Archive for the 'AM Radio' Category

The Towers of Microville

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

Living in New York City for over a dozen years, it's been easy to forget just how much mass media has changed in that short time. In New York, newsstands are still stuffed with all sorts of fat newspapers and magazines. And there's still plenty of locally originating programming on our radio and TV stations. I suppose these are all benefits of living right in the hub of the the biggest media market in America. Even during these tough times advertisers still invest in our millions of eyes and ears. While it's true there's been some scaling down over the last few years, for now much of the twentieth century media landscape remains intacf. And we still have a lot of pay phones around here too, although not always in good repair,

But when I get out of town I'm quickly reminded that the world outside of my bubble is in an advanced stage of media transformation. Many city newspapers I come across are about the thickness I would associate with a college paper.I don't really see much local TV here or anywhere, but quick scans of the radio dial are dull forays though assorted syndicated content and prepackaged music introduced by voice tracking strangers from afar. And plenty of the public radio stations i  come across are just relay transmitters connected to one studio that provides content for a dozen or more stations at once.

Despite my city slicker ways, I have a love for visiting small towns. I always like the line in that Kid Creole song, "Going Places"– "Believe me, when you leave New York you go… nowhere." Which is a little snarky, but there's some truth there. And for me, it really is where I like to go from time to time. Nowhere. If just for a while. Some quiet. Some nature. Perhaps a dirt road. Dark skies filled with wondrous celestial objects by night. Stuff I can't find at home.

And as I’ve mentioned so many times here, I do love the RF quiet of the countryside– being a world away from all the human infrastructure and gadgetry, and an often ideal environment for DXing shortwave and AM radio by night. And perhaps surprisingly, daylight listening out in the boondocks can be rather interesting as well. In many isolated corners of this country, there's some unique local radio to be found on the AM dial, if you take the time to scan around. And I always hope to come across some of those stations that still make a point of serving their community somehow. (In a more profound way than relaying Limbaugh or the "Music of Your Life.")

A long long time ago, television and radio stations were required by smartly constructed regulations to be directly responsible to their local community– to provide credible news and information (and music and entertainment) in the interest of the area’s population. Broadcasting was supposed to be a call to service for those how transmitted on the public airwaves. And the “news” wasn’t expected to be profitable either. And there was something called the fairness doctrine…

By the late eighties stations were no longer expected to be responsible or fair, and the rise of right-wing radio began when the syndicators of the Rush Limbaugh Program began giving the show away to small stations across the country. And more and more of the music stations that clung to the AM dial were automated, many by satellite services.

And it’s been a long steep decline from there, and over the last couple decades deep deregulation and the evolution of media in general have all but stripped away most of the local talent and local concern from small town radio. Radio stations originally licensed to serve small regions and communities are often programmed from afar now. And one big corporation may own half the stations in one town. If you’ve ever sampled AM radio while driving across the country, I don’t have to tell you that the majority of these once strategic local media outlets have been reduced to relay transmitters for syndicated rightist talk, sports jabber, or just prepackaged music.

However, that’s not completely true. At least not yet. Contemporary hit radio formats moved the FM band decades ago, but there are still a few stations on the AM dial who program their own brew of oldies and/or nostalgia, or perhaps traditional music, and are able to commands enough of a local listenership and ad revenue to keep the bills paid, and keep a few people employed. I’ve written about some of these stations over the years, like WHVW in the Hudson Valley of New York, and WCXI outside Flint, Michigan. While both of these stations are locally programmed, neither comes close to staffing air talent around the clock. WHVW relies heavily on homemade music automation, and WCXI is strictly a daytime operation. And in the summer they sign off at six p.m., hours before sunset.   

In a more common scenario, small town radio stations will feature talk or music programming from afar for most of the day, but will showcase a local program or two during more popular listening hours (usually the drive-time hours, or late mornings).

Whenever I’ve gotten a chance to travel, I like to get some essence or flavor of the regions I’m traveling through. Which isn’t always easy in these over homogenized and globalized times, especially when you’re moving at interstate speed. But listening to regional AM radio, when I can find it, gives me some small sense of where I am. Like in western Pennsylvania for example.

I-80 in Pennsylvania is an unusual piece of highway. Unlike any other interstate I can think of, it cuts through a large American state (the long way!) and never approaches one major city. It serves a more national function– linking the east coast megalopolis with the great lakes region. That’s what I was doing, zooming from New York to see the folks in Michigan.

If you wanna go to Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, or even Allentown, there are I-80 exits all the way offering highways that will eventually get you there. But this hilly and green interstate highway is graced with only a handful of exits where you’ll find an actual city waiting at the end of the ramp. I found one of ‘em about two-thirds of the way across the state– DuBois, Pennsylvania, where I recorded this.

WCED-AM DuBois, PA – Gary Stormer 06-28-10
(Download)

“One more time I wanted to mention, we’re looking for a LARGE dog…”

It’s hard for me to think of one line that epitomizes small town radio more eloquently than a plea to help locate an escaped house pet.  And apparently this missing mastiff is one of the bigger news stories of the day in Du Bois, Pennsylvania. And it’s Gary Stormer on News Talk Radio WCED. And it seems like likely that Stormer is, in a sense, the voice of DuBois.

Sounding younger than his years, Stormer has been at WCED for a long time. When he was hired back in 1973, WCED was still a full service AM radio station in the mid-20th century tradition, with an array of local hosts offering news, information and comfort (and probably safe MOR music) for folks in Western Pennsylvania. That was a number of formats ago, and the only one left is Stormer– the lone local guy in the morning on a station that carries an all too typical roster of national right-wing propagandists like Limbaugh, Hannity and Mike Gallagher.

And while I don’t know Stormer’s politics, he sure sounds a lot nicer than Limbaugh and his ilk. And it seems like almost every advertiser is also friend of his. And if you have a local event or political campaign you're looking to promote in the DuBois area, you probably probably wanna find yourself sitting in the studio with Gary Stormer some morning.

I don’t know much about DuBois, other than reading online about its history as a lumber and coal town. And the yearly “Soap Box Derby” is kind of a big deal there. And the winning teenager usually lands a guest spot with Gary on the WCED Morning Show.

While data from this year’s census isn’t available yet, ten years ago the population DuBois was found to be 98.18% “white.” And I doubt that’s changed much. In that vein, I found the ad for “Bamboo Garden” in this clip in this clip kinda funny.

I love small town radio commercials in general. I don’t mean the Geico ads and all the usual national ad campaigns, but the spots produced in-house– where and the stations production team get to show off their talents, anybody who works at the station could become an actor in a short drama or comedy. Or both at once. Like this couple who personify some of the biggest fears white Americans may have when it comes to dining at an Asian restaurant.

Him: "It’s CHICKEN…aaaah, I think?”
Her: "HOT SPICESoh joy.

Followed by the soothing announcer:

“Never settle for what you don’t want to eat again…”

You see, at Bamboo Garden you can create your own custom stir fry. No surprises. No strange Asian ingredients sneaking into your digestive system. Kind of reminds of me of those pain-free dentistry commercials. And it seems somehow appropriate that this fear-free stir fry democracy would occur out at the Main Street Mall.

One other note. Gary plays “Fact or Crap,” a simple game where listeners are prompted to call in and guess if some historical factoid he offers up is a fact or just… crap. Yet, the whole concept seems so 1973, when a quick Google search will answer questions like this in a second or two. And the woman who calls in kinda sounds like she might have done just that.

Just seven years ago the Census Bureau and the Office of Management and Budget made the role towns like DuBois play in their region official. Just as major cities are and their region of influence are known as “Metropolitan Statistical Areas,” expanses of America dominated by smaller cities are now classified as “Micropolitian Statistical Areas.”

The “micropolitan" designation comes from having a core city with less than 50,000 residents. Folks who live hours away from large cities still need the same services, supplies and media as people in major population areas, and the dominant town in the region often provides those people well beyond the city limits. Which near DuBois means radio stations like WCED and places like the Main Street Mall. And I’m sure there’s a Wal-Mart too. (I just looked it up, there’s TWO of those discount monstrosities there.)

Like the industrial Midwest, which really begins at the edge of Pennsylvania and works around the Great Lakes basin, DuBois has seen better days, losing about a third of its population since World War 2. Which is still much better than the devastation that’s occurred to cities like Flint and Detroit in Michigan, and nearby Youngstown, Ohio. But a week or so later I found myself on the fringes of another “Micropolitan” area. This time in northern Michigan, which hasn’t been so savaged by the decades of declining industry.

According to the 2000 Census, the Northern Michigan tourist haven Traverse City, Michigan had a population of 14,532, just a little bigger than DuBois in its heyday. And unlike the old coal mining town and the big cities in Southern Michigan, the population of Traverse City is on the increase. 

For people who visit Traverse City in the summer, the city can seem a lot bigger than fourteen thousand or so. Which is probably because there’s so many people flock there in the summertime. Located on beautiful Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan, Traverse City is the largest city in the northern upper peninsula of Michigan. And because of that, it’s influence really extends far beyond the micropolitan statistical area that surrounds it. At least in the summer. And fittingly, the glories of the tourism season is the topic at hand in this next clip.

WTCM-AM Traverse City, MI – Joel Franck 07-06-10
(Download)
 
Like WCED, WTCM also broadcasts Limbaugh and Hannity (and the vile Mark Levin) and an assortment of rightist monkeys through the day. However, they hold onto the last five hours of the morning with two local hosts– Ron Jolly and Norm Jones. But here you get neither. Instead you’ll hear Joel Franck, the station's News Director, sitting in for Jones. His producer Michelle is playing sidekick.

Although Traverse City isn’t quite in the U.P. (or The Upper Peninsula), Joel’s articulation bears a lot of the cadence and emphasis of the “Yooper” accent of that region. If's a little North Dakota, a little Ontario, with some Ohio in there. A little flat. A long "A" quite often. And some funny words and phrases.

As I tune into this program, the overwhelming sense is that Franck must be treading water between guests or something– prodding listeners to call in and share what they think summer means. He’s obviously fishing for feel-good responses, as festival season is underway and all the downstate money is pumping into the economy, but I do hope that the host who usually holds down this time slot is a little better at coming up with show filler on the fly. Franck may be a fine news guy, but as a talk host he doesn’t seem to bring much sizzle to the table.

And maybe I’d be gettin’ all chapter and verse as I preach to the choir on this one, but isn't it heavenly how Joel's patter is blessed with such a swell congregation of church metaphors.

“This is God’s country, there’s no doubt about that. And things like the lilac festival make that happen… spreading the gospel of summer here on News Talk 580.”

Of course, he wasn’t proselytizing or anything. But you can tell a lot about somebody by the well of metaphors they dip into. Like the way Rush Limbaugh is always using lingo from TV football. When you hear somebody keep going back to the same conceptual broom closet for language and comparisons, you can be sure that it’s the place where his brain likes to wallow, where his soul is most active. For Rush it’s ESPN. For Joel Franck, it’s church. Or something like that.

And then there’s an ad for Howard Walker, who since this time has become the Republican candidate for a state senate seat in Michigan. Sadly but not unexpectedly, he's pushing the simpleton "tea party" agenda– lower taxes, less government as “keys to turning this state around.” As if the ongoing tragedy that is the Michigan economy would get better if rich people could continue to pay even lower taxes. While that might seem a little misguided, I’m sure it would make the Koch brothers happy.

The next commercial took me by surprise. It’s promoting the “Epsilon Jass Band” and the dixieland service and concert they put on at a local church through the summer. While I don’t know anything about the provenance of these events, it is kind of interesting how for almost fifty years some southern Louisiana roots culture was successfully grafted onto the top of Michigan’s lower peninsula. I find it heartening to know that there’s actually a contingent of white folks doing the second line in Petoskey, Michigan every summer– sporting masks and umbrellas “made by the official umbrella lady of New Orleans.” Who knew?

Like I said, you can learn some interesting stuff by turning on your AM radio when you travel around the U.S. It ain’t like hobnobbing at the beer garden at some summer festival, but sometimes AM broadcasting can really bring you to the street level of a local community. The FM band and local television is often all about making money and national trends, but AM radio isn’t so profitable, or slick. As I’ve said before, amplitude modulated broadcasting doesn’t rake in the cash it once did, but it remains a good medium for transmissions of power and identity. And it's a way that broadcasting can enrich and strengthen a community.

Three years ago the FCC finally realized how so much deregulation has destroyed what was once and proposed new regulations to force stations to once again provide content in the interest of their community of license. The way it used to be. , when the radio spectrum was originally considered to be a "limited resource belonging to the public. But the mega-corporations are fighting the FCC' to stop ANY new regulations on the industry. They no longer consider themselves "trustees" of the public airwaves. Too often radio station is merely a money machine these days. And the few corporations that own most of them are not interested in localism or diversity or serving anyone or anything– other than their own profit margin.

In closing, I'd like to encourage you to check out your local AM dial some time, and see what's left. Sometimes I forget that here in New York City there’s some fascinating local programming on the AM band as well. You just need to know when to listen. We have some quirky homespun radio here too. If you take the time to sort through the schedules of the brokered stations. While this is a big big city, much of New York is a compression of small towns (we call them neighborhoods) with lots of individuality and personality, and characters.

Of course, this kind of AM radio is rarely as professional and polished as you might hear at higher profile stations. And I won't deny that part of the charm is getting a chuckle or two from the rough edges and amateur announcing you occasionally hear. But more often I listen for the passion and individuality of the presenters on these show. And you can feel the connection between the folks on the air and their listeners. And the sponsors. They know each other personally. Or they could. Or they will. Or they just feel like they know each other, because they having something important in common. They really live together.

Yes MP3 players are fun, and podcasting and streaming radio continue to pull people away from traditional radio all the time. And people carry around little pocket phones that do all that and SO much more. It's not hard to see why there's a prevailing school of thought that old-fashioned radio, especially AM (and shortwave), is becoming irrelevant. But I'm not so sure. At least in the long run. I do wonder if someday radio will rediscover the importance of  truly serving their community of listeners, and not just airing cheap canned content between commercials.

And some lost dogs might have a better chance of getting home.

New York, New York, New Year (2010)

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

I know. I KNOW. And I’m sorry.

It’s been a number of weeks since I’ve posted anything here. Perhaps the longest time I’ve been away since I started this blog. The truth is I’ve taken on a project or two that’s been taking up more of my free time over the couple months and I haven’t been able to dedicate myself to the Radio Kitchen as much as I would like. And I really am sorry.

I’m not giving up this blog. At least not yet. But I’m not a good blogger in the traditional sense. I’m not so good at firing off quick and succinct entries, and my posts generally take some time. And there’s usually audio involved and research and rumination and it’s rarely a quick process for me. However, if there was actually some money in it, you can be sure I’d be packin’ this thing with content almost every week.

But I was inspired the other night. New Year’s Eve. And I didn’t have a gig. I didn’t have a party to go to either, and the girls here at the house were fast asleep. So instead of ducking into some local dive bar for some holiday misbehavior, I stayed home– like Jack Horner. In the corner. Just me and my radio. (And a recorder.)

And the result is this bandscan– an hour and twenty-minute crawl up the AM band recorded in my Brooklyn apartment as the year 2010 was sweeping over America. Right before midnight, I turned on my G5 and started crawling down from the top of the AM dial. A powerful Radio Disney outlet at 1560kHz is very close to my house, and that nearby fifty-thousand watt signal wrecks havoc at this end of the dial. So I opted to start this bandscan where their signal pollution yields to clarity– with a holiday greeting from the lovely and talented Alan Colmes on progressive talker WWRL.

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 1
(download)

And then, Radio Disney itself. Their transmitter (broadcasting at 1560kHz) is so close to me that I’ve heard their signal in on every possible band at some point, as well is in my home stereo and even on a pay phone down the street. On some of my radios, every frequency from 1530 to 1600kHz suffers from some form of Radio Disney intrusion.

Next up 1520, WWKB in Buffalo blasting in strong with a sleazy “get out of debt” commercial. Then a little “Auld Lang Syne” and a promo from “Federal News Radio” (WTOP 1500kHz in Washington D.C.). However, the magical odometer click itself is served Cantonese style at 1480kHz, WZRC. It’s quite exciting. Probably more so if you happen to be Chinese.

While I don’t know for sure, I suspect that this was probably a simulcast of the New Years festivities on the American Chinese-language TV network– SINO Television. While simulcasting obviously saves a lot of money, if you’re a serious radio listener you can usually tell the difference. There’s a lack of microphone intimacy, and the assumptions of visual cues make audio-only TV less interesting than real radio.

And then there’s a couple more ethnic notches on the NY AM dial– some pumping macho reverb from WNSW at 1430kHz and some kooky jubilance care of WKDM at 1380kHz. Whooooh!

And so ends all the “live” sounds of celebration captured in this bandscan.

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 2
(download)

“Thank you for inviting me into your prison cells.”

At first, I thought there was going to be a punch line. Or that there was something metaphoric going on I might have missed. But no, it was all real, just like prison. It’s some regularly scheduled religious inspiration for the incarcerated (with your host– a real "retired correction captain”). Although I typically I hear religious stuff at 1330kHz (WWRV) all the time, it’s usually a Spanish language scenario.

We pass by 1300kHz for a quick ID. I think it’s the ESPN Radio station in New Haven. And how about this Spanish language drama at 1280kHz? Wow. Give that guy a hankie. Man. Then a brief interlude with Smokey Robinson & The Miracles on WMTR, at 1250kHz in Morristown, New Jersey.

From 1250 we slide down to 1210– the Big Talker WPHT in Philadelphia, where they were replaying a Michael Smerconish program. He’s an odd bird, and the only right wing talk show host to support Obama in the last election. At least that’s what I’ve read on the internets. I don’t watch much of the talking head pundit shows on TV, but I gather he makes his appearances on a few of them too. And he has a shiny head.

Then on to some urban contemporary gospel from WLIB at 1190kHz. When Air America left the station to settle over at WWRL at 1600 they gave up a great signal for a pretty crappy one. That’s followed by some messy and overlapping signals. And then this clown…

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 3
(download)

As if there wasn’t already enough meanspirited blather emanating from this Clear Channel owned Fox News affiliate (WWVA at 1170 kHz in West Virginia), they also see fit to let this hateful son of a bitch run at the mouth on a transmitter that might reach a third of the U.S.

It seems that all the major religions (especially the powerful monotheistic ones that dominate our world) have a dark beating heart of intolerance and malevolence somewhere at their core that leads some twisted "believers" to spew forth the kind of filth that tumbles out of the mouth of this old geezer, rambling incoherently about “judgment” and “vengeance” and “punishments.”

The particular brand of stupidity at play here is uniquely American and Protestant flavored, which seems to the most popular type of religious mental illness you hear on the radio. If you’re interested in getting some good hate on for Obama (and all the Catholics and Muslims and almost everybody else), then you’ll probably find something to celebrate in this fulmination. Happy new year!

I let that guy carry on way too long before shuffling down dial to Bloomberg’s “business” station at 1130kHz. It’s a panel of experts on the human brain. Wow. The trouble is (again) that we’re obviously hearing some TV simulcast. And we’re supposed to be looking at some incredible computer generated images of the computing machinery of the brain. You see anything?

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 4
(download)

Then, the bewitching baritone of Art Bell from WTAM, 1100kHz in Cleveland. Since he’s retired (four times!) you don’t hear him host his old “Coast to Coast” show much these days. But he does often show up a few times a year– especially for his annual “Ghost to Ghost” program (with call-in ghost stories) around Halloween and then for his annual prediction (for the next year) show. And being a bit of a legend these days and rarely on the air, you can hear some real affection and fan awe from the callers who are able to get through to talk to Bell.

I used to be entertained by Bell’s late night sideshow many years ago. His love of everything radio has always been kind of inspiring to me. But I gotta say, he does sound uncharacteristically low-key in the samples in this bandscan. I guess he’s been though plenty of changes over this last decade. But you do hear a lot of people calling in predictions that are pretty dire and cataclysmic. And that, is typical.

Then we slide down into the lap of snarling neocon Laura Ingraham, care of WBAL (at 1090 AM in Baltimore). Then it’s 1050kHz here in the city, a frequency with a colorful history that’s been the home for a number of call letters over the years. These days it’s just WEPN– another syndicated ESPN yawner on the AM dial. Sad. And then 1010 WINS, one of the oldest all-news stations in the country (and they continue the teletype sound effects in the background to drive the point home). And here you get one of the joys of MW DXing for some, the local traffic and weather forecast. The crowds are dissipating in Times Square. And in the sky, a wintry mix. Meanwhile there’s been a few fire fatalities over the holidays. And through some unexplained turn of events New York City “apparently” has found some extra money laying around. A surplus.

And in a broader sense, I suppose that’s one of the things that make New York so appealing. Somehow, somewhere, there’s some extra money laying round. In a place like Detroit, not so much.

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 5
(download)

Mike Gallagher (AKAThe Smellster”) is one of the least evolved human beings I’ve come across in the national media. A man who does not seem to actually think, but just react to things (in a predictable and ham-handed partisan manner). And when he’s not scripted well, his program can really go off the rails. Yet he kind of sounds like Rush (which may account for his radio career), and his show is powered by the same kind of boomy and barely educated bluster Rush practically invented. Also like Limbaugh, Gallagher seems to get his greatest insights and inspiration from watching professional football on television. I suppose it’s almost like going to college. The fact that this guy’s show has risen into the low end of the talk radio top ten (at #8!) says a lot about the audience for this format today.

And while I’m all in favor of heartfelt apologies, this tear-soaked confessional from some a highly-paid prima-donna athlete is just so much difficult listening. However, to Gallagher all these sniffy regrets amount to a “life changing moment.” Usually all I get from the Smellster are “station changing moments.”

Then I move up to a man speaking in a language I don’t understand on another local “ethnic” (and brokered) radio station– WPAT at 930kHz. And then at 900kHz it’s the “old time radio” programming I’ve been hearing late at night on CHML for years (They’re in Hamilton, Ontario). It sounds like we missed the setup for the joke here.

Then into the nasty IBOC sound (in-band-on-channel) sound that surrounds WCBS at 880kHz. It’s an envelope of nasty digital noise that bookends the analog signal of AM stations carrying “HD” programming. And it’s also why you don’t hear WLS in Chigago at 890kHz anywhere near the city. And not a chance of getting WWL at 870kHz in New Orleans (which reaches well into Canada for some). 1010 WINS and WOR do the same thing. DXers hate it. And in many major cities you hear it across the dial.

On WCBS you hear about the eminent retirement of Robert Morgenthau. At 90 years old, Morgenthau had been the District Attorney of Manhattan since 1975. Amazing.

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 6
(download)

I really don’t know a lot about the CJBC, except that it’s a CBC powerhouse that broadcasts in French at 860kHz. And it’s the only significant CBC station broadcasting to the U.S. It wasn’t always that way. Years ago, their English service reached a large swath of North America from 740kHz. But there was a move to consolidate all thier broadcasting to FM, and the far reaching AM frequency was abandoned by the CBC. CHWO (better known as "AM740") is a unique musical presence on the AM dial in these parts, but the loss of a major CBC on the AM band is still a damn shame. That said, I think I’ve been hearing interesting music late at night at 860 AM since I was a kid. And the music varies so much that I couldn’t even qualify what kind of music I’ve heard the most on that station. I don’t know what kind of pop music is at play in this sample. It’s old. A show tune?

Art Bell again. From WHAS Louisville this time (at 840kHz). Another kooky caller. I wonder if Bell ever succeeded in giving up the smokes. His voice has that same nicotine gravitas as Larry King (and a bunch of guys who ain’t around any more). At 820kHz we find the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC. I’m not a fan, although he occasionally has good guests. It’s local. It’s NPR. Then the inevitable Art Bell once again, on 810kHz, WGY upstate in Schenectady.

CKLW (800kHz in Windsor) is a funny kind of talk station that you don’t hear really hear in the states. Or certainly not on a big transmitter like this. I’ve never heard a "political" show on CKLW (but lots of centigrade weather!) And listen to the promo for the nightly astrology show. “Life might feel like a struggle…” Lots of self-help and health shows in general on this station. In America, AM talk radio is about personalities agitating listeners with propaganda all day long. And while there is certainly political talk on Canadian radio, they seem to still be able to have radio stations and call-in shows that aren’t agenda driven or enslaved by the news cycle.

That said, I really can’t listen to “call the doctor” talk radio for very long. All those symptoms make my stomach hurt.

Nothing really comes in until I hit WABC here in the city at 770kHz. John Bachelor, who recently moved into a nightly slot on WABC since crazy blabbermouth Curtis Sliwa took his little red beret down to WABC’s relatively new competitor, 970 “The Apple,” where he’s their new morning-drive entertainer.

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 7
(download)

Now we’re at 760kHz. Detroit. (No IBOC from WABC, so the signal is still audible here.) There’s still a little crosstalk from WABC next door. It’s an ad for a drug rehab joint in the Detroit suburbs. The announcer says they can help “teens, college students, business people, CEOs, lawyers and health professionals” with their addictions.

I guess if you want to get a handle on the marketing of drug treatment services you could probably learn a little by decoding this list of less than socioeconomically diverse list of prospective "clients. Seems like they left the majority of common folk off this at list. Every style of addict mentioned here probably can afford their services, and some might have a willing (or desperate) parent who can come up with the dough.

Then it’s the ABC News. The world’s biggest pseudo-event of the season totally obscured any other feasible healdine that night. news focus for a few hours. Their reporter spends so much time “poetically” describing the panorama of litter and debris in the street in Times Square that it’s just a little weird. And sad for a major news outlet to lend so much weight and instant nostalgia to a run-of-the-mill clean-up scene at the end of a big party.

Then there’s three more quick headlines in ABC’s top of the hour news. And they’re all sports related. The last one is regarding the contract stalemate between Times-Warner and Fox, which was resolved a few days later. And the ABC take on this little media turf war was that if the se companies wouldn’t come to a peaceful resolution agreement don’t come to some agreement that a number of “Fox” football games might not air on Times-Warner cable the next weekend. Right before WJR cuts to local weather the football story is capped off with a sound bite from some media analyst. Although it wasn’t the intention, I think his words may capture some of the spirit and passion of our great nation as we enter 2010:

“There is no hue and cry louder and angrier than if you deprive the American viewer of football.”

I’ll bet that’s true. And ABC only has two minutes to encapsulate current affairs at the top of the hour, and this is what you get. No international issues. No war updates. And certainly no investigative reporting. There is no breaking news. Perhaps because the news is already broken. Tiger Woods? Still in trouble as far as I know.

At 750kHz you can hear WSB in Atlanta. But it’s not pleasant. Some nights this station comes in pretty clearly up here. But then again, often I come across a Neil Boortz rebroadcast on this station. This noise is more pleasant.

AM740 is a big bunch of noise as well, which is unusual. In 2008 this station changed hands, and changed call letters. No longer CHWO, it’s now CFZM. I don’t hear much beyond the overnight programming, and at that timeit’s still a MOR/nostalgia mix, only with more classic rock. But it’s still the only full-time music format blasting out a full (“clear channel”) fifty-thousand watt signal in this part of North America (WSB at 650 in Nashville is the only other one you’re likely to hear in this area). AM740 has actually been coming better than I’ve ever heard it this month. Like a local. But on New Year’s Eve the reception wasn’t so hot…

The AM Dial in New York, NY – New Years Eve 2010 pt 8
(download)        

Let’s listen to the radio horrors of wading through that IBOC racket once again as I approach the “analog” version of New York’s WOR at 710. (Which denies us the chance to hear both CKAC in Montreal at 730kHz and WGN at 720 in Chicago.)

The local news is still underway on WOR with Pat Wallace. The news is a little more substantial than the trivial world synopsis offered by ABC. The Joey Reynolds show reconvenes after the news. As an intro (instead of playing one of his many “theme songs”) Joey plays some old comedy bit he recorded during his top-40 heyday in the 1960’s. Let’s just say some types of humor have a longer shelf life than others.

As I’ve written before, the Joey Reynolds show is kind of an anarchic affair. While there are some focused interviews, more often than not Joey gets a few folks behind the microphone and lets it rip without much of a game plan. When it’s not good it’s pretty bad. And in this particular clip it’s not so good for Joey as an unidentified guest (a local restaurateur who apparently knows Reynolds and his thrifty nature rather well) gets the better of the old "shock-talker."

However, the real roasting occurs when Reynolds makes a few cracks about Dick Clark’s brief appearances during his “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” spectacular. As you probably know, Clark suffered a massive stroke a few years back and the once glib "eternal teenager" now speaks in a somewhat slurring and halting fashion these days. While trying to avoid sounding cruel, Reynolds makes a few lame jokes about Clark’s performance that night and then wishes that he just wouldn’t appear on TV at all. As you can hear, the guest (sporting a hardcore NYC accent) directly takes old Joey to task and doesn’t let up. You don’t often hear a radio host let a guest chew him up like this on the air. Instead of standing his ground, or taking on the animosity directly, Reynolds keeps running away, trying to change the subject. Odd.

If it wasn’t for the IBOC digital garbage on each side of WOR’s signal, powerhouse WLW in Cincinatti would almost certainly have been audible here. But not anymore. The first credible AM signal I came across is a messy read of a Bob Seger song at 690kHz. I don’t know what station this might be. Typically I get French talk radio from Montreal here. There’s an oldies station in West Virginia at this frequency, but I see they’re running at all of fourteen watts at night, And then at 620kHz– WSNR, kind of a sad brokered station hanging out there in the breeze. Here they’re broadcasting something in a language I do not know. Hebrew perhaps?

Nearing the very top we find the once mighty WMCA at 570kHz. Once a top 40 giant, then a pioneering talk radio station in New York, WMCA is now it’s a lowly Christian outlet with a lot of brokered hours up for grabs. This is some kind of religious self-help talk show, featuring a woman complaining about her sister making the rest of her family miserable in the name of Jesus.

    “There’s something wrong, isn’t there?”

The answer of course is “yes.” Her sister reminds me a little of a certain scary relative my family tries to avoid. And it seems like a good place to close as well– because more significantly, there was something wrong with 2009 too, wasn’t there?. After that one night a year ago, when it was new, it wasn’t much of a "happy year.” And it seems stupid has become the new smart. At least we have football. And Jesus.

But I think things are going to get better. I really do. But I’m not counting on 2010. At least not yet. It certainly didn’t start out so well.  Maybe by 2012 will bring some good luck for us. And from what I understand, a lot of people are looking forward to that year anyway.

Meanwhile, I hope to get back to you soon. And to get another post up where before so much time goes by next time.

I suspect if you’ve gotten this far, that you might just have more than a passing interest in radio. (And if you got this far by skimming over this post, maybe might wanna read this. Or at least look it over…) And in closing, there’s two things I’d like to mention. For one, the Winter SWL Fest is coming up soon in Kulpsville, PA (March 5 & 6), which is a completely unique and entertaining way to spend a weekend. I certainly recommend it. I had a lotta fun there last year.

Also, if your DXing habit fell by the wayside during the interminable solar minimum over the last couple years you might wanna dust off your old receiver and try scanning around again some time. The sunspots are back! And although I haven’t been able to do much serious monitoring lately, I have noticed my portables seem rather lively lately when I’ve taken the time to sample HF the bands, with improved reception across the board.

Meanwhile, thanks a bunch for listening. And good DX to you!

Rust Belt Road Trip 2009 pt 1 (It Hurts So Bad)

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

As I mentioned in my last post, I recently embarked on a solo road trip from my Brooklyn to my ancestral homeland– The American Rust Belt. While I grew up in Michigan, my genetic material harkens back several generations in Ohio. And on my drive to my brother’s house near Flint, I had my new CC Witness with me in the car, which presented me with an opportunity I’ve never had. For the first time in my life I was able to record radio (or at least do so safely) while driving. Why was something so simple so impossible for so long?

So that’s what this post is all about. I’m offering you a montage of what I was able to find on the AM radio dial that Sunday afternoon as I circumvented Lake Erie on the interstates. It’s almost like you’re sitting in the car with me and I’m changing stations and carrying on. And we’re off on another adventure in amplitude modulation. I’m glad you could join me.

Unlike most major interstate highways, interstate 80 goes all the way though Pennsylvania without connecting to any of their major cities. Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and a few significant metro areas are well south of I-80 and are served by other highways. Interstate 80 is just a fat transportation pipe connecting the Great Lake region with the East Coast megalopolis. While it’s a pretty drive with lots of hills and trees and road signs, without any appreciable population centers the long drive through the middle of the state is a rather sterile zone for medium wave reception by day. Of course nightfall would open up the DX possibilities, but that’s not what this post is about. This time around it’s the hometown sound. And it’s partly cloudy. Intermittent rain.

It’s not exactly a bandscan (you can’t change frequencies when the CC Witness is recording), but most of it was local radio captured as I zoomed through coverage patterns. It’s more like the previous collages I’ve posted from a road trip I took back in 1988 from Detroit to New Orleans. (I hope to get back to that again one day soon.)

And as it’s 2009, I’m driving through some desperate territory. Both Ohio and Michigan were not only hit early and hard by the economic downturn. But there’s been a hardscrabble vibe surrounding the American shore of Lake Erie and the Detroit River for decades. So many of the manufacturing jobs that once provided a good middle-class life for millions in this part of the world have been drying up for decades. This recession is just one more kick in the head. And while I can’t say for sure, if things would have turned out differently I might have stayed in this part of the world instead of ending up in New York. Despite so many strange but true horror stories, there is an appeal to Detroit that can’t be denied. It has an edge.

I start recording after I’d already been driving for six hours, when I was approaching Youngstown.

Rustbelt Roadtrip pt 1 (Northern Ohio and S.E. Michigan) August 23, 2009 17:48 
(download)

1390kHz WNIO Youngstown, OH – The Lettermen Hurt So Bad

We start with a small station that’s changed its format and call letters and frequency so many times that it almost doesn’t have a history. These days it’s a minor Ohio concern of Clear Channel Communications playing a canned format of safe old pop music, otherwise known as “America’s Best Music"” (or just “The Music Of Your Life”). While I must admit that I appreciate that these stations are still around (and are probably the most common music format left on AM here), these descendants of old-line MOR radio have all but disappeared in bigger radio markets. Yet, the appeal of this format within the 45 to death demographic still has some limited financial potential in markets that might not have ethnic communities that are large or robust enough to support more profitable brokered operations. And you almost never hear local DJs on these stations today. Sadly, this is a format an owner is likely to put onto a transmitter when they don’t have any better ideas (and aren’t willing to invest in any real programming).

1440kHz WHKZ – Cleveland, OH – A Christian Commercial Break

WHZK is one of three Cleveland stations owned by the right-wing media group, Salem Communications. And they all have nicely matched call letters– WHK, WHKW & WHKZ. Most of Salem’s radio properties offer either religious or political propaganda, or both. In Cleveland, WHK at 1420kHz carries Salem’s stable of “Townhall” talk shows, while fifty-thousand watt giant WHKW at 1220kHz (formally WGAR…) is a right-wing Christian talk outfit. And reflecting a lack of programming imagination and a poor local economy, WHKZ merely simulcasts the evangelical and super-conservative content of WHKW (with the exception of a few weekly hours sold separately). So in effect, WHKZ and WHKW are the same station.

And when those stations aren’t simulcasting scary shows like “Focus On The Family” or “Jay Seculow Live,” they fill the gaps with brokered programming from local churches and evangelical hucksters. When I come across this station, one paid program is ending and another is about to begin. We hear the tail end of “The Bible Stands,” presented by the Liberty Bible Church. And if you listen for the number, you might be able to call in for your own free “scripture portion.”

And speaking of tough times, aren’t you sick of people talking aboutstaycations” already? I’m not saying you can have fun around the house, but don’t call it a vacation. Yet, the chirpy announcer in this first commercial intones– “when you’re worn out and tired, what’s more appealing than going home?” So, instead of planning a weekend getaway, this Ohio mattress maker has a suggestions–. "create a luxurious retreat right in your own bedroom." In other words, buy a new bed and lay down. Give up. Watch TV. Have some wine. (I suppose if this wasn’t a Christian station they might hint at some other bed-friendly activities…) But more to the point, instead of spending some time on the beach or at a ski lodge, why not resign yourself to the same horizontal padded purgatory enjoyed by shut-ins, invalids and the brain-dead– “where you can relax and just be yourself.” Creepy.

And then you get something more modern– Internet dating care of eHarmony.com. I’ve come across their ads on secular radio stations quite a bit, but I don’t recall hearing anything like– “Do you ever feel that God has someone special in mind for you?” Hmmm. I personally don’t ponder god’s thought process in any great detail, but I guess some do. And a little web research reveals that the founder and brainchild behind eHarmony.com is a born-again buddy of the evil Dr. Dobson himself (Who knew?). Perhaps longing for an American theocracy is just one of the twenty-nine meaningful dimensions of Neil Clark Warren‘s personality.

1350kHz WARF – Akron, OH – A Minor League Weather Report

It’s the middle of a rain delay during an AA minor league baseball game. It’s the Akron Aeros hosting the Binghamton Mets. I guess it goes without saying that minor league sportscasters are probably aren’t the most seasoned announcers on the dial. And hearing them attempt to describe some slightly complicated weather patterns around Lake Erie (and how it relates to tarpaulin dimensions) provides for a little unintended entertainment. And if you’re interested in such things, the game was eventually called because of the bad weather. However, the Akron Aeros actually went on to win the Eastern League championship this year. Rah rah.

1420kHz – WHK Cleveland, OH – Kelly & Company Hate Barrack Obama

This is the Salem/Townhall rightist talk station I mentioned earlier. And as you can hear, a strong adjacent station is bleeding across the frequency on the CC Witness. I think it’s actually their WHKW transmitter at 1440kHz.

I was lucky enough to come through their broadcast zone and catch this snippet of their only locally produced talk show, “Kelly and Company.” And what you hear is more of the fear and smear campaign against any health care initiatives Obama may support, as well as childish paranoia regarding Obama administration “czars” driven by up and coming kooks like Glenn Beck.

Twenty-two percent of people under 65 in Cleveland have no health insurance. None. And who knows how many thousands more are under-insured. The Point? These two clowns can’t stop poisoning the airwaves with half-truths and nonsense cooked up to dissuade listeners from supporting reforms that could one day save their lives.

Of course, Kelly and Company is just one of hundreds of local and national programs participating in these scare tactics lately. Although a majority of Americans favor a "public option" in any health care reform package, on any AM radio in any town in America you’ll hear far more of these wild-eyed claims about "death panels" and "evil czars" than you will any common sense discussion of the issue, or anyone speaking in support of a health care safety net for all.

1040kHz – WJTB Cleveland, OH – 7 Sons of Soul song

I’m including this song in its entirety, because that’s the way I heard it in the car that afternoon. And after those clowns on Kelly and Company, it lifted my spirits a bit.

It’s the “7 Sons of Soul,” and from what I can tell this is one of their biggest hits– “Praying 4 You.” While I’m not a follower of any supreme being in particular, I suppose I’m as likely to pray as some believers (I just don’t picture a winged being or classic painting of Jesus). But all kneeling and beseeching aside, what first attracted me to this song was that it sounded a bit like Bobby Womack. And that’s a sure way to get my attention.

1380kHz – WDLW Lorain, OH – Mother’s Music Box

Here’s a sentimental little clip. Through most of the week, 500 watt WDLW now goes under the moniker “Kool Kat Oldies.” (Cute, right?) Yet, despite a number of format changes over the years "The Polka Express" has been a mainstay on 1380 AM transmitter since 1969. I’m not sure, but I think this the program’s host, Tom Borowicz, reciting a loving ode to "mother."

I’m sorry there’s not more of this show to offer, and it never comes in all that clearly. But when you’re moving along at 70 MPH you go in and out of the broadcast range of a class D transmitter pretty quickly.

1370kHz WSPD Toledo, OH – Cleveland Indian Baseball Game

While I’m not a sports fan, the sound of baseball on the radio gets the old nostalgia hormones seeping into my brain case, and I’ll bet some of you might feel the same way. In this instance, the Indians are up 2 to 1. And apparently, they haven’t played Baltimore all year. In the end, the Indians knocked in four more runs to beat the Mariners 6 to 1.

And now part two.

Rustbelt Roadtrip pt 2 (Northern Ohio and S.E. Michigan) August 23, 2009 18:27
(download)

1560kHz WTOD Toledo, HO – Dwight Schultz Goes Bananas

Oh man. It’s the “Monica Crowley Show.” Instead of the proclamations of Monica the manic-monotone you get to hear a character actor trying his hand at talk radio. It’s Dwight Scultz, who played the hapless Lieutenant Barclay on Star Trek. From what I read, he’s apparently even more famous for another eccentric role as part of the “A-Team,” but I can’t tell you much about that. I believe Mr. T was played by another actor.

Mr. Schultz has had his own internet radio show in the past (but it appears to be on hiatus right now). And I believe this fill-in gig is one of his first forays into real broadcast radio. While I haven’t taken the time to listen to his "Howling Mad Radio" podcast, the spastic performance here worries me. Will the rise of Glenn Beck encourage other up and coming rightist talkers to incorporate more hysteria and mental illness into their presentation?

Perhaps Schultz didn’t have much notice for this fill-in gig, or maybe he’s just buzzing through some “greatest hits” from his podcast to get some traction and attention in the real talk radio world, but this material is past its shelf date– mostly low-grade smear material left over from the campaign. And somebody should tell Dwight that the new TV sets don’t have all those blue, red and green dots when you snuggle up close to them these days. You’re dating yourself Dwight. And that whole bit sounds like something he might have adapted from some old comedy monologue.

While the earlier “Kelly & Company” clip dealt in exaggerations and ugly rumors, there’s nothing remotely informative about Dwight’s bluster. Just sensational jingoism and cheap emotional appeals packaged for simple minds. A lot of this going around these days.

1520kHz WNWT Rossford, OH – K-Love

Another waste of an AM transmitter, simulcasting a syndicated Christian pop format from at FM station, which also runs the same fare on four more FM repeaters around Ohio. The announcer is female and perky and plastic. But perhaps you’ll be inspired by her anecdote about how a particular singer was tapped by the master muse while in the middle of some household chores. 

1230kHz WCWA – Toledo, OH – The Festival           

Here’s some small town radio you can sink your teeth into. And I love the reverb. Perhaps it’s recorded at the actual community center. I’d like to think so. And the accents have that Midwestern flat twang I grew up with. After all, Toledo is practically in Michigan (But trading it away for the Upper Peninsula was really a helluva deal). But I digress…

It sounds like quite a celebration. Cold beer, rock and roll, and cheap carnival rides for the kids. And then there’s all those chicken dinners and lotsa pasta. And if that’s not enough, they’re gonna have that polka band again this year. All in all, it sounds like a church-sponsored party where a guy like me might even have a good time. I’ve been to similar types of events, and I hope you have too.

560kHz WRDT – Joey Was Eleven Feet Tall

Although this station isn’t owned by Salem Communications, it’s programmed with a very similar “Christian talk” format as their two simulcasting stations in Cleveland. And it also goes under the same radio brand name– “The Word.” There is just a short clip of some religious dramatization for kids. I think it might be “Paws and Tales,” a Christian cartoon that’s also a radio show.

As usual with these types of programs, there’s some wisdom lesson for children and the "moral" at the end illuminate how the Bible has all the answers to life’s difficulties. In this particular tale a group of “youngins” are constantly gossiping about a distant friend named “Joey.” And “since they had so little information, they just started adding to what they had… and before long they had convinced themselves that he was eleven feet tall and had a patch over one eye.”

I didn’t listen long enough to discover if the punch line was regarding “bearing false witness,” or something about how “gossip separates close friends.” Which seems like a suitable parable for so many teabaggers all clucking about on the web convincing each other that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Nazi Muslim Communist who’s preparing to put all the dumb white people in concentration camps. And have you seen that patch over his eye?       

690kHz – WNZK Dearborn Heights, MI – Serbian Dance Party

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is a Serbian show. WNZK is an ethnic brokered station that I always enjoy a bit of when I come back to Michigan. And something strange about this station, at night their transmitter changes gears and move one notch down frequency to 680kHz. It’s the only radio station in America that does such a thing. At least the only one that does so legally.

I hear lots of Eastern European and Arabic music on WNZK that I don’t seem to come across on the brokered stations back in New York. Just a quick break is all you get in this clip. Some fast music and a female announcer in between. Something about a “Labor Day peek-neek.”

760kHz – WJR Detroit, MI – Come To The Table (featuring the Real Gerber Baby)

The last grab from my first highway recording adventure, and the only radio station in Detroit proper. And much to my surprise, not only is the iconic baby food model still on the planet, but she’s live on the radio with WJR’s Steve Stewart! Of course, when you hear her ragged old larynx it’s difficult to picture that little cherubic face in your mother’s cupboard. But hell, even I was cute once.

And speaking of cute, this Steve Stewart character is just too much. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard him before, but enduring his saccharin glow-schmooze in between the seasoned croak of Grandma Gerber makes him just sound even more annoying. I say take it down a few notches Steve. Try to sound a little bit more like a human being instead of a non-stop ad campaign.

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, WJR used to be a fantastic radio station. One of the greatest full-service radio stations in America, bar none. And unlike a few similar great radio stations from that era like WBZ, KMOX or WLW, the “Great Voice of the Great Lakes” trashed their heritage and commitment to the region for pure profit and partisan propaganda. And not only is Steve Stewart the most fake and friendly fool I’ve heard on the radio for years, but he also makes the programming decisions over there. Or at least he’s stuck with defending them. 

I happened across this particular column in the Detroit News the other day and came across some disparaging words about WJR’s programming from Dan Mulhern, the husband of Democratic Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, where he bemoaned how WJR "used to be a pretty balanced station that really gave people a sense of what is going on. But now, with their national and local programming, there is such a Republican tilt to everything." And why was Mulhern venting? WJR delayed a live speech from the elected governor to broadcast a talk by a bizarre county-level Republican hack. There’s your public service Michigan.

WJR was once a place where there was an ongoing regional conversation, where news and issues of Michigan and the Great Lakes were aired and discussed and reflected upon responsibly. And there was lots of great music and a regimen of informative and unprofitable features. More than any station I’ve known, WJR offered radio that provided companionship. But that was many years ago. Now your companions at 760kHz are Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin– meanspirited and partisan talk monsters syndicated from afar. And Stewart’s response to his challenge is cynical at best– “It’s the sort of programming that makes money” he insists. And isn’t that all a radio station is about in the first place? Cash, right? What else is there?

Located in a Wayne County where almost seventy-percent of the voters are registered Democrats. And the registered voters in Oakland and Macomb County (the densely populated and wealthier adjacent counties) also lean slightly more heavily toward the Democratic party. And if you think I’m insinuating that WJR should shift to a progressive talk format, I’m not. I think a less political stance would make more sense for such a strong and historic radio station. And as it stands, the WJR transmitter is a fifty-thousand watt erect middle finger offering it’s profane message to all of downtrodden southeastern Michigan. 

While I may despair at so much scary ultra-conservative radio stations usurping the American AM dial, I’ve really resigned myself to the fact. The Fairness Doctrine (and the wisdom that once made it the law of the land) is history. But when an important regional radio operation that was once a font of information, wisdom and good music becomes just another conservative propaganda repeater it’s just a tragedy. Then again, maybe I’m just another strong personality with a strong opinion. It just seems like the more you love radio these days, the more it breaks your heart. Yes, it hurts. And it’s so bad.

And I’m glad you could join me for this afternoon of medium wave sightseeing. You probably won’t be surprised that I made some more recordings out there, including the trip home. As I recall there was a lot more religion, some sports, and more of the increasingly more vicious (and common) attacks on the authority and humanity of Barack Obama. I haven’t decided if I’m going to post any more of that. (You want more?) There’s already a number of interesting shortwave recordings I made last summer I’d like to go through too. And then there’s that New Orleans trip (and some New Orleans radio…) It’s just hard to find enough time.

And speaking of my summer radio recordings, I’ve recently encoded all the bandscans and airchecks I’ve captured over the last few months and dumped them all into the programming folders for my internet audio stream– "Radio Kitchen Radio." "What stream?," you might ask. There’s a link there on the sidebar on the right. The adventures in amplitude modulation there are yours to enjoy. And if recent statistics mean anything, there’s probably no waiting as you read this. Have at it. If you enjoy this blog you’ll probably hear something you like on the stream as well. There’s almost 500 hours of fun there.

I made a plea for more comments in my last post, and although a few did land on the blog afterwards I’m still going to come back for an encore. When I DJ I almost always take requests, and the same goes for the blog. What do you like to see (or hear) more of here? What do you like? What’s boring? I’m never quite sure what types of posts readers enjoy here. I so see which ones get the most hits, but that’s mostly driven by search terms. But as a blogger I’d like to know what regular visitors think. Should I post more  AM radio music? More bandscans? Shortwave? Historic or exotic recordings? Medium-wave DX? Or more of those kooky radio conspirators? I haven’t decided where I’m going with the next post, so I’m throwing it open for suggestions.

As you may have noticed, I really like being able to make most posts multimedia affairs, including radio recordings with almost every entry and occasionally a video or two. But I always wonder if people actually listen to these audio files, and I you might stream or download them. I don’t have a way of knowing these things yet.

And when I look at my stats I see so many of you in distant lands are coming to the Radio Kitchen, and I wonder if distant readers are looking for shortwave radio posts or for articles on American broadcasting. I am curious about such things. Just looking at my most recent logs I see people just today from Brasil, Germany, Poland, Russia and the U.K. have visited the Radio Kitchen. And a while ago I remember some of the people who visited my blog the most were located in faraway lands like South Korea and Israel. Yet I get very little feedback from outside North America. Do you come to the Radio Kitchen to hear American radio? Or were you just looking for hot pics of shortwave supervixen Melissa Scott? (If so, I don’t have any…)

The bottom line, most comments are helpful. And it’s always nice when they add more information or insight to the entry. And charity is nice too. I really do love working on this blog, and if there was real money in it I suppose I’d pound away every day here. But as it is I do what I can, and do I appreciate hearing from visitors now and then.

I’ll be back soon. Thanks for listening.

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.

Tony, Tony, Tony (and more Tony Oren)

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

From the email and comments I’ve received, it’s obvious that my two previous posts of  Tony Oren airchecks have struck a nerve with more than a few of you. One rooted in the brain’s pleasure center perhaps. The soft spot.

When the "middle of the road" and easy listening radio formats were ubiquitous it was easy to enough to ignore or laugh off this style of radio if you were a rock and roll kid. And nobody would have called these stations exciting. They were staid, mannered. And something else often not appealing to the younger set– informative. Even today, almost all the programming on KMOX (besides the omnipresent rightist moron Rush Limbaugh) is still local. It’s kind of a tradition.

The big regional MOR outlets like KMOX were known as "full-service" radio stations because they served an entire community in a very real way. Although the target audience for this format was mostly likely the middle-aged crowd, it was really way of creating radio for everybody. It was commerical broadcasting as a true public service that’s kind of hard to imagine today. A clear channel 50,000 watt radio station, KMOX served more than just the greater St. Louis area during the daylight hours. And then at nightfall when the AM radio waves bounce off the sky, KMOX was a giant regional station, providing news, information and entertainment to perhaps a third of the lower fourty-eight states.

What stands out today is how this radio fomat was mature and professional through and through. Broadcasting you’d be hard pressed to hear in the youth-fixated culture that has taken control of most media these days. And whether the announcers were chatting or playing music, the general vibe was comfort. And familiariity in a broader sense than just playing the hits or repeating cliches. When you turned on the radio you were immediately in the hands of a pro with excellent manners and perfect diction. Like Tony Oren.

KMOX – Music and Musings with Tony Oren – 03-16-86 pt 1
(download)

What I have for you here are three whole hours of Tony Oren’s "Music & Musings" from March of 1986. And these particular tapes were recorded locally in the St. Louis area, so you’ll hear none of the fading and Cuban interludes that were baked into the last Oren aircheck I posted (although I kinda liked those anomalies…) And it’s recorded with remarkable clarity. A big thanks to Cliff Saxton for sharing these airchecks with all of us.

KMOX – Music and Musings with Tony Oren – 03-16-86 pt 2
(download)

To be honest, I haven’t had time to listen to all three hours yet. As these airchecks are “unscoped,” all the news and ads are intact. Which has an appeal as time goes by. Funny to hear about Reagan haranguing congress for more “rebel aid” when we would soon find out that Oliver North was busy selling weaponry to Iran to fund the administration’s pet ragtag army in Nicaragua.

KMOX – Music and Musings with Tony Oren – 03-16-86 pt 3
(download)

As far as Tony himself, it’s fun to hear him talk about old Howard Cosell getting into trouble with the boxing bigwigs. And speaking of long gone colorful characters, after Oren plays some Sinatra he mentions that the crotchety old crooner was coming to sing in St. Louis soon. Nice.

And two other things I found kind of odd. Tony gets a good laugh about Ted Nugent’s offer at the time to buy the elevator music company Muzak so he could destroy it, without seeming to comprehend that the nasty Nuge would probably ask a guy like Tony to “suck on" his machine gun as well. And the other funny thing was Oren’s “summary of weather conditions” that starts out with temperatures and conditions around Missouri, and then he moves onto Atlanta and Boston, then the rest of America and almost all the major cities around the globe. Then, when you’re starting to imagine that this will never end, it does and you’re in the middle of a routine forecast for St. Louis. As much as I love Tony, I was kind of afraid he was going to jump back on the hamster wheel and lay out a slew of weather forecasts for half the planet. Instead, we get the mellow wisdom of Rod McKuen. Perfect. Certainly better than more weather.

KMOX – Music and Musings with Tony Oren – 03-16-86 pt 4
(download)

The fourth aircheck starts with the end of a hokey Joni James number and then Tony offers a brief commentary on the pre-dawn sky of St. Louis and then bows out to get another cup of coffee during the last newscast of his program. And then later he announces that the sun has risen– “a great big hot fiery ball.” Not the kind of thing you’d get with your traffic and weather together on the ones these days.

Again, a big thanks to Cliff Saxon for this contribution. He also says he has at least one tape of John McCormick ("The man who walks and talks at midnight"), a more famous KMOX overnight personality a few of you have expressed an interest in, which I might be able to post here some time in the future.

Meanwhile, I’m off for a week or so. Into the countryside. And as usual, I’ll be recording some radio. Actually I just got my hands on one of C Crane’s CC Witness devices and I’m looking forward to spending some time with that as well. So far, it’s pretty impressive– an MP3 recording radio with AM & FM. And not only can you program radio recordings in a VCR/TiVo fashion, but it also has a line-in/microphone record function. While cassette tape recording has proved to be a reliable way to capture radio over the years, I’m interested in finding out if something like this will save a lot time in turning these recordings digital.

And I do appreciate some of the positive feedback I’ve been getting in my inbox. And not only that, but a few of you actually ponied up to the PayPal box for me after I asked nice for a little spare change a couple weeks ago. I really appreciate that. It wasn’t a lot, but it made me happy. If you can and you’re in the mood, the tip jar is open all night.

I do hope you enjoy this big piece of the wee hours from 1986. I know I will. Perhaps from the MP3 clock radio on the bed table…

If you found this post without seeing my first two articles about Tony, you can find them here and here. Both have airchecks attached as well.

More Music, More Musing

Thursday, July 30th, 2009

Here’s a follow-up to one of my more popular posts here, where I feature my OTHER aircheck recording of Tony Oren’s wonderful overnight program on KMOX in St. Louis. It’s a show I still sorely miss. Oren himself oozed class, and his “Music & Musings” were already a remnant of an era gone by when I captured this reception back in 1990. It’s the sound I used to hear on the AC/Delco in my dad’s 1967 Pontiac Catalina as snow flurries swirled in the headlights.

Great voice, and paced and graceful conversational patter. Radio for grownups. Although Oren left KMOX in 1994 and died four years later, the radio station itself kept the overnight easy listening format it had offered for decades intact until 1999, long after it had disappeared from almost every market in America.

By being on after dark on a clear channel powerhouse like KMOX, Oren was talking to almost half the country each weekend. It was a station I could receive equally well in southern Michigan or on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It was my weekend beacon of relaxation, with Tony slyly musing into the night, and night and bouncing the stylings of Tony Bennett and Henry Mancini off the old American F layer.

And since I posted that first recording of Oren, a few readers have filled me in more KMOX history. Specifically, I wanna thank reader Cliff in Missouri for leading me to a book called “The Mighty MOX,” which only dedicates a page or two to Oren’s legacy at the station, but there’s a few compelling tidbits that are worth relating (besides his Oreo cookie habit…)

For example, a smooth operator like Tony makes it sound easy and completely natural the way he segues from the lyric of some old standard to story in the news. But the secret of his glib reverie was that it was all built on a regimen of preparation.

“Tony would bring a suitcase in with him,” said Rene Servicer, one of his producers. “He had his stuff in his suitcase. Tony had a miniature paper cutter and would slice up the wire copy and put it in the binder. He’d write in the columns what it was. ‘Man bites dog story,’ or ‘wedding’ or whatever. Say he played a song called ‘Eternal Love,’ he would real quick turn to the section on weddings and read an article about something that pertained to the song."

Still years away from Google searches and subscribing to radio fodder via email, Oren did it the hard way, sorting through the teletype copy off the news wire to collect all the tools he might need for a night of “musings.”

There’s not a lot of biographical details on Oren in the KMOX book, but it does mention that he traveled the world a bit, and had some semblance of an acting career in Australia. And from that deep rich voice I’d bet he was a smoker and enjoyed a whiskey now and then. A bon vivant kind of guy. And of course, a night owl.

There was certainly a flavor of worldliness to Oren’s show that attracted me, but there were more than a few after-dark damsels who found Oren’s assuring baritone banter appealing in a more glandular fashion. According to Servicer, woman would call and offer him breakfast at their house. And there’s no word in the book whether Oren was married, or if he enjoyed some complimentary morning meals with female admirers. I’d like to think he did.

Speaking of that, here another excerpt from “The Might MOX,” as told by Barb Felt, a KMOX account executive during Oren’s tenure at the station.

There was a middle-aged woman living on the east side who became addicted to Tony Oren’s voice on the weekends, but it was a love/hate relationship on her part. She would call him on the off-air line during the breaks and accuse him of reading her mind. She claimed she would be thinking a thought and then Tony would instantly bring that subject matter up in the on-air dialogue.     

Now that just sounds like a recipe for trouble, doesn’t it? There’s no further details of their actual relationship. But even if Tony did score a few stacks of hotcakes (or better) in the deal, it sounds like he came close to getting his brains scrambled one evening.

“One night after his show, Tony went to his car, (which was parked on the street in front of the station) and while he was unlocking the car door, a frenzied woman jumped up from behind the car and sprayed Tony with mace,” Felt said. “She screamed obscenities while threatening him that if he ever ‘read her mind’ again, she would take more drastic actions. She then disappeared into the shadows."

Having a voice that beguiles half a nation of female insomniacs obviously has a down side.

Anyway, here’s the tape. Unfortunately, it’s the only other one I have. Although Cliff says he still has a few recordings of Oren on KMOX around his house.

KMOX – Music and Musings with Tony Oren 02-04-90 pt 1
(download)

But as you hear that jazzy strum of the guitar at the end of the KMOX news, you know you’re in the hands of a radio pro. And the musings here are standard MOR radio fare– celebrities born on that date (Wow, Vice-President Quayle was only 43…), as well as the events of that day in history. And then, Al DeLory tinkles gently on your mind.

And it’s AM STEREO! Wish I could have recorded it that way.

However, shortly into the following Ella Fitzgerald number it becomes obvious that there’s a Spanish language station vying for the attention of my radio. In fact, I’d guess it’s coming in from down Havana way. And like many of the artifacts of AM analog reception and the inherent propagation variables of that type of audio transmission, the effect of these two stations coming in at the same time is almost graceful. Even poetic. And to hear what I mean, just check out the Cuban music floating beneath Tony’s treatise on the retirement of jockey Willie Shoemaker at the beginning of part two of this recording.

KMOX – Music and Musings with Tony Oren 02-04-90 pt 2
(download)
                           
Actually, it’s not that strange that a Cuban signal would drift over like this. I made this recording in Mobile, Alabama– where I was around 560 miles from the St. Louis transmitter on the mainland. And to the southeast, Havana wasn’t much further– like 640 miles or so. And the Cuban signal actually takes over the frequency so completely that you can’t even hear Oren introduce a Johnny Mathis classic. And considering Oren’s episode with that psychotic fan, it’s kinda fitting that he happened to play “Misty" for us that night. And once Johnny comes in clearly, listen to the signal throb warmly atop the distant Cuban station. It’s not just misty. It’s mystical.

And besides the incidental Latin accompaniment on the second half of this aircheck, Tony’s musical selection is even better. Especially, if you’re as fond of Dinah Washington, Nelson Riddle and Jack Jones as I am. And before it’s all over you get some CBS news, 1990 style. Nelson Mandela is about to finally be released, and sweeping reforms are underway in South Africa. And the Soviet Union has come down with a fatal case of glasnost. Meanwhile, writer Salman Rushdie was just one year into his fatwa problem. But no mention of the coming recession the first Bush presidency was cooking up for our country and the world.

It’s funny how everything before the world wide web seems like a simpler time. And the schmaltzy pop instrumentals and jazzy vocals of “Music and Musings” certainly sound dated. But as much as I usually find nostalgia a little silly, when I hear the archival sound of old-fashioned “middle of the road” American radio I do feel a homesickness I can’t deny. Not for any place I used to live, or anything I used to do, but for that calm adult sound that used to come out of any radio if you turned it on and adjusted the knob. The lack of irony is refreshing. The professionalism is inspiring. And the solace makes as much sense now as it did back then.

And in case you missed it, my first post on Tony Oren can be found here.

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.

The Cosmic Pirates Next Door

Monday, June 8th, 2009

As much as I love DXing, I still have a place in my heart for the local AM stations. The low power and low budget radio operations that don’t have the transmitter muscle to be heard much further than the county line. And when I travel I always hope to find that unique truly local station, that has that low power community magic. And it’s an extra bonus if you happen to like the music they play, but it’s almost always interesting to hear how local folks program radio for each other.

In the past, I’ve mentioned a couple of low watt gems (like WHVW and WCXI), but I never think to look into some of the lesser AM stations here in New York City. And if you don’t live here, it’s easy to think of America’s biggest city as a monolithic unified whole. But it’s not like that at all on the ground. It’s a whole bunch of communities all stuffed into five boroughs (as well as a few surrounding counties). And a number of them have staked their claim on the AM dial.

And the medium wave territory in New York here has got to be as crowded as anywhere in the world. Besides the big "blowtorch" clear channel AM stations everyone knows (WABC, WCBS, WFAN…), there are a lot of little "sparklers" across the dial. And it seems that most of them are on the right side of the band. While WLIB is a gospel station these days, I don’t think any AM’ers in the city have a real music format. (Okay, a few stations play oldies and "music of your life" fodder out past the perimeter.) What most of the little AM stations in NYC offer is either religious or "ethnic" programming. Most are "brokered" They sell time on their transmitter. And in New York City, it’s not cheap. It’s much less expensive to just have your own radio station. Until you get busted…

However, the bottom line for me is that they’re all speaking another language on most of those little AM stations crowded around the top half of the AM dial. And I have to admit that Spanish or Chinese or Russian talk shows don’t do much for a poor unilingual American bastard like myself. Then again, like listening to the world via shortwave, music is compelling beyond language or ethnicity (at least to me). And over the years, almost by accident, I have run into sublime gospel and quirky 60’s Asian rock and all sorts of Carribean things when I was turning the dial to find something else. And when I do try to go back to that same area of the dial I often find the programming is totally different than what I had enjoyed the last time around. But brokered radio stations are especially like that– very different animals by the day and by the hour. I suppose I need to prowl the schedules online more often.

Thus, the point of this post. Sometime you miss some really interesting that’s always been right there– in your own backyard. Like this oddball pirate radio station that up until a just recently was broadcasting at 1710kHz here in Brooklyn.

Radio Moshiach & Redemption is a rarity here in the states, a illegal religious broadcasting operation and just another tentacle of the massive Lubavitcher media machine. The Lubavitchers (or Chabadniks) are one of the oldest and most well-known tribes of the ultra-orthodox and mystical Jewish Hasidim. And why do they have a radio station? Let’s just say they do a lot of outreach. In other words, they actually proselytize like the kooky born-again Christians. Sort of…

Actually, the Lubavitchers are only looking for Jews who have strayed from their faith. They’re a little infamous here in the city for going out on the streets (and into the subways) and approaching people who look like they might be Jewish (and might not be practicing enough…). A little annoying, but it’s gotta be less pathetic than those glassy-eyed Jehovah’s Witnesses holding that dopey magazine in front of their faces.

From what I understand, most of the Brooklyn Lubavitchers are clustered around the Crown Heights neighborhood here in Brooklyn. And most assume that’s where their broadcasts originate. The "programming" I’ve heard has alternately been in English or Yiddish (and perhaps Hebrew, I’m not sure…). More significantly, the actual audio product of Radio Moshiach is outrageously awful– distorted and noisy. Yet, the raw and unprofessional urgency on Radio Moshiach was often kind of intriguing. I recall one particular time I heard them in the car (where I usually listened to them) and, like usual, I was struggling to understand what was being discussed (Even when speaking English they use so many Hebraic words that outsiders like me are left constantly trying to decipher the topic at hand). But what kept me glued to 1710 was the chronic coughing fit the old fellah on mic couldn’t get under control. At a real radio station, there would usually be a "cough button" to work around a situation like that, and a real hacking fit would be usurped by commercials or music But this elderly Hasidic gentlemen was determined to finish his lecture. And he just kept going– endlessly forward though so much choking and gagging and wheezing. It was quite a display of some strange fortitude. And no, I have no recordings of that. But I do have this little piece of history.

Radio Moshiach & Redemption (Brooklyn, NY) 1710kHz – 11-15-06

(download)

From what I little I’ve heard of this station over the years, the "lecture" on the recording is rather typical. Lots of talk on how to live a more sacred life, and extended discourse on the ruminations of their holy men. But like their Christian cousins, they have a fascination with a coming "end times" and are a little obsessed with the coming of the Moshiach (their messiah). And that what you get in this aircheck, some messiah anticipation and a little music.

And you might not believe it to hear it, but I actually performed a bit of digital hoodoo on this tape to up the fidelity. Yes it was worse, knee deep in a thick rich hiss before I did some tweaking and filtering. It’s still crappy, but believe the clip here is certainly better than the actual reception at the time. (You still here some nasty distortion during the musical interludes on this tape that I couldn’t fix.)

I’m not going to pretend that I really know much about the Lubavitchers or the Hasidim in general. Although I do live in Brooklyn, and run into quite a few Hasidic folks in my travels, the local tribe here in the Williamsburg area are the Satmars, who differ in many beliefs and practices from the Lubavitchers and their obsessions with the end times, and the messiah, and converting wayward jews. And I wouldn’t be the first to say that most of the public interactions I’ve had with the Satmars are rarely warm or friendly. And apparently I’m not quite Jewish looking enough to get the attention of the roving Lubavitcher missionaries.

However, in the cursory research I did do before writing this post I came across a couple points that caught my interest. There’s no fire and brimstone in the Hassidic world. They don’t go for all the eternal damnation business that makes Christians so scary and ridiculous. But I gotta admit, that a few things I came across on the web regarding the Lubavitchers that made a lot of sense to me– specifically the wisdom of one of their big thinkers: Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz. For example, he believes that God is too great to be understood by any one religion, and he really believes in science. Besides his Rabbinical studies he also took in big education doses of physics, chemistry, mathematics, and sociology. In 1988, Time magazine praised him as an "once-in-a-millennium scholar.

Of course, I suppose it’s not really all that unusual that so much intellectual thought and so much religious thought can do so much good together in the brain of one person. It’s a habit from all the exposure to the pseudo-holy hucksters and parasites I run across on shortwave radio, I suppose. And it’s important to remember that the religious goofballs you hear on the radio (or see on TV) are not necessarily representative of the faith they might espouse. Yet, all that said, there’s plenty of things Steinsaltz and other Hasidim believe that I find a completely wacky and wrong-headed, but the point is there’s a lot of real thinking going on in Lubavitchers-land. And then there’s all that mystical Kabbalah business. That’s a deep topic I’m not going to address (but Madonna may cover some points on her last album). And did I mention that old lead-larynx himself, Bob Dylan, is a practicing Lubavitcher these days. (Although I’ve never heard his music on Radio Moshiach.)

I guess what impressed me, is how much more thoughtful the religious discussion was on 1710kHz than ninety percent of the Christian broadcasters I come across on the radio. I’m not saying I was ever impressed by the eloquence or narrative power of anything I heard on this odd pirate station (It’s some esoteric stuff), at least they never claim to talk to any supernatural beings. And don’t seem to feel a need to point out how evil other people or other religions might be. And while they may have their agents out on the streets to looking for wayward Jews to bring back to the faith, they don’t get on the radio to convert anyone. And they don’t ask for money so they can pray for you either. None of that crap. And, they’re outlaws!

I guess what I’m trying to say is that there’s nothing really wrong with "religious radio."In fact, wouldn’t it be interesting if all sorts of believers and thinkers and religious types were on the radio having intelligent conversations about spirituality and wisdom and the human condition. Instead, almost all the thousands of religious broadcasters on radio and TV are malignant Christians preaching intolerance and ignorance and damnation. Although I have to admit that some of the Catholic broadcasting I come across on AM and shortwave is a little more thoughtful. At least they talk about real some human topics, and don’t talk about hell and blood all the time.

There’s a meanness to so much of the Protestant preaching and teaching I hear on the radio, and a very willful ignorance– and enough dogma to clog up a weak-will thinker’s brain for life. Of course, there’s a long tradition of colorful and ridiculous bible bangers on the radio (like Gene Scott), but most are neither interesting or humorous. And the worst of it– it’s always been about trolling the countryside with a transmitter and a line of bullshit looking for weak and downtrodden listeners who might have a few bucks they can filch in the name of Jesus.

While I can no longer pick up Radio Moshiach in Northern Brooklyn, David Goren lives much deeper into the borough and he’s still picking up some Lubavitcher broadcasting, but not at 1710kHz. He says they seem to capable of running a few little transmitters in the x-band (the new USA upper extension to medium wave beyond 1600kHz), sometimes several at once and different programs on each "station." And are currently still broadcasting at 1640kHz., and perhaps on FM as well. But it’s the 1710 signal that was the heartiest of them all. And it’s the one most DXers run into. And I’ll bet it sounds REALLY bad from far away. But all that hackin’ and coughin’ I heard probably cut through the North Atlantic skynoise for some DXer out there…

Speaking of that, what led me to post this aircheck in the first place was just to share Radio Moshiach with as much clarity as I could muster from my New York City outpost. I’m sure a lot of DXers have never heard what the station actually sounded like (with some degree of clarity), other than a shaggy little heterodyne or maybe some lo-fi Yiddish accented words wedged sideways into a noise floor. I have another tape I recorded around here somewhere, which featured a lot of old and interesting Yiddish music. If I find it one day I might attach it to the this post as well.

And just to be clear, I’m not looking to pick a fight with Christians or Protestants any believer really. Actually, most of the time when I come across the way these religious are being expressed on the radio, it’s the sound of fighting words to my ears. That’s why I rag on radio evangelism. Most of these (supposedly) "Christian" broadcasters I come across on my radio are vile examples of humanity. And I stand by that. Yet, the truth is, all in all, I find Christianity rather interesting– even if it’s not my belief system. And if you wanna make me mad– just waste my time by going to great lengths to convince me of something unbelievable that you can’t prove. What could be more annoying?

And when I dig into a shortwave band, I get annoyed that way quite often. Or worse. And while Radio Moshiach could be quite boring and occasionally unintelligible. It never was never annoying. And never stupid or mean. Unlike Harold Camping, who is always boring and always annoying. And although he doesn’t look so healthy, he is still alive.

And wouldn’t that be awful– when he does give up the ghost, if they give his tapes the Gene Scott "immortality treatment, and Family Radio kept playing those awful and dim-witted "Open Forum" shows for all of eternity?

Or wait a minute. That can’t happen.

When you make it your career to predict the end of time over and over again, any show mentioning all those missed apocalypses wouldn’t be good candidates for future encore presentations, if you know what I mean. Meanwhile, Camping’s latest prediction is that it’s all over by 2011. Then again, most of us survived 1994. But perhaps, for Camping himself 2011 might really be the last dance. (But then again, there’s all that bad news…)

Of course the Lubavitchers have their own obsession with a coming apocalypse too. But they’re smart enough not to pick a date. When you’re predicting the end of human existence, it’s probably not a bad idea to keep your options open.

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.)