Archive for the 'FM Band' Category

The Ship That Came In (On Four Radio Bands)

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

If you wanted to pick a date when music radio in America began to really suck, it would probably be the mid-1980′s. Popular music was getting worse. All those god awful keyboards (think..Lionel Richie), with music was all sequencer riffs, boomy emulated drums and shiny boring guitar solos. At least that’s how I heard it. And if the music wasn’t bad enough, almost all of the personality and unpredictability that made commercial radio so much fun had been quashed.

Back in the sixties, the corporate consultants turbo-charged the top 40 format by amping up the energy and trimming the fat. But after a couple decades a lot had changed, and with the audience moving to FM it brought a different mentality to radio formatics and programming in general. The seventies brought in the "less talk" school of radio, and as that philosophy gained ground you heard much less persona and patter between songs, and more perky robot announcers reading positioning statements and liner cards. And instead of "breaking hits" radio stations were broken by the tired and worn-out "hits" their corporate masters made them play incessantly.

By the mid-80′s, the model of radio as a music delivery system was finally broken. And in the wake of its failure listeners adapted. It was the golden age of the "mix tape," where put down chunks of their own programming on cassette tapes. And at the same time "talk radio" was where you could still find some spontaneity on the dial, and it became a viable and popular radio format for the first time (and filled the void on medium wave as top 40 format had moved to the FM band).

And it was around this time that I became the radio freak of nature I am today. This is when I started scanning the AM band looking for fossil music stations playing big band, old country or r&b and blues. And it’s when I started actually paying attention to talk radio. And shortwave. And so, my adventures in amplitude modulation really began…

As a relatively young curmudgeon at that time, I still had some enthusiasm for changing the world. Or at least try to change radio, from the inside. And in the summer of 1987 I enrolled in a broadcasting school, where I learned how to splice tape, how to read news copy, and how to browse an Arbitron book. And while I’ve had my ups and downs in the radio business, I have had a lotta fun over the years. The trouble is, at heart I’m a programmer, not a tech guy or a salesman or an incredibly talented announcer (I’m not bad, but…). My original dream was to program a real R&B radio station. And I did that at a little AM outlet in Alabama for a couple years. I had a blast, but it didn’t pan out into the earth-shaking career I had imagined. Somehow or other I ended up volunteering on a freeform station presenting answering machine tapes and audio letters. But that’s another story…

However, I have another story for you. A better one. A tale of brave young souls on the high seas who took on the FCC and corporate radio in a big and beautiful way. That same summer, while I was sitting in classrooms learning the technical ramifications of commercial stop sets and how to say the letter “W” correctly, a cadre of real radio activists were skipping all the technicalities. They’d pooled together thousands of dollars to build a radio station and transmitter on an old fishing vessel, and parked the thing off the coast of Long Island. Yes, it was exactly twenty-two years ago this week that Radio New York International briefly made rock and roll history. And although they were only in business for a few days, the legend of RNI lives on. And rightly so.

Here’s a choppy and murky video tour of the docked “Radio Ship Sarah,” ready for its maiden voyage as America’s most infamous offshore radio station. It’s still worth watching, just to get a feel of the excitement and anticipation onboard.

They dropped anchor just four and a half miles from Jones Beach on Long Island and started broadcasting July 23, 1987 on FM (103.1MHz), AM (1620kHz), shortwave (6250kHz), and even longwave! (150kHz). Amazing. And what did they play? Free-form rock and roll. Which from what I gather was kind of a mix of college radio, album rock radio, oldies and lots of banter. Kind of like what FM rock stations might have sounded like around 1987 if DJ’s still had a hand in selecting the music (mixed with some “pirate” shenanigans). The reaction in the New York City market was immediate, and RNI made headlines around the world. And by the next day the local TV news operations  were sending reporters out on boats to get the story. Here’s a big fat montage of the coverage…

They Sarah crew even made an appearance on that 80′s tabloid TV mess, “A Current Affair, starring the craggy-faced 80′s icon, Maury Povich.

But, you know how this story ends. After three days of broadcasting (and lots and lots of exposure on local and national news) the FCC paid the ship a visit. They weren’t friendly and they had a cease and desist order in their hands.

For a day, RNI was silent. Then the next day the leader of the operation, Allan Weiner gave the go-ahead to crank the transmitters up again, and New York City’s newest radio station was back on the air.

Busted. With Alan Weiner, his partner Ivan Jeffries, and Village Voice reporter sitting in the summer sun in handcuffs as the Coast Guard ransacked all the equipment. Or most of it. And Jeffries and Weiner were charged with conspiring to impede the Federal Communications Commission. A felony. 

However, the FCC didn’t have much of a case and they dropped all charges on the crew. They got what they wanted. The station was off the air and all the investment of time and money on all that equipment lay in runs. But Weiner swore that RNI would return.

The legacy of those few days rebellious days ran strong for a year or two. And the radio pirates who challenged the FCC in front of the nation continued to attract national attention. They had a little stint on MTV, and were offered free air time on a little AM station out on Long Island on a weekly basis, which they fooled around with for a short time. There was even a short-lived rebirth of RNI in 1988, but only on shortwave. And again the heavy hand of the FCC put a stop to it.

However, the “Radio New York International” brand wouldn’t die, and Weiner and his sundry radio cohorts continued to dream the dream in more practical ways. They rented out a weekly chunk on shortwave’s WWCR, and Weiner himself began to pursue a legitimate shortwave station license for himself. And as many of you know, in the late 1990′s that license was granted and WBCQ was born in Monticello, Maine.

Since that time, John P. Lightning (formerly of pirate station WJPL and one of the RNI gang) began a program on WBCQ bearing the name– “Radio New York International.” (Which I wrote about a while back.) A broadcast originating from right here in Brooklyn, for years Lightning (as well as Big Steve and others) have held court with a rowdy few hours of talk, noises, music and silliness. However, last week Lightning and Weiner parted ways. And Lightning, who has threatened to give up show recently anyway, is currently doing a show he still calls “Radio New York International” on the internet. But WBCQ also has a show with the same name at the same time. Kinda strange.

It was all a surprise to me, but I don’t listen to WBCQ enough to know the details. Someone archived Weiner’s open letter to Lightning, and the response, here. Allen took his "open letter" down after a week or so, but Lightning’s responses remain on his site.  Lightning’s modus operandi is slash and burn clowning, which is occasionally monstrous in the mode of Neil Rogers (who also just retired by the way…). It’s all about verbal abuse, especially of the BOSS. Apparently what was once considered good fun became something else, at least as far as Weiner was concerned. And if you read Lightning’s response, he sounds almost sorry. Even recalcitrant. However, he thinks Weiner was being thin-skinned and says in his blog that you can listen to the archives of his show and judge for yourself.

The approach the 22 year anniversary of RNI coinciding with this rift between Weiner and Lightning that struck a chord with me. Not that I know either of them beyond the on-air persona and what I read in the blogophere. But I identify with these guys because we’re members of the same tribe. And although I was never really a radio pirate, we’re fellow travelers who have been cutting our own paths around the fringes of the radio business for the last few decades. And some of my best friends have been creative and dedicated radio disciples who inspired me, and lent me a helping hand when I needed help on a project. Or needed a job. And I don’t know if it’s something about the radio business, or something about the kind of people who fall into it, but I’ve lost more than my far share of radio friends over the last few years as well.

Of course, Allan Weiner’s illustrious pirate radio career started long before RNI. He was just a kid back in 1970 when with the help of another wunderkind named J.P. Ferraro  (a.k.a. "Pirate Joe") they established their own radio "network" in suburban New York City. After being shut down by the FCC a few times, Allan and J.P submitted a rather articulate and impassioned letter to the FCC explaining and defending their criminal acts of broadcasting. You can read the whole thing here, but here’s the last paragraph:

We started this whole thing because we love radio as an artistic and creative medium, and to bring freedom to the airwaves. Not because we want fat bank accounts and chaffeur-driven cars. We have chosen our operating frequencies especially so as not to cause interference with any other stations. However, as human beings and citizens of the United States and the world, we have a right to use the airwaves put there by whoever or whatever created the universe, and use them as we will. This is our freedom, this is our right.

Amen to that.

And over many years Weiner’s friendship with Ferraro was also a partnership, and involved many radio collaborations. Some legal, some not. And while he wasn’t onboard the Radio Ship Sarah for the maiden voyage, I believe he was involved in some of the fun. I do know that he participated in later incarnations of “Radio New York International,” and was involved in another offshore radio project with Allan (which the FCC stomped out before the station set sail). And you can actually hear some of the radio these guys created together over the years. Weiner has run a program on WBCQ called “The Pirate’s Cove” where he plays old airchecks from his pirate days, and you can find some archives of the Pirate’s Cove here.) Worth checking out.

Then in 1992, Pirate Joe came upon a radio station for sale in upstate that was selling for so cheap that he could actually muster the funds to buy the whole thing. And that station was WHVW in Poughkeepsie (which I’ve written about a few times here), a little class D AM station that Joe turned into a wonder of the world by programming a unique blend of American roots music around the clock. And just like so many times before, Allan and Joe worked together on getting the station off the ground, technically. And I certainly don’t know enough to tell you what happened, or why it happened, but somewhere in the process of setting up the new incarnation of WHVW these longtime collaborators experienced something the Stylistics used to call a "heavy falling out."

I only know this because Allan’s mentioned it a few times on his WBCQ program, and he also alluded to the fact that he didn’t just lose a friendship at the time but also lost a bunch of money. And although I finally met Pirate Joe a while back, but I wasn’t prepared to ask him his side of the story. I do have a feeling they probably have differing accounts of how their friendship ended. That’s usually how those things work.

As a fan of both WBCQ and WHVW, I can see how these two stations compliment each other. And in my mind’s eye it’s not hard for me to squint at these two unique radio operations and combine them into one fantastic station, with Ferraro’s musical automation and his D.J.s taking the place of all the preachers and daily dead air you hear on BCQ’s frequency. But that surely will never happen. And in a way it already did. Years ago.

Again, I don’t know the nitty-gritty details of the relationships between these guys. It’s almost not important, and not the type of gossip I like to deal in. Yet, even though I have cleaved away from a few of my closest creative co-conspirators myself, I still find it sad when I hear it about it happening to others. Especially between people I admire, like Allan, and John and J.P. But middle-age is an odd phase I’m still coming to grips with. You don’t have that same wild desire to change the world, but you still do have the drive to do something meaningful or profitable, and you’re so much more aware of the limited time you really do have left. And hopefully you’ve accumulated enough wisdom to guide you in making those important decisions you may not be able to reverse or make again.

But most of all, in the youth of old age you begin to find that you really are yourself now– all the warts, all the habits and a unique collection of memories. And you have a story you tell. It’s you. And you come to a point you have to stand up for that story. And represent it, right or wrong. And then some event or series of events makes your story and your old friend’s story irreconcilable. Mutually exclusive. And it’s been getting that way for a long time, but something happens that makes it impossible for either of you to pretend you accept the other’s narrative any longer.

At least that’s how it’s happened with me. Or how I’ve crafted my drafts of these recent sad chapters. And perhaps that’s how it was with some middle-aged former pirates I almost know. And I guess it’s just not easy to be a person. Even if you’re a white guy…

I guess in the pop psychology books they’d call it “growing apart.” And after all, you can only have so many operational friendships at one time. If you try to keep too many friends close, the relationships themselves can’t be all that meaningful. And even though I occasionally grieve for that handful of lost friendships, like a couple of intimate relationships I never wanted to end, maybe me and some of my middle-aged male cohorts tried to stay close too long instead of drifting apart in a more natural fashion. I don’t know. But I do know that once the smoke clears, the grieving is often eclipsed by the relief of never having to pretend one more time.

And I wouldn’t feel too sorry for Allan Weiner. He seems to have plenty of friends. And while WBCQ is a much more low-profile operation that RNI, it seems to stumble along and somehow prove every day that shortwave is not dead in America. And I shouldn’t forget to again mention the Area 51 programming on WBCQ’s 5110kHz transmitter every night. Cosmik Debris is in charge of that operation, and it’s really where a lot of WBCQ’s creative energy is focused lately. Mr. Cosmic incorporates pirate radio shows, old and new, with other new WBCQ shows, and WBCQ airchecks and probably any other compelling audio morsels that land in his lap. The website for this commendable circus is here.

Speaking of that, Cosmik has helped set up a couple of online webcams, so he can do his show from Maryland as live web TV, and Allan can stream WBCQ programming in main as internet video. And so far there’s some archives which you can find here or here.

And lastly, I should mention that the offshore radio fever dreams of Allan Weiner didn’t just go away when he switched the power on over at WBCQ. He’s currently getting another ship together to do it all again. I’m not sure where he’s gonna park this boat, but I don’t think it’s going to be four miles off the American coast this time. He has a website for it here (not much there yet as of this writing…).

And I’d like to thank Hank, and Pete and this guy, for archiving these historic videos of RNI, which I borrowed for this post. And I’m really glad we can all see these strapping young radio pirates in action on the high seas. Thanks.

And when you’re not doing something solitary like reading a blog or scanning the bands for some exotic DX, remember to take advantage of the friends you still do have, and hang out. Do something interesting, or daring. Why the hell not? A good friendship is a good thing. As luck would have it, some you do get to keep for a long time.

Shortwave Souvenir (part 1)

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

Admitting you listen to shortwave radio in modern-day America is rather unlikely to impress anyone. Most won’t know what you’re talking about. And those who do (and they won’t be youngsters) will probably assume you’re a nostalgic fart wasting time in some antique technology bubble (and perhaps you have too much time on your hands). Years ago, I mentioned some shortwave broadcast I’d heard to my neighbor George. I still remember how he scrunched up his forehead at the time. And in a voice an octave higher than usual he said: “Shortwave?”

I think it’s safe to say that George doesn’t really know much about shortwave broadcasting, but he knows enough to make some assumptions about his neighbor who still listens to it in the 21st Century. And while we get still get along fine, I think the "shortwave factor" might just have changed the way he looks me in the eye some days. And then just a week ago, I happened to hear from someone I’ve known since high school. In an email recounting my life of late, I happened to mention this blog. “I was wondering about the short-wave interest,” he wrote back. “What exactly is the appeal?”

Well, that’s a good question. And even after writing about shortwave radio for years, I don’t have a stock answer. It’s no secret that the accepted wisdom of most who remember shortwave radio’s heyday is that it’s a fossil technology. Whatever miracles it once offered, all the magic has been more than replaced by all the data pipelines that drown us in information and intellectual property. Not only all that, but the truth is quite a bit of the international radio programming that shortwave was known for, now can be heard in a more tidy and clean fashion though streaming audio on your computer.

But to simply write off the technology (and medium) as outdated and unpopular, is to miss what is fantastic and extraordinary about shortwave listening. For one, it’s as wireless as you can get. While some of us are having a hard time getting a good signal from the router to our home office upstairs, major shortwave radio transmitters blanket huge swaths of the planet (without cables or wires or touching base with something in orbit). And then there’s all those exotic and interesting and beautiful radios that were built to hear signals from around the world. These wonderful toys made it a real adventure to tune.

No doubt some shortwave DXers also enjoy the ease and convenience of clicking over to a satellite channel or the URL of an audio stream to get to some compelling content. But almost all of them will tell you that it is NOT as much fun as sitting down with a shortwave radio and finding what’s out there. There’s a sport to it.

Listening to shortwave radio in the developed world was already a waning pastime when the popularization of the internet made it seem even more irrelevant. At least this has become true where the web at home and work has become ubiquitous (in North America and most of the overdeveloped world. In some far-flung wilderness or out in the South Pacific, bringing a portable shortwave radio along would still be a smart good idea.) And what’s kinda funny is that during the last BIG boom and bust cycle eighty years ago, shortwave radio was an innovative disruptive technology, like the web and digital technology today, that shoved a few industries into the abyss, like the makers of mammoth "longwave" transmitters that had previously ruled the airwaves, and all the business surrounding all the huge cables strewn across the oceans to connect the world together. It was the first wireless era.

But for "shortwave enthusiasts" (you see those two words together a lot on the web when you read about people who refuse to give up on shortwave) here in America, the fix was in. By 2001, the mothership of English language programming on shortwave, the BBC World Service suddenly quit filling our sky with their HF band programming. You wanna hear the BBC? Look around on the internet, or try to find out which hours may (or may not) be simulcast on local public radio. Thanks.

And now we’re zooming toward 2010, and world broadcasters are still unplugging their English language services to America. The most recent loss was Radio Netherlands excellent English programming. Turning on a shortwave radio is a different experience these days. (And I won’t even mention all the RF pollution in our "always on" gadget-enabled homes.) Some nights the 25 and 49 meter bands are strangely quiet in sections, like decimated neighborhoods of New Orleans and Detroit. Instead of crack addicts filling the void, the frequencies still standing are now inhabited by spooky preachers and nasty crackpots (and occasional squatter pirates).

Okay, there is Spain, and Greece and Iran and Russia and Turkey and the Ukraine. And more when the propagation improves. And of course, there’s always Radio Habana Cuba (and everything else Cuba…). And round the clock happy talk from China. On a good day you might come across a ham operator talking about something besides their rig or the quality of someone’s carrier. If you’re lucky.

While the release of the Eton E1 blew some minds in the radio world just a few years ago, what’s one of the most complicated and fantastic portable shortwave ever made compared to an iPhone? And all these other globally networked gadgets people attach to themselves? When you get right down to it, it’s easy to see how that buzzy box full of demented preachers, lo-fi ethnic music and plenty of barely audible content (most not in English) might seem oddly primitive. Or even a bit precious– like you’re in some grandpa world– like the anachronistic hipsters I see in the neighborhood, decked out in suspenders and Brylcreem. ("Hey let’s see if we can find that Rocky Marciano fight on the radio!")

But instead of carrying on about paradigm shifts and Williamsburg fashion, let me tell you about my weekend in Pennsylvania with the family. Not relatives. Shortwave radio people.

After a few years of putting it off or forgetting about it, I finally managed to escape the big city and attend the “SWL Winterfest” in Kulpsville, Pennsylvania this year. Finally. It was the 22nd gathering of the faithful in this part of the world. And once I got there I began to wonder why I had stayed away so long. And if you’re wondering what such an off the wall gathering might be about, it was right there in the paperwork that was handed to me at the hotel. It said the mission of the Fest was “to provide a place to relax and just talk radio.” That’s it.

Sounded good to me. My kind of weekend.

In case the lingo’s new to you, SWL stands for “shortwave listening,” or “shortwave listeners.” And that’s become shorthand for the hobbyists and listeners, radio professionals, writers, and all the radio pirates and scanner people who make this annual pilgrimage to the Philadelphia area for this conference. It’s an eclectic bunch to be sure. Yes, mostly guys. Not everyone wore glasses. And not everyone was balding or grey, or slightly padded around the middle. No, not everyone.

Actually, the youngest contingent there was the pirate radio folks. And they’re not kids any more either. There is no youth movement in this hobby. And the word “hobby” seems so quaint doesn’t it? If you’re life is navigated with a blackberry or an iPhone, isn’t that a hobby too? (Albeit, a much more intense and convenient one.) Or maybe you might call that a lifestyle.

Shortwave radio enthusiasts may be a little old-fashioned, but we’re not stupid. The reality that they keep getting together to celebrate (what many would consider) a doomed pastime doesn’t escape the attendees in Kulpsville. There’s a touch of gallows humor to the events, and every year everyone wants to know for sure if it’s going to happen next year. (And in case you’re curious. It certainly will, March 3-5, 2010.) However, nobody seems to make any long range plans for the Fest. At least, not that I heard about.

Not one to let a little futility get in the way of having a good time, I was happy to attend this yearly reunion of listeners and radio heads. And if you’ve gotten this far, I’d wager that you might like to have been there as well. (Or maybe you were there!) But either way, in this post and the next I’m going to share some audio and video highlights from my little vacation. And as you probably noticed, a few pictures too.

The first speaker on the first day seemed like a nice enough guy. Paul Ladd. Young professional. Dark hair. He’s the lead reporter (and a PR man) for a large religious radio operation broadcasting to the world from Alaska. And in their pursuit of world domination (which is, don’t forget, the whole purpose of Christianity), his company is in the process of setting up another huge transmitter on the opposite side of the world. In Madagascar. That’s what his presentation was about– the realities of making such a huge project happen. And from what I understand, this may be the last major shortwave construction project in the world.

On one level, it was quite inspiring– Highly motivated people, working hard to reach out to people in distant lands. And it was kind of fascinating seeing how they shipped every western amenity and tool they might need (including generators to power it all) over to the Indian Ocean, and over a hostile landscape. Just keeping adding fuel and parts and a little food and water (and most likely make regular payoffs to the proper authorities) and you’ve got yourself a high-power soap box at a prime spot in the Southern Hemisphere. Too bad they don’t have something less selfish in mind than turning more people into “us” (and probably away from native beliefs).

And that’s a funny thing. Despite the heavily evangelical nature of (domestic) American shortwave radio, there was very little representation of Christian broadcasting at the Fest. I did see a bumper sticker or two. Then again, I’m sure all the shortwave freaks and believers have their grand locations for their style of fellowship and enlightenment (like the annual meeting of the NASB). On the other end of the spectrum, the more entertaining event at the Fest was a presentation put on by a couple of English fellas who have a wonderful pirate radio operation on the AM band at the edge of London. And they’re not choir boys.

They went through quite a slide show taking the crowd through a brief pictorial history of pirate radio around the UK. However, when they started showing videos, showing off the “technical” (and occasionally hilarious) methods they’ve come up with to hide, protect and power their secret operation.

For many it was the high point of the fest. And I had actually posted a couple of videos of their presentation on You Tube, but after a request from the gentleman to take them down for “security” reasons, I complied. That said, I didn’t think there was anything particularly implicating in what I was going to show you here. Suffice to say that half the fun was Andy Walker’s contiguous mischievousness and his skills as a raconteur. But now you’ll just have to take my word for it. (However, I was kinda shocked when I heard an archive of a certain Canadian radio show that seemed to recount every secret the Brit’s revealed during their thrilling confessional. I guess if it’s not on You Tube, it’s not a security breach.

But what I can offer you hear is the sound of their station, WNKR. As an added bonus, a number of pirate radio operations set up shop at the fest every year. I think most of what I heard through the weekend was a mix of ‘”greatest hits” archives of pirate radio shows mixed with live programming. While it’s all very low power, it is like a big almost-secret cloud of radio that surrounds the fest itself. There’s nothing official about it. It is tolerated. I’m sure for a few it’s the only reason they come.

I recorded several of these temporary radio stations, filling up a few tapes over that weekend. And I’d have to say that, musically, this would have to be my favorite recording of the bunch. I guess I’m just partial to the sound of old 1960′s pop singles, especially some British rare gems. And it’s good radio.

WKNR (recorded in Kulpsville, PA) March 2009
(download)

While there were more thrills and surprises in the pirate radio presentations at the Fest, the yearly “Listening Lounge” put on by David Goren is where the faithful come to commune in sound– to enjoy and honor and fool around with the sound of shortwave radio itself. To listen.

David has a nice website– "Shortwaveology," and a wonderful podcast that resides there. And actually there’s only one. The second one has been almost done for quite a while now. And while a number of us with there were more podcasts from David (and more of his intriguing archival recordings there to hear), the first couple podcasts (I’m heard the demo…) are great– low-key atmospheric overviews of shortwave and DXing and a (grown) boy’s fascination with far away signals in the night. And there’s some great exotic radio clips there for you too. Check it out when you get a chance.

David played (the pre-release version) of his podcast, as well as some of the favorite moments he’s unearthed in his archives, sounds he’s rediscovered in some recent excavations through his boxes. (A few nugget’s from David’s aircheck archives now reside on the playlist of my streaming radio station– Radio Kitchen Radio.”) And this very topic came up in discussion during the Listening lounge.

Many DXers have kept recordings of their listening habits over the years that usually reside on cassettes and reels in closets and attic and storage bins. And many of us feel an urgency to start getting these recordings digitized, so they can find entry into the public square one way or another. (Kinda like what happens on this site.) As shortwave radio broadcasting has changed so radically over the last few years (and is in some sense in its death throes here in the developed world) we want to have more than just memories when it’s all gone (or when it has turned into something completely different).

Makes sense, right? (And if you have intriguing radio recordings you’d like to digitize some recordings and/or share them with others, drop me an email.)
                       
Goren’s Friday night Listening Lounge is always a grab bag of radio related entertainment and conversation, and usually includes a performance or two. Here’s a topical number. A DX Blues. It’s Skip Arey on guitar and vocals accompanied Saul Brody on harp and CQ. It’s the “Cycle 23 Blues.” (Or perhaps “Where have all the sunspots gone? Long time passing…”)

And that’s another thing. Adding insult to injury for the DXer– right now the solar weather is BORING. And that’s not good. No sunspots. The least amount of solar activity in a hundred years they say. And it’s all the stormy details of those dark spots on our closest star that energizes our atmosphere to carry and bounce all those short radio waves around the globe. They make DXing really happen.

All the solar action occurs in regular intervals. It’s an eleven and half year cycle, and right now we are officially at a “solar minimum.” However, we can be relatively sure that in a couple years things are going to get a little wilder up there on the sun. Maybe too wild! But DX conditions will inevitably improve. However, there are other ongoing “minimums” that offer less hope for shortwave radio. Like the dearth of meaningful shortwave broadcasting in English from Europe, and the damn economy (which was still in a downward spiral last I checked.) Of course, this means that the recent spate of new shortwave radio gadgets (and associated improved technology) is over. And it’s even less likely that anyone (other than christians or crackpots) is likely to invest much cash into new shortwave transmissions to the world in the near future.

One of the idiosyncracies of international shortwave (that prevails to this day) is the interval signal. These are snippets of music or sounds or voices that are little audio logos for the station or shortwave service that play before (and in between) programs, usually right before the top (or bottom) of the hour. Like familiar lighthouses along the shore, these recognizable audio bits help the DXer navigate their receivers to the particular station or program they may be looking for. And it gives the listener a chance to adjust or move or tweak their receiver for the best reception of the coming program. Avid DXers memorize many dozens of these, or more, as sign posts for the distant signals they come across.

And they some interval signals come and go, they become part of the lore and culture of shortwave listening. And so for the Lounge this year, David had VOA’s Dan Robinson run the annual informal quiz of exotic interval signals, many a bit buried in the noise and artifacts of the aroused atmosphere that brought them here.        

While shortwave radio fans may enjoy this video for the challenge of the quiz itself, like most of you I had no idea what I was hearing or where it might have come from. While I’ve sampled shortwave radio off and on since the 1970′s, it’s really only been the in the last few years that I’ve been anything more than a casual listener. And well over ninety percent of the people at the Winterfest are far more knowledgeable about the history of shortwave than I am.

But even if you’re more clueless than I was, you may enjoy this video just to witness the aural realities of DXing. You might find it slightly amazing that such a mess of noise would inspire anyone to think of far away lands and how cool the technology was that made it possible to hear such racket broadcast wirelessly from such an incredible distance. And on top of that, these raspy old blurts of sound invoke more than a little nostalgia for the acclimated ears in attendance.

And it’s the same kind of noise that makes more than a few radio wives wonder how their husbands can spend so much time in THAT damn room with all those squawky radios. Of course, nowadays we have the internet. Not much static there (but there were no naughty pictures on shortwave either).

Toward the end I briefly came up to talk about this blog, and specifically about the late John Parker, and the Roadgang program that was on WWL in New Orleans for many years. There’s a couple posts here about Parker already, and probably more to come in the future. David and I were both big fans of the man, and from the number or hits and comments I’ve gotten here when I’ve posted some clips, there’s lots of folks out there who miss ol’ John on the radio.

Not surprisingly, it’s not unusual to see people carrying around shortwave radios at the Fest. It’s almost normal. And while I was at the Listening Lounge I saw Dan Robinson showing off (and kinda fondling) a portable radio a few rows behind me. And as I squinted at it, I was trying to figure out what it could be. Then I thought might know. And I had to go back and see if I was right.

It was indeed one of the holy grails of portable shortwave collectors– a Barlow Wadley. Like a few radios I saw at the Winterfest, before I’d only seen pictures of this South African receiver. They show up on ebay every once it a while. And they’re never cheap.

A 1970′s product from the former apartheid state, the Barlow Wadley is a quirky imperfect radio, but has been a highly prized portable for the shortwave DX crowd. Although Robinson has quite a collection of SW sets back home, you could tell that the recent addition of the Barlow really meant a lot to him. (If you’re interested, you can read plenty about this cool radio here.)

And lucky for me, Dan was nice enough to park his latest acquisition in the exposition area the next day for folks like me to come by and pay their respects. And I was able to sit down and get familiar his Barlow Wadley. It was really something.

I’ve tried to play with shortwave sets while deep inside buildings before (with all those florescent lights and multiple walls between the antenna and the great outdoors), and you never hear much. At least not until you get near a window. But this radio, with just the standard whip antenna was completely alive on 19 meters when I went through the dial. And while I didn’t look for any identifiers and didn’t keep a log, you can hear how rich the band was with signals (clearly audible over the crowd noise behind me). They say this radio is very sensitive and selective. I believe it. Simple and attractive too.

That’s it for now. I actually have more to share with you from my time the radio tribes, including a few more videos and airchecks. But this one has gone on long enough. I will follow up with a part two soon. But I do have to write it first…

Let me leave you with one other sample of pirate radio I recorded Thursday night in Kulpsville. They call the station WBZO. I suppose it might be the sound of a glowing laptop in the corner of a hotel room. Or maybe it was the magic of radio. Either way, lots of old punk rock and the like. Which is okay by me. And the period music also roughly fits the demographic of the pirate people I’d seen lurking at the Fest.

WBZO (recorded in Kulpsville, PA) March 2009  61:13
(download)

I really do like a lot of the music in this aircheck. Reminds me of the kind of radio I was listening to back around 1980. And then in the middle of all the rock and roll you get a little dose of adolescent dick humor out of the blue. More about that in the next installment. I’ll catch up with you there.

Comments? Questions? Suggestions? Leave ‘em below. Thanks.

(If you missed it and you don’t see it above, part two of this post can be found here.)

New Orleans Road Trip 1988 pt 1 (Ohio)

Thursday, March 20th, 2008

Sadly, I was in love with radio for a long time before I realized that it might be a good idea to keep some of it for myself. It's mind boggling for me to think of all the radio stations, radio shows, air personalities and programming formats that have passed on since I've been listening. While I don't regret all that much of my life, I do wish I could have been a little more prescient and stored more radio on magnetic tape in the last few decades. Memory is good, but it’s not accurate and you can only share impressions.

When I was a kid I actually did record from the radio. But like the file sharing teens today, I was simply doing what came naturally– “capturing” music directly from the radio with my tape recorder to avoid paying for it at the store. It was before they made that kind of thing illegal. But all I wanted was the songs. I couldn’t care less at the time about the DJ banter, the commercials, the news– all the stuff that in retrospect makes an aircheck interesting in historical context.

My perspective changed in late 1983 when I went on 4000 mile road trip circumventing the Midwest. I brought a boombox along, and when we found time to put our mix tapes aside, we listened to the radio and now and then I dropped in a few blank cassettes to record some souvenirs. I’m not exactly sure what made me think to make those recordings during that trip (which I still have and plan to feature a bit of here one day), but I enjoyed them enough after the fact that I began a habit of creating and collecting “airchecks” that continues to this day.

 In the spring of 1988 I happened to go another extended automotive trek, this time driving a rusty Buick station wagon from the Detroit area (where I lived at the time) to New Orleans for the Jazz and Heritage Festival. And I brought cassettes and another boombox. And this post begins a series of posts here on the Radio Kitchen blog, featuring some of the more compelling and entertaining portions of radio I snagged on that excursion– a cross section of American radio in the late 1980's.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I never understood why car cassette decks can't simply record from the radio. Looking online, I guess Pioneer did make such a thing a few decades ago but if you think about it just about every other tape player made always came with recording potential. And car radios are often great for DXing. Anyway, I’ve never seen one. But on this particular trip, I tried to make my desire a reality by recording some radio on the road with the boombox (while my friend was driving). If you’ve ever tried to do this, you know it’s not all that easy. Especially recording AM radio, where you really have to hold the radio up to window level to get a reasonable signal.

After I got the tapes home I did something I’d never done before (or never did again). I combed through hours of raw (and rather random) source tapes and winnowed it down to a one-tape 90 minute compilation (with cassette to cassette-pause button editing). Unfortunately, most of the original tapes are long gone. This is a little different from other posts here, in that this aircheck scrapbook years ago for my own entertainment, with no logs or notes. While I believe that most (if not all) of these edits are in chronological order, the actual recording on the road was intermittent. I tended to turn on the recorder when we neared larger cities. That is, unless I was driving (when I didn't record). While the cities and stations included in this homemade artifact is hit or miss as we crossed the country, the variety of radio I included from New Orleans on this tape is somewhat extensive and full of local flavor. But then again, most things New Orleans are full of local flavor.

I'm including these installments as "bandscans," even though almost none of it is technically a real time scan of the any particular band. They are however, compelling samplings of a time and of places that make for some compelling listening twenty years later. Also, for the first time I'll be including some FM broadcasting in on this site. If you've read much here, you may know that my taste (and curiosity) in contemporary broadcasting is focused on AM and shortwave these days. But that wasn't always the case. It wasn't until the 1990's that I lost my stomach for almost all FM radio.

So, here’s the first installment in this radio journey. We drove straight through, and I believe we left for New Orleans Wednesday April 27, 1988. But it might have been Thursday. I'm not sure, but either way it took around twenty-one hours or so to complete the trip. This first segment begins somewhere in early afternoon (northern) Ohio heading south on 1-75, and there’s quite a bit of material from the Dayton market through to Cincinnati. I’m going to post this in digestible chunks, and then when I get to the end of the whole 90 minute affair, I’ll provide a listen/download link for the entire archive as well. Here’s the first installment:

1988 Trip to New Orleans (part 1) – 1-75 in Ohio  9:34

(download)

A cuddly country pop snippet of unknown origin gives way to a frenetic commercial for household goods on sale. Based in West Virginia, Hecks’ Department Stores had spread to nearby Ohio and Kentucky since 1963. But the “Almost Giving It Away Place" had already filed for bankruptcy by 1987 and within the next couple years they called it a day and sold assets off to another couple retail chains that wouldn’t last much long either. A whole lot of regional discount outlets have disappeared since that time (smell the Wal-Mart?), and I miss hearing this kind of sales exhilaration for items like toilet paper and bleach.

A couple of quirky bits later (including some jesus optimism), you hear a punchy keyboard intro for “The Mike Sento Show” on Dayton’s 1290 WHIO (what great classic call letters!). It’s not just a talk show, it’s a “midday forum” I wish the tape gave us a little sample of Mike himself. Apparently, Mr. Sento doesn’t have regular talk gig right now, but he’s still around. Not so long ago he filled in for the dull-witted Mike Gallagher on his national program. (Not a good sign…)

And then there's the "Van Man.” Bobby Layman. Apparently, Bobby was selling vans with a bit of a personal style. He measures “your needs” and “fits you to a van.” (Something snug with side-mirrors, perhaps?) But however Layman was fitting all those vans back then, he must have been doing something right. He now has his own Chevy dealership at the same address as the Columbus, Ohio "Van Man" headquarters advertised here. Catchy commercial.

Then there’s perhaps the greatest living legend in radio today— Paul Harvey, the one-man “Reader’s Digest” of radio. While not a mind blowing moment, this little capture is in classic Harvey style– clipped and slightly alien, in a warm and corny way. And he’s still at it! But he sounds reassuredly young in 1988 (When he was only 69). This particular program, his daily “News and Commentary” has been a radio staple since 1951. Enjoy it while it lasts. "Mr. Slow-Motion" Fred Thompson has been known to fill-in when Harvey takes time off.

Remember Fawn Hall? The Iran/Contra Hearings… Oliver North’s secretary… Shredding critical documents… and the her infamous testimony: "Sometimes you have to go above the law." She was still shining ripely in the middle of her fifteen minutes of fame in early '88, and Harvey announces she starting to cash in it by co-hosting a syndicated talk show next month (which we can assume didn’t exactly set the world on fire). Since then, Hall actually had to kick a nasty crack cocaine habit in the 1990's. Which is kinda ironic, considering her old boss Mr. North funded the Contras with cocaine cash.

“Race fans! Put this in your mind! The sheer spectacle of wheel standing super-charged funny cars with their front wheels up in the air and then showering sparks of titanium all the way down the quarter mile drag strip at a hundred and sixty miles per hour!”

Now, that sounds like entertainment. It’s the vintage boom and bluster of a classic drag strip radio spot for Kil-Kare Speedway in Xenia, Ohio. Do raceways still advertise like this? I hope so. When I was a kid CKLW and WKNR thundered with ads for the Detroit Dragway– boisterous announcers glorifying the exploits of drivers like Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen and promoting all the earth rumbling rapture to be found at the corner of “Sibley at Dix.” While the old Detroit Dragway is history, Kil-Kare Speedway which will soon celebrate 50 roaring years of fun in Southern Ohio. Bravo.

The racing spot is followed by some juvenile banter on an unidentified high school radio station (A likely suspect might be WKET, which isn't far from 1-75). Too bad you can’t hear both sides of this little squabble, as one of the kids hogs the microphone. “Oh, save the whales Keith. Save the whales…”

Waterbeds. Remember waterbeds? From the seventies on, it seemed like every mile of suburban highway sprawl was decorated by two or three waterbed outlets stocked with all your splashy mattress needs. Local radio and late night TV were littered with waterbed store advertising as well. Things have changed. (When was the last time you’ve seen a waterbed?)

We miss the beginning of this commercial for “Henry’s Waterbeds,” but there seems to be a sports theme at play. The announcer hawks his wares in a loud and gruff testosterone fashion over the sounds of a simulated cheering throng. Which falls right in line with the general appeal of waterbed stores– to specifically lure men in to browse and buy household goods and furniture, thanks to the fact that the main attractions on the sales floor offered the promise of carnal hydraulics in the bedroom.

Rock and roll on the AM dial is almost as hard to come by as a highway waterbed outlet these days (or a drag strip for that matter). However, in the late 80's the oldies format was still a big contender on the AM dial. But not for long. By this time the playlists for these stations had gotten so tight and so predictable that format burnout has assured the passing of many of these stations. Just like this snippet from that afternoon of Cincinnati’s 55 WKRC, a segueway from the Turtles’ “Happy Together” to “You Really Got Me” by the Kinks. How long can anyone continue to listen to those same three-hundred songs?

And like many former oldies stations, WKRC is now a run of the mill talk station carrying syndicated rightist dreck like Limbaugh, Hannity and kindred scum. And the dilemma is not unfamiliar. And just how long can anyone continue to listen to Republican party talking points from the same handful of windbags every day? Kinda of like a never ending chorus of “Hey Jude.” In radio, cynical programming and overt predictability will eventually breed listener contempt.

Next WLW, the Ohio Valley powerhouse. And at first sample, this bit of afternoon WLW sounds like boring and typical talk radio. It’s mid-day host Mike McConnell winding up an interview with "David" on the phone. He's written an “insider’s guide” which contains valuable tips and secrets that can make anybody wealthy. It’s the wrap-up of the segment.

“Rich or old, young or poor, even if you have very little money and you have no credit or bad credit, don’t let that stop you.”

There’s a time check here, it’s almost 1:30 in the afternoon. I switch to another station. An AM signal with a stiff whine. It’s one of those soap opera update features (do stations still do this). It’s a somewhat inspired synopsis of the ongoing saga of the “Young and the Restless.”

Then back to WLW, coming out of the commercial break. Listen to all the promotional crap that happens before McConnell resumes the show. This is back when WLW was a Jacor station, and I'd posit that you hear the “Jacor effect” as soon as McConnell ditches the get-rich-quick author. Lame guests like David are some of the worst talk radio filler out there, but nowadays goofballs like this author would (thankfully) have to buy ad time or get into the infomercial business to sell his schemes to listeners. But before talk radio got wise and came up with other ideas, people selling bad books were common filler on the air. And here McConnell is a harbinger of the more savvy talk radio to come, smelling BS from his guest and turning his suspicion into what probably became a spirited call-in segment (which I wish we could hear…).

“Have you ever gotten a book through a situation such as this, through which you made money? Or that improved you in any way, shape or form? If so, I’d like to hear about it…”

While Jacor has since merged and dissolved into Clear Channel Communications, in their heyday they made a lot of headway in a number of radio markets with their inventive, subversive and occasionally vicious programming and promotion. While I wasn’t much of a fan of some of Jacor's music radio projects, Jacor really did know how to manage and tweak a talk radio station into something profitable and compelling. At heart, Jacor was really a loyal cadre of competitive and provocative radio geeks who were major players in the radio business back in the 1980's and 90's. As far as talk radio, Jacor naturally attracted sharp and witty (and often abrasive) talk radio hosts who understood the nuances of exploiting the format for all of its emotional and entertainment potential.  By the 1980's, Jacor realized that being nice, or being “respectful,” was really only important to their oldest listeners. And people who understood the business of radio (like Jacor) knew that talk radio was more than ready to shed its one time role (and continuing image) as a safe haven for old folks.

And although Jacor is no longer, the flavor of the upstart company is still a part of what makes WLW great, ever since Jacor radio maestro Randy Michaels turned it into a hot talk station in the early 80's. And there’s been remarkably little turnover in air staff in the last two decades. In fact, Mike McConnell still holds down the same mid-day slot he’s had on WLW since the early 80's. Which is very rare in the fast changing and incredibly cutthroat business of radio.

“Z-93 Where the hits always hit first. I’m Cat Summers with one of the hottest ladies around right now, just coming off her Academy Award for Best Actress. The new one from Cher, written and produced by Bon Jovi. It’s called “We All Sleep Alone” on Z-93.”

Well, that was a near perfect mic break from “Cat Summers” (My GOD, the greatest fake name in top 40 radio history?…) on Z-93 (in Eaton, Ohio). It's really a perfect mic break– warm, succinct and pure smooth all the way to the post (where Cher starts to sing). It hits the pop culture buttons and says nothing. And the positioning statement– "Where the hits always hit first," is catchy enough. But by 1988 there was no bravery in corporate music radio, and you can be sure no song would make a playlist in a market like Dayton if it hadn't been officially approved by consultants, sanctioned by some kind of payola, and blessed by some call-out research. Of course, the illusion remained for some that the DJ on the air had some say the music they would play.

Z-93 is the late lamented WGTZ transmitting from Eaton, Ohio a couple dozen miles west of I-75. Z-93 was born when they canned the beautiful music format on WGTZ in 1983, and it served as the major CHR (contemporary hit radio, or top 40) station for a large swath of southeastern Ohio, including Dayton and Springfield for over two decades. While this kind of radio ain't my cup of tea, for years this station was local spot on the dial where kids and young adults went for the hits and the happy camaraderie of shiny jocks like Cat Summers. In November of 2007 the owners (Main Line Broadcasting) went out and fired all the DJ's and flipped the station to the new "variety hits" format, otherwise known as the "Jack." Some people in Ohio are still pissed off

This leaves us at the crossing of the Ohio River that April afternoon in 1988, and as night falls we’ll sample some southern R&B radio along I-40 and then I-55. As I mentioned, the coverage from the road in either direction will be spotty, but once we get to New Orleans there’s plenty of broadcasting to hear from the Crescent City, back when it was all still there.

Click here to read (and hear) the next installment.

The Unfairness Of Balance

Monday, November 7th, 2005

Want to hear some really bland talk radio? Check out WNYC here in New York from 10 to noon weekdays. It’s the home of "The Brian Lehrer Show," a program so uncharismatic that it’s hard to believe that it’s broadcast on two powerful transmitters to the biggest city in America. With monotonous tooty groove bumper music and a host who doesn’t seem to stand for anything in particular, it’s what you’d expect to hear in less popular slot on a small town public radio station. It’s kinda sad.

There’s obviously a lot of work that goes into the Lehrer’s show, but the end product is so invertebrate that it’s telling of the leadership and vision of WNYC, and indicative of the lack of bravery in general at NPR. Although they often have big name guests, there are almost no great moments on Lehrer’s program. They try so hard that you feel sorry everybody behind the scenes. For a while, Lehrer was host of NPR’s "On The Media," and it turned out to be one of NPR’s best shows, AFTER he left. While Lehrer is no longer a national NPR figure, he does a high profile program on one of NPR’s most important stations, and his show is the only talk show on WNYC focusing exclusively on current events. You’d think it would make for good listening, but instead it’s a lame balancing act, often lacking courage and at times as compelling as a traffic update.

It’s not that Lehrer’s show is without content or occasionally energy, but it chronically comes across as a utilitarian effort that never seems to inspire. And the program suffers from the same two-dimensional vision that has affected news and issues programing in television and radio– you have to match pro with con, left with right, and yes with no. It’s a methodology that was forged with the onset of cable TV pundit packed panel shows in the 1980′s, and now that same kind of thinking goes into much of the programming of NPR and their affiliates.

In this era of Bush II and the rise of Fox News, NPR in general is feeling even more pressure to be "fair and balanced." Along with PBS, the network has been under fire from Bush lackey and former editor of the heralded Reader’s Digest Kenneth Tomlinson, who was head of the Corporation For Public Broadcasting before he resigned yesterday. (Like Libby, Rove, Delay, and Frist, Tomlinson has been under investigation for shady practices.) Tomlinson has been fighting a multi-front war against NPR and PBS in hopes of not only limiting government money to our public TV and radio networks, but also to reduce the actual hours of news programming they feature. Why? It’s that pesky liberal bias. And while Tomlinson stepping down would seem to be good news for public broadcasting, there’s still plenty of like-minded Republicans at the CPB who wish the network ill.

It’s damn sad that it’s come to this. Compare the situation to what’s happened in Britain. The BBC, the best government-funded news network in the world, is able to criticize the Blair government and their partners in crime (the Bush administration) without similar threats, NPR has been trying to appease the American right wing for years. Of course, the neo-cons and the religious right aren’t going to approve of any government funds going to NPR until they parrot their views without giving the opposition credence or coverage in any meaningful way. Of course, they won’t do THAT, but what NPR has done is comprise their journalism in the name of survival. To quote former NPR host Bob Edwards– "In today’s media, we seem to bring on the liars in order to balance the truth." It’s enough to make your stomach hurt.

While you hear the worst of NPR’s "balance" efforts in their high-profile national news programs, Brian Lehrer’s local show on NPR’s biggest station is a great example of spineless radio. When you do hear some guest making a case against corruption, torture or war, you’re probably also be subjected to some apologist explaining that corruption, torture or war is really okay (or they’ll just deny it’s happening at all). And if there’s not an opposing guest, Lehrer himself will play devil’s advocate and challenge the person with material his staff has grabbed off the web from writers or politicians who defend corruption, torture or war. The net effect is that Lehrer totally cloaks his own opinion on almost every issue, and the content further encrypts him as a journalist or political thinker.

And if that isn’t bad enough, the show rarely gives more than a dozen minutes to most issues and guests. I suppose Lehrer and his staff think it makes for a fast paced show, but instead it’s a superficial herky-jerky two hours of radio which neither enlightens nor entertains. Too many segments on the show end with Lehrer cutting off a guest in mid-sentence because he is "out of time."

On Wednesday, progressive scholar and curmudgeon Gore Vidal was his first guest. The initial topic was his involvement in a National Day of Protest against the Iraq War. But what you hear in this interview is Lehrer attempting to neuter the opinions of the eloquent Mr. Vidal, and then bragging how comprehensive his radio show is. When Vidal brought up the fact that he believes that Bush stole both elections, Lehrer tried to steer him away from the controversies by saying that his show already covered those elections and there’s nothing new to talk about regarding them. Vidal nails him by pointing out that the war and the obscene foreign policies of the Bush regime were all made possible by stealing elections.

Then after twice trying to divert Vidal, Lehrer pulls out a New York Times Magazine piece that paints Vidal as an "America hater" with Harold Pinter. And then Lehrer uses Pinter’s opinions expressed in the piece to see if he can get Vidal to equate the dual invasions of the Bush presidency with the UN military action in Kosova during the Clinton administration. Gotta keep that "balance" after all.

And then after Lehrer isn’t able to successfully counter Vidal in any appreciable way, BOOM– another interview comes to a screeching halt. Total time, just over 11 minutes. The listener learns almost nothing, except that Lehrer is an incompetent talk host with an inflated opinion of his own program. It’s pointless radio with a great guest. Have a listen…

WNYC – Gore Vidal on the Brian Lehrer Show – 11-02-05  12:38

(download)

And if you want to hear another brilliant old fart really chew up Lehrer, you ought to hear his interview with Mort Sahl from April, 2004. I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a talk host slammed so hard on their own program. Sure, Sahl is a grouchy contrarian and it sounds like he’s just gotten out of bed in this clip, but whether he’s fully awake or not he takes aim at the alleged balance of Lehrer and NPR with deadly accuracy. He outs them both for what they really are–  a closeted liberal talk host and a liberal radio network too afraid show anything but chronic and disengenious moderation to the public at large.

In the interview, Sahl brings up Air America and says if NPR had done its job they wouldn’t have had to create a commercial liberal talk network in the first place. While that’s an arguable idea, he makes a valid point. By their constant balancing act, NPR and hosts at their affiliates like Lehrer aren’t just hypocritical, but they’re polluting the news intake of the millions of NPR listeners by putting on liars and conservative apologists and taking extra effort to not irritate the Republicans who hold the purse strings for the government dough they depend on.

This clip is rather amazing and unlike anything I’ve ever heard. It’s kind of a host roast…

WNYC – Mort Sahl on the Brian Lehrer Show – 04-29-04  18:01

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To be fair, there’s some fine programming on WNYC. Leonard Lopate, who follows Lehrer every day, has some compelling moments. While it can get a little precious now and then, he does have some great guests from time to time and you never feel like they’re being cut off before you get hear them complete a few thoughts. Unlike Lehrer, Lopate has interesting bumper music and never masks his political leanings. And if he happens to challenges a guest you know it’s coming from the heart and not some exercise in balance. Speaking of a lack of balance, you oughtta check out Steve Post’s "No Show" on WNYC. Dark, hilarious and as real as anybody you’ll ever hear on the radio, his one hour show is a real jewel in the WNYC schedule.

And at least two national NPR programs that originate from WNYC are actually quite good. I already mentioned "On The Media," the only real dirt digging news magazine in the NPR line-up. And "Selected Shorts" is a wonderful way to ingest some literature via the radio.

However, two others– "Studio 360," and "The Next Big Thing" are just awful. They’re both wine and cheese car wrecks, with so much shiny urbane smugness that you just want to grab your palm pilot and London Fog and take a spin in your new Jaguar after a good listen.

And that’s the thing about WNYC in general. There’s an elitist air to the whole station that reminds me of a Mac ad campaign. Their promos constantly tell you how smart, deep, and worldly WNYC and NPR is, and when they’re begging for money they coddle their listeners with similar praise exclaiming how you’re an erudite individual who demands great radio and comprehensive coverage of every important issue and event of the day. Barf.

During their fundraisers, WNYC’s appointed beggars are as bad as the evangelist shysters who crowd the radio dial pleading for prayer offerings and fleecing their radio flock. In short, they’ve been trained to manipulate and guilt their audience into giving their money. In general, public radio across the board has a parasitical relationship with their own audience, constantly hitting them up for cash while they continue to take huge sums from corporations, advertisers and the government. It’s disgusting. It didn’t used to be this way.

It’s about time NPR sprouted some testicles and just got off the government dole. Sure, it works in Canada and Europe but there’s rampant mental illness in America that seems to rule out being able to fund a brave or excellent public radio network. It has something to do with rampant Christianity and some inherent super-greed that prevents us from having a mature republic that takes care of itself and helps other countries in any meaningful way. The fact that we’re the richest country in the world and we don’t have national health care, we have a failing infrastructure and a hopelessly inept disaster relief program, AND we contribute a shamefully microscopic portion of our GNP in foreign aid to poor nations are ALL symptoms of our pray-and-pay way of doing things in the states, which has ultimately led to the corruption of journalism at NPR.

So it’s sad, but NPR needs to get real. Their affiliates need to quit running the polite little advertisements they call "underwriting" and just run real commercials. Sure ads are disgusting, but they’re real. Radio is a dirty business, and it’s really expensive. But the dance that NPR does every day, pretending that you’re not hearing advertising and that you are so damn smart for listening to the ads and pretending you’re not, is absurd. And the constant begging for money is very tiresome. If all the pleading will hold an audience that advertisers will pay for, then go ahead and beg away. But it’s just plain embarrassing. BBC, CBC, Radio Netherlands, and any other western public radio network I could name doesn’t get on their knees and weep at their audience.

And as far as WNYC goes, it seems like they could do a little trimming to get their budget in check if the government cash dries up. Did I mention the $400,000 salary of their General Manager Laura Walker? I meant to.

Of course, WNYC isn’t all bad. And I’ve heard Brian Lehrer is a swell guy to work with, but being nice doesn’t necessarily translate to good radio. The real tragedy is that WNYC is NPR’s main affiliate in the biggest radio market in America, and it oughtta be better, much better. But more importantly, the NPR mothership, needs a serious retooling if they want to survive and be relevant into this new century. And I don’t think that firing their long-standing morning host or creating a mid-day magazine program that’s even softer than "All Things Considered" has done anything to improve the outlook for NPR. Every programming move the network makes smells of the efforts of demographic number crunchers, and they only seem able to do more of what they’ve done before, with extra balance of course.

There was a time when "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" were essential portions of my media intake. Nowadays I can’t listen to either without eventually having to either turning the volume to zero, or switching the station. Why is it that NEVER happens when I listen to similar shows on BBC or CBC? For every interesting deep news story I hear on NPR I’m subjected to some warm and fuzzy anecdote about grandma’s kitchen or a story about stuffing the kids in the station wagon and heading to the box store. There’s almost no edge or guts to NPR anymore. Okay, there’s Daniel Schorr.

Am I suffering from memory loss, or didn’t public radio in this country used to be creating a superior product without pandering to make itself more popular? These days, NPR is in the business of super-tweaking their programing across the board to make it’s programming more attractive to suburban college educated homemakers, young white collar dudes, or some other type of human being that I am obviously not (and don’t want to be). I want information, entertainment and cogent opinion now and then, but when I hear some inane commentary on NPR I wanna scream– "Take the goddamn pink fuzzy blanket of feel-good radio off me, NOW!"

Just to end this critical rant on an up note, let me mention a really great NPR program. If Harry Shearer‘s "Le Show" isn’t the best show on NPR, it’s damn sure the funniest. It’s a packed hour of Music, comedy and cutting commentary that doesn’t suffer from weak-kneed "balance" and is never cute or cuddly. In fact, it’s so good that it isn’t even on WNYC. Apparently they tossed it into a late night time slot and pissed off Shearer, who took it from the station. It can be heard locally on WNYE (91.5 fm) on Monday nights at 9 p.m. You can also stream it or podcast it. Check his site for details.

Meanwhile, if after reading this you want to check out Lehrer’s show, it’s on WNYC (93.9 fm and 820 am) Monday through Friday from 10 to noon, and is rebroadcast from 1 to 3 a.m. on 820 am. You can also podcast it or listen to individual segments at WNYC’s website. There’s also an official blog for his show which you can check here. Last time I looked it featured a menu from the White House dinner being held for Prince Charles. But don’t be planning to leave any comments on his blog. Balance is best left to the experts.

The Intimate Audio Gadget

Thursday, October 27th, 2005

Really portable music is a wonderful thing. It’s both empowering and comforting to have a shiny music machine in your pocket that plays a variety of your favorite tunes at the whim of your finger on a little wheel. It’s futuristic technology that has made listening an intimate experience… for over FIFTY years.

Back in the early 50′s a company called Texas Instruments was making good money churning out piles of newfangled little transistors for military applications, but they envisioned a wider public marketplace for the little buggers. And in 1954 the TI engineers created a prototype transistor radio. It was small, it worked, and it seemed like a great idea. However, Texas Instruments wasn’t in the business of manufacturing consumer products back then, so they shopped their concept around to several big radio makers of the day. Surprisingly, RCA, Sylvania, and Philco all said "no thanks" before a small outfit in Indiana (the Regency Division of Industrial Development Engineering Associates) took the bait.

Blue_tr1_3Within a matter of months the first commercial transistor radio was a reality. Besides being cute and colorful, the TR-1 was the very first mass-marketed transistorized gadget. It was made here in the U.S.A., and in that spirit the it was prominently on display in stores across America just in time for Christmas 1954. The price? A whopping $49.95. Adjust the cost for inflation and you’re lookin at almost $350 in today’s dollars, not far from the $399 price tag on that first iPod.

Meck_tube_portable_4Before the TR-1, any portable radio you might buy had a "luggage" quality, with big top handles and a bit of heft. They just weren’t all that portable thanks to the warm glowing vacuum tubes they contained. These days, audiophiles and technical stick-in-the-muds properly laud the aural beauty of the "tube" sound, but the glass casings and inner workings of vacuum tubes are rather fragile and they need a protective case, as well as some large batteries to power up. And of course, the tubes themselves aren’t all that tiny either.

Because it was the very first device of it’s kind, the Regency TR-1 has become a legendary and very collectable artifact. A fellah named Steve Reyer has an impressive website chronically the history of (and his passion for) the TR-1. Lots of images and links there, as wellClear_tr1_1 his own tale of bringing one back to life (including audio clips of radio reception from his resuscitated TR-1). What makes these radios even more valuable is the fact that they were manufactured for only one year, and they were made in a variety of shades of plastic, some of the colors are VERY rare. To give you an idea, recently a nice average TR-1 in good shape sold for almost seven-hundred bucks on ebay. The more obscure models can be worth much more.

While it’s very collectable, the TR-1 wasn’t the most beautiful or the best performing transistor of its day. However, if you can just transport yourself back to late ’54 or 1955 for a minute  and imagine you were blasting some Chuck Berry from the palm of your hand with one of these things, you wouldn’t just be rockin’, you’d be one stylin’ technologically advanced human being.

The ultimate hipster showman of that era, Mike Todd, filmed his monster extravaganza "Around The World In 80 Days" during the year the TR-1 was on the market. Todd financed a lot of the movie by dipping into his own personal fortune, and kept his budget down by working Trevor_howard_1out barter arrangements with over forty celebrity friends who made cameo appearances in the film. As part of the booty he offered his big shot buddies for their walk-on roles was a TR-1 encased in a personalized mock leather "book."  Not surprisingly, these are highly prized artifacts today. Have a look at this one, Shirley MacLaine’s "Mike Todd" edition TR-1 Radio.

IBM CEO of the time, Thomas J. Watson Jr, made the decision that same year to "transistorize" all his IBM products by June of 1958. This change generated a lot of internal resistance, and whenever one of his engineers whined about dumping the dependable old vacuum tube, Watson would hand  them a shiny new TR-1 radio as a technological wake up call.

Not long after the debut of the Regency TR-1, a bunch of transistor radios hit the market. Jumping into the fray: Raytheon, Zenith, and a small Japanese tape recorder company who had just changed their long complicated name from "Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo" to something easier to remember– "Sony."

Zenith_royal_500_1Like the TR-1, many of the early transistor radios were expensive. Paralleling the "wow" factor of automotive design of the era, most of these late 50′s and early 60′s models scream STYLE. Take a look at this Hitachi TH-669, or the Zenith Royal 500, which listed for 79 bucks in 1955. And here’s a few attractive vintage Sonys–  the TR-6, the TR-725, and the extremely popular TR-610.

And let’s be honest, in comparison the designs of MP3 players are NOT nearly as charismatic or attractive. Sure, the much heralded iPod may have a "clean" modern design, and they are very easy to operate, but as artifacts there’s not a lot of glamour there. Grundig_solo_boy_3I’m sorry, but that tidy white iPod is really more reminiscent of an American Standard Urinal or a white Ford Taurus. And the "iPod Shuffle"? A white stick. Really really boring. I’ve yet to see any MP3 player that gets my gadget lust up like a classic hot transistor radio.

However, into the 1960′s the transistor radio became a common appliance, and much of the quality and glamour was lost. The big U.S. and Japanese manufactures were undercut by Hong Kong factories churning out millions of cheap little radios for the world market. But that’s when transistor radios began to really influence our music and culture, when almost anyone could afford one- – ESPECIALLY kids and teenagers.

Lots of folks have already linked the synchronous mid-50′s rise of rock & roll and the creation of the transistor radio. But more significantly, when small inexpensive radios became a ubiquitous element of childhood, the record companies and radio programmers took full advantage of a burgeoning new youth audience. Teens were carrying their radios off to locales far from parent’s sensitive and prying ears–  the bedroom, the playground, and the backyard. Loud guitars and rebellion dominated the top 40, and ads for sugary sodas and pimple products congested the airwaves.

First_walkman The next big change in transistorized music happens in the late 1970′s. Gradually the stereo hi-fi marvel of FM radio made it the broadcast band of choice for music, AND the cassette cartridge tape system and become a stable and vital method of high fidelity audio storage. (Remember how "home taping" killed music?) Unlike AM radio (beginning its decline) the FM band & cassettes called for STEREO portables, and the innovations went in two directions–  small and REALLY personal (the Walkman) and big and often VERY public (the boombox).

Walkman_box With the advent of the walkman, the human head became a self-contained stereo listening chamber. People could listen to ANY music they could put to tape, and listen to it discretely almost anywhere, at almost any volume. But like the fanny pack,  the cassette walkman (and the "discman" cd players that soon followed) have generally had very functional and dull designs best covered by an untucked shirt.

Jvc_rc838c_3However, like the original transistor radios the boombox was meant to be loud and proud–  a toy to show off. Instead of coming at the dawn of rock & roll, the boombox broke into the mainstream at the emergence of rap and hip-hop fashion. And it was a golden age of hifi as well, and early boomboxes had a lot of high-tech style knobs, switches, and extra features often beyond the needs of the average listener. But they looked cool, and you felt powerful with one of these monsters atop your shoulder. With clean angular lines, VU meters and lots of shiny metal, many of the early boomboxes were loud and luxurious and often boasted a fat price tag.

Sure "ghetto blasters" are still popular and practical in their own right, but over the years the designs have grown increasingly tedious and utilitarian, and a lot less large. Through the 90′s the boombox designs gradually morphed into that swollen plastic "steroid" look reminiscent of contemporary SUV’s and tennis shoes, with boring bulges and cheap sci-fi trimmings. Yuk.

Hi_delity If you’re a little bit like me, and all this talk of vintage electronics has worked up some lingering gadget lust (or just a little electronics nostalgia), there’s plenty of titillating websites out there where you can exercise your clicking finger into a voyeuristic frenzy. For starters, you could get lost in shiny dials and speaker grilles at this site: "The M31 Galaxy of Transistor Radios." I had no idea how many different types of these radios were made before I looked at this site. Incredible.

Another site I’d recommend, is "Sarah’s Transistor Radios," which features a huge collection of photos of her prodigious collection of transistor radios (with a few walkie-talkies and radio-type gadgets thrown in for fun.) And, there are plenty of other places to satiate your need for vintage-tech porn like here, here, right here, and here.

And for part two of the transistor radio era, the rise of the boombox and walkman, you can get an eyeful at this site dedicated to "the generation of electronics with a soul." It’s the official website of "The Pocket Calculator Show" on shortwave giant WBCQ. Their show is dedicated to tech toys of the late 20th century, and Panasonic_rx70001_1they have extensive online galleries of grand boomboxes and the more practical walkman. And if you’re really into this kind of thing, I recommend you check out their message board: stereo2go. You have to register to search and navigate the messages, but it’s free and easy. Sure, it’s geeky, but the enthusiasm the people who post there have for their audio toys is fascinating and infectious.

But the REAL gallery, the one where you can ogle at lots of old transistor radios that you can ACTUALLY get your hands on, would be ebay. It’s really the best place to find an assortment of classic electronics in the world. Sure, there are plenty of bargains at yard sales and junk stores, IF you have a lot of time and patience, but the only place where there’s always a wide variety of stuff to look at and purchase is ebay.

Itt_628 Old radios are one of the hottest items on ebay, and the classic transistors popular during those baby boomers "wonder" years are especially desirable. But what keeps the market for these old radios interesting is that they made so many of them. And there’s so many manufacturers and variations. In general, they’re really cheap to ship, and to start a start a small collection you’re probably not going to have to rent a storage area. However, if you’ve got a jones for the vintage boomboxes you might want to clear out an extra bedroom, just in case…

Go ahead and type "transistor radio" (or mixing and matching search terms like "vintage," "receiver,’ "boombox,") into the ebay search window. Plenty of toys to look at. From my experience, there are always some truly rare and beautiful old transistor audio devices up for auction. But you’re not apt to get a bargain on the collector’s items, and you may have to be patient if you want to find a particular radio rarity.

Jade_j1212So, if you want to replace a favorite radio of your childhood, or if you’ve gone through some of the online radio galleries and found a couple of transistorized beauties you’d like to own, try searching ebay. If you come up dry, you can save your query as a "favorite search" (you have to have an ebay membership to do this) and ebay will send you an email with a direct link when your vintage
gadget of choice comes up for auction. If you’re serious, you also might want to search" completed auctions", to see if the radio you desire has recently been on ebay and discover the final price (or the failed minimum bid the seller demanded). Oh, and if you want to find out more about a particular old boombox or walkman you’ve come across on ebay, I recommend you try a search (using the make and model number) at the stereo2go message board. I’ve found plenty of boombox enlightenment at that site.

And if you’ve got an MP3 player you might want to look into purchasing one of those old boomboxes. Many have a line-in feature which makes them a perfect Boombox_linein_2 companion for your digital device– a loud portable set of speakers with a lot more class than those antiseptic white and silver iPod-type speaker sets that are going for a lot of dough these days. And you get a radio in the deal!

I’d put in a favorite search on ebay for the little blue transistor radio I received for my birthday in 1968. Four months later I got an email, the identical radio was up for bid and I ended up "winning" the auction. It was a "Jade," a late 60′s Hong Kong cheapie, but it still made me happy to see it again. Total cost, including shipping– ten bucks. And it works great!

Even if you’re beyond collecting (or fawning over) the snazzy transistor radios of yesteryear, you probably remember some time in your adolescence when the a handy little receiver was an integral part of your social and cultural life. It was the appliance that brought music to your playground, your treehouse, your tent, or perhaps under your pillow in the dark. It’s how your heard your favorite song.

Of course, what’s changed over the years is radio itself. It’s not only difficult to find music you like on an AM radio these days, it’s almost impossible to find much music at all. The band has long been dominated by talk, news and sports. However, in many cities (not New York) you can still find an "old man" station playing big band, standards and pop pap like the Carpenters on the AM band, as well as an occasional oldies station. And when you get out into the hinterlands you can still find some great stations frozen in time, playing great old country, r&b, rock and roll, and church stompin’ gospel music.

Sony_tfm151 If you live near New York City there’s at least two places I know of where you can take your classic transistor radio out for a jaunt and let that little speaker vibrate like it was made to do. If you have FM on your old radio, take a drive out to the end of Long Island and experience WLNG. It’s truly the station that time forgot. They just NEVER STOPPED sounding like an early 60′s top 40 station. Believe it or not, they still have some air personalities who been there for two, three and four decades. It’s an oldies station now, and besides the occasional 70′s & 80′s pop fodder they toss into the rotation now and then, you’re going to hear wall to wall reverb, jingles, chimes and hooky rock and roll that’ll keep your old transistor looking and feeling young. And there’s more. They brag they have a playlist of over TEN THOUSAND songs! When you consider the typically oldies station seems to play the same top ten hits over and over again, and most have eliminated almost every hit from the 1950′s from their format, WLNG bucks all these trends.

Of course, it used to be an AM station (then AM & FM), but they can now only be heard at 92.1 FM out on the far end of Long Island (and in Connecticut). If you just want to hear WLNG’s anachronistic glory from the speakers in your computer, stream ‘em from this page. It’s worth checking out.

Speaking of your computer, I should mention The Reel Top 40 Radio Repository. It’s a helluva of a site where you can hear (via streaming) oodles of top 40 airchecks. Unfortunately, it’s all in crappy realaudio. But in the last few years they’ve upped the encode rate for new additions, and more and more of the airchecks they offer are unscoped (meaning they’re complete without the music edited out). If you weren’t around during the 50′s and 60′s it’s a great way to get a taste of what used to blast out of those old transistor radios. (Note: Sadly, the Radio Repository now charges a yearly $15 fee to listen to their archives.) Also, you might wanna check out WPON, a station in suburban Detroit that specializes in rare old hits too. And they stream in the mp3 format.

WhvwThere’s another radio station in New York (state) that broadcasts some old fashioned classics that will sound awful nice coming out of an old transistor radio. A couple hours drive up the Hudson Valley from the city you’ll find a small AM station that comes in crystal clear in the Hyde Park-Poughkeepsie area. It’s WHVW at 950 kHz on your AM dial. They have live weekday drive time DJ’s, and some great weekend shows, but much of the schedule is automated. BUT don’t let that discourage you. WHVW is a tasty amalgamation of old American roots music–  old r&b, western swing, blues, rockabilly, and country, accompanied by perky little jingles.

Sure, the iPod is a lotta fun, but it’s really just another logical step from the revolution that began a half a century ago with the transistor radio. And isn’t that how we really consider ourselves futuristic, by all the mass marketed electronic toys and appliances we use everyday–  cell phones, computers, mp3 players, digital cameras, and those dopey little gaming gadgets. All of these wonders have been made possible by tiny transistors and their more complex and super-small progeny, the IC chip. Where would we be without all that stuff? The way we live our lives has been forever changed by all this gadgetry created by human ingenuity…

… or at least by SOME KIND of ingenuity.

Alien_radio_tower_3You see, some people don’t think that the transistor or the integrated chip came about by purely HUMAN invention. Perhaps you heard about that alleged UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico back in July of 1947. The invention of the transistor happened just five months later. Coincidence?

Okay, it probably is. But a few people have connected the dots– like the late U.S. Army Colonel & Intelligence Officer Philip Corso. In his book, "The Day After Roswell," Corso says Bell Labs had some UFO wreckage from the crash site to play with, and after reverse engineering some of the guts inside and come up with the transistor pretty quickly. He claims that a fake research history covering years was created to hide the stolen alien technology. Others with lesser credentials have claimed the same thing. And if you think about it, you’d hope that a craft built to cross light years or dimensions of reality to get to another galaxy would have some kind of fancy in-dash sound system.

But whether transistorized audio came from outer space or Bell Telephone Laboratories, it definitely injected some variety and attitude into popular music. The ability to easily commune with your favorite songs, or conversely to blast them in public as a personal statement, provided an The_first_transistor_1opportunity for artists to gain commercial success with music that communicated directly to the individual instead of the masses. Nonconformists and kids gained power in the media marketplace. Listening to my little blue transistor radio as a youngster I heard eccentric songs like "I Am The Walrus," "Time Has Come Today," and "MacArthur Park." It’s hard to imagine that they could have become mainstays of my childhood if the only radio in the house was a big monolith planted in the living room and shared by the whole family.

While home stereos (and now home computers), are swell machines for filling our domiciles with song, there’s an incomparable comfort in bringing your music with you as a companion, or as just as something you wear. MP3 players are popular because they enrich and rejuvenate this same desire to have an intimate relationship with music. And it all started with the transistor radio.

1968_transistor_girl_6Over the years, artists and their songs have become our escorts and confidants. They speak for us and with us. Our portable audio devices give us soundtrack and company. The next time you’re out and about listening to some esoteric radio or audio, or just a song that speaks to you on a personal level, that moment (and probably the very song you’re hearing), might have never happened without the miracle of miniaturized electronics. And whether we have some far flung aliens to thank, or just a bunch of pocket-protector types in plastic-framed glasses, either way some funny lookin’ dudes unwittingly gave us the freedom to rock on, and to do it without some agitated grown-up screaming "TURN THAT DAMN THING DOWN!"

Go ahead and turn it up! You rebel.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog)