Archive for September, 2009

The Hermit Kingdom On The 80 Meter Band

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

Sometimes I feel compelled to just toss some recent radio capture up on the blog, without delving into too much research or commentary. So today I’m going to yield to that impulse and share something I just heard for the first time ever– The Voice of Korea.

Yes, I’m offering you some official state propaganda from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. (the one on the northern end of the peninsula…) Appropriately, shortwave radio is still a major element of their media outreach to the rest of the world. And it’s not easy to hear in the U.S. Their shortwave transmitters are far from powerful (and probably in poor repair), and I seem to never coax any viable signals over those big Rocky Mountains anyway. But thanks to a wonderful website, I’ve discovered that radio reception beyond my wildest dreams is actually possible. And in this case it was almost like going back in time. 

Actually, it was a comment on my last post that got me curious about the “GlobalTuners” site (formerly DX Tuners), which I hadn’t checked out for quite a while. It’s really quite a fascinating operation. It’s free to subscribe, and if you’re patient and follow their rules of etiquette you can have your turn accessing a few dozen receivers based on almost every continent on the planet. After a little bit of fooling around (like DXing medium wave in Venezuela) I was inspired. So last weekend I logged in to GlobalTuners armed with a good list of known North Korean shortwave frequencies and plugged into an open receiver in Japan through their site. Most of the frequencies were quiet, but when I punched in 3560kHz I hit pay dirt. In English.

That was Saturday. I never got it in all that clear, but it didn’t fade away either. I tried again on Sunday and had more luck. After some patient tweaking, my room filled with the sound of strident communist propaganda. How exciting. And I recorded the results which I’ll offer now. I’ve always been curious to hear this station, and I’m betting that a few readers might be interested as well. The reception and recording is far from perfect, but I did work some digital hoodoo on the sound to give it as much clarity as possible. Here’s part one.

Voice of Korea 2100UTC 09-20-09 part 1 of 4
(download)
                       
Always rebellious I suppose, North Korea’s hour of English language service is using a section of the radio spectrum normally allocated for amateur radio, not international broadcasting. And in the first segment you hear me battling with some crosstalk from a ham radio operator on an adjacent frequency. (And here’s a helpful hint if you’re going to try this at home, I found the best reception at 3561kHz.) Despite that interference, in this first part you actually get to hear the noble sound of North Korea’s interval signal right before the top of the hour. As well as some uplifting music that probably introduces their English language broadcast every day.

Voice of Korea 2100UTC 09-20-09 part 2 of 4
(download)

If I can recommend one chunk of the Voice of Korea for your listening pleasure, it’s this second one. While there’s no music or production of note in this short segment, it’s the most pleasingly audible section of the whole aircheck. It starts out a little muddy, but in less than a minute the sound is as good as it gets.

It’s a male-female tag team reading the news in heavily accented English. And while it might be hard to discern every word, the essence of the newscast isn’t hard to grasp. The big news? The Great Leader, Kim Jong-il has recently welcomed some high-level officials from the Chinese government and they brought him a nice gift (perhaps some new coveralls?). No mention of any discussions (or arguments) regarding North Korea’s nuclear mischief. Other than that, you might wonder if the sixty-first anniversary of the founding of the DPRK was one of the world’s biggest headlines for the month of September.

When you tune to a foreign newscast in English on shortwave, you can usually discern where it’s coming from pretty quickly. After all it’s all state-sponsored radio, and the news they offer the world (or the west) is going to have some flavor of promoting the interests of the home government. And it only makes sense that local and regional issues are likely to be given more weight in the newscast. Yet, I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a more insecure and self-referential state news broadcast than this one. Although I didn’t really listen to shortwave in the “cult of personality” eras of Stalin, Pol Pot or Chairman Mao, I do recall Radio Tirana swaggering on the HF bands in a similar fashion a couple decades ago.

Voice of Korea 2100UTC 09-20-09 part 3 of 4
(download)

I guess I’m posting this recording in its entirety as a bit of a public service. Part three is a continuation of the news and it sounds like some editorializing goes on. However, the high point comes about nine minutes in this segment. It’s “Devotion For The People” where we’re honored with a few wise words from the Great Leader of the Korean People, accompanied by some comforting music. The topic? Tasty bean paste. I’m not kidding. This is followed by an ethereal Korean torch song, which I imagine is somehow in devoted to the Great Leader as well. 

At some point I left the room while I was making this recording. And when I returned I discovered I had lost the connection to that tuner in Osaka. I reconnected and started the recording again. At that point we come to the fourth and final installment of this archive. I might have missed 10 or 12 minutes in between.

Voice of Korea 2100UTC 09-20-09 part 4 of 4
(download)

The reception deteriorates a bit through this last segment. I’m glad I’m not in a cubicle with a set of headphones at the NSA trying to transcribe this stuff.

Listening to this final eighteen minutes is certainly not mandatory, but if you want the full propaganda treatment go ahead and let the arrogant noise wash over you. It’s so anachronistic that it’s almost quaint. And in that same way, the Voice of Korea does remind me a bit of the Voice of Russia and the English broadcasts of other former Communist bloc nations I hear on shortwave. Especially the music. Moody. Minor key. Classical. And occasionally martial. It’s a staunch and old-fashioned sound.

If you think Radio Habana Cuba sounds a little out-of-date with all their talk of “the revolution” and the glories of the Castro brothers, they sound more like typical NPR happy talk compared to this dry broadcast from across the DMZ. It’s the sound of a desperate totalitarian state stuck in the middle of the last century, with little hope of escape. And as such they strive for the holy grail of that era, the atomic bomb. And you have to admit that it seems to be the only way they’re able to get the rest of the world to give them any attention, or respect. And the Great Leader seems to need a lot of both.

And if the next time they cause trouble (and it seems likely they will), I’ll probably tune in again. And a big thanks to reader tdevine for leaving me that thoughtful comment that led me down this road. And speaking of that, there hasn’t been so many comments posted here at the Radio Kitchen lately (other than the glut of comment SPAM that gets caught in my filter every day), so let me add that if you’ve got something to add — a comment, a suggestion, a question, a relevent idea… please utilize the comment box on the appropriate post. Or you can send me an email using the link on the sidebar. That kind of thing really does add to the conversation here. I appreciate it, and it does raise your status above casual lurker. Why not join the party?

How To Gather Sound From The Sky From Almost Anywhere

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

It’s hard to believe, but I’ve been recording radio for almost forty years. However when I first started I wasn’t collecting airchecks or bandscans. I was just doing what comes natural to a kid– grabbing free music. Instead of searching for hits on hard drives around the world I was dangling a cheap microphone in front of a radio speaker. For years I couldn’t hear the opening guitar lick of “Ticket To Ride” without imagining the pop of a front yard firecracker that occurred while I recorded the song with my Panasonic reel to reel.

A couple years later I got a bit more advanced with my radio/recorder interface by attaching a patch cord with two alligator clips to the radio's speaker terminals. But it wasn’t until the late 70's that cassette decks with built-in radios became popular, making it possible for anyone to record a high-quality aircheck. Unfortunately, I didn’t come to appreciate the value of archiving radio until the early 80's when I happened to gather some souvenir radio recordings while on an extended road trip. That was when I realized how cool it was to actually own the radio programming I had heard instead of trying to recall some fading memory.

Since that time I’ve always had a boombox around the house, and when there's something on the radio I'd like to keep I can simply slap in a cassette and make it happen. That urge to archive and all the subsequent enjoyment I’ve gotten from replaying captured broadcasting (and sharing it with others) gets to the heart of how this blog came about in the first place.

Of course cassettes are almost quaint these days, and most recording has gone digital. Me too. I’m as digital as anyone. Yet, all the airchecks and bandscans posted here so far began as cassette tapes. In essence I have to record the audio twice, once on tape and then again into the computer. While I’ve had some success recording local stations with the laptop, attempts to do the same thing while DXing has been problematic. Computers are full of RF noise on AM and the HF bands, and most MP3 devices aren’t much better. If you’ve ever wondered why almost all of the digital audio players with onboard radio only carry the FM band, try waving your iPod near a radio tuned to an AM station (…it doesn’t sound good). However, making AM reception viable on small low-power computer like a DAP isn't impossible. It just requires a little thoughtful engineering and some well-placed shielding.

As I’ve monitored the evolution of digital audio players over the last decade or so, for a long time there was only one MP3 player that included an AM radio. It was a Korean-made gadget marketed by “Pogo!,” an upstart California electronics importer, and they called it the “Radio Yourway.” Not only did it have an AM receiver, but it was also a radio recorder. While all this was intriguing, the price (over $200) and the paltry storage capacity (in megabytes back then, not gigabytes…) was a deal breaker for me. And probably for others as well.

I don’t know enough about Pogo and their products to speak authoritatively about their history, but the evidence of their rise and fall is just a google search away. Their “Radio Yourway” device had certainly gained a following here in the states before it was discontinued. While it remained rather expensive, when it came to MP3 players with AM radio (not to mention the recording option!) there just wasn't any competition. And once you figured out the firmware, the thing apparently performed pretty well. Pogo even put out an improved version of the Radio Yourway (which looked much more like an iPod…) as well as a promising mini-version of the device (as well as a few other Americanized electronic gadgets from Asia) when they suddenly went out of business a couple years ago.

As a shortwave listener in America, there’s been an odd disconnect over the last decade between available hardware and available broadcasting. While in the west there's been a mass exodus from shortwave broadcasting, there's also been a minor revolution in receiver technology where sets that are more powerful and versatile (and often cheaper)  than previously possible have entered the marketplace. And while I don’t buy a lot of gadgets, I do keep up with what's new and interesting on the radio market as well as what's happening with portable media players. And inspired by what Pogo proved was possible, I've hoped to one day come across an all-in-one gadget for listening to radio, recording radio and listening to anything I had as an MP3 file. In the last couple years I've thought my dream might come true once or twice, but each time a little bit of online investigation would reveal that the radio-recorder I’ve been trying to wish into existence is still a pipe dream.

The Degen (or Kaito) 1121 probably came closer to what I’ve been looking for than anything yet developed– a very portable shortwave radio that incorporates a detachable MP3 recorder. Sure it's a little expensive and the radio isn’t supposed to be quite as good some cheaper Degen models, but it does record true MP3 files and has a built-in timer for automated recording. However, it only records 32kbps MP3's and allows for just three programmed timer recordings. Most reviews bemoan the confusing firmware and a few mention systemic glitches where recordings were lost. However, it really fell off my wish list when I found out it only has 256 megabytes of memory you can't add more with a memory card. Even before digital storage became so cheap, the appeal of any audio device with less than a gigabyte of storage was never very appealing.

Then along came the Grundig G4 “World Recorder,” which appeared to be an integration of the Degen (or Kaito) 1102 with MP3 technology, and kind of exciting at first glance. And it has a gig or two of storage which can be easily doubled with an SD card.  However once the G4 went on sale there was a resounding online silence surrouding . Almost no reviews and a few questions from curious consumers like me who were looking for information as well. Then about the same time I heard the radio was being discontinued (although you can still buy from the original stock from a few dealers) The worst part? Although it does play your MP3s (either through its small speaker or headphones) it actually records radio as an uncompressed low-quality wav file. In other words, as a recorder the 1121 is a lo-fi budget operation that creates audio files in the same league as an inexpensive voice recorder. What were they thinking?

Then the Degen 1123 came along last year. A cute pocket gadget with shortwave and a gig of onboard storage (but no card slot). And while it’s the most portable AM/FM/shortwave recorder on the market, and the price is reasonable, the 1123 records in the same watered down wav format as well. There's plenty of online feedback out there, and the verdict seems to be that it's a cheap and imperfect (but interesting) toy, and if more care would have went into the design and manufacturing it could have been something much more substantial. A company like Sony could have done something really interesting in the same vein, but they gave up on shortwave radio R&D a long time ago.

And now with the world economy is disrepair it seems unlikely that another shortwave-MP3 recorder will be engineered anytime soon. However, last year an MP3 radio recorder of note seems to have risen from the ashes of the last version of the Radio Yourway. In this part of the world it’s known as the CC Witness, and except for a rather high price they seemed to have gotten almost everything else right. Except of course, no shortwave.

Unlike most of the radio recorders I’ve mentioned, the CC Witness seems to get a lot of positive reviews. For people who either insist on owning an MP3 player with an AM radio, or others who want to record all sorts of radio shows unattended via a programmable timer, the Witness is a bit of a godsend. Practically speaking, there is no competition. The biggest complaint? The price. A hefty two-hundred and thirty bucks. Perhaps it was the result of so many balking at the cost, or the faltering economy, but California-based C. Crane has decided to chop fifty bucks off the price of the CC Witness. And while that’s still not cheap, it’s a generous price cut. And I suppose a few people who’ve been putting off buying this unique device may take the bait.

And now that I’ve gotten a chance to actually get my hands on the heralded CC Witness I can tell you that if you think an AM/FM MP3 recorder might be useful to you. you’ll probably think this thing is worth every penny. Is it fantastic? No, not quite. But it is a well-built novelty that does almost everything it’s supposed to do rather well. Compared to some of today’s technological toys that are roughly in the same price league (smart phones or the latest generation of iPods) the CC Witness isn’t as outwardly impressive. The monochrome screen and lack of graphic magic position the aesthetics of the device with the first and second generation of digital audio devices. While it’s not wafer-thin, it is small. What you get in the box is a very portable work horse that efficiently bridges some new and old technology in a way no other gadget has done very well.

Before I turn this post into a love letter to an appliance, let me tell you what it doesn’t do. Or why it isn’t perfect. First off, don’t plan to DX with the CC Witness. The AM radio isn't bad, but it certainly could be more selective. If you live near powerful AM stations you'll probably notice their signals bleeding into adjacent frequencies. However, if a regional 50,000 watt station is in the clear you may be able to pick it up from a few states away. For example, I’ve picked up WHAS in Kentucky from here in Brooklyn. And when I was recently in the Cleveland area, WLS in came in strong from Chicago.

As far as the FM side of things, that isn’t so important to me. And like all the personal music players I’ve ever seen, including cassette and CD players with radios, it uses the connecting cord for the headphones as the antenna for the FM band. So if you’re walking around listening to a dodgy FM signal the reception may vary with every sway of the cable. Of local FM stations that interest me here, like WKCR, WNYC-FM and WBAI– they all came in strong. And recording them in stereo at a high bitrate gave nice clean results. Reception of WBGO in Newark was a little more problematic.

Another thing to consider about the CC Witness is that it’s more than just a radio that makes airchecks, it's also a shirt pocket digital recorder with a lot of storage potential. With the push of a button you can use the tiny embedded mic to make quick and dirty recordings. Or you can plug in a more substantial microphone and have yourself an audio field day. The onboard mic isn’t great. I noticed a handful of hiss when I tried it.

While I like the microphone options, it’s the “line in” recording potential that sparked my curiosity. Would the CC Witness allow me to record bandscans and airchecks direct to digital, and skip the step of recording them with magnetic tape? This is what I wanted to find out. While there are a number of MP3 players with line-in recording (including adapters for your iPod), from my experience every digital gadget seems to be a fountain of RF noise when it comes near an AM or shortwave radio. That iPod might be alluring, but it’s apt to be a rude annoyance when you’re trying to hear some little African country on 60 meters. I was hoping that the internal "shielding" might also help prevent the CC Witness from being an inappropriate transmitter when I plugged it into my shortwave. As a casual DXer, stray RF noise is my enemy. In fact, for a long time I've done all my DX radio recording using only batteries because I've found that plugging in the radio or the tape deck often introduces noise from the AC current or the power supply. But much to my delight, the CC Witness proved to be a very quiet companion to my G5. That made me happy. But I had to go through a few practice runs before I got it right.

Now let me make another check mark in the “what’s not perfect” column. You cannot visually see the line levels when you’re recording and you cannot adjust the levels with any controls on the CC Witness. When I didn’t see any reference to recoding levels in the manual, I thought it might have been an oversight. And when I couldn't find anything about the input levels on the player itself I reasoned that it might have some type of default auto level control built-in. There’s a switch for it on the cassette deck I’ve been using for years to make airchecks. And it has a level meter too. That’s why I bought it.

On my Grundig G5, and most of the better portable shortwave sets, there’s a “line level” output that I always use for recording. That’s what it’s for. This way I can listen through the speaker or the headphones and adjust the volume any way I like and it won't affect the recording. I tried this with the CC Witness and was sorely disappointed. Too hot. These days I’m accustomed to looking at audio visually on the computer and I took a gander at what I’d recorded and could plainly see plenty of sections of the file were obviously over-modulated. In order to ameliorate this situation I had to switch things around and record through the headphone jack, doing some trial and error until I figured out the safe recording zone for the volume control. Since then I’ve looked at the C. Crane website (where there’s a lot of product support you won’t find in the manual) and they recommend purchasing some kind of attenuator so you can have more control over the recording levels. I actually have an in-line headphone volume adapter that would do the trick, somewhere around here…

Another thing. At first I was quite frustrated by the record button. I would press it and nothing would happen. And then I’d press it again. And perhaps once again. And then the CC Witness would suddenly start to record. Yet knowing myself as I do, as an occasionally impatient guy with electronics (especially when I’m dealing with four and five-year-old PC’s here at the house), so I though perhaps I should try pressing the record button once firmly and see if all those extra button punches were a waste of time. Sure enough. After several seconds (sometimes as many as ten) the recorder would indeed engage. And after some further observation I noticed the delay was worse when I was recording on the SD card instead of with the onboard memory. There is a variable lag either way, but a firm press on the right side of the REC button will eventually kick the recorder into gear. I suspect that the chip that powers the CC Witness isn’t the fastest on the DAP scene.

My last complaint about recording with the CC Witness seems like a real oversight. And it's something that often irritates me about MP3 encoding done by gadgets or people who oughtta know better. It's the simple fact that making stereo MP3 files of a mono source is wasteful and unnecessary. Period. Yet, by default all line-in and radio recordings you make with the CC Witness are in stereo. And even if AM stereo did have had one bright shining moment, it never caught on. It's over. All broadcasting AM is mono. Always. In practical terms, what that means is all the AM radio recordings on the CC Witness take up twice as much space as they should.

Okay, so storage is cheap. And you can put a 16GB SDHC card in the CC Witness and record radio for weeks or months without filling it up. Then I noticed that there’s a switch in the menu to record using an external stereo or mono microphone, which tells me that this issue could probably be fixed with a firmware upgrade. C. Crane has continued to provide firmware upgrades on their website, and the latest version (which I installed) was just released in July. And whoever is working on the next firmware update I say– give us the choice to record radio (or through the line-in input) in mono. Please.

Purely as an MP3 player, the CC Witness is not fancy. There are certainly more exciting and feature rich MP3 players on the market for the same price (or less). While I love the graphic EQ feature on my Rockbox enabled Sansa player, Witness only has the typical “pop,” “rock,” “classical” type EQ I see on too many audio gadgets these days. (Remember bass and treble?) As much as I'm irritated by these choices, I eventually found the “live” setting to be the brightest and most listenable for my purposes. But I have no idea why it's "live." And the CC Witness doesn’t have all the playlist functionality and tag parsing tricks you’ll find on many players, but it does play about any MP3 you throw at it and will shuffle anything in the same folder. But there are limits. It chokes if you have more than 2000 files or 500 folders on any memory source (on the card or the internal flash memory).

I imagine the most popular reason to purchase the CC Witness would be to time-shift your radio listening (especially talk shows on AM radio). And from my experience, this thing performs that task like a champ. As long as the station comes in clearly you’re going to get a good recording. The menus are simple enough, and you don’t have to leave it on to have it light up and start recording on schedule all by itself. And there's a switch in the menu to turn the timers off and on. But be aware that if you plan to use this function extensively, you might wanna consider buying their "accessory kit," which will run you an extra twenty bucks. It includes an AC adapter, a docking cradle and a silicone protective jacket. With the cradle and wall-wart you can locate the CC Witness away from any RF noisy appliances around the house and always have the Witness fully charged for more recording or to take it with you. Otherwise the only other way to power the thing (or recharge the battery) is to hook it up to a computer with the USB cable. But if you’re recording AM radio, the computer and its peripheral devices are likely to degrade your reception. While the power adapter for the CC Witness is a bit large, it's quiet, and shouldn't affect your reception. Some of the worst RF issues at home are simply stray noise from a few bad AC adapters.

Now that I’ve had my chance to be cranky, let me be charitable again. I've found the CC Witness to be a commendable little appliance. A toy for some. A tool for others. Despite my complaints, I’m glad to have this one and I’m going to get a lot of use out of it. Even with the stereo AM recording issue, I went to make another test recording on there as I was writing this and noticed that at the encode rate I was using to record (192kbps) there was still room for over sixty-three hours of recording on the 8GB card I have in there. And there’s already many hours of recording on the card as well as a bunch of files leftover from something else. That, to me, is incredible. And if you’ve ever looked at a box of over thirty C-120 cassettes (as I have), perhaps you can appreciate why just that makes me happy.

We live in a time when cheap rules. This was already the case before the economic collapse last year with inexpensive goods flooding the marketplace taunting us to spend money we don’t have. And one of the reasons we’ve gotten use to seeking out the lowest price for everything is because we’re usually buying products from huge thoughtless transnational corporations who inherently cut corners on everything and offer poor service through the entire transaction chain.

I feel pretty lucky in this regard, because I live in New York where I deal with locally owned small businesses all the time. Sure, I’m occasionally seduced by an incredibly low price from faceless mega-capitalists, but when I’m buying something more substantial that it's important that I’m treated well during the shopping process. And afterward if something goes wrong I can be assured of some friendly assistance, if not a refund or exchange, without it being a difficult or unfriendly process.

For example, the owner of a neighborhood computer store here once let me take home three or four different sound cards and try them out on my computer before I found the one that worked for me. I’ve been a regular customer ever since, despite the fact that I could get some of the same things I buy from him cheaper at Staples or online. And there’s a diner down the street I avoided for years. The menu in the window made it pretty clear their dinners were too expensive. Then one night I ended up there and paid the price. While it did cost more than the roast chicken down the street, the portions were good, and so were all the extras that came with the meal. But it was the awesome old-school diner waitresses that have kept me coming back ever since. They tend to their customers and do everything within reason to make sure you get what you want and that you like it. That’s worth an extra couple bucks.

And from what I’ve seen, I think this might be the deal with the C. Crane Company as well. Almost everything in their catalog is a little more than a bargain hunter might be willing to pay. And some of their products can be purchased (as similar or identical products) from overseas for a little less dough. But from my experience, with C. Crane you get something extra– real customer service. And while many of their products come from the other side of the world, if you write or call C. Crane you get a response from California.

It's because C. Crane is actually a “mom and pop” distributor of specialty electronics. They don’t actually make stuff, but they do tweak and fine tune items for American consumers. And although they don’t sell a lot of stuff with mass appeal, they do seem to know how to market to their scattered flock of niche consumers. After Pogo dropped the ball, C. Crane picked up on the wizardry of the Korean gadgeteers who created the Radio Yourway and had worked with them to acclimate their new and improved version of the device for the U.S. market. The fact that the CC Witness even exists is because the founder the company, Bob Crane, is one of us. Someone who loves radio. Specifically the sound of amplitude modulation. And over the years he’s evolved a furniture and carpentry concern into an upstart mail order gadget business. However, there was big bump in the road along the way.

For years Crane put out a catalog of specialty radio stuff and advertising the AM radio faithful on talk radio. And made his name marketing the Select-A-Tenna (for pulling in those faraway AM signals) and the Baygen wind-up radio (one of the first human powered “disaster” radios). Then in 1998 he worked with the Taiwanese electronics company Sangean to refashion one of their radios into the first C. Crane branded product– The CC Radio. And he followed through with a promotional campaign that enticed more than a few medium wave diehards across the country. And one day when I had the money, I bought one for myself. And the radio that promised to pull in far away voices and offer them in pleasing audio clarity became the mascot of Art Bell’s “Coast to Coast” program for years.

The CC Radio was the first of a number of products from Asia that Crane had tweaked to his specifications for the new C. Crane brand, but the CC was by far their most famous product and seemed to always be the first thing you’d see on their website or when you opened their catalog. It was a little expensive, but still a very good radio. Except for one thing. The ribbon connection to the LED display Sangean had put in there were glued instead of soldered into place. And more than a few of them began to gradually lose contact with the radio, rendering the display useless. This was a big problem. And it happened to mine too.

So in the mid-2000's while C. Crane was firmly establishing itself as an electronics distributor of note, a growing (and often online-enabled) number of disgruntled CC Radio owners began to mumble bad things about Mr. Crane and his company. And as I began to find other people on the web who had the same problem as I was having with my CC Radio, I grumbled too. And as a guy who made who promised good customer service as part of his advertising campaign, you can bet he was doing some grumbling of his own. Perhaps burning up the phone lines to Taiwan…

I don’t recall all the details now, but I it seems to me that I started reading online about how C. Crane was trying to rectify the situation with the affected CC Radio owners by offering an inexpensive repair and paying the return shipping, or something like that. But when I finally got around to contacting them to see about bringing my CC Radio back to life, all I had to do was kind of prove that I had bought the radio and then they give me all the information on how to send it in for a free repair. Hot damn, I thought. While I had to pay to ship it across the country, they took care of the rest. And this radio was a few years old. I was impressed. And while they may not have to deal with product snafu on that kind of scale again, it suddenly becomes clear why you pay a little more money for C. Crane products.

And it would only be fair to add that the CC Radio display issue is history, and in the current (and third) incarnation of the receiver the ribbon cable is firmly and forever attached to the display unit. At least that ‘s what they say. And I believe ‘em. They call it the CC Radio 2, and you can read all about it at their site.

I didn’t mean to turn this post into an advertisement. I just call ‘em as I see ‘em. Even beyond the problems with the CC display, C. Crane gets some razzing and abuse from radio heads and techno-troublemakers online. (And if you didn’t already notice almost everybody seems to be itching for a fight these days.) But as merchandisers like Radio Shack are abandoning their old base of radio listeners and electronic-minded average guys, C. Crane has been moving in the opposite direction. Yes, you can find a lot stuff similar to C. Crane’s roster of goods for a cheaper price if you go through ebay. And if you’re a hard core DXer you already know there’s a whole world of super fancy and fantastical gear out there beyond the C. Crane catalog that will make your heart race and perhaps pull in a one kilowatt signal from the South Pole on a good day. But it will cost you.

C. Crane takes the middle-ground, where casual geeks and normal folks with electronic desires can find stuff they like, and stuff they dream of. Like a little radio that can record itself and store more airchecks than you could probably hear in a year. Yet, while I am impressed with their customer service I do wonder about their branding strategy sometimes. Like the name “CC Witness.” I do wonder… “a witness to what?” And as a further testament to my halfheartedness about the name, as I was waving this around to friends and family over the last few weeks I just had a hard time saying– “Take a look at this CC Witness.” I just called it my new radio recorder, or something like that. Maybe they could call it the “VersaCorder…” No, wait. They already have something a lot less amazing with that name. But it would make more sense.

Back in Korea (the land where the CC Witness was born) they call it the DDR-4300. Catchy, eh? However, in Japan they have the best name of all. In the land of the rising sun they call it the “Talkmaster Slim.” And that IS the name. In English. In fact, this device is probably more popular in Japan than anywhere else. From what I gather, the Talkmaster Slim is the gadget of choice for young Japanese learning the English language. And from what I’ve read many of these English “classes” are broadcast on AM radio in Japan, which can be easily captured by their Talkmaster Slim. I suppose this accounts for the feature on the device that allows you to slow down, or speed up, the audio files during playback. It’s all about comprehension.

And if there’s some irony in this, it’s that a modern piece of electronics that probably has its broadest appeal with middle-aged (or older) Americans who haven’t abandoned the AM band, in Japan it’s apparently youth culture technology. And in Japan you can get the Talk Master Slim in all sorts of bright “young” colors. It’s an accessory! And just to get a taste of the exciting alternative lifestyle of the CC Witness in Japan, check out this video. It’ll make you realize just how sexy this digital recorder can really be, if you let it happen.

(download)

I received my CC Witness at a very opportune time, right before my yearly trip to see the family in Michigan. And as I usually do a lot of airchecking when I get out of the city. So I really got a chance to put the Witness through its paces. Other than the quirks I mentioned in this post, I was able to make a lot of fine radio recordings with this device. While it ain’t hi-fi, the DX recordings I made with the CC Witness were at least as good as what I was able to get on cassette. And the battery life seemed very good. Charging during the day kept it alive through the night as I recorded. And not only that, but the CC Witness also enabled me to do something I’ve always wanted to do. Something I hadn’t even considered until I started my long drive to the Midwest.

As I mentioned before, I’ve always wondered why car cassette players couldn’t do what every boombox can do so easily– record directly from the radio. I always find it interesting to check out radio while on a road trip as I pass through the reception zones of stations I wouldn't hear any other way. In fact, I’ve dedicated a couple posts so far to doing just that as a passenger on a road trip back in 1988.

Well this time I was driving alone, where it was certainly impossible to hold a boombox up to the window to grab signals from the countryside. But I did have my CC Witness. And with the Witness plugged into the car stereo via a cassette adapter I was able to tune in to stations and record them as I drove. Maybe that doesn’t mean much to you, but I was almost giddy. On my way through Ohio and Michigan I recorded quite a bit of AM radio while in the driver’s seat. And not only that, but there’s a setting in the menu that enables the CC Witness to include the frequency of the station recorded as well as the time and date of the recording. Incredible. No need to log anything.

As a guy who looks at any escape from New York as an adventure in amplitude modulation the CC Witness is the perfect companion. And in another post or two I’ll probably dump out my net and let you hear some of what I captured with my new toy. There's not much local radio of note along interstate 80 in Pennsylvania, or New Jersey for that matter. But there was plenty to hear along the interstates in Ohio and Michigan– two states hit hard by hard times. Add to that the bizarre alternate realities spreading on the radio these days, and I caught a strange mix of American radio from 2009. Some of it rather scary.

More about that later.

The Country

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

I wish I could travel more. Not a lot more, but a little more. But this year’s been tougher than most and even the quick excursions upstate haven’t been as common as in recent years. For any number of reasons I’m not so picky about traveling. Just about anywhere’s interesting for a day or two. And as is my nature, I’m always curious about what’s on the AM dial there. While moving through the FM Band can feel a little like strolling through the local mall, a journey though the AM dial can be more akin to viewing a town from railroad car window (if you’ve ever done that). You may actually get a feeling for how a town gets its work done. And perhaps a sense of how the other half lives. That kind of thing.

What I really like (and what I’d like do a lot more often if I had my way) is to get as close to nowhere as I can, within reason. To drive and drive until you can see the Milky Way clearly and distinctly after dark, and where local radio stations don’t really exist. Then when the sun sets on my picnic table or in the rented cottage I’m suddenly closer to the entire continent and the rest of the world when I turn on my radio. It’s such a powerful feeling to turn through the shortwave dial with no stray RF bumping and buzzing and whining through the frequencies. And then when I look up at night I can almost get a grip on my place in the galaxy. Or at least it feels that way, which is good enough for me.

That didn’t happen this year, so my almost annual trip to see the family in Michigan was even more anticipated. The dusty trail surrounding our galaxy is a little vague in the sky there. And the lights of sad old Flint have their corner of the sky. But the stars are much better. And so is the RF pollution. So, from my brother’s deck at night I still occasionally find my place in the broader circles of existence when the weather’s good. And I hear some radio too.

But that’s not what this post is about. Here I’m featuring the sound of small town radio in daylight. This particular station transmits just south of Flint, and it’s an earnest little heart-warmer. The call letters are WCXI, and this isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about this modest wonder. It’s a simple classic country outlet. No frills and only a thousand watts. But the music’s great.

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 1 of 4
(download)

Brian Barnum (who I believe is the DJ in all four of these airchecks) is rock solid. Great voice. Low key banter. He doesn’t sound all that old, but his approach is old-fashioned. No matter what happens during the breaks between the music, whether he’s doing a live ad or talking about the weather or a local event, he’s usually arranged some seamless way to introduce the next song within the subject matter at hand. He’s almost as good as Tony Oren that way.
                           
I didn’t go through these recordings in any detail, but I did listen to quite a bit of them as I prepared them to post. I heard some hits I knew, some singles I never heard before and a few neo-traditional things I liked quite a bit. My only complaint was that I don’t know that heard any western swing. I mean, you gotta play Bob Wills every once in a while.

As I mentioned, I already posted a few airchecks from WCXI. And I go more in depth into the history of the station in this post. I just happened to catch a few hours during this trip. Just for my own enjoyment, and I thought I should share. There’s some funny whirrish noise on these recordings, which is mostly noticeable during the mic breaks. Some problem with some stray RF combined with some an auto-gain issue with the radio, tape deck or the radio station. If you can get through Brian’s breaks the music will blossom through relatively clear once again. And don’tcha just love a mandolin?

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 2 of 4
(download)

A lot of people associate country music specifically with the American South. But once you get into the broad appeal of the genre you realize that country and western is as at home in the plains of Canada as it is in Kentucky or Texas or California. And in Michigan..well, that’s somewhere in between all that. And there’s lots of southern transplants around Detroit and Flint from the era when the automotive industry was still healthy and profitable.

One thing that’s always been associated with country music is the hardscrabble life, having to make a living with your hands. (Or trying to…) And that’s been part of the southeastern Michigan lifestyle since the settlers arrived. Through the 20th century a lot of farmers came to this part of the country to get the best jobs an unskilled laborer could hope for– building automobiles. Like my grandfathers. But they didn’t live long enough to see their beloved Pontiac and Oldsmobile brand names disappear into history. Like we are.

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 3 of 4
(download)

After you spend some years away from the area of the world that raised you, you start to get a better grip on the character traits of the culture where you learned to be a person. At least that’s been my experience. When I go back to Michigan I don’t so much feel at home as I feel almost reluctantly defined by the unassuming flatlands surrounding Detroit. The rust belt is full of reservation and restraint and a measured way of talking. WCXI always reminded of that introverted Michigan countryside. (Or at least the few miles you can see of it from US-23 out that way.) I hear it in some of the songs as well as their paced and simple approach to broadcasting. And I’m fond of the understated enthusiasm of Brian Barnum on the radio. It kinda reminds me of how I prefer to experience life in the face of adversity. Calm and Michigan. Nothing extra special.

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 4 of 4
(download)

The last aircheck here is from the end of their broadcast day. But at least they’re still there, every day until six. And I don’t know for sure, but I suspect WCXI is one of those stations where the DJ’s might still be choosing some, if not all, of the music you hear when they’re on the air. Is that radical or what? Can’t they afford some consultants?

And if you happen to find yourself within the range of their one thousand watt transmitter you might wanna can call in and make a request. But please only one per day. Give everybody a chance.