Archive for October, 2008

Back To The Old Shack

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Deep in downtown Manhattan, there used to be a street of dreams– Courtland Street. The far western end of it was known as “Radio Row.” From what I understand, it was an old-fashioned electronics paradise. If I could afford one of those high-end time machines and could simply whoosh back to 1949 or 1958, one of the first things I’d do would be to jump on the Broadway IRT down to Chambers street and wander Radio Row– ogling the glowing dials, fondling those bakelite knobs, and tracing my fingertips over the bins and racks of cables and adapters and connectors. (And then… Coney Island!)

That end of Courtland Street is long gone. Tore it all down to build a couple of hefty skyscrapers back in the mid-60’s. Strangely enough, they actually fell down seven years ago (you probably heard about it) and there’s still just a big hole there with a bunch of men doing stuff. Heard they’re gonna make a “freedom tower” (whatever that is). But you can be sure that they’re not bringing back Radio Row.” But I wish they were. Electronics stores don’t fall over so easily.

Sadly, I didn’t grow up in New York. Never saw radio row. (Never had a sandwich at an automat either.) I’m from the land where the strip mall and the tri-level home were perfected, where the lawns were manicured and grownups beat you every now and then. And if you had a passion for patch cords, police scanners or little suction cup doodads that could record your phone calls, you didn’t have a radio row. You had “Radio Shack.” And you had to love it. And they sent you full color catalogs in the mail. In fact, they used to ask for your address every time you bought something. They knew you wanted the catalog. Probably the second best type of bathroom reading a boy could get for free.

Now you may think it silly to say anything reverential about a chain store. And for many, the name “Radio Shack” was kind of a punch line for any joke about shoddy electronics. And if you were lucky to have a classy radio shop in your town, or a hot and well-equipped electronics franchise in the neighborhood, you could easily look down your nose at all the knock off goods with silly brand names like “Realistic” and “Optimus.”

But what Radio Shack did do, they did very well. They served the working stiff and the average family, providing inexpensive and (somewhat) durable electronic gadgets and gear at reasonable prices– in a small “Sears” kind of way. But more uniquely, they were the neighborhood place to find all variations of audio receiver. And if you needed some part or piece or connector for a radio or sound system, you knew you could find it at your local Radio Shack. And it probably wouldn’t cost you a fortune. The Radio Shack chain was a practical American reality. Like having a gas station nearby. And with more than six thousand stores across the country, there was usually one just a short drive away– at the mall, the shopping center, or out on the highway. And while Radio Shack was always handy for batteries, tapes and wires, I was always profoundly aware that these little stores always had cool radios in stock. Especially shortwave radios.

In retrospect, your local Radio Shack didn’t really have the very best shortwave sets on the market, they always had a few really good ones. And in the days before more sophisticated anti-pilfering technology, the pricy/fancy radios were usually behind the counter or up on a high shelf over your head. For all the hundreds of times I visited Radio Shack outlets, I doubt I ever went out the door without at least briefly casting my eyes on the store radio shrine, and all the chrome and buttons and green digital display screens.

As I’ve been speaking of Radio Shack with atypical nostalgia (and using past tense) you may be working your way through this post looking for the obituary– a story of stores closing or some transformative merger at hand. Nope. In fact, you can stop looking for any definitive news about Radio Shack at all. Because the point here is more about definition, about how a huge chain of stores slowly stumbled away from its identity so far that it’s not much more than a tiresome "Rite Aid” of electronics.

As you might imagine, the Radio Shack chain started as not much more than a supply store for radio hobbyists and professional radio operators. Then back in the early 60’s they merged with a leather goods chain run by an ambitious dude named Tandy, and his vision made Radio Shack the ubiquitous hobby/technology mart we all knew and needed, and some of us loved (even if we wouldn’t admit it). In the late 70’s they started selling their own make of computer that did very well, and the chain flourished. It’s easy to forget what computers were like so long ago. There was no public internet and very little software available. If you had a computer you could crunch numbers, write programs, and most significantly you could play games with them (which were incredibly primitive by today’s standards). The point being it all fit in with the Radio Shack vibe– providing complex toys and all the accessories, for people who were serious (and even thoughtful) about having fun.

And then there were the radios. Radio Shack always had a wide variety. And a scan of the high-tech receivers on their shelves, or thumbing through one of their catalogs, gave you that big futuristic American feeling of technology on the march. And they had their own brand of radios. And the more elite and muscular models had bizarre features far beyond the understanding of most casual listeners. Radio Shack had radios for people who loved the gadgetry of radios and for people who wanted high-performance radios that could tune in signals from the other side of the world. Like me, and maybe you.

Through the 1990’s there were changes afoot in radio-land. Beginning with the end of the cold war, which for many years had generated the scintillating content that kept people listening to shortwave radio. Then the march of technology made the need for elaborate lo-fi radios less relevant by some measure–In 1992 the world wide web was opened for business, and the next years web (streaming) radio, became a reality, followed by the creation of the graphical web browser in 1994. And then the next year an executive from Ralston/Purina took the helm of Radio Shack. While Radio Shack had become much more than a supply store for radio freaks, putting a pet food magnate in charge of a huge electronics chain with a very unique (and some might say eccentric) heritage might have been kind of a mistake.

Although there was a change in logo that came with the new guy in charge, Radio Shack didn’t change all that much at first. But as the 1990’s were grinding to a close, a lot of Radio Shack customers began to notice that a few things weren’t right at their neighborhood "shack." Like the lack of radios.

I wasn’t able to find any definitive writing on what really happened to Radio Shack, but I did find this article in a retail trade publication from 2005 all about the new and improved version of the electronics franchise, called “The Stuff Shack.” And to read this insider write-up is to see just another example of how in our era of über-capitalism (is it over yet?) a retail entity which had long provided a valuable service to particular type of consumer abandoning their base clientele to pursue massive profits predicted by people with no fundamental understanding what made the business successful in the first place. In a nutshell:

“Earlier this year, the company announced plans to accelerate the rollout of a new product mix. The concept favors the chain’s seven best categories: wireless, accessories, power, modern home, personal electronics, technical and services.”

No mention of radios. Searching the document I found no instances of the words: “shortwave”, ”cables”, “adaptors” or “antennas.” These were all the reasons I usually went to Radio Shack. I really don’t think many people begrudged Radio Shack for carrying a bunch of big ticket items and pushing cell phones like candy, but when their stores got really slack about stocking the kind of goods they were famous for, and the handy friendly geeks at the counter were replaced by slick sales sharks, it became painfully obvious that the service Radio Shack provided for thousands of communities was abandoned in the name of tawdry short-sighted greed. And the article I just quoted had one big revelatory announcement– Radio Shack had just hired a new Chief Operating Officer, a visionary woman who had spent the spent the last thirty years climbing the corporate ladder at McDonald’s. (In her defense, I guess she did help “spearhead” the launch of McDonald’s salad products and shepherded the "McRib” concept to fruition.)

The fact is the vast majority of radio related items that used to be the heart of the Radio Shack catalog have been discontinued. I’ve actually been in Radio Shack stores that had only one or two shortwave radios in stock. And forget about asking the floor hustler staff on hand any technical questions about them, or almost anything else. As you might imagine, I’m not the only one dismayed by the dawn of the super slick “Stuff Shack”. (Check out some similar gripes here, here or here) So as a remembrance from the late glory days of Radio Shack, here’s a souvenir. It’s an informative starter kit for the fledgling shortwave radio listener.
   
Radio Shack Tape – The Sounds of Shortwave (1992) pt 1 10:53
(download)

Welcome to the world of shortwave radio!” beckons this cassette tape after teasing with a tasty little collage of HF turning. “Listening to Shortwave” offers a respectable overview of how shortwave radio words and how to listen. Certainly not the masterpiece created by pop producer Mitch Murray (Long Live Shortwave!) that I offered in this post, but this Radio Shack production is more contemporary and discusses the more modern digital tuners we use today. Although more experienced listeners won’t learn a lot listening to this tape, it really is a fairly thorough overview of the how and why of shortwave listening.

Side two is more fun, bringing home the “world at your fingertips” thrills that radio boys (of all ages) can still find so compelling. “So what’s out there?,” the announcer ponders, and then the production “hops around” the shortwave bands offering some radio flavor from some of the big players in international radio (BBC, DW, The Voice of Russia…). The samples aren’t amazing, but they’re good. Most offer tidy reception, although the sound is authentically rich with the inherent distortion that you grow to love as a shortwave listener. Not static, but the poetic audio artifacts of the technology and the planet it traverses. 

Radio Shack Tape – The Sounds of Shortwave (1992) pt 2 11:28
(download)

One thing that’s completely left out of the mix on this tape is all the evangelical stupidity and insanity that infests North American shortwave broadcasting. Probably because it’s a touchy issue, and as this package is also sales tool to market Radio Shack’s shortwave radios they wouldn’t want prospective radio buyers to realize the scope and disturbing nature of Christian dreck clogging up the shortwave dial in the states. So although it’s understandable, ignoring this reality makes this tape and booklet less than representational of "what’s out there."

The “bandscan” offered is really a collage and not an accurate representation of the noise and faint signals you’d run across in a typical trek through the kilocycles, but with so many changes in what’s available on the shortwave bands (and what’s offered) it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic when you hear some of these snippets of shortwave broadcasting. But then again, 1992 feels like a long time ago right now. And at the end when the announcer talks about hooking your computer up to a couple of shortwave radio bulletin board systems (BBS) to pick up “a load of information” about shortwave schedules and propagation conditions.

Speaking of information– the accompanying book that came with this tape, “Listening to Shortwave,” is a much more thorough shortwave radio primer, with plenty of charts, graphs and illustrations that would make any shortwave tenderfoot smarter, wiser, and better at small talk at any hamfest or at the annual Kulpsville gathering. And as a lagniappe for stopping by The Radio Kitchen today (and reading this through to the end), I offer you your very own copy of “Listening to Shortwave” as a PDF file. (Which you can download by clicking here.) And you’re welcome.
When this kit was created, Radio Shack had specialized in shortwave radio for decades. And I’m sure they thought this starter kit would have a shelf life of a decade or more when they put it together. But time was not on the side of radio-heads at the Tandy corporate headquarters. The web opened up to the public that same year, and many things would soon change. The BBS systems that remained would be integrated into the internet, broadcasting around the world could soon be accomplished with a modem and a net connection, and in a year or two interloper food executives would start to turn a national hobbyist’s lifeline into a mega-chain “stuff shack” for couch potatoes and teenage girls.

And I’m not even going to mention the BBC, and Deutsche Welle and now the RADIO NETHERLANDS ( !) all abandoning their English broadcasts to North America in this decade. It’s just too damn depressing…

I probably never would have admitted the importance of Radio Shack in my life until recently. It was easy to make fun of the clips and coax and scanners– and some of the people you might see there (like me!). But ever since I was a kid, it was dependable– for radios I usually couldn’t afford as well as practical patch cords and adapters I had a hard time finding anywhere else. And once I started to notice the radios missing from their shelves, and to find more and more people behind the counter at Radio Shack stores who didn’t know a shortwave radio from a continuity tester ("But would you care to take a look at this humongous flat-screen TV?.") I realized I was beginning to grieve…

However, recent visits have led me to believe that the Radio Shack enterprise may actually be getting serious about reclaiming a little bit of their heritage. As I duck into RS outlets in my travels, I’ve been seeing a few of the new shortwave models on the shelves. I don’t sense they’re rebooting their brand again, but there seems to be a corporate move afoot to put a few radios on display at their outlets (as decorations perhaps?). If I had to venture a guess, it might just be that after years of customers coming into Radio Shack looking specifically for radios they might make a little cash if they had a few on hand… just in case. (I wish some of the great shortwave services of Western Europe would see it the same way, and beam some content over this way, just in case some of us might be listening.)

Here’s how the “Sounds of Shortwave” tape ends. I admit it’s hokey, but nonetheless, I approve this message:

“Just think of it. As you sit there listening to this tape, or flipping through the pages of the book, thousands of signals are zipping by you at the speed of light– voices and sounds from all over world just waiting for you to listen. All you need is a shortwave receiver, and some electricity to power it. And you’re off on a wonderful adventure in the magical world of shortwave broadcasting.

Happy listening!”

NOTE: My friend Doug Hammond just sent me this amazing link– a whole bunch of old Radio Shack catalogs online! Browse through the glorious yesteryear of Tandy Incorporated to your heart’s content. And you can help by contributing images of catalogs they don’t have yet. Amazing. Thanks Doug!

 

G4 No More & 1123 Skidoo

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Do you ever find yourself waiting for something to be invented? I take that back. What I really mean is– do you ever wait for a specific type of gadget to hit the market, so you can buy one? I’m not talking about science fiction, but just wishing for a practical tool to be created, built and sold; one that seems well within reach of current technology. I want an MP3 player/recorder with AM & shortwave radio. Is that too much to ask?

My desire is a utilitarian thing. A simple tool (and not too big) which will easily record and store MP3 recordings of reasonable quality from an onboard SW/AM radio. It’s not a crazy idea. Plenty of cassette boomboxes in the early 80’s did almost all that more (but took up more space). Of course, I want it to work well. And I’d prefer that I could also schedule automated recordings, like a VCR or a TiVo does for video. FM band? I don’t need it, but other consumers will probably want that too. This whole idea is not beyond today’s technology. Yet, I wait.

When I record radio for this blog, I use old-fashioned audio cassettes (which I then digitize). It’s still a reliable technology for which I have admitted affection. But in practical terms it using them eats up critical time and space in my already cramped and cluttered lifestyle. Unless I’m just recording a strong or local station, I generally have to rig together a tape deck and a favored shortwave portable with a patch cord. This can be more problematic than you think. Cords and connections may short out when moving the radio or antenna around to improve reception. (And I don’t know enough about electronics but there’s some kind of a buzz that seems to get into some kind of a feedback loop that at least seems to be caused by the patch cord.) And then everything takes twice as long as I end up dumping all the audio into my laptop, and then compressing them to MP3 for my archives. Recording straight to MP3 would just make sense for me. And while there’s probably not a mob of radio consumers who actively archive shortwave radio out there, as I do. However, the ability to schedule MP3 recordings of AM or shortwave would benefit all sorts of folks.

Actually, there is such a device. The Kaito 1121 (or DE1121) does record radio as MP3 files, but the online reviews have kept me from investing in one. Although the reception is supposed to be pretty good (as most of the Degen made radios), but firmware is supposed to be rather quirky and difficult to use. Sadly, it’s notoriously buggy and has only a half a gig of storage. The general consensus I’ve seen online is that it’s a cool concept when you can get it to work, but more research and development could have come up with a better product. And for all the excitement generated by the new and innovative shortwave receivers coming out of China, that’s a consistant problem. Instead of perfecting the engineering of their new radios, the Chinese companies end up putting them on the market too early and let the consumers find the flaws.

To be fair, those of us in the states who care about shortwave radio are happy the Chinese care. Almost every heritage brand name in consumer shortwave portables has gotten out of the business, or like Sangean and Sony they just keep selling their 1990’s era models (perhaps until they run out of stock). Unlike here, for people in China and around the globe (especially in the third world and isolated areas) shortwave is still a significant source of news and information. So for an ignored and oppressed minority like North American shortwave radio consumers, we look with hope to China via the web to see what the Chinese radio manufacturers like Degen, Tecsun and Redsun are putting out on the market overseas. And with the vast success of the MP3 format over the last decade (not for the record companies, but for electronic manufactures, their consumers and podcasters and more…), but the marriage of MP3 technology and shortwave reception hasn’t gone well. At least not yet.

Before the 1121, there was a great radio of the decade that was never was– The Degen 1108. There was a fanboy conga line booming along for a while a couple years ago, where more and more features were anticipated into the damn thing that it was eventually imagined as some great merging of the Sony 2010, the Bose wave radio and an iPod… only better. Okay, even I was stupid enough to join the Yahoo group for this fantasy radio. It never happened. I’ve never heard for certain, but it seemed like the project was simply killed without warning and the development work on the 1108 probably was cobbled together to put out the mediocre but interesting 1121.

Then there was the Grundig G4. Man, this thing sounded like a winner. Announced with a smattering of fanfare at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas a year ago, the G4 (otherwise known as the DE1122 in China if you’re keeping track) was going to solve some of the problems of the 1121. No nifty pull-out MP3 recorder like the 1121, but easier to navigate controls and firmware with an SD card slot wisely included to add digital storage if desired. And the MP3 technology was piggybacked on a radio that was already well-liked– the Kaito/Degen 1102. I blogged about the G4 not long after it was announced, and the post was followed by quite a number of comments and people interested in the radio continue to find that post. And now, it appears that the Grundig/Eton G4 radio has been discontinued. Wow.

Oh, you can still buy it. There seems to be quite a few around from online sellers like Amazon, ebay, Universal, etc. However, it’s been listed on Eton’s site as part of their “Past Collection.” And then Passport’s Receiver News blog announced the demise of the G4 last month. But while the radio did and does exist, as far as what most of us thought it would do, it’s practically a vapor-gadget like the Degen 1108.

Since I researched and wrote a post about it several months ago, I’ve occasionally strolled onto the web to follow up on the G4. Generally, when I’m interested in a radio I go to sites like eham or Radio Intel where almost any shortwave radio worth much gets a round of reviews and write ups from consumers and people who know radios. At this writing, there’s still not one review of the G4 on either site. Strange. And then there’s Amazon, where any electronic gadget usually gets quite a bit of feedback. Sometimes the people who write there are less than knowledgeable about shortwave radios, but there’s usually dozens of critiques to wade through. Last I looked at Amazon there were only three reviews of the G4. One very favorable (but short on feature specifics), and two panning the portable. Actually, one seems to have been written about a completely different radio. (In case you’re wondering, there seems to be no real quality control for Amazon reviews in general. Plan on reading some ignorant customer reactions, and figure that a few favorable write-ups are probably planted by the manufacturer.)

What I’ve finally learned is this– the G2/1122 is an overpriced dog. Period. The reception isn’t bad, but the original Kaito/Degen 1102 receiver is around half the price. The recordings are reportedly awful. Instead of recording MP3’s like its sister gadget– the 1121, the 1122 records down and dirty lo-fi wav files, like a budget voice recorder. Now I don’t want to get into a big discussion about digital recording and audio compression, but believe me this is a big mistake. The fact is, large full-fidelity wav files (like those ripped from a commercial CD) are HUGE. And when you try to make a wav file small by cutting way back on the resolution and sampling rate, instead of using a carefully long-developed compression algorithm like MP3, you create something that sounds pretty nasty. And while there are valid arguments for more efficient compression algorithms (ogg or AC4 for example), MP3 is ubiquitous now, and can be utilized in almost any contemporary application imaginable. The fact that all reviews I’ve read say the recordings made with the G4’s recordings sound muddy and godawful is not surprising. I understand the radios will actually playback decent MP3 files until the cows come home, but all it can create are buzzy and hollow sounding recordings like a twenty-five dollar digital voice recorder, and you won’t be able to play them back on most MP3 players on the market.

Meanwhile, it’s important to note that not only has there been a dearth of shortwave/MP3 devices on the market, but it’s been almost impossible to find an MP3 player with a mainstream medium wave (AM radio) receiver on board. Many, if not most, MP3 players now have FM radios but up until recently only a company called Pogo Electronics actually made an MP3 player/recorder with an AM/FM radio. They had their fans online, but storage was an issue with their “Radio YourWay” products. As I recall they used to have one with only 128MB of storage, and eventually graduated up to an LX model with a half a gig of room for files. I don’t recall that any of their players have had a card slot, and their latest model is listed on Amazon, although unavailable. And now I notice their website is gone too. Oh well. Bye Pogo.

The C. Crane “Witness” seems more promising. Although their toys are pricy, C. Crane does cater to the AM and shortwave radio geek in a more real and sincere fashion than Radio Shack these days. And they have comprehensive customer service. Their “Witness” seems to be a viable and well thought out AM/FM radio MP3 recorder, with the ability to pre-program the recording of up to 20 shows. Impressive if it works as well as they say. I’d like to get my hands on one, but at well over two-hundred dollars I’m just not ready to pay that much for an AM radio, or an MP3 device. I don‘t own an iPhone either.

And lately there’s been more rumors wafting across the Pacific about a MP3/shortwave combo toy in the works in China. And this time it’s not only a brand new design, but it’s also a real pocket shortwave/AM/FM radio and MP3 player. And it’s also a Degen product, one model number up from the failed 1122– the DE1123.

Honestly, most of what I’ve seen has been on Chinese language sites. So most of what I’ve known about the radio has been gleaned from photos and short cryptic feature lists in English. Then there’s been a couple updates at these two sites (the second requires a simple free membership login to read the article). But after the DE1108 radio mirage of a couple years ago, I wasn’t sure if this was a real product yet. Now I’ve seen it on ebay, so it seems to be both real and for sale in the real world. But again, it’s apparently not exactly what it should or could be.

So far, the good news is that the radio isn’t going to cost a lotta dough. About the price of the DE1103, which is less than half the cost of the CC Witness (with shipping from China). And it’s cute. Of course, we have no idea of how well the radio or recorder works, or whether it’s easy to operate. It actually sports a built-in speaker, but will undoubtably sound better through headphones. But the bad news? Only one gig of storage. And NO card slot to upgrade the storage yourself. But worse? Like the G4, according to the feature list on the ebay auction it only records crappy voice recorder quality (wav) files. Why? While it also plays MP3 files, who cares? Just about any digital toy will do that these days.

So we’ll see what happens. But if you wanna take a risk, you can go to ebay and buy one from China right now. But I’d advise waiting for the reviews to start coming in. And be aware that Degen and Tecsun occasionally improve their radios while in production and later models may be better buys and less buggy. In fact, I was just reading that the Tecsun PL200, otherwise known as the Eton 100 (link requires login) here, has recently been upgraded from a single conversion receiver to a dual conversion model with no public announcement or price increase. But on the other hand, there’s something more fundamental that makes the DE1123 interesting, and perhaps exciting as well. It’s a different kind of receiver, with a recently invented DSP chip serving as the brain and guts of the device. It’s known as the Si4734/35. And this chip, or just the technology it introduces, could reinvigorate shortwave radio for the masses. Or maybe it’s just my imagination on the loose.

The Si4734/35 is a first, squeezing a whole circuit board of an AM/FM/SW radio into a little teeny wafer. It’s kind of like shortwave radio crossed over into this century. Not only does DSP technology open up the possibilities of vastly improved noise reduction and other audio enhancements, but the incredible shrinking radio chip could bring shortwave functionality to almost any audio appliance out there (including pocket devices like MP3 players or cell phones). Almost any radio or audio appliance could have AM or shortwave radio on board with practically no sacrifice of space inside the machine, all at a low cost and with almost no extra labor (from what I understand there’s no need for tuning at the factory, which has always added to the cost of the production of SW receivers). There are certainly issues like RF shielding to avoid interference in the HF bands (I guess the CC Witness radio recommends that you shut off the display to reduce noise on the recordings), but these problems shouldn’t be that difficult to solve. But what’s really interesting about this chip, is that you’ll be able to actually upgrade the radio yourself, without breaking out a soldering iron or a repair manual. Just like almost any digital device with onboard memory, you’ll be able to flash the chip and upgrade the firmware (the software that controls the gadget) whenever a new version is available. This is a big plus.

So here’s what I don’t know (besides whether this chip is actually hot little receiver or a dud). When or if this radio will be marketed here as an Eton/Grundig, Kaito or C. Crane radio. But I’ll tell you one thing, Eton seems even more confusing and convoluted promotion and marketing schemes for their radios in action. They’ve been changing colors and nameplates at will and making about 36 different varieties of emergency hand-crank radios (collect ‘em all, trade ‘em with your friends). And right now on their front page they have these two “Porche designed” monstrosities that are supposed to be shortwave radios, as well as twelve other things. I don’t know who or what is the target market for these bizarre looking objects, but I’ll be they’re really expensive. And I’ll bet they fail almost as quickly as the G4 World Recorder.

And I also don’t know if the recorder can be upgraded to MP3 capability with a firmware upgrade, but it seems within the realm of possibility. There’s a number of open source projects online (like Rockbox for digital audio players and CHDK for Canon digital cameras) where sharp geeks and consumers have created completely alternate firmware for these gadgets, and they are constantly improving it. I love this whole concept, taking control of your gizmos and making them better and more useful.

Speaking of useful, between the economic meltdown and the (increasingly unlikely) threat of Sarah Palin possibly becoming one frail John McCain heartbeat away from the helm of our nation, I’m starting to think that it might not be a bad idea to have one of those emergency crank up radios around the house. I mean, you never know. If you can’t afford batteries, at least you’ll be able to crank out some armegeddon updates.

Okay, I’m letting my imagination run wild again. But don’t forget to vote.

And you can find a follow-up of sorts to this post right here.

Radio for Superpowers and the Super Stupid

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Here’s some more transmissions out of my grab bag of Hudson Valley reception that I started going through in the last post. Reception was solid and the ambient RF noise was quite low. I wish I had more time to receive when I was there. As I mentioned a couple posts ago, the growing political friction between the US and Russia was sure to bring back some flavor of the cold war to shortwave listening. And as you can hear in this first extended clip, that’s already happening.

Voice of Russia – 9480kHz 0206 UTC 08-28-08  62:38

(download)

It’s the Voice of Russia, otherwise known as “Radio Moscow” back in the Soviet Era. For thirty years, they’ve maintained a 24-hour English language radio service, with an emphasis on reaching North Americans. And in this hour or so of the Voice of Russia from late August, you hear news and opinion presented Radio Moscow style– with the leading headlines and featured commentaries focused on ongoing political and military differences with the US and NATO. Of course, the main points of contention are the recent conflicts in Georgia and the two provinces Russia has since sucked away.

And despite all the changes in Russia and the new mob glamor of Moscow, their international English language radio service almost sounds like it’s popped out of a time capsule buried decades ago. The news sounders are ancient, and the announcers all sound so disciplined, clipped and old fashioned. Listen to the political “analyst” who skewers the west in the “News and Views” segment. He has that cigarette-roasted-larynx sound I kind of miss on the radio. You just don’t hear that warm Pall Mall “voice of authority” in amplitude modulation much these days. The AM dial used to be full of that sound. Too bad those smokers don’t live a little longer.

I don’t know enough about hardware or physics to know why, but it seems to me that Radio Moscow (and now the Voice of Russia) has always had a particular “sound” to their signal– a particular texture to the radio waves as they come ashore here. And it seemed to be kind of a closed shop, without much more than a handful of announcers who seemed to stay on the air for decades. I think I recognize a couple from my Radio Moscow listening back in the 1980’s.

And lets face it, any government putting up the dough for an external broadcasting service has a direct hand in the news and information it presents. Typically the slant is subtle, and the news and editorial content is a mixed bag. However the vibe of the broadcasting here is much more like you would have heard in the Soviet era, with unmistakable defiance toward America. I suppose you could get so swallowed up in Putin’s soulful stare that you might just miss that breakaway province-size chip on his shoulder. 

Then in the middle of this hour is one of their many sprawling mythic Russian history/heritage features, of which the Voice of Russia seems to have an endless supply (Who knows how old they are? And I wonder if they’re still producing new ones?) As usual the classical music is thick the voices are rich. When the orchestra is really flying and the boomy baritone guy jumps in, it’s as high fidelity as you’re going to get from five thousand miles away. And when the music is dense on the signal like this, you can really hear the ghostly pulsing of the skywaves rushing in and falling back. This is shortwave radio, done in a traditional style. The way mom used to make it. If they didn’t mention websites and email addresses, you might think it was 1979.

However, right before this side of the tape ends, the ever-chipper Estelle Winters chimes in with an update on all the happenings in fun and fab Moscow (or something like that). Alas, it’s actually 2008 and she just doesn’t have that grumpy Soviet sound.

Voice of America – 7340kHz 0312UTC 08-28-08  18:10

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Officially, the Voice of America is our country’s official propaganda channel on the shortwave dial. VOA fact, it started out as a division of the “Office of War Information” during World War II. Their original mission was to counter the worldwide presence of Nazi propaganda on shortwave (and later as a radio bulwark against the old “Iron Curtain” states). But these days the U.S. Government focuses specific foreign radio (and TV) services to states we don’t like so much (in their native language), like Radio Marti (for Cuba) and Radio Farda (for Iran). From what I’ve heard in recent years, the English language service of the Voice of America sounds rather dowdy and seems fairly apolitical these days (I wonder if their Russian service is more strident?). The presentation is a little dry and sparse, which is fine with me. But it does sound like there’s been some budget cuts over the last few years.

Of course the signal isn’t aimed our way, and the reception is somewhat hollow and fady considering the distance. The scratchy sound you hear in the beginning is me, adjusting the active antenna. It goes away… and comes back briefly as I try to clarify the signal a bit later. A better antenna or radio could have nulled out the other station bleeding in.

This is “Daybreak Africa,” a daily news-magazine program which typically is pretty heavy with news and issues on the African continent, but as the Democratic convention is coming to a close there’s a big focus here on what’s happening in Denver.

The U.S. Presidential election is big news around the world this time around, especially in Africa where many in the Sub-Saharan region feel a literal kinship with Barack Obama, whose father was born in Kenya. There’s a short feature from Senegal about how locals there view the U.S. election. The guy says he’s doubtful Americans would accept a President with African ancestry. Another man watches Obama speak a couple times a week on TV, and he thinks he’s both an eloquent speaker and a gentlemen. (Personally, I think the fact that our President for the last seven years is neither has everything to do with all the international interest in the election. Even more than Obama’s racial profile.) But of course, beyond the worldwide antipathy toward Bush and Cheney there’s a real excitement around the world that a member of an oppressed minority in America possibly getting the high office.

While VOA is official U.S. external radio service to the world, the unofficial (and much more prevalent) American radio services to the world comes from the vast number of Christian broadcasters, on both American soil and stationed around the world.

And while I’m there are a number of shortwave broadcasts from every continent featuring religious content, Christians far outnumber any belief system on American radio stations– local, national or international. And while it’s hard to begrudge “evangelists” (or whatever they are) from communicating or communing with their radio “flock,” there is an element of “fleecing” the weak and ignorant for money that’s distasteful (but hell, it works for public radio…). The really extra-creepy business about Christianity on the radio is the “missionary” factor. They’re out to convert everyone. Which is not only crass (if not gauche) in practice, but also a divisive mindset that is both anti-culture and anti-intellectual. And their mythology and anti-enlightenment rides atop the vast majority of short radio waves bouncing away from our continent into homes around the globe.

One of those afternoons upstate, I made a cup of coffee and turned on the shortwave radio and heard the following conversations. And maybe I’m more sensitive these days, but instead of chuckling off these two clowns, I found who the discussion both strange and depressing. So I started a tape, to share with you.

WWCR Nashville, TN – Warning with Jonathan Hansen 12160kHz 08-29-08  2028 UTC  7:34

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This clip features a couple of these defacto ambassadors of U.S. intolerance. Although the host and his guest bemoan the loss of “Judeo-Christian values” in America, make no mistake about it, these guys are authoritarian WASP trash. Period. The use of the word “Judeo” may be a polite nod to the Jewish roots of Christianity, but they don’t like the Jews any more than they like Catholics or Buddhists or thinkers. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but in their minds the best elements of Judaism just gradually begat the Bible Belt-style Protestant movement of the U.S. of A, thanks to Jesus and the Pilgrims (and that swell bible King James wrote…)

What you’re actually hearing here is a radio/TV show called “Warning.” The host– Jonathan Hansen, a bush league doomsday evangelist. Of course, he’d rather you just call him a prophet. And if Protestant prophesy is your game, you gotta get out there and call for the painful and messy end to humanity.

A strong cult of apocalypticism that runs through Protestant America. It’s bad enough that they can’t quit talking about blood and fear and martyrdom, but the fact that guys like this gets a constant hard on by talking and thinking about suffering all the time should tell you everything you need to know. Although it’s an old game (or fetish?), there’s something particularly American about this strange and viral brand of Christianity. It all dovetails with the isolated xenophobia of pale-Americans and their old-fashioned heartland jingoism. Ultimately is that special American spirit, that we’re just better than everybody else, especially if you’re a Christian. And you get extra points if you become a follower of a doomsday nutbag, like Hansen. (If you’re a glutton for punishment, you might wanna check out his website. However, he doesn’t call it "Warning" for nothing. Watch out. Hansen is out to "shake you with a shake that has never shaken you before!" Sounds a little shakey…)

And finally, notice that same paranoia about the coming New World Order I discussed in the last post. While it’s equally as dark as the new high-tech paranoia of Alex Jones disciples or the UFO/alien obsessed, the Christian fear of the New World Order is even more bizarre in that they actually looking forward to more wars and famines and natural disasters. Things just never quite bad enough for these folks, the want more DEATH until sweet Jesus steps out of the sky to save the day. Or is it that they float up in the sky to meet him? I can’t remember how that all works.

Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes I think that the more you think about that garbage, the more you encourage them. Or perhaps get a little infected by the stupidity yourself. But the main thing, is that these people want to tribalize the world. The USA Jesus tribe versus everyone else: The foreigners. And the apostates and heathens and demons. And the Muslims. And especially all the brown people, everywhere.

I don’t want to go so far as to say religion is a disease. I understand it’s often a comfort and traditions are important to people. But I am convinced that evangelical Christianity is most certainly a personality disorder, if not an outright mental illness. There’s an old adage that used to get a lot more play a few decades ago– "God is Love." Which makes me think of John Lennon, and that idea kind of made sense to me. A god who might be something like "love" seems a lot more reasonable than a higher power who’s just an ill-tempered sky geezer on a power trip. Or maybe I’ve been looking at all this wrong way– taking the phrase literally somehow instead of enjoying it’s full Orwellian flavor– War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength: God is Love. Got it. Maybe that’s what the pope was talking about.

So, let’s end this post on a high note, with some music.

7190 Tunisia RTV 0615 UTC 08–29-08

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Here’s some Arabic music from the north coast of Africa, including a version of Happy Birthday in there somewhere. There’s some fading at one point and I try to adjust the antenna again, adding noise. Then the station comes back. It’s a half-million watts. Hard to stop this signal.

The reception is poor, and then OK again. The music is fine. And the best part? Mr. Hansen and his globetrotting missionary friend would surely dislike this show and this music.  And they’d rather you and I are perpetually unhappy– looking forward to death. So, I say– enjoy the music. Enjoy the noise. Enjoy life until death, for god’s sake. Get a clue.

And did you hear? Bill Maher has a new movie coming out.