It was easy to come home from the SWL Winterfest with a slight case of equipment envy. But times are tough and I don’t need another fancy shortwave radio right now. But it sure would be nice to have one to play with now and then. But suddenly, I do.
On loan from the most gracious David Goren, I have a big plastic Chinese monstrosity known as the Grundig Satellit 800 (made by Tecsun, and recently discontinued). If you wanna know the vintage, it’s also called “Millennium,” you know like that spooky TV show you probably never saw back in the late 1990’s (at least I didn’t). And until the incredible Eton E1 came along in 2004, it was a top of the line portable (but it’s really too big to be very “portable” outside the house). And while it’s not an especially cute radio, it is a damn fine receiver. And it has a feature I’ve never gotten to play with– an AM sync detector. And it also has three bandwidth settings. In other words, when you come across something weak and distant you have a few options to make the signal a little more palatable.
Nonetheless, the RF noise issues within my Brooklyn apartment still give the Satellit 800 a lot of grief. Having such an impressive radio set in the house put me into a more detailed hunt for stray RF around my little home. I would tune to particularly nasty blasts of RF and then start systematically shutting down just about every electrical device in the house (including “always on” things like TV’s and stereos). I did find one really awful (and LOUD) power supply on an external hard drive, which I’ll now always unplug if I plan to DX. Even with the extra quiet that may offer, there are still some roaring sheets of nasty RF mayhem coming into my apartment, no matter what I do.
Actually, David Goren came by recently (to visit his radio…) and experienced the RF hell here that I’ve discussed so often in these pages. From the sound, his guess it that it may be some issue with the power wires outside. A bad insulator or something. And you know, he might be right. But I’ve had enough problems over the years making sure that the telephone service, the internet bandwidth and hot water are all getting into my apartment in a timely manner over the years. I guess I just don’t have the courage to ask Con Ed to come by and do a bunch of work so I can get radio signals from Asia a bit better.
Yet, the 800 is a better and stronger animal than the other receivers here and does drag some signals up out of the noise floor better than most. And last April the girls went away for a week to visit the in-laws down in the sub-tropics, and me and the 800 had the run of the place for a little while. I spend a few nights out on the kitchen table with the whip antenna flush up to the north facing window trying to see what kind of reception I could lure onto my tape recorder. And this post includes some of these adventures on the 31 meter band.
In my limited experience trolling shortwave bands, I’ve had some my most interesting DX journeys on 31 meters. And there’s less religious and paranoid garbage as well. In fact, there’s not one warped preacher or “new world order” freak in any of these clips. (At least not in English.)
All these bandscans were captured on two separate evenings in mid-April. I’ve opted to offer highlights rather than more complete scans, just because some of the ripping interference through some of the reception here in my Brooklyn radio setting can be rather obnoxious. But you can still get some of the raucous flavor of what I have to deal with when I try to DX at home.
Other than the lack of mental illness, these samples are rather representative of what you’re likely to find on shortwave these days. There’s some English language programming here, and some tasty music from other continents there. And not one second of Gene or Melissa Scott. Let’s begin.
This one starts out a little shady, but it gets better…
31 Meter Band – Segment 1 – 0041 UTC 04-15-09 24:29
It’s such an “ah…” moment turning the dial out of that racket into this Portuguese music. Fado, I believe. Nice and meaty signal from Western Europe and the songs are splendid. I leave the knob untouched for over ten minutes. Great bittersweet minor-key stuff. It might sound even better accompanied by a jug of wine and some stinky cheese.
And significantly, Spain and Portugal offer the only broadcasts from Western Europe in the batch of reception I’m offering here. There ain’t much left, and very little of it is in the English language. So, let’s get back to the noise…
9820 – Hmmm
I don’t know what this is. I can’t get it to sync either. Here how awful the RF can be here when there’s no signal to hold the receiver’s attention?
And here’s a ragged signal from far far away. It’s not a pretty sound, at least not at first. However, I am able to work a little alchemy on the poor thing with the big Grundig beast. I pinch down the bandwidth, reducing the fidelity a bit (but mostly reducing the fidelity of the NOISE) and then turn on the sync. It locks nicely, although the signal is NOT a strong one. I fiddle with the SSB to get the best side of the frequency and well… It is listenable, in a forgiving DX kinda way. The cosmic Indian music comes through, up to a point. But the announcers, not so good. But after all these years I still marvel at the sound of exotic music falling out of the sky from the other side of the world.
31 Meter Band – Segment 2 – 2355 UTC 04-15-09 13:13
Care to dance? Some urgent pop music. Boy singer, electric guitar, loco-rhythmic keyboard funk, then silence– some top of the hour tones and a clear ID in Spanish. Good evening from Spain. As the news begins I pack up and head further up the dial.
Ah… Radio Re-POOB-lee-ka!. Sounds like the interval signal (or an extended station ID) from this Florida clandestine operation run by the Cuban Democratic Directorate (a “pro-democracy” NGO, Republica that supports human rights causes in Cuba. And it often jammed by that country. I can’t tell if that whizzy audio interference is Castro’s jamming or just RF problems on my end.
However, I move on again to find something in my native tongue.
It’s the news– typical “statist” shortwave-style headlines in accented English. Mostly unadorned bullet points from Beijing. International stories, matter-of-fact national boasting as well as some reassurance that things are getting better all the time. Except for relations with North Korea.
However, the cross-straits complexities between Taiwan and “the mainland” don’t seem to be getting in the way of the “two Chinas” improving their political relationship. Did you know that China has become the world leader in "ultra high voltage power transmission and transformation technology"? Me neither. But it’s good news for the Chinese power grid. And their infrastructure in space just got a boost as well, with a new navigational satellite now in place in the Chinese sky.
News with female reader. Clipped Romanian monotone. Nice signal. She says Obama is doing a decent job with the American economic crisis so far. And how about that bumper music? Right out of the 1970’s.
Actually, this news broadcast and the previous one from China sound remarkably similar to what you might have heard from these “communist” countries so many decades ago. Sure, Romania is no longer a Soviet satellite nation and the flavor of communism in China is quite different than it was back then, but it’s more than just the production values that make these shortwave newscasts sound like vintage broadcasting, but all the talk of nuclear weapons and missile programs makes you wonder if the cold war didn’t actually end, but turned into something less distinct but just as dangerous.
And now I’m skipping over some rather uninteresting reception of Spain and Cuba in Spanish, which was accompanied by a loud and grating noise floor. And then on to another former Iron Curtain nation, once the heart of the Soviet empire…
I don’t know if Russia is spending more money on their shortwave service than CRI or VOA, but it always sounds better than they do. I think it’s those voices.
Like the male announcer at the beginning of this clip, talking about Russian sailors patrolling the Somali coast to defend international merchant traffic from piracy. I believe this fellow has been around since the “Radio Moscow” days. But what a voice. It’s from another era. The woman is good as well. But I’ve always that there was some odd magic in the processing of the audio over there in Moscow, or some extra sauce in the transmitter that just gave the sound of both Radio Moscow and now the Voice of Russia this extra texture, some richness I can’t describe because I’m not a tech guy that way. But it’s something I remember distinctly when I first began to really listen to Russia on the radio in the 1980s, that they had a “sound.” And that radio magic is still there. In fact, it sounds very 20th century to me.
And the woman who does the light news feature on the annual return of migrating cranes to Moscow is awesome as well. It’s just the kind of human interest non-news that RCI offers all the time, but it you would be in the hands of some chirpy radio amateur instead of this smoky and authoritative Russian woman discussing elegant birds in their nation’s capital. I guess there’s a bit of mystical grandeur to the way their English service presents Russian culture and history and natural resources on shortwave. And while it may be overblown and self-serving, they still have veteran radio professionals in house making it believable on the radio.
Portuguese… is it? But instead of talking about the glories of the Pope, it sounds like she’s talking about some “final four” sporting event.
It seems rather clear and strong for such a low-power operation, otherwise I don’t know what I’m listening to. Please comment if you know what this is, or what she’s talking about. And you know, if you have something to add (or I made a mistake with my logging or guessing) please leave a comment below, or you can send an email.
Also, I’ve been doing some work on the blog behind the scenes (and have more to do if I find the time), and I’ve linked some of my past content to the categories in the sidebar. Like if you like these bandscan posts, you can find a bunch more by clicking that category. They all have audio as well.
It was Friday night at the SWL Winterfest in Kulpsville, PA, where I was at a suburban hotel as part of the biggest annual gathering of shortwave listeners in North America (perhaps the world). At the Listening Lounge I scanned the room and noticed there were more empty seats than I’d seen at the afternoon presentations. Then again, it was an evening event and some of the older guys might have hit the hay. Then again, I didn’t see any of the pirate radio folks either. And I don’t think any of them were sleeping (although I’m sure there was some recreational sedation in the mix).
This was my first time at the Fest, and by nightfall I began to get the feeling that the Fest had fractured into a number of gatherings around the hotel. And I eventually noticed that a lot of the pirate people (and their friends at WBCQ) were missing for long stretches of time during the whole weekend. While it wasn’t what I expected, it made sense all things considered. They come to the Fest not just to talk about radio, but to broadcast. And I suppose at least a few guys were doing what they always do– sitting alone with a warm receiver and scanning the bands. (Hey, it’s the kinda thing I do in a hotel away from home…).
Meanwhile at the Listening Lounge, those who came were having a good time. David Goren was playing the hits– shortwave radio interval signals actually. When the acoustic guitar and chirpy bird from Radio RSA came on it hit home with me. When I started listening to shortwave back in the early 1970’s, this was a very familiar sound in my teenage bedroom.
And even better, Marty Peck came up to play a few of the interval signals on his flute. He’s quite good at it, and he was taking requests. And since it had worked so well last year, David decided to have the audience recreate the interval signal of Radio Botswana. One side of the room would be the chickens. The other side would be the mooing cows. “Ready!” It was silly and the cows were really lame. Kim Andrew Elliot was sitting two rows back. “It’s the sound of a hobby dying,” he jeered. It was sort of a joke. But if you’re a regular visitor to his site you know that shortwave radio is no joke to Kim Elliot.
It was a familiar theme. Earlier that day I met Sheldon Harvey, another Winterfest veteran like Elliot. Harvey had a large table at the exhibition area at the fest, selling all manner of cool and beautiful radio books as well as some radio gear and odds and ends. “These tables all used to be filled up,” he told me. “There used to be a lot more people.”
And then I looked around and I could imagine how it was, or how it could be– with table after table of people pushing radios, and splashy pamphlets promoting new programming, and the public relations crews from dozens of foreign nations wanting to meet and greet and woo all these “listeners” who have taken the time to come here and learn more about what they love. Radio.
But in March of 2009, it wasn’t like that at all. There were just a smattering of vendors around the perimeter of the room, and a raffle table in the corner. That was it. It was kind of odd. Here was a hardcore group of enlightened consumers of eclectic radio gadgetry, and not one major seller or manufacturer of radios or radio related gear thought it was worth making the effort to push their products here. Sure the economy’s bad. But most people who DX or listen to shortwave are always fantasizing about the next receiver they’d like to own. They never really stop buying radios. Outside of a few catalogs out on tables, there was no effort to seduce all the easy targets wandering around. There was however, Tracy Wood showing off some satellite television related stuff. But no Eton. No Kaito. No Ten-Tec. No C. Crane. Nothing like that.
While that seemed like a real oversight to me, I was even more surprised that not one shortwave broadcasting service or station or program host saw fit to come out to the Fest this year. Well, there was a few folks from WBCQ. But they didn’t have a vendor table or any official presence, just the live radio shows Timtron and company were sending out upstairs. But of all the countries who still broadcast to us every day in English (China, Russia, Spain, the Czech Republic, Vietnam, Cuba, Bulgaria, etc), they sent no one to commune with all of us North Americans. The hundreds of religious broadcasters on shortwave didn’t have much of presence at the Fest either. Except a table for WMLK and the friendly Mr. Ladd and his Madagascar Mission slide show that I had mentioned in the last post.
In theory, a bunch of shortwave listeners in one place would be a prime target for some commercial interest or broadcasting entity to solicit and exploit. But in a sense, we no longer exist and this conference wasn’t really happening. I found statistics online that state that less than one percent of American households have a shortwave radio. And it might be less than that these days. And then when you break it down further, into which families might listen to shortwave radio (or even consider it), then you can see how the Winterfest attendees are a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of one percent. It’s the kind of math the BBC was doing a few years ago…
Long before the newspaper industry started taking a real hit from the rise of the web, what was left of America’s shortwave audience was already devastated by the new technology. But even before the ribbon was cut on the information superhighway, shortwave radio was already on the ropes in America. The international bands had disappeared from consumer radios. The end of the cold war tamed a lot of the fun and fireworks out of overseas broadcasting. And the rise of the 24 hour cable news stations might have played a part as well. But shortwave radio has never recovered from the proliferation of worldwide multimedia networking the internet provides.
It’s a little depressing to see how something so fascinating is losing its cultural cachet so quickly. You would think that all the shortwave stations have stopped transmitting. Or that the receivers don’t work any longer. But neither is true. While the content available here in North America isn’t nearly as lively or thoughtful as it once was, the new radios have actually improved (or at least you can get a far better radio for less).
If the broadcasting of audio content over the shortwave bands were to completely disappear, the dissemination of news and information around the world will lose an element of privacy for the end user. Unlike surfing the web, there’s inherent anonymity to the old technology. When you listen to a shortwave station, it’s just you, your radio and whatever the transmitter on the other end is sending into the atmosphere. There’s nothing in between– no logs, no middle man, and no connective technology. Your tuning cannot be tracked. And it’s always free. There’s no provider to pay. I’m sure these are some of the reasons paranoids and kooky patriot types still love shortwave radio. But why should they have all the fun. Especially when there might not be much fun left.
Like the internet, shortwave radio has always been worldwide. In fact, it was the first real-time global technology available to ordinary end users. And once you get out of developed world, and farther away from cities and (what we like to call) civilization, shortwave radio remains a practical and common household technology. In many African countries, over ninety percent of homes have shortwave radios and over thirty percent of people regularly listen to international broadcasts on shortwave. And as long as broadcasters continue to serve these communities around the world, there will still be people here in America DXing those far-off signals.
As far as shortwave listenership, America and a place like Somalia are the two extremes. In other countries, shortwave listening is much more common than the states, but not ubiquitous as it might be in the desert or a tropical rain forest. In Sri Lanka for example, where over 85% of households still have a shortwave radio at hand. And I’ll bet Victor Goonetilleke has dozens of them around the house.
While none of the broadcasters from the other side of the world made it out to the Fest this year, a listener did. A DXer of some renown, Victor Goonetilleke had traveled from his native Sri Lanka to Kulpsville before, but I sensed that his long journey made him more of a special guest this time around (as none of the overseas broadcasters were willing to make the trip this year). And then his importance at this gathering made more sense when he gave a short inspirational talk at the banquet, recounting the joy of realizing his childhood dream– owning a “communications receiver.” It was something a lot of guys in that banquet hall could understand. (And gosh, I’d like one too…)
And it’s a safe bet that most of the attendees (and the many thousands they represent) agreed with Victor’s sentiments– that shortwave radio is “being killed by people who should know better.” And while he may have been preaching to a choir of American “hobbyists” on a weekend lark, where Goonetilleke lives, shortwave radio itself is still a visceral and vital thing. For one thing, shortwave is the best way for most people to find news and opinion from around the world. A battery powered portable shortwave would make a lot of sense in rural Sri Lanka, where over a third of homes don’t have electricity. And those that have power aren’t using it to browse the web much, as less than three percent of households in the entire country have internet access (as of 2008). Ad to that the fact that Sri Lanka has an ongoing civil war that’s raged on and off for decades, and then just four years ago was hit hard by one of the worst natural disasters in human history (the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami), and you can see why keeping informed at home with a world radio makes a hell of a lot of sense on that island nation.
Sri Lanka also holds a special spot in the history of shortwave radio as the home one of the oldest radio stations in the world– “Radio Ceylon.” A radio service that blanketed the largest continent on the globe and could be heard worldwide, Radio Ceylon was a dominant international radio voice in the middle of “the rest of the world” for decades. In 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary was the first to scale Everest, he picked up his radio and tuned in Radio Ceylon, transmitting in English from over a thousand miles away. (Meanwhile in 2009, the world’s a little smaller. It’s no big deal to utilize the internet via satellite from the highest peak on Earth. And you probably have a home office setup down at your base camp too.)
And it should be noted that although shortwave listening (and shortwave programming for that matter) is most certainly in decline, I never sensed the gathering in Kulpsville to be an overtly nostalgic or quixotic affair. To the contrary, serious radio hobbyists are generally quite a technologically ambitious bunch. Most are pretty savvy about today’s gadgets and the evolving technologies, and that was reflected in a number of the presentations I sat in on at the Fest.
What I didn’t hear during the panel discussions was a lot of sour grapes over the demise of shortwave radio. Instead I learned a lot about the current state of radio and radio listening, and heard some insightful overviews of new radio (and radio-like) technology. Digital radio, satellite radio, internet radio, and podcasting were all discussed at the Fest. Each in its own way is an intriguing vehicle for the delivery of audio programming, but none of these systems have garnered any real dominance. And no one is sure if any of these platforms are going to last long either, at least not in their present incarnation.
We live in strange times, where all the old media is in a real fix– broadcast radio, broadcast tv, newspapers and magazines are all losing market share to a myriad of digital alternatives (many of them free, or potentially free). However, in North America shortwave radio is not “in trouble." It’s mortally wounded. And not likely to ever mount a comeback. But it ain’t dead yet.
So what keeps the shortwave faithful faithful? I suppose the sport of it, and all the magical gadgetry.
Perhaps you saw this article in the New York Times a few days ago. Apparently there’s a movement afoot among a few obsessive Star Trek fans to build their own “Captain’s chair,” as in Williams Shatner’s roost on the set of the original “Star Trek” series. Kooky, right? I think so too. But then again, I do get the concept. And I’d wager that almost everyone at the Fest isn’t unfamiliar with the captain’s chair concept. However, the chair itself isn’t usually so important. It’s all those “control panels.” It’s a technological nest, otherwise known as a “shack” (AKA a “radio shack), and every radio-style human being has one around the house, even if it’s only a glowing bedside kind of thing. These days it’s usually a radio workbench merged with the home office. My better half has always called my spot my “command center.” Whatever…
But in truth, I’ve always been fascinated by nesting behavior. And this year at the Fest they had a new feature where people contributed photos of their home radio situation. You know, their command center. While the tech forums were informative and the pirate radio presentations were entertaining, the review of home shacks was a lot of fun– personal and occasionally inspiring. There’s something about setting up a personal communications outpost that evokes a spirit of empowerment and a curiosity about the world. And not only did people share pictures of their radio nests, but they also offered some detailed explanations of some technological problem solving that improved their shack. Like Mario, explaining how he managed to neatly connect forty radios to his big backyard antenna.
For the scanner people and the ham crowd, equipment almost seems to be everything, and neither habit/hobby offers the wonderful radio content you can still find on shortwave radio on a good day– like news, music, cultural features and religious brainwashing.
But for all forms of radio monitoring, DXing is the sporting side of the avocation. Bagging the elusive quarry. The science of turning sound into powerful electromagnetic radiation and receiving those particular radio waves from a distant point on Earth and converting it back into audible content is still quite a trick, and once you get the hang of it you get the bug to better your last conquest.
And the receiver and antenna can make all the difference, a personal acumen with the radio and a trained ear and good tuning fingers can sometimes make pulling in a distant station feel like playing a musical instrument. And it grows even more personal when you manipulate and tweak an antenna, or with a portable set when your body becomes an antenna annex. It can feel like a real human event when you are able to log some obscure signal from a seemingly impossible distance.
And it’s nothing like waiting for data packets to fill a buffer. Okay?
And while shortwave DXing isn’t going away anytime soon, DXing readable radio programming in English gets less common all the time. Finding an obscure little transmitter from Africa or Asia on your radio dial is certainly invigorating, but hearing the world and local news in English from a distant nation you know very little about can be a hell of an interesting listen. It’s what first hooked me to tuning in the world bands when I was a youngster. And that is what is going away.
So what does a U.S. DXer get these days? Well this ongoing solar minimum is making it difficult to pull in anything exotic. But in general, most of the frequencies you hear are not in English and you generally hear less radio than you once could in North America. There was a time, not long ago, when a North American shortwave listener could find a wealth of intelligent programing (news magazines, documentaries, variety shows…) in English from the countries like the UK, Canada, Germany, Israel, and The Netherlands. Most of that is gone. Except for the non-stop kooks and religious nuts who pollute the radio skies in this part of the world, most of the English language programming you hear on shortwave is from our old cold war adversaries– China, Cuba, Russia and a bunch of the former Soviet republics and satellite nations. Although the propaganda isn’t as quite as entertaining as it used to be.
What’s kinda cool (and a little bittersweet) is the frozen-in-time feeling to shortwave that lingers in the production and formatics of the programming. It’s like how they keep putting 1950’s automobiles back on the road in Cuba. It’s hard to tell where production honoring the legacy sound of shortwave broadcasting ends and blindly carrying on the same way due to lack of funds begins. To my ears, some of the radio production I hear out of our own Voice of America sounds like vintage 1970’s radio news stuff. And not necessarily in a good way. And the old Soviet block countries sound antiquated as well, but have more depth and minor key elements in their presentation. There’s an abundance of C.R.I. (China Radio International) radio (which is often frighteningly happy when I tune in), it’s not sparkling or passionate radio. And like VOA, it all sounds like it’s done on the cheap.
While you’re just not going to hear a lot of money spent on talent, production or program development on shortwave in the states much any more, there is some intriguing creativity on a shoestring going on from time to time. And a few of the perpetrators are typically in attendance at the yearly gatherings in Kulspville. They kind of have their own parallel fest going on at the same time.
Of course, I’m talking about WBCQ and the pirate radio clan. Because if you’re looking for something actually new (or at least novel) on the shortwave dial in North America, that’s probably where you’ll end up. Although WBCQ is a legit operation, it’s easy to throw them in together because they’re the closest thing shortwave radio has to a “youth movement, and not surprisingly many of them are associates and friends. Of course, the owner and operators over there started out in radio as youthful pirate radio operatives. And lately, WBCQ has (via their 5100kHz transmitter) been offering a nightly programming block they call “Area 51," which mixes in original airchecks from some domestic pirate broadcasters.
If there’s a vibe to the post-radio pirate scene on shortwave, it’s a postmodern pastiche version of what was once called on “underground” radio on FM. You could call it freeform, but has more attitude than that. I actually find the term “freeform” to be kind of overused and useless these days. Think about it. It’s meaningless. There’s actually always some form or format at play, and denying it seems disingenuous. Vague.
Typically the pirate radio attitude is prankish and a little dark (with some occasional subgenius stylings, if you know what I mean) And the laughs? Ah… usually sophomoric and rather geeky. Lots of sarcasm. And it almost seems like the music in the mix could be almost anything, the programming doesn’t often seem to be steeped in music choice. And more than anything the pirate radio I’ve come across lately is incredibly self-referential, with plenty of mentions of partners in crime and the whole pirate radio scene in general. And not only do they have their own proprietary slang, but many of the programs are so filled with in jokes and insider humor that the newcomer is bound to do a little head scratching when first coming across these illicit shortwave broadcasts.
There’s actually quite a lively pirate scene. And I haven’t come close to sampling everything that’s going on. However I came across this clip at the Area 51 site the other day that’s kind of a nice little overview. It’s the infamous pirate Kracker on WBCQ, where he’s been expanding his reach by being a part of the new Area 51 programming block on 5100kHz. His guest is George Zeller, who writes a pirate radio column for Monitoring Times. And George is also a mainstay and presenter at the yearly SWL fest, and hosted his pirate radio forum this year in Kulpsville. (This clip is slightly edited.)
WBCQ (Radio Jamba International) – Kracker talks to George Zeller 6:25 (download)
I’ve run across Kracker’s creative hijinks on shortwave before, and actually got to meet him at the Fest this year (He kind of ran away when I was taking a couple random snapshots. I guess he’s shy.) Kracker’s on-air persona is often brassy and even abrasive, but here the beer was flowing and the mood is lubricated. (You can get all of the whole wild two hours of Kracker’s show here. Be careful, you could catch a hangover…)
Zeller applauds the creativity and spirit of both the pirates and WBCQ. I did notice that he says he’s been “a big supporter of what WBCQ’s been trying to do.” And that’s the thing about WBCQ, is that it’s a great idea that is occasionally realized. Despite the fact that they offer incredible rates for slots of air time and actively invite and encourage creative broadcasting on their transmitters, many hours are still taken by the typical religious garbage and conspiracy kooks. And there’s still plenty of unfilled hours if you’ve got an idea.
And speaking of that, I thought this was kinda funny.
This little edited clip comes from the beginning of Kracker’s show. It’s something Kracker (or someone) cut up from Allan Weiner’s radio show on WBCQ, where Allan (who was once one of the most well known radio pirates in the states) making fun of the shortwave “pirate slugs” who use “piece of garbage ham transmitters” to play “weird distorted crappy music” and think they’re god’s gift to free speech broadcasting.
It’s kinda funny. And kinda true. But Allan is also doing what he always does at some point on “Allan Weiner Worldwide.” Looking for another angle to lure people to buy time on WBCQ. And the truth is he wants people like the pirates to get on board, instead of adding more demonic preachers and new world order paranoia. And like George, I’m one of those supporters of what WBCQ is trying to do. No one else in this part of the world seems to be doing anything worthy of notice or merit these days on the shortwave dial (at least not legally).
Obviously, setting up your own shortwave radio station isn’t likely to make you rich. Especially if you’re trying to keep the programming a couple notches up from the LCD programming on most U.S. shortwave operations. And on his show, Weiner treads a fine line between optimism about the future of the station and letting you know that they’re often just one unpaid bill or major malfunction away from disaster. But what I hear every time Allan comes on the air is how much he really loves what he’s doing– running his own (legal) international radio station, WBCQ (AKA “The Planet.") So far, Weiner’s radio experiment at the northeast corner of America has survived over a decade and has been the brightest glimmer of hope on the North American shortwave in a period where so much intelligent content has vanished.
And then the lack of weather on the sun has been rough on WBCQ’s propagation. I’ve found difficult to hear either of the two frequencies I check (5110 and 7415kHz). A few years ago I could often get 7415 through the night. For the last couple years it slips after dark. And I’ve been especially interested in the new Area 51 programming on 5110, but the times I’ve checked I’ve found a whole lot of nothing at that frequency for the last couple weeks. And from what I understand, the programming on that frequency is all being handled by Cosmik Debris of the Lumpy Gravy radio show on WBCQ. And as I mentioned, he’s got a great site for “Area 51" you can find here or anytime in my sidebar (and thanks for the clips!). And his blog there has become quite an archive of pirate radio lately, and I advise anybody interested in what the hellions with garbage transmitters across the countryside might wanna pay that site a visit. Tons of downloads available, and more eclectic radio audio added all the time.
And if you want to delve deeper into the pirate radio panorama, I’d advise you check out Ragnar Daneskjold’s Pirate Week website and podcast. His weekly show is an easy listen and you get all the latest news from this oddball incestuous radio universe, including audio clips and gossip. There really is a “hall of mirrors” feel to the shortwave pirate radio scene and Daneskjold can be your guide to help you sort out who’s who, and how you might hear whoever at frequencies like 6925 or 6955kHz next weekend. You can subscribe to his podcast at his site, or you can go for the jumbo fun pack podcast at Ragnar’s "HF Programs" site where you can not only get his program delivered to your hard drive, but other fine SW related shows like Allan Weiner Worldwide, The Shortwave Report, a couple of DX programs and more! Nice package.
Speaking of pirates, I did bring some recordings home from Kulpsville.
Here’s “Radio Azteca.” From the stale nature of some of the humor in this aircheck, I’d say this is an archive or two from the 1990’s. Your host is “Bram Stoker,” and his style is non-stop puns and goofy jokes with a sardonic delivery. It’s silly. It’s deep geek comedy. Very cassette as well.
From what I understand, Commander Bunny is one of the more prolific pirates out there these days. And this aircheck certainly speaks to his industrious nature. To my ear, the aesthetic of the Commander is somewhere between Ren & Stimpy and Doctor Demento. Lots of goofy comedy and plenty of original collage elements. It’s frenetic and ridiculous radio.
Like the Azteca aircheck, this seems to be at least a couple separate shows, all played back to back, probably unattended, on one of the handful of transmitters running all during the Fest.
As I already mentioned, pirate radio is very self-referential. And each show seems to send shout outs to other pirates and all the radio heads they know who listen, and the folks like Ragnar and George who cover them in the radio press (such as it is). And in all the mentions of friends and associates, there’s plenty of jibes and jokes and making fun. And it can get kinda harsh. And I don’t mean just calling people “monkeys.”
A few of the people who are regular attendees at the Fest (who aren’t part of the pirate radio “crowd”) have found themselves as targets for the shortwave pirate joke machine, and the resulting attacks and satire starts to turn into some mean spirited weirdness that surprised me when I first heard some of it. There’s almost a “Lord of the Flies” element– where some of these folks seem to almost get a little feral as they circle around and gang up on people like wolves or something. Especially when it comes to “Bozo.”
And I’m not talking about Larry Harmon, or the TV kiddie show franchise he created, but a fellah I’ve never met. All I really know about Jay comes from the constant torrent of insults and gags and jokes that I run into when I hear some pirate radio shows, or come across some of the stuff they’ve posted on the web.
Although he didn’t attend this year (he’s was in the hospital with congestive heart failure), Jay usually always shows up in Kulpsville. From the photos, it’s not hard to see that he’s overweight and has funny hair. And I’ve heard he’s gay as well. Maybe he has an offbeat walk too. I don’t know and I suppose I don’t care. But he loves radio and shortwave radio, and the pirates love to make fun of him. They seem to live for it. It’s strange.
If you remember the pirate radio clip from last week, of WBZO? There was a bit in the middle of it with some Jay jokes. Of course, the name WBZO is another poke at n Jay. I think I read that WBZO (and KBZO and CBZO) are all Kracker creations. (But as I’m on the outside of the pirate scene, I’m not sure who’s secretly who, and all that jazz.)
But even if Jay is as annoying or peculiar as the pirates make him out to be, when I hear some of the heavy-handed Bozo parody stuff it seems kind of sad. I mean, these pirate transmissions on the HF bands potentially cover a wide swath of this hemisphere, and the touchstone of their content and the very handshake they offer from their culture, is a bunch of less than empathetic parodies revolving around a harmless chubby geek from upstate New York? Is that the “message” of pirate radio in 2009? Really?
Okay, not all the pirates are having taking potshots at Jay, but within a certain subset of these illicit broadcasters creating mean-spirited mayhem with Jay’s voice (and image) is incredibly pervasive. And I don’t get it. At one point during the Fest I stepped out to run out to a store, and tuned to one of the temporary Fest pirate stations, WBZO in fact. And there was Kracker, calling up Jay "on the air"– in the hospital I assume. It sounded live. And Kracker took the conversation to male masturbation within a minute or two.
I didn’t have a recorder with me to catch that particular magic moment, but here’s an acidic spell of Jay bashing from WBZO that I happened to record during the Fest.
You know when it comes to satire and making fun of people’s flaws, I think that celebrities and the rich and famous and political figures are all fair game. And you get extra points if you play off of some meaningful hypocrisy. But riffing off the imperfections of some oddball dude ad infinitum seems like overkill to me. I do admire the ambition and anarchic creativity I hear on shortwave pirate radio. And some vulgarity and twisted humor seems par for the course. But why so mean?
Another reason it’s easy for me to lump the pirates and WBCQ together, is that they are actively broadcasting some English language content on shortwave that doesn’t try to convince you into worshiping a supernatural being or buy into a conspiracy theory. Which is nice. In the end, I suppose all of it beats Family Radio for pure entertainment hands down. Even the dick jokes.
Like many people who delve deep into niche behavior, the shortwave pirate scene seems to be quite networked through the internet– with a number of sites, message boards, as well as Usenet and a bit of IRC action. When ever I’ve heard any pirates on shortwave I’ve usually been able to find more than I needed to know just though a Google excursion or two. It’s all out there if you’re interested. However, if you want to know all you really need to know about the shortwave pirate scene, you can always check out the Pirates Cove, the Area 51 site (or Zeller’s column in the Monitoring Times).
Speaking of Zeller. On Saturday night, after everyone’s had their chosen chicken, beef, or vegetarian meal at the banquet, the yearly Grande Raffle began with Mr. Zeller presiding. Now I’d never been to the Fest before, and started out feeling pretty good about the twenty bucks or I decided to invest (okay… gamble) in the raffle. However, the raffle table was getting a lot of traffic on the banquet night, and the hopper was really packed with tickets. I decided to up it another ten bucks. What the heck.
After the Fest I heard that some of those guys were into that raffle for over a hundred bucks. I wouldn’t be surprised if some were into the raffle much deeper than that. Hell, it was a lot better deal than all those damn lottery tickets folks piss their incomes away on. The odds are infinitely better AND the money goes to charity. And there were SO many cool shortwave radios that you might actually get to take home. A few real dream receivers, as well as some damn nice radios, as well as some wi-fi gadgets and a few fancy PC receivers. For a radio guy like me, approaching the Grande Raffle prize table was enough to up the heart rate just a little.
And it was fun to get to see the little bit of pomp and ceremony that Mr. Zeller adds to the proceedings, including some unique headgear. Avuncular and silly, George is a non-stop cut up, and a perfect MC for all the excitement. And just to give you a flavor fo the proceedings, here he is. Giving away a CC Radio SW and a wi-fi clock radio.
Zeller’s two “lovely assistants” are none other than the guys who have kept the SWL Fest up and running the last decade or so– Richard Cuff and John Figolizzi (Richard is the one with more hair…). A couple of really nice guys. And over the course of the weekend I began to notice that the whole Fest is not only a smooth operation, but the whole event was a relaxed affair, with almost no drama and not a lotta attitude either. That kind of vibe is set from the top down, and Richard and John obviously realize how important it is that everyone have a good time. I know I did.
And no, I did not win. At least nothing from the raffle. Not this year. But it sure was fun hoping.
After the dinner and the drawing, they closed up the Fest officially and lots of people went their separate ways. But some of us convened to the Hospitality Room to await the actual final event of the Fest, when Pancho Villa comes on the air at twelve o’clock sharp. (Eh? I’ll explain in a minute…)
The hospitality room is a little meeting space that the Fest keeps stocked with beer, soda and snack food from Thursday night until late on Saturday. It ain’t fancy, and there’s not even close to enough room for everyone to hang out in there, but there was more than enough room on Saturday night for those who weren’t ready to go bed or didn’t have a pirate radio station to operate. I guess you could have called it a party. I actually got to meet some interesting guys that night, swapping radio stories and talking about our lives, changes in technology and the demise of shortwave radio .
As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, Marty Peck can pick up a melody by ear and can play plenty of shortwave interval signals (from memory) on his flute. And Saturday night in the hospitality room he was talked into a repeat performance.
Now about the Pancho Villa thing. From what I understand, the very first SWL Fest was held in the pink and purple Pancho Villa Room of the Fiesta Motor Inn in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. The motor inn is gone, but Pancho remains in spirit in the form of a yearly midnight broadcast at the SWL Fest, called the Voice of Pancho Villa. It’s a kooky pre-recorded bit of “contemporary” satire, that I believe was broadcast by just about every pirate radio station at the hotel.
You can download the whole glorious “Voice of Pancho Villa” from this post on the Area 51 blog. And if you want more, you can go here and collect up almost all the Pancho Villa broadcasts. And who puts this thing together every year? Good question. I think I might recognize a voice or two, but in the pirate universe everything and everybody is sorta secret.
In closing my two part epic on the Winterfest, I feel the urge to say something meaningful about what I learned there or to ruminate on the meaning of shortwave radio or something. But I suppose I’ve been trying to do that for a few thousand words now. I guess the overwhelming impression I was left with by the end of the Fest, was how incredibly normal it was to be there.
Part of the reason I started blogging about DXing was that I was going through a resurgence with a hobby I’d fooled around with off and on for decades. But more importantly, it was because I was kind of sick of being so damn interested in something all by myself. I mean, it only makes sense to spend quality time tuning on your own, but not being able to talk about what I heard or what I was doing in any intelligent way just seemed weird. And then there’s the way the in-laws and the neighbors may be baffled or alarmed at how you park yourself at a table or out on the porch for hours on end intently listening to the radio (possibly with headphones or strange antennas connected to your receiver).
But in Kulpsville, for one weekend a year you’re just another person who knows how to work a receiver– someone with a passion for sorting far off signals out of the wild atmosphere, and what you can learn about the world by doing so. And perhaps we are a dying breed, or perhaps shortwave listeners are evolving with the culture and the technology and turning into something else. I don’t know. And this is a topic of interest at the Fest. It’s strange to contemplate the impending extinction of something you love.
Yet, the Fest is a positive affair. A celebration. And if you have an abiding interest in shortwave or pirate radio or scanning or amateur radio you might just have a lot of fun at the Winterfest. Hot thrills and wild chicks, not so much. But if some radio fellowship sounds like it might be fun, then you’d probably feel right at home.
Brenda Ueland, a writer born just a few years before the dawn of radio has an oft noted quote that I’d apply to the HF band explorers I met in Pennsylvania. She said– "Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force." And I believe that’s what separates those of us who DX and listen to these (now) obscure radio bands from most people who usually tune to a local station and leave it there. We go on radio excursions, seeking out the exotic broadcast, the novel station, the distant signal, the foreign voice. Radio as craft. A technological expression of self. And if I had to describe the people I met at the Fest, I’d day most were working class intellectuals. Smart people. A breed of bandscanning autodidacts who have made themselves more worldly by anticipating the bounce of distant radio waves.
What else is there to say? Just thanks I guess. It was an honor to attend NASWA’s annual SWL Winterfest. And as long as it remains such a class act, it oughtta continue, and thrive in its own way. It’s there once a year for all of us who still listen to our shortwave radios.
And I do hope to see you next year.
(If you missed it and you don’t see it below, part one of this post can be found here.)