.) So it’s only a guess, but tend to think Parker didn’t follow the show to Nashville because he wasn’t willing to run away from home.

Then again, the music-heavy trucking radio format on continent-covering AM stations (as created by Charlie Douglas and others in the 1970’s) is long gone anyway.  Beside’s the Road Gang on WWL, there were also semi-national overnight shows out of 50,000 watt AM giants WLW in Cincinatti and WBAP in Fort Worth. Now trucking radio on AM is like most of what you hear on the dial– syndicated talk radio, only instead of discussing politics or sports, its trucker talk. Which can be kinda fun, but it’s not like hearing rare Bill Monroe tracks at three in the morning.

But the funny thing about that triumvirate of trucking radio shows that used to rule the night, is that like some rock supergroup the big named hosts from each program joined forces a few years ago to invest their decades of radio into an truckin’ all the time national satelittle station. The "Truckin’ Bozo" from WLW and the "Midnight Cowboy" from WBAP have teamed up with Dave Nemo to host their own programs on the "Open Road" channel on XM Radio. Since I’ve never been near an XM radio, I’ve never heard "Open Road." And while I realize that time marches on, I still have an aversion to paying a fee to listen to radio.

A year or two ago I ran across a fellow traveler in the radio business, and in the course of our introductory conversation we discovered we had both worked in New Orleans, which somehow led to the topic of John Parker. I found out this man I just met had been a fellow board-op with John. Apparently, Parker never let on that he used to be one of the hosts of the Road Gang for many years. As I write this I don’t recall all the details of our conversation, what stuck with me is that although this guy really liked John Parker, in real life he wasn’t exactly the easy-going gentleman I heard on the radio. He noted that Parker could be moody and odd. Even an introvert. Or maybe he was just pissed off that since he couldn’t or wouldn’t move to Nashville with the Road Gang that he was reduced to babysitting knobs instead of talking to half of America? And the most significant fact gleaned from that conversation was that John Parker had actually stopped living not that long ago.

So, my little anecdote of radio glory ends on a sad note. Both John Parker and thoughtful overnight music programs like his on U.S. clear channel AM stations are really part of history now (OK, there’s still WSM…) DXing medium wave just isn’t as much fun. And personally, I guess I blew my chance to pick up the phone and thank him for all those nights of great music and radio fellowship.

So, if you never heard Parker on the Road Gang years ago, I humbly implore you to have a listen. And get a taste of what it was like to have Honest John Parker bumpin’ around in the dark, makin’ all that noise.

The Strange Radio World Of Alan Colmes

Saturday, November 10th, 2007
There’s something about the dark of night that changes talk radio. Once the schoolmarms and businessmen have turned to the tube or hit the hay, the freaks are free to play.

While the audience is markedly smaller, the listeners and callers are typically more relaxed and open after the sun sets. Their guard is down. And let’s be honest, more people are intoxicated at the end of their day. For a playful and creative talk host, the evening audience is full of entertainment opportunity. But that doesn’t mean talk radio at night is necessarily good. Nighttime talk radio can also be a backwater where second-rate hosts hold their own, where has-been hosts are put out to graze, and where some weirdo talkers thrive.

There’s one talk host I’ve been listening to lately that practically fits every genre of nighttime talk radio I’ve just described– Alan Colmes. Better known as Sean Hannity’s half-hearted liberal foil over at Fox News TV, Colmes has actually had quite a talk radio career around New York City and nationally. But as far as being on the air in New York, Colmes has had an intermittent presence here, jumping from station to station with gaps in between. Colmes is best known in New York talk radio history for putting two stations to bed– doing the very last farewell program on both WNBC (in 1988) and WEVD (in 2001).

Since WEVD went dark, Colmes eventually reappeared here (in his latest radio incarnation as a Fox News Radio national talk host) on WWRL and then disappeared again when the station became the Air America flagship. Then in the overhaul of both the Air America network schedule and the WWRL line-up, Colmes reestablished his presence in the nation's biggest radio market once again. (And in eclipsing the Jon Elliot show that Air America runs on the network during that time, Colmes saves the city from a giant nightly yawning spell.) So, for the first time I've found myself actually paying attention to The Alan Colmes Show. And much to my surprise, I almost like it. Or at least I keep listening.

Back when hosts I liked much more (Lionel and Mike Malloy) had that after 10pm slot, I didn’t pay much attention to Colmes or his program. I don’t remember many radio fireworks in my brief interludes with his show over the years, and maybe it’s been revamped, but the Alan Colmes show I’m hearing lately is often a fast paced circus of a talk show with unexpected bursts of strangeness. And the source of the weirdness isn't so much Colmes himself, but the people who take the time to call in to his show.

It’s Colmes’ unique position in the broadening left/right schism in political media that generates a bizarre caller base for the show. Although he's carried on some "progressive talk" stations like WWRL, his program also can be found on the schedule of a number of  stations that carry the run-of-the-mill right-wing talkers as well. So Colmes automatically gets more pro-Bush hate calls than any official Air America program, much like Lionel's show did when he was on at night on WOR’s network. But unlike Lionel, who’s prankster spirit and lawyer skills would make for some compelling cat and mouse conversation when right-wingers would get on his case (and Lionel was never the mouse), Colmes simply argues calmly and logically with the morons until they either give up or the call ends in some twisted (or childish) draw.

And more than any talk show I’ve heard since Bob Lassiter, Colmes attracts a lot of raw hate from the phone lines. A lot of it comes from his roll as the liberal punching bag on “Hannity and Colmes” every night. As the radio show follows his TV program, Hannity fans and other psychopaths who get all worked up watching Alan espouse non-Republican ideas on Fox News can pick up the phone and let him have it when his show comes on an hour later. In fact, his show has been structured to infuse the raw energy from all that animosity out there right into the show from the first few seconds it comes on the air.

He calls it “First Word.” With a burst of generic rock guitar, Colmes welcomes you to the show and starts punching up callers that have been waiting for him to get on the air. It moves pretty fast. If the call doesn't quickly offer some friction or entertainment value Colmes quickly moves to the next one in line. It’s a weird way to start a show, and more often than not the adrenalin is really flowing by the time he hits his first commercial break. And what’s kind of amazing, if not a little strange, is how unflappable Alan Colmes can be in the face of overt hostility. Sure, he’ll argue point for point and even raise his voice a bit, but he never seems to get truly angered or shaken. A bit scolding or indignant sometimes. Yes, he’s much tougher on callers than he ever his with Sean Hannity on TV, but never resorts to epithets and he rarely goes for the jugular.

Here’s a couple of hostile calls from October 18th. (And I apologize for the bleed-over from Radio Disney that you hear beneath these calls. It's the way most of the radios in my house receive WWRL.) This first fella sounds like he’s at least four or five beers into his evening. It’s Dan in Chicago. Sometimes, ignorance can go so deep that it becomes profound.

(download)
What’s really sad to me about this call is its heartbreaking authenticity. I’d so much rather think that sloth-like thinking and mindless animosity like this was really just a put-on or a prank. But no. It’s a real person. A real American. And the next one’s worse.

Jimmy in North Carolina is more direct. The call is a threat. Nothing more. It’s one of the most unfriendly calls I’ve ever heard on talk radio. It’s funny how some wacky right wingers wish or hope “the terrorists” will dutifully attack their people and groups they don’t happen to like. Here Jimmy openly wishes “the terrorists” would attack the “Emmy” or “Grammy” ceremonies, to kill a large number of those “liberal socialist Hollywood” types, who are bringing this nation to its knees.

(download)

It’s just sad by the end. While Colmes knows how to attract and unfold bizarre telephone scenarios, he rarely finishes them off with an appreciable payoff. Instead of destroying lame callers, or poetically dumping them at the right moment, Colmes can keep arguing when there's no point, or get into a conversational slap fight that goes nowhere. He rarely goes in for the kill. And there never seems to be a punch line.

Here’s a more cryptic (but not substantially more intelligent) hate call to Alan. It’s James from upstate New York on November 7th. Like Jimmy, James also expresses his personal preferences as far as what misdeeds “the terrorists” should put on their agenda. “I regret that George Bush has been 100% successfully in saving the lives of people like you,” he tells Colmes. Such curious patriotism. Colmes actually kind of comes out on top at the end of this call.

(download)

Here’s a harebrained caller from Massachusetts– “Tonto.” He kicks off the interchange declaring his simultaneous respect and dislike for Colmes. And he doesn’t care for his “character” on TV either. Apparently he thinks Colmes is a bit player in some drama, like Fred Thompson or something.

Tonto is a classic type of caller you hear on talk radio these days. Everything that’s in his head that passes for a worldview has been spoon-fed into his head by right wing talk radio and Fox News. When a guy like this calls up Rush or Sean, every thing goes pretty smoothly. But even the minor rebuttal you get from an easy going moderate host like Colmes shuts down every argument or theory the guy can come up with. All he's really able to do is get worked up and bandy cliches. But he has no follow-up. His political thoughts are like false fronts of buildings on a movie set or something.

(download)

The other side of Colmes legacy– as the liberal TV pundit cable conservatives love to hate, is that he’s also the most prominent (or only) left-leaning talking head some folks come across in their media diet. So, not only does Colmes phone lines attract ripe republican hate, but he also draws in lost progressives and disconnected Democrats looking for common ground, or just a shoulder to cry on.

Listen to poor Ken in Indianapolis. He’s kind of just woken up to how across-the-board wicked the Bush administration really is, and he desperately wants to do SOMETHING to make a difference. On the other hand, he’s so paranoid he thinks that just by making the call to Colmes show may have tipped off the some evil Bush goons to come cart him away in dark of the night. (And it probably doesn't help that he lives in Indianapolis…)

No, Ken hasn’t thought through all his desperation and anxiety. He's all over the map during this call. But his fears are actually based on grim present realities– not bizarre schizophrenic fantasies. In other times and under other circumstances, I'd consider Ken's plight to be rather laughable. Or at least pathetic. But here and now, I find someone climbing on a soapbox and hopelessly rambling this way to be profoundly sad. And the sadness isn’t just for him, but for all the people like him, and Americans in general.

(download)

And what’s weird to me about this call isn’t the martyrdom on display, or the or despair you hear in Ken’s voice. It’s Colmes approach to the call. Instead of agreeing with, or challenging, Ken’s paranoia, Alan plays psychotherapist with the guy, asking him to fully express his feelings instead of addressing the issues at hand.

In the end, I can’t decide if Colmes is actually missing some brain matter or is just a profoundly forgiving guy. He’s the polar opposite of a talk radio hothead like Mike Malloy. Somehow his outrage over the sad state of current events never turns personal, and he never seems to get angry. It’s a temperament that has served him well on Fox News. But the other night when I heard him chatting cordially on the radio with Lynne Cheney, I just had to turn it off (shudder). Somewhere along the line my outrage does become personal, and I confess that I don’t really understand what makes a guy like Alan Colmes tick.

While Colmes is sharp, articulate, and even-handed to a fault, he’s certainly not my favorite talk host out there. But one of the reasons I listen to political talk radio (left, right or center) is to hear the callers. And sometimes it’s not the point the caller wants to make, or even the interaction with the host, it’s the spirit of the calls themselves, and what it reveals about the American Zeitgeist. And from the flavor of common thought I hear coming out of the Alan Colmes show is often disturbing.

No, it’s not scientific to come to any conclusions about our culture by sorting through moments in talk radio, but I don’t think it’s a surprise to anyone paying attention that we live in a country filled with ignorant and angry and desperate people. And more than any time I remember, people of almost any political persuasion harbor a desire to commit some act, or join some cause, to make a some change in the world. And for better or worse, some of the really intense and despairing folks out in the heartland choose calling Alan Colmes as their way to challenge the madness of our times. Why? I'm not sure. But it makes for some radio that is often as tragic as it is compelling.

Super Cheap, and Almost Super

Friday, November 2nd, 2007
As an urban dweller living in close quarters, I do have one luxury– my own room, or office of sorts. Maybe if you’re lucky you have one too. It’s where I write, think, browse the web and fool with audio. And being a somewhat modern guy, I do most of these things with computers. In fact there’s a few computers here, a monitor, and a bunch of external devices, power supplies and a battery charger or two. It all makes for a very noisy environment. But it’s not the kind of noise that wakes the neighbors. No, it’s the scourge of AM and shortwave listening, RF noise, that fills my room. And as someone who regularly partakes of the amplitude modulation, listening to the radio where I spend much of my time is chronically problematic.

This is why I don’t do much DXing around the house. Too frustrating. A few times I have set up a couple of radios on the other end of the apartment, but here in the big city there’s already quite a bit of RF to contend with anyway. For example, my neighbor four or five buildings down the street has some loud high pulsing noise I can hear at a certain AM frequency from my bathroom, and it’s much louder when I drive by his house. Wonder what he’s doing over there?

Anyway, I’m happy to report I’ve found a solution of sorts– a GE Superadio III. Actually it’s recently been re-branded as an RCA Superadio, but it’s bascially the same affordable workhorse that’s been around for a few decades. No shortwave, just AM and FM. While I hear the FM works pretty darn good, the Superadio really shines as an AM receiver. I have to admit that I haven’t had this radio long enough to cart it out to a good RF quiet spot (which usually means getting out of town) and actually DX with it, I can tell you that more than any other AM I own, it really stands up bravely to the RF barrage. It’s quickly become my radio of choice while I work and write here at the house.

Typical AM DX mainstays around here like AM 740 and CBC’s 860 frequency in Toronto, and WBT in Charlotte can indeed be heard here at night with the Superadio only a few feet from three computers, albeit with a thin layer of noise on top. Which is actually pretty impressive. But what it does really well for me, is bring in many local stations with clarity in the midst of a lot of RF pollution.

And it sounds good too. Has a large six inch speaker and a tweeter for the highs. It’s quite loud if you want to crank it. On the downside, it’s a bit big and not so portable. It’s made in China these days, and the "feel" of the workmanship and the response of the controls tells you that this is not a luxury item. Some people might be put off by the analog tuning, which I have little problem with on medium wave (it’s a bigger issue with shortwave tuning). Speaking of that, perhaps the most annoying issue is the AM dial calibration is WAY off. And unlike the RF-2200‘s beautiful analog tuning setup, the frequencies are increasingly closer together as you go up the dial. On mine, twenty or so AM frequencies occupy the first half of the dial, and the other ninety-some occupy the second half. Somebody’s posted a rather technical and difficult fix for this here, and I see that if you buy the radio from C. Crane they’ll fix this up for you for an extra ten bucks (on top of fifty for the radio, and the shipping).

From what I’ve read online, what accounts for the Superadio’s good behavior in a heightened RF environment also accounts for the sloppy tuning scale situation. Unlike the Superadio I and II, the third version uses something called varactor tuning diodes instead of the usual variable capacitor tuning. In retrospect, what seems to have happened was that during the process of upgrading the performance of the Superadio in the early nineties, they didn’t complete the job of perfecting the interface.

However, if you know the AM dial well and have patient tuning fingers you can work around the dial issues. What makes this radio worth having is that it’s a time-tested performer. It also sounds good. And it’s inexpensive. I found one brand new on ebay for just over thirty bucks, and only ten dollars shipping. Hell, that’s what? Two or three large pizzas? Otherwise you can find the Superadio for forty of fifty dollars in many places online, and in some stores as well I’ve never seen it in a store, but I read that some carry them. Other than J&R in downtown Manhattan I never see DX worthy radios in stores these days. (For fun, go in a Radio Shack and TRY to find the radios.)

I already knew this was a decent radio to have around, and when found it selling at such a bargain price I impulsively bought one for myself. I actually already had a Radio Shack copycat version of the Superadio, which isn’t bad either. But the real thing outshines it. If you look online, there’s quite a mythology/community surrounding the various versions of the Superadio. All three are good radios, and can be found easily on ebay. And if you’re looking for something more classic and handsome, the great granddaddy of the Superadio series, the GE P780 (from the early 1960’s) shows up on ebay now and then. From what I hear, it’s a helluva of a performer. (I’d love to snag one someday.) For a little radio history, you can pick up a little here from one of the key developers of the P780, Conrad Jutson.

Looking forward to taking this black plastic box into the hinterlands (along with my external loop AM antenna) and hearing how it performs in the wild. Speaking of that, while I don’t have any audio from the Superadio to offer here yet, I do have a video. It’s nothing I made. I just came across it on YouTube in the middle of a web search. It’s a quick daytime DX scan of the AM band (from Pennsylvania perhaps) with a Superadio II. While none of the reception is logged or identified, he does pick up nearly seventy stations in one sweep of the band.

While I’m not sure I’ve ever come across an audio archive a radio bandscan on the web (other than ones I’ve posted), not long ago I discovered that there’s actually quite a number of videos of bandscans posted on YouTube. Search under “bandscan” or “dxing” and you’ll find quite a few. However, no videos I’ve seen make a point of identifying much of the reception they come across, but it’s interesting and a little enlightening to hear (and see) what other radios in other places can access out of the ether.

And for me it’s reassuring to know other people do such things, and admit it online. That’s part of why I started this blog, to know that there’s other people who sit alone (typically at night) turning knobs and listening intently, and have a good time.