Archive for January, 2008

New Respect For Retro Reception

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

This year I got lucky. It hasn’t happened since my parents bought me one of those flip-top multi-band portables in the early 1970′s, but this year I actually got a great radio for Christmas. I was the merry recipient of a little black Grundig G5. I already knew this was a sweet receiver before I turned it on. Not just because I’ve read plenty of swell reviews, but also because I basically already have one. But now that I’ve gotten my hands the G5 itself, I can see that’s not really true. While this Grundig basically has the same electronic guts (and reception potential) as the Degen 1103 I purchased almost two years ago, the G5 is really a different animal. And in short order, it’s already become my radio of choice. I like it. And just to share the wealth, here’s a tasty bit of reception recorded just a few hours after I unwrapped this little beast.

Radio Bulgaria 9700kHz 12-26-07  0131 UTC  23:05

(download)

By my measure, the glorious minor-key wonders of these songs is reason enough to own a shortwave radio– just to be able to capture a bit of exotic music from an exotic faraway overseas transmitter. Okay, maybe the transmitter isn’t exotic, but you catch my drift. And while there is just a little fading here and there, there is no drift in this reception, as these 31 meter radio waves bounce over 4500 miles and across the Atlantic to my new portable. I believe the announcer is speaking French, but it hardly matters. This music is haunting and rich and seeped in electrical atmospherics of the planet. It’s Earth flavored.  

The exuberant manufacturing boom in China has also provided a real revolution in shortwave radio product development. The 1103 radios (and the improved G5/E5 versions) are just a couple chapters in the canon of new and compelling Chinese world band radios coming to market. The Degen (or Kaito) 1103 is best known in radio circles for blowing minds and frustrating others with its awkward interface, although almost everyone acknowledges that the receiver is a good value. Generally available for eighty to a hundred bucks, the 1103′s are damn sensitive and selective (with dual conversion to cut back on wayward images). And it scans the dial almost as gracefully as an analog set, moving through the frequencies in 1kHz steps with NO muting and very little chuffing. And perhaps the near analog scanning capability of this radio may have led to one of the oddities of its design. Most of the LCD screen is of the 1103 is filled with a pseudo-analog multi-band display, much like you see on less expensive non-digital receivers. It’s the same trick Sony tried in the 1980′s with the ICF-7600 & 7700. While it’s kind of entertaining and somewhat informative, the fake display is not very accurate (the motion of the LCD "needle" is jumpy and very un-analog), and there’s not much room for much information other than  the frequency. And all the text is quite small to make room for the imitation analog entertainment.

But the biggest complaint has been contrary ergonomics of operating  the radio itself. The worst of it is the lack of a dedicated volume control. Before you can adjust the audio level you have to push a button, which briefly turns the tuning knob into the volume control. Likewise, when listening you have to press a "time" button to briefly change the frequency display into a digital clock. Add to that the abnormal straight line format of the frequency input number buttons, and the fact that you can’t see the frequency and the time at the same time, and it all adds up to a quirky little radio. Yet I was quite pleased with mine and got used to the eccentricities.

But I gotta tell ya, after playing with the G5 for an hour or so I was clearly impressed. Side by side with the 1103 the reception seemed on SW and AM seemed about exactly the same, but there was even less chuffing when zipping through the frequencies. And when I was really looking for something to listen to, everything happened more quickly. It made me realize that with the 1103 I really did have to pause to think when I would punch up a frequency or change the volume. It’s just a smoother operation. But when I had to choose between these two radios, the E5/G5 was almost twice the price of the 1103. And it is NOT twice as nice. But it is better and a little bit more fun. However, the E5/G5 can now be found for a little over a hundred bucks. And it’s well worth that.

Now if you’re keeping score, you may have noticed that so far I’ve been talking about two different radios (that are very similar) and they both have slightly different brand names. Well, there’s now three companies main companies that are manufacturing this new wave of portable shortwave receivers (Tecsun, Degen and Redsun) but through the idiosyncrasies of trade and profit they end up with another brand name before they wind up on American store shelves. They become Kaito radios, or Eton or Grundig or something else. While the original Chinese branded radios aren’t generally sold on the web either, there’s a loophole of sorts that’s allowed a handful of dealers in China to sell them on ebay. And from what I can tell, they must be selling thousands. They all follow the same basic formula. All their auctions are "buy it now" (fixed price, no bidding), and including the somewhat expensive shipping from China still about twenty to thirty percent cheaper. And from what I’ve seen, all these Chinese sellers have excellent ratings on ebay. I assume there’s some risk, and I accept that as part of the bargain I guess. But I’ve never had any trouble.

However the biggest distributor or these Chinese radios in the states, the Eton Corporation, has been troubled by all these alien radios crossing the border to compete with their re-branded versions. So behind the scenes they seem to have worked out some "arrangements" with their Chinese affiliates. A couple of years ago some key Chinese radios that were popular on ebay suddenly were labeled with Chinese text, not in English as they had been. And some new models (or re-models), like the E5/G5, seem to have gone straight to market in North America and Europe with no versions branded by the actual manufacturer even going on sale in China. Another reason people might have been getting the Tecsun version of these radios is that in China they’ve been selling them in bright colors– red, yellow, blue, etc. Now Eton is getting splashy with the colored plastic too. Some of their new crank up survival radios (made by Tecsun) now come in all sorts of fancy shades.

And you know, bravo to Eton for their marketing schemes, for the most part. But sometimes it gets a little silly. Like calling the Grundig S350 (or the Tecsun BCL-2000) a "retro field radio" and carrying on about its "rugged body and military-style controls.” It’s freakin’ plastic for chrissake. And military style? It all sounds like a brainstorming session gone wrong. I noticed a picture of a G5 box which also described it as a "field radio." What does that mean? It makes me think of a war utensil, a camouflaged walkie-talkie or something. While this is silly, my biggest complaint is that Eton has gone so far as to actually rebrand their own rebranded radios. Why? For example my christmas present, that Grundig G5 was originally called an Eton E5. It’s just a different color than the E5, with a different logo. And both of them remain on the market. They did the same thing with the S350DL. It was originally a Grundig radio. Now it’s either a Grundig or an Eton S350DL. Using separate brand names for regional distribution is one thing, but it seems to me that the only good reason to multi-brand an item within a given market should be to differentiate an alternate feature set in some way, not a slight change in the way it looks.

But the good news is this– thanks to these Chinese radio companies and their distributor cohorts, old crackly shortwave gadgets are still alive in this era of small and fantastic gadgetry. While serious DXers and big radio enthusiasts always have new toys and new technology (showing up in seductive trade publication ads), because they consistently are willing to pay for it.  But for shortwave dabblers and casual listeners like me (and perhaps you), the array of more affordable radios had grown quite stale through the 1990′s. In that time a number of companies had gotten out of the shortwave business, and others (like Sony) were discontinuing models left and right, and weren’t coming out with anything really new. Much like the boring car designs of the 1990′s, the layout and functionality of the shortwave radios on the market was pretty universal and grey and boring. Unfortunately, I started to get an itch to start fooling around with shortwave listening again during those dark days.

I decided I needed to go out and buy a radio of some substance. Over, the years usually had a boombox around the house with shortwave reception, or a cheap Radio Shack (Sangean rebrand) portable in a drawer somewhere. But I’ve always looked longingly at the more expensive portables on the high shelf with their tempting green screens and scientifically accurate digital readouts, and wondered what it would be like to harness such power. So, this time I decided I was going to blow some real dough (relatively speaking) and get serious and invest in a digital shortwave receiver. In retrospect, I didn’t have all that much money to play with. But after some research my choice seemed to be between the Sony ICF-SW7600GR and the Sangean ATS-505. Fiscal realities led me to the 505. The cheapest of the two.

I should have saved up for the Sony.

I remember my first meaningful evening with the Sangean at a Maine campground picnic table. I was NOT impressed. And I thought digital receivers were supposed to be better. Not necessarily so. You can’t zip through a dial. It chuffs at each stop but you have to turn the dial excruciatingly slow to actually hear something (besides silence) at each frequency. In order to adjust the tuning steps from 5kHz to 1kHz you have to press this annoying button on the tuning knob, which in mine is almost impossible to engage (…sore fingertip, etc.). And then it doesn’t lock and falls back into the 5kHz step mode consistently. It just wasn’t an organic way to explore bands or tune a radio. And so, my initial experience with digital SW tuning was less than inspirational. In fact, I bought a few shortwave radios (new and old) after the ATS-505 and they all had analog tuning. And although it wasn’t as easy to know the exact frequency you are at, they were more fun to actually use than the 505.

A couple years later, the shortwave portable scene began to get back some of the cool factor that had always been its birthright  There’s something about a small and discrete global radio that appeals to the "boy secret agent" in a lotta guys. I suspect there were contributing factors– like the passing renewed interest in world radio after the 9-11 events, combined with our ongoing lover affair with small complex gadgets. In 2002 and 2003 a number of innovative and powerful SW radios went on sale. Radios like the Degen/Kaito 1102 & 1103, and the Tecsun BCL-2000/Grundig S350 were all groundbreaking for their price, and these and other SW radios that China starting to make were user-friendly for bandscanning– combining the best elements of analog and digital tuning. And all of these sets could be found for a hundred dollars or less. Casual shortwave listener/consumers like me could get a little giddy. And since that time, more interesting SW radios in that price range have gone on sale. And the prices are dropping.  

And what was kind of amazing to me, is that for next to nothing ($25 or so) you can actually get a real global radio made in China, that is just about the same size as an old transistor radio. And they’re not just feeble cheap toys. For example, I bought something called a Tecsun R-912, from China on ebay. It’s a multi-band analog cheapy that exists with a quite a number of model names that have slight design and color variations. In the U.S., the same little bad boy is called a WRX911. While this is a no-frills radio with a tiny speaker and a cheap thumb-wheel tuner, you get all the major shortwave broadcasters on it and it’s not a bad DX machine on AM as well. I’ve walked around the neighborhood with mine listening to stations as far away as Africa and Asia in my headphones. If I could send one thing back in time to me when I was a kid, it would be this little cheap and global radio wonder.

Then again, If you’re looking for the cream of the current crop of new SW radios, you probably want to investigate the modern mega-portable– the Eton E1 (which curiously has no handle) Unlike the others, the E1 is actually put together in India.  The original price–  $499. But recently this price has been is falling too (rather drastically at one particular outlet), and now there’s rumors that it may (or may not) be discontinued. And once the price started to fall, I started to fantasize about picking up an E1 one day. And then I saw the new monster portable that’s about to hit the market– The Grundig Satellit 750 (or Tecsun S-2000). Oooh. The mind reels. The initial price? Only $300, or so…

Okay, that’s still too pricey for me right now. And I am still amazed by the growing list of affordable portables that are ready to receive signals from around the world for $100 or less and a set of batteries. Besides the Degen 1102, 1103, 1104 and 1102 radios, there’s the E5 &/G5 (and the coming E4 and E6 and the BCL receivers, there ‘s the rather new Redsun RP2100 (or the Kaito version), and there’s this Kchibo KK-S500 that supposed to be interesting too. And there’s more, and more coming. And as far as the old stalwarts shortwave brands like Sony and Sangean? They’re still selling the same yawner models that have been around for over a decade now.

There was a brief media storm on the internet in 2006 about a supposed radio in development– the Degen 1108. It was supposed to be a hot new SW-AM-FM portable with stereo speakers and onboard MP3 recording and playback. Lots of buzz about this radio– message boards, discussion groups and massive hype. Yet, it was all a boondoggle. It was like some big marketing experiment to extract the wish list fantasies of online radio geeks. However, something slightly like the alleged Degen 1108 came to pass, the Degen/Kaito 1121. It’s a digital shortwave radio with a built-in (and detachable) 256MB mp3 player/recorder unit that can be set up to record a number of shows with a timer.  And with my penchant for recording radio, I’ve certainly been intrigued by the 1121. But 256 megabytes of storage is needlessly stingy for onboard storage these days, and from what I’ve read online, the interface is rather convoluted. Then again, the price has dropped to around $130, so my lingering temptation continued… until I saw something very intriguing on Eton’s website.

The new Grundig G4 World Recorder, which was introduced to the world at the recent 2008 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is scheduled to go on sale in March, 2008.  From the promo photos the G4 seems to be a tweaked version of the Degen/Kaito 1102, a receiver I have yet to play with, but one that gets a lot of affection and praise in online reviews. And the minor miracle is that they’ve built-in a 2GB MP3 recorder/player into the G4. Nothing like this has ever been done before. With that much storage you’ll be able to record a lot radio on this thing, and I’m sure it will have timer (VCR-like) recording and all that jazz. I also has a flash card slot for additional storage and USB connection to bleed the recordings onto your computer. I have to tell you, this is one of those products that I’ve wished would be invented (and produced) for years (like car cassette decks that can record from the radio and boomboxes with built-in hard drives that digitally record too).

I’ve been looking for years just to find a portable MP3 player that actually includes an AM radio, let alone one that records. While there has been one (and only one) around for a while that does record (the Pogo "Radio Your Way"), the reviews have been consistently mediocre and there’s very little storage on board. Other than that, I’m not sure if there’s been one MP3 player with an AM radio inside (try to find one…). Just FM. And although the AM band isn’t so big with the swingin’ iPod set, the real reason there are no MP3/AM radio combo toys around is because it’s kind of a hassle to make one work well. Like any little computer, the MP3 players emit a lot of RF noise in the same frequencies where you find AM & SW signals Turn on your AM radio and your MP3 player, and see how the AM reception degrades when you wave the digital anywhere near it. It’s a matter of shielding.

All that said, I have yet to read a review of the Grundig G4 online yet. Just hype. But if the G4 does all they say it will, and does it well, I’m betting this gadget might make a big splash, at least for a shortwave radio. And maybe it will start a trend of including onboard MP3 recording on more portable receivers. I hope so. Meanwhile, I think I’m starting to get a crush on this G4. The idea of being able to record a bandscan without a cassette rig attached, and having TiVo-like capability with a multi-band radio is kind of exciting. It’s almost enough to make me imagine that amplitude modulation shortwave radio itself might have one last era of glory before its probable path to oblivion. 

Note: The Grundig G4 has already been discontinued. You can read about that and find more information about radio/recorders in the follow-up to this post here.

Sin, Static & Creepy America

Saturday, January 5th, 2008

I’ve been remiss in offering up another bandscan since I kicked off this blog a couple months ago. So, here’s another. When I go about trying to choose a tuning session to present and discuss here, I like to offer one that features some compelling English language content, a few interesting overseas broadcasts and hopefully not too much RF noise and interference. However, this particular scan is noisy, there’s no great DX catches and the content is kind of ridiculous. But as I was recording this, I couldn’t help thinking about how strange human beings really are. Shortwave listening can do that.

Because I live in a very RF polluted environment, I do most of my shortwave listening and DXing when I get out of town. And while there was less radio noise than home at the cabin in the Catskill Mountains where I recorded this, it was still less than ideal. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving, and after a meal of leftovers I set up my little recording setup and started roaming around the bands.

I will say one thing about shortwave radio– if you want to hear thoughtful opinions on current events and learn more about the world we live in, then you can find all that and more from broadcasts originating from places like Europe, Asia and Africa. But if you’re more interested in listening to religious intolerance, ignorant diatribes and the kind of entertainment only mental illness can provide, then tuning into one of the many shortwave transmissions originating from the United States will certainly suffice.

Besides the Voice of America (the U.S. international service) there’s a couple dozen or so privately owned shortwave stations in the states, many with multiple transmitters. I believe that all but two of these are owned and operated by Christian organizations. Most are brokered outfits– selling chunks of time to churches, groups and preachers to scold and beg and talk about the bible. And to be fair, as shortwave listening in America has declined so drastically these days, Christian programmers and their listeners are by far the most viable financial resource for these stations. WBCQ in Maine, with their handful of SW frequencies have heroically cobbled together a creative and entertaining secular programming and cool music shows on their schedules (mostly on the weekend on 7415kHz), but the bulk of their on-air roster is the same holy-roller nonsense you hear on most U.S. shortwave stations.

Here’s a little sample from WBCQ’s weekend lineup. This was recorded not long before the bandscan I’m posting here. It’s nine minutes of a relatively new program on WBCQ– Bluegrass State of Mind, hosted by your buddy "Hawkeye" Danny Haller. I’ve never heard this show before, but this guy sounds great and the music’s mighty fine.

WBCQ – Bluegrass State of Mind 11-23-07  23:35 UTC

(download)

Besides WBCQ, there’s not much on U.S. shortwave that ain’t about Jesus. There’s a few DX shows and Glenn Hauser’s "World of Radio," on a number of stations, but the only other format that gets any real traction on American shortwave radio are the paranoia and patriotism talk shows. There’s quite a number of these programs. And although they come in a variety of flavors, the’re generally populist conspiracy based presentations invoking fear and vigilance. Some of these programs come from a distinctly Christian perspective. Some do not. However, none of them are anti-Christian. That wouldn’t be a good business model for shortwave broadcasting in America.

And if you’ve never listened to shortwave, the darkness and irrationality of shortwave radio paranoia is typically more stark and strange than what you might stumble upon on your AM radio. There’s an urgent novelty to millennial shortwave broadcasts from independent stations in this country. And it often makes me wonder whether I’m actually living in the future, or if I’m stuck in the middle of a poorly written dystopian novel.

Like the first bandscan I posted here, this is another amble through the 49 meter band– which is as close as shortwave gets to the reception dependability of the AM (medium wave) band here in the states. From around 5800 to 6300kHz, there’s almost always a lot of activity after dark. I rarely get anything farther than western Europe on this band. But it’s very popular for the Asian and European state broadcasters who relay their programming to North America via Canada and the Caribbean. But most significantly, it’s the most popular band for the sideshow barking of the evangelists, doomsayers and hellfire merchants of American shortwave radio.

49 Meter Band part 1 – Catskill Mountains, NY 11-24-07  00:17 UTC

(download)

5755 – KAIJ – Texas, USA – Radio Liberty

As the host of one of shortwave’s many conspiratorial talk shows, Stanley Monteith is as cool, calm and collected as they get. However, you don’t hear much of old Doctor Stan in this clip. Just his female guest– an author and professional pessimist who’s name I wasn’t able to discern. Reception is kinda awful.

Years ago, it was easy to laugh off shortwave crackpots and their fear of Communist infiltrators and water fluoridation. But paranoia just isn’t as funny as it used to be. On first listen, her concerns make a lot of sense– the dangers of data mining, our ongoing loss of privacy. Yet, when I hear dark talk shows like these programs I usually have the same experience– I’ll be following along, thinking– "jeez, I basically agree with almost all this scary shit"… up to the point where the host turns a corner and enters fantasyland. It could be some mumbo-jumbo about the anti-christ, a rant against the U.N., or some messed-up racist twist on current events (or the plans of the super secret lizard people). In this particular instance, I start shaking my head when the “scams” of global warming and the environmental movement are singled out as evil forces. But then she gets around to the root fear of many shortwave paranoids– depopulation.

In countries like Rwanda and Iraq, where over a million people have been slaughtered in recent years– depopulation has been a reality. But when you hear apocalyptic radio types use that word they’re not talking about your run-of-the-mill genocide. They’re talking about millions of pale-skinned types (specifically nice Christians Americans) getting wiped out. While this paranoia narrative may sound similar to what Republicans and other freaks are saying about Muslims and brown people in general, but the deep conspiracy crowd is usually anti-Bush, and often against the Iraq War. In their narrative, Bush and Cheney and their CEO pals are in league with the bad guys– the global elites (and perhaps the lizard people).

5810 – EWTN Alabama

I should make a confession. I’m not Catholic. Never have been. And when I do come across their religions broadcasts on the radio (usually EWTN on shortwave) I am almost always taken aback by how damn practical they are. The Catholic shows I’ve heard on relationships and sex are kind of amazing. Instead of the threats of fire and brimstone to scare you holy (or any of the protestant-style proselytizing), the hosts and priests and nuns on Catholic radio just try to help their flock follow the rules. Hell, they know you’re a sinner. They just want to make sure that you confess and atone for each moral crime, according their official book of penance. After all, it’s not easy to be good. And there’s a comfort of Catholicism. If you just screw everything up over the course of your life, just make that “act of perfect contrition” on your death bed, and you’ll get into heaven okay. Or at least it shouldl buy you a ticket for that scary purgatory waiting room place.

Again, this is just my interpretation. In practice I’m sure it’s a little different.

5810 – WHRI – World Harvest Radio

And what fresh hell is this? I guess this is one of the reasons I keep listening to shortwave– to hear bizarre America in all of it’s glory. This is as twisted as anything I’ve come on the radio in quite a while. Imagine you’ve picked up a preppy freshly scrubbed hooker, and once you get her up in the room all she wants to do is talk about "the father." That’s kind of what this sounds like. 

It appears to be some interlude between programs on the World Harvest Radio schedule. It features a perky young tart (accompanied by a noodling new-age guitar track) admonishing all of us sinners to shape up. Rather like a cross between a self-help tape and a phone sex commercial. All I can say, is this woman is selling some damn creepy bliss. “God will use you. God will use you,” she insists, followed by a sexy plastic Mmmmm-moan for Jesus.

By the way, World Harvest Radio originates in Indiana.

49 Meter Band part 2 – Catskill Mountains, NY 11-24-07  00:39 UTC

(download)

6000 – Radio Habana Cuba

Sitting right in the middle of the popular 49 meter band with the round figure of six-oh-oh-oh, RHC has one of the most easily remembered frequencies in shortwave. From the eastern US, it’s always there at night. Usually clear. I believe they switch their English service on and off with their 6060 signal, and I’m never sure how that works. But here it’s Español, and a booming actuality of some man, from somewhere, saying something. And then I turn the station.

6005 – NHK Japan

I believe this is relayed from Sackville in eastern Canada. It’s sounds Japanese to me. Some energetic broadcasting.

6020 – Radio China International

Just as dependable as Cuba at 6000 and 6060, is China at 6020kHz at night. And often in English, as here. This broadcast is relayed from Albania or Canada. Unlike many western countries, China doesn’t seem to be cutting back on their international shortwave service. With relays all over the world broadcasting in many languages, China is still keeping shortwave radio alive as a viable global communication alternative. I guess they might as well. They’re making almost all the shortwave radios these days.

However, as much as they’re investing in transmitters and infrastructure, when I catch their English service it always sounds like they’re getting their announcers on the cheap. Not only are they not the most seasoned voices on the block, but as you can some hear many aren’t all that familiar with the English language itself.

The female announcer is all jazzed up over the upcoming “high-level” Olympics Games in Beijing. And she’s not just worked up about the opening ceremonies and all those athletic performances, but apparently the security work and favorable press commentary promises to be very “high-level” too. All in all, they’re expecting a “high level Olympics with distinguishing features.” Me too. As well as a few distinguishing health events once some international athletes get their lungs full of the high level of Chinese toxins floating around.

6030 – Radio Marti

Propaganda broadcasts from America to Cuba, in Spanish. And that funny noise? The “Havana Gargle”– a burbling broadcast generated to prevent Cubans from hearing our propaganda.

6040 – Radio China International

In Chinese here. Male and female tag team announcers with tinkly piano at the end of this short clip.

6060 – Radio Habana Cuba

It’s Cuba, with worse than usual reception. But it’s a sonically interesting bit– Spanish announcer with odd-sounding Asian music splatter from another station (Do you hear some Yoko-style yodeling in there too?). Even if it doesn’t mean all that much, it’s rich aural eccentricities like this that keep shortwave radio interesting, as well as the psychodrama and the international reception possibilities.

6085 – Family Radio

Something about getting some religion and loading it on a canoe for some kind of missionary work. A lot of noise too.

That’s it for this bandscan. I promise the next hike up the dial will be another shortwave band, or perhaps a medium wave journey. These two chunks were not every thing I picked up on 49 meters, but is everything that seemed worth sharing. Believe me, you’re not missing much. And if you don’t usually turn the knobs on a shortwave set, let me assure you that the reception isn’t always as problematic and buzz-ridden as you hear in these archives. Then again, it can be much worse.

You don’t have to listen to the 49 meter band to know that the U.S.A. has a strange and superstitious dark side. But some of the crap you come across on that band sure does drive the point home. And sadly, shortwave signals still travel far beyond our borders. And this is what we broadcast to the world– our preoccupations with personal sins and lots of crackpot dogma. And thankfully, a little bluegrass.