I've talked about it many times in these pages– one of the great ironies of doing this radio blog has been the fact that where I live and where I write has always been afflicted by pathetic radio reception. OK, the reception itself hasn't always been that bad, but the noise floor on AM and shortwave (the HF bands I discuss here) is often so deep in RF pollution that hearing weaker signals has either been no fun or just impossible. And some more local broadcasting hasn't been immune from some headache inducing artifacts. Occasionally I've found the electronic culprit– typically a new cheaply made power supply or battery charger we've recently plugged in here at the house.
One night when I was the only one home, I went around and unplugged everything in the house, room by room. I was carrying a portable radio around in the dark, trying to pinpoint and identify some of the offending RF. It was hopeless. I made little headway and became convinced that I was stuck in a small flat in a big town where I might never escape so much ripping static on the 25, 41 and 49 meter band, and the phhht…phhht… phhht sound on medium wave, and all those buzzes and crackles distributed across the frequencies, most difficult or impossible to null. I eventually decided all that interference was just one the prices I had to pay for living in the middle of a throbbing megalopolis.
And then, what can I tell you. Our terminally unfriendly upstairs neighbor finally moved away. I'd be lyin' if I didn't admit I was more than happy to see her go. But now… I'm almost ecstatic!
I hadn't thought much about it. Then one afternoon I realized that the AM station I had tuned in sounded…good! Really good. After so many years, something had changed! I grabbed a shortwave out of a drawer and went to the old reliable 49 meter band, and the reception was almost as clean as I’d expect to hear at the picnic table while on a camping trip. And then I knew. Things had really changed. A lot. For the first time in a long time, I could feasibly DX right here at the house. Whoo-hoo.
At this point, I’m assuming my neighbor, who was never very friendly to us and constantly took advantage or our elderly landlady, was also despoiling the airwaves surrounding my apartment for the last dozen years. Although I never set foot up there, I now imagine she must have had dimmer switches, a couple dozen "always on" gadgets, and banks of power strips loaded with used and unused power supplies– all of it transmitting noise!. But no more.
So, I say "good riddance" to that grouchy old face on the staircase! It's a new day. And frankly, the new girl upstairs seems quite nice. And quiet. In so many ways.
So, let’s celebrate. Here’s a recording I made the other night in my kitchen, utilizing a borrowed semi-portable bruiser of recent vintage– the last of the Grundig Satellit line, the “800.” It’s not a particularly handsome set, especially compared some of its more romantic Satellit predecessors, But it’s a workhorse with plenty of features. And it's fun to use. Thanks David!
Rádio Nacional da Amazônia 11780kHz approx. 0400 UTC 08-06-2012
In my first venture into the HF bands in this new radio quiet era around here, I happened to come across Rádio Nacional da Amazônia, as I often do. However, I’ve never heard it like this. Not at my place. Have a listen.
It’s great music… dated stuff. The station itself is apparently a domestic outlet”– public radio for the greater Amazon area, a rather huge swath of a very large South American country. This station is one of a few regional shortwave outlets in Brazil; where they’re still willing to forgo some audio fidelity in return for the inexpensive reliability and impressive propagation of old-fashioned shortwave broadcasting. While so many of the western nations have abandoned shortwave for local by-nature FM broadcasting and assorted internet options, Brazil like the other BRIC nations, buck this trend, unwilling to completely give up on the old technology. In this over-networked era, there are still some forgotten (and neglected) shortwave listeners in the states (like me) who cherish the remaining islands of sane radio modulation we can find in between so many moronic U.S. Christian and conspiratorial programers who hog the shortwave bandspace in these parts. And when you come across some pleasant music programming like this, it doesn't matter so much what languages you speak or understand. (Unless you're a stickler about lyrical content…)
While I’m a big fan of Brazilian music, and I have spent many hours foraging flea market bins and music blogs in search of it (Oh Loronix, you are missed…), I am no expert, and sadly can't name one artist on this aircheck. (Although I have gotten smarter clicking through sites like this.) There are some nice songs here, and I'd guess most or all were recorded decades ago. I think the last one might actually be a “Bread” cover, and perhaps not surprisingly I'd describe it as an improvement over the original.
And while this is very good reception, by DX standards, it would surely sound a bit strange if you're not a shortwave listener, with many varying factors affecting the quality and volume of the audio. It’s full of the artifacts of the medium, sounds some hate and others (like me) love– the sound of electrical energy full of audio bouncing from ground to sky a few times before flying into the tuner on my table.
All of it happening without my former neighbor’s sloppy electronics ruining the messy but musical analog wonder of it all. And for me, here in Brooklyn, the 25 meter band hasn't sounded this good in a long, long time, or ever.
Sometimes I feel compelled to just toss some recent radio capture up on the blog, without delving into too much research or commentary. So today I’m going to yield to that impulse and share something I just heard for the first time ever– The Voice of Korea.
Yes, I’m offering you some official state propaganda from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. (the one on the northern end of the peninsula…) Appropriately, shortwave radio is still a major element of their media outreach to the rest of the world. And it’s not easy to hear in the U.S. Their shortwave transmitters are far from powerful (and probably in poor repair), and I seem to never coax any viable signals over those big Rocky Mountains anyway. But thanks to a wonderful website, I’ve discovered that radio reception beyond my wildest dreams is actually possible. And in this case it was almost like going back in time.
Actually, it was a comment on my last post that got me curious about the “GlobalTuners” site (formerly DX Tuners), which I hadn’t checked out for quite a while. It’s really quite a fascinating operation. It’s free to subscribe, and if you’re patient and follow their rules of etiquette you can have your turn accessing a few dozen receivers based on almost every continent on the planet. After a little bit of fooling around (like DXing medium wave in Venezuela) I was inspired. So last weekend I logged in to GlobalTuners armed with a good list of known North Korean shortwave frequencies and plugged into an open receiver in Japan through their site. Most of the frequencies were quiet, but when I punched in 3560kHz I hit pay dirt. In English.
That was Saturday. I never got it in all that clear, but it didn’t fade away either. I tried again on Sunday and had more luck. After some patient tweaking, my room filled with the sound of strident communist propaganda. How exciting. And I recorded the results which I’ll offer now. I’ve always been curious to hear this station, and I’m betting that a few readers might be interested as well. The reception and recording is far from perfect, but I did work some digital hoodoo on the sound to give it as much clarity as possible. Here’s part one.
Voice of Korea 2100UTC 09-20-09 part 1 of 4 (download)
Always rebellious I suppose, North Korea’s hour of English language service is using a section of the radio spectrum normally allocated for amateur radio, not international broadcasting. And in the first segment you hear me battling with some crosstalk from a ham radio operator on an adjacent frequency. (And here’s a helpful hint if you’re going to try this at home, I found the best reception at 3561kHz.) Despite that interference, in this first part you actually get to hear the noble sound of North Korea’s interval signal right before the top of the hour. As well as some uplifting music that probably introduces their English language broadcast every day.
Voice of Korea 2100UTC 09-20-09 part 2 of 4 (download)
If I can recommend one chunk of the Voice of Korea for your listening pleasure, it’s this second one. While there’s no music or production of note in this short segment, it’s the most pleasingly audible section of the whole aircheck. It starts out a little muddy, but in less than a minute the sound is as good as it gets.
It’s a male-female tag team reading the news in heavily accented English. And while it might be hard to discern every word, the essence of the newscast isn’t hard to grasp. The big news? The Great Leader, Kim Jong-il has recently welcomed some high-level officials from the Chinese government and they brought him a nice gift (perhaps some new coveralls?). No mention of any discussions (or arguments) regarding North Korea’s nuclear mischief. Other than that, you might wonder if the sixty-first anniversary of the founding of the DPRK was one of the world’s biggest headlines for the month of September.
When you tune to a foreign newscast in English on shortwave, you can usually discern where it’s coming from pretty quickly. After all it’s all state-sponsored radio, and the news they offer the world (or the west) is going to have some flavor of promoting the interests of the home government. And it only makes sense that local and regional issues are likely to be given more weight in the newscast. Yet, I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a more insecure and self-referential state news broadcast than this one. Although I didn’t really listen to shortwave in the “cult of personality” eras of Stalin, Pol Pot or Chairman Mao, I do recall Radio Tirana swaggering on the HF bands in a similar fashion a couple decades ago.
Voice of Korea 2100UTC 09-20-09 part 3 of 4 (download)
I guess I’m posting this recording in its entirety as a bit of a public service. Part three is a continuation of the news and it sounds like some editorializing goes on. However, the high point comes about nine minutes in this segment. It’s “Devotion For The People” where we’re honored with a few wise words from the Great Leader of the Korean People, accompanied by some comforting music. The topic? Tasty bean paste. I’m not kidding. This is followed by an ethereal Korean torch song, which I imagine is somehow in devoted to the Great Leader as well.
At some point I left the room while I was making this recording. And when I returned I discovered I had lost the connection to that tuner in Osaka. I reconnected and started the recording again. At that point we come to the fourth and final installment of this archive. I might have missed 10 or 12 minutes in between.
Voice of Korea 2100UTC 09-20-09 part 4 of 4 (download)
The reception deteriorates a bit through this last segment. I’m glad I’m not in a cubicle with a set of headphones at the NSA trying to transcribe this stuff.
Listening to this final eighteen minutes is certainly not mandatory, but if you want the full propaganda treatment go ahead and let the arrogant noise wash over you. It’s so anachronistic that it’s almost quaint. And in that same way, the Voice of Korea does remind me a bit of the Voice of Russia and the English broadcasts of other former Communist bloc nations I hear on shortwave. Especially the music. Moody. Minor key. Classical. And occasionally martial. It’s a staunch and old-fashioned sound.
If you think Radio Habana Cuba sounds a little out-of-date with all their talk of “the revolution” and the glories of the Castro brothers, they sound more like typical NPR happy talk compared to this dry broadcast from across the DMZ. It’s the sound of a desperate totalitarian state stuck in the middle of the last century, with little hope of escape. And as such they strive for the holy grail of that era, the atomic bomb. And you have to admit that it seems to be the only way they’re able to get the rest of the world to give them any attention, or respect. And the Great Leader seems to need a lot of both.
And if the next time they cause trouble (and it seems likely they will), I’ll probably tune in again. And a big thanks to reader tdevine for leaving me that thoughtful comment that led me down this road. And speaking of that, there hasn’t been so many comments posted here at the Radio Kitchen lately (other than the glut of comment SPAM that gets caught in my filter every day), so let me add that if you’ve got something to add — a comment, a suggestion, a question, a relevent idea… please utilize the comment box on the appropriate post. Or you can send me an email using the link on the sidebar. That kind of thing really does add to the conversation here. I appreciate it, and it does raise your status above casual lurker. Why not join the party?
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.
A few generations ago, another American president took office when our country was mired in another devastating financial disaster. Of course, I’m talking about Franklin Roosevelt, a president to whom Obama is occasionally compared (after JFK and Lincoln, I suppose). And following tradition, he addressed the nation announcing his vision for America. It was a bit of pep talk really. And although few who actually heard that rousing speech are still around today, we’ve all heard (or read) the declaration he delivered in this opening remarks:
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."
Always presented to me as the key phrase of a historic speech, those words themselves never rattled with great wisdom for me. It always seemed a little redundant, and too straightforward to offer much in the way of revelation. But then again I didn’t grow up during the Great Depression.
Now we’re living though the worst economic crisis since that time, and while our circumstances aren’t nearly as dire as the day Roosevelt moved into the White House, no one knows how much worse things may get. Or where we are headed as a nation. And as luck would have it, we seem to have brought in a decent and thoughtful man to help steer our country out of this new financial morass of our times. It seemed almost hopeful.
And then the fact that he happened to spend some formative years overseas in a Muslim country seemed fortuitous as well, following on the heels of an administration that incited so much hatred and animosity from Muslims around the world. Yet, for all the logic or serendipity that seemed inherent in the rise to power of Barack Obama, others see something else.
There is a bizarre streak of American humanity which is utterly convinced that Barack Obama is not an American citizen. And once you’re willing to chain your brain up to that premise, it’s an easy leap in logic to assume that this astute mulatto man must be an an evil foreign agent assigned to destroy our country. And there’s more. A lot of these less than enlightened Americans also are certain that Obama is a communist, the leader of the evil “new world order,” the devil or the Anti-Christ (are they the same thing? I’m still not sure), a fascist dictator, and perhaps gay or a Muslim, or worse– the most liberal politician alive. And they are scared. They are angry. And what should worry ALL of us, is that they seem to be beyond the reach of all logic or common sense.
And now I get it. FDR was right. As a country in crisis at a critical point in our history, the greatest thing we have to fear IS fear itself. And I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to really fear the fear. And I think the paragraph that surrounded his heralded declaration back in 1932 is even more illustrative of our current dilemma:
“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”
And this is EXACTLY what’s going on– now, in these critical days. In the face of across the board loses at the polls, the Republican party and their media agents have chosen to unleash an unheralded fear and smear campaign to brutalize the enemy (i.e., the actual elected government). Rush Limbaugh, the defacto (media) leader of the G.O.P., openly cheers for the failure of our government under Obama. And he’s just setting the tone for a massive ongoing effort– nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror is being instigated and encouraged via the many-headed hydra of the right-wing media machine. And it’s nonstop.
And it’s no secret around the world that Americans, in general, are some of the most ignorant people on the planet. Add to that, the anxiety that continues to grip our country since the September 11th attacks and the inconvenient collapse of our economic system, and there’s suddenly a buzzing and bristling bunch of screwed Americans who suddenly want to know what the hell is going on? (While they didn’t seem too concerned during eight years of mayhem and plunder under Bush.)
I suppose it’s only natural to look for BIG answers when you’ve got big problems. And two unrelated historical milestones (moving into a new millennium and electing a black president) seems to have driven some of the logic-deprived among us to apply grandiose meaning to current events and invoked lots of irrational suspicion regarding any proposed changes in governance or our economic system. The three horsemen of contemporary apocalyptic fear (religiosity, paranoia, and xenophobia) were already mounted and ready to ride before Obama’s election. And since that historic moment, a fourth has come forward. And I think he’s going to lead the charge. Perhaps you already know where this is going. (Let’s just say he used to wear a white sheet.)
Despite the fact that we miraculously elected a man with African heritage to our highest office, there’s a seething element of race hatred that’s still alive and well in this country that once enslaved people who looked like Barrack Obama. And although the dirty racist words and imagery are only used by the most extreme and extroverted of that crowd, for every one of them there’s hundreds more across the fruited plain who will never accept or respect that uppity brown man who gets on the television and has the nerve to act like he’s president.
And make no mistake about it, all this garbage about the invalidity of Obama’s birth certificate, and all the disenfranchised and hateful white people alleging Obama is something "other" and not like you and me– it’s all frosting and filagree on top of the word they dare not utter– nigger.
And whether or not the people who are behind all this incitement of hatred and fear mongering are actually racists themselves is beside the point. I mean, Karl Rove’s atheism never got in the way of manipulating fundamentalists to vote (and campaign) for Republicans. It’s not hard to see how it works. There’s no shortage of less-than informed Americans to run through manipulative focus group studies. Then with data in hard, you go forward with media weaponry you know will be effective– no matter how profane or irrational the entreaty might be. Lee Atwater was an expert at this kind of thing, and he didn’t seem to be an actual racist in his personal life. And when Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination began to founder, her operators started experimenting with the same kind of toolbox.
If you haven’t seen this clip online of Shepherd Smith of Fox News, you oughtta take a minute and ingest this artifact of contemporary culture. I don’t watch enough of Fox (mostly clips online…) to know much about the guy, but he seems to be emerging as some kind of reactionary conscience over there. (Like this outburst regarding our government’s involvement in torture, or his habit of making fun of his unbalanced Fox News cohort, Glenn Beck.)
But in this particular clip (from the day that white supremacist loonwent ballistic at the Holocaust Museum in D.C.), Smith noting he’s frightened by the torrent of twisted and psychotic email that’s been filling the Fox News servers since Obama’s election. Mr. Smith and his guest agree– the realms of the internet provide a powerful clubhouse for all sorts of angry and misinformed people to feed into each other’s insanity, loading up with “hate not based in fact”. Although Smith seems shocked to discover some Fox viewers are “out there in a scary place." I’m sure othersweren’t surprised at all.
And what he doesn’t say (and what he can’t say), is how much the network he works for is feeding these people tainted factoids and manipulative Republican propaganda. Even Charles Krauthammer came out this year to congratulate Fox News for creating an “alternate reality.” And he said that the relative consensus on current events we used to enjoy in our society was the result of a “liberal bias” in the media…which apparently existed for all time until Fox News came along to balance everything out. Which makes you wonder what a network like Fox News would have had to say during the great American labor struggles or the civil rights movement.
Of course his argument is bogus. But it doesn’t matter. There’s always Fox News, and NewsBusters, and the World Nut Daily out there to back him up. Once we had a marketplace of ideas where agendas and opinions and versions of events battled it out for the public’s allegiance, and at a certain point some semblance of common sense would win out, and as a nation we would decide that slavery was wrong, and women should vote, and minorities should have equal rights, and wars of choice like we had in Vietnam were immoral. Sure, not everybody agreed. But some form of consensus came to pass and differing sides moved on to other battles. But not anymore.
Today, the natural coalescence of public thought is easily thwarted the monied and manicured "alternate reality."While some semblance of consensus is battled out in (what is pejoratively called) the "mainstream media," a conservative flavored narrative flows freely beside it as a more simplistic consumer-friendly product.
And it’s not that corporate America or the Chamber of Commerce is necessarily invested in all that ignorant claptrap, but by putting that kind of manipulative language and cynically clever sophistry churned out by Karl Rove or Frank Luntz. And there’s not a lot of quality control on some of these mindless appeals to the lowest of the lowest common denominator. An example might be a headline I saw at the Drudge Report on a slow day in June– BEWARE THE OBAMA ‘EVIL EYE. Again, this was a headline on one of the most clicked pages on the web. Assorted photos of Obama’s "menacing glance were included with this short and shabby piece of original Drudge journalism (something you rarely see)." And while it’s easy to find almost any facial expression imaginable when you’re dealing with someone as photographed as a sitting President, but the shots Drudge put together merely showed Obama looking attentive or tired, or perhaps just appropriately sober. Take a look yourself. It’s ridiculous. And everybody knows, PresidentHairy-Eyeball went back to Texas months ago.
How did things get so ludicrous? You might wanna check out this confidential memo written by a corporate attorney named Lewis Powell (soon to be a Supreme Court Justice) back in 1971. It was a manifesto outlining how the business interests of America needed to get serious about shaping public opinion in their favor. It’s one of those little known documents that truly changed the world, and not in a good way.
And if you recall those days so long ago, they used to call the mechanisms of wealth and power in this country “the system.” And visionary people like Upton Sinclair, Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader successfully took on “the system” and helped protect millions from the deadly consequences of amoral profiteering and unregulated capitalism. Well, Lewis Powell saw these people as the enemy. And through his writing and counter-activism he helped create a broad public relations front in media and academia to defend and protect the raw capitalist ambitions of the system itself. But even the late Mr. Powell (who is often recalled for his perfect manners and genteel nature) might be shocked at the divisive and brutish behavior of the swarms of ignorant and politically agitated Americans who have been home-schooled by a sensational and partisan united front of right-wing media he arguably fathered.
In a recent column, Frank Rich discussed Shep Smith’s scary inbox and how the new wave of anti-Obama rhetoric is increasingly paranoid and irrational across the board. While some white voters wouldn’t support someone like Obama in any situation, the fact that they see him as the cause and architect of all the frightening generational changes that are happening all at once. He’s the new boogie man– the embiodiment of a new century they’re not ready to understand.
In closing, Rich linked to this video featuring Jon Voight at a Republican fundraiser, where he called Obama a false prophet, and said the Republicans have to get back in power so they can “free this nation from this Obama oppression.” Which on the face of it seems like just so much mean-spirited red meat for the conservatives on hand, but in reality words like “false prophet” resonate profoundly in religio-paranoid circles. (And a lot of them have guns…) Plus– saying Obama is the cause of whatever “oppression” people might be feeling in the middle of a financial disaster that was coming on long before Obama came to power isn’t just disingenuous– it’s toxic. (And did you hear about his evil eye?)
And conversely, this column from a Fox website might be as good of an illustration as any of how much self-serving bullshit can be crammed into a short editorial. I don’t even know where I ran across this piece, which reads like a ten-year old’s attempt at a persuasive essay. The author of this gem is a guy named Noel Sheppard, who routinely churns out rightist grist for the unintentionally comical “NewsBusters” site (which often reads like a lampoon of a conservative news portal). But his point is this– if the electorate wasn’t scared off by all the guilt-by-association tactics used by douche bags like Sean Hannity (i.e., using Bill Ayers, Reverend Wright and Tony Rezko as scarecrows), then the press must have hypnotized us into electing Obama. How else could it have happened? I mean, McCain had so much more charisma…
Sheppard’s weak thesis somehow merited over four-thousand comments before they shut the floodgates. And if you have the stomach for it, you can go read a few. But I wouldn’t recommend it. I hate to think of all the time I’ve wasted looking at all the ignorance and vitriol on display in the comments addendum to online articles and opinion pieces. Especially if I happen to follow a link from the ultimate right-wing portal behind this new Age of Unreasoning– The Drudge Report.
Anyway, I could spend all day linking to all the spewing spigots of ignorance and intolerance on the web. But I won’t and I can’t. But I will say this, when we went and hooked ourselves all together with all these computers and cell phones and hand-held whatchamacallits there was a general feeling that being able to share so much “information” was going to make us smarter or wiser. But “information” is neutral, it’s just patterns of data. It can be good or bad or right or wrong. Or persuasive, if you have a particular mindset you wanna spread around.
And all we’ve done is make it possible to share “data” between ourselves like never before. We’re not creating more truth. And just as old “information” industries like newspapers, magazines and the film and music business see all this data sharing as a devastating profit killer so far, there’s no assurance that setting all this information free has made us any smarter either.
Like the flood waters after Katrina, some of the information that floods the American mind is a toxic soup. Awash in carefully targeted misinformation and logic-free passion screeds, there is a pandemic of fear and ignorance sweeping this country. And all this unjustified terror is poisoning American political discourse and is most certainly paralyzing “needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Thanks to the craven manipulation by people who should know better, the new American ignoranti are marching backward– into our racist past, into a new McCarthyism, and eventually all the way back to that Christian apocalypse continually predicted since the first century. And when these folks fire up their PC in search of information, you can bet they’re not looking for verifiable facts, reasoned journalism, or opposing views. No no no. That’s stuff the devil uses to fool ya.
And it gets worse. Since Obama’s election there’s been a huge surge in sales of guns and ammunition in this country. Prices are up and ammo is getting scarce. People are stocking up. For what? Good question. Meanwhile, the Obama administration really hasn’t made any moves or statements indicating any coming new gun control regulations. However, there’s lots and lots and lots of “information” out there telling folks that “Obama is coming to take their guns.” So, are you scared yet?
After talking about so much trouble in our midst, there’s an urge to come to conclusions– to predict or to warn of some assassination or apocalypse. Or perhaps to offer some road to widespread common sense in all this madness. But I don’t have a good answer to plug into such an equation. When you have human beings as your adversary, there’s always the last resort call for decency, or that chance of some recognition by the losing side that their goals or motivations may have been flawed. The system fights dirty. And empathy that makes us human is our fatal disadvantage.
When the Supreme Court granted corporationsthe rights of human beings and equated the money they spend as free speech (with the same Lewis Powell writing the majority opinion)– it set loose the hellhounds of capitalism in this country, allowing amoral ambition and soulless motivations to run rampant in the marketplace. And then Ronald Reagan came along to make it all official. And the legacy of Powell and Reagan (and more contemporary operators like Grover Norquist) is a Republican media machine that works on behalf of the large corporate financial concerns. Period.
And the Democratic party? Some of them are better than others. I generally trust Robert Kennedy Jr, who believes that the constant influx of big business money has completely compromised our political process, and says: "the Republicans are 95 percent corrupt and the Democrats are 75 percent corrupt." Sounds about right. It certainly helps to explain the inadequacies of the House and Senate under Pelosi and Reid. And while the nature of the Republicans is to stick to "the plan," the Democratic party is bigger, more varied, and unlike the Republicans they have to deal with the tough stuff– like consensus, ordinary constituents, and the most difficult of all– reality. The Republicans are in favor of God and lower taxes.
And if that sounds like a sinister plot, I suppose it is. And while you could make a case that this powerful triumvirate of transnational capitalists, the Republican party and assorted dark masters of media had a good ride, from the Gipper to the attack on Iraq. (Making Clinton’s Presidency about a sex scandal was even somewhat of a victory, and he was half-Republican anyway.) And now we’re left with a broken economy and two endless military occupations, and the Republican Party unpopular and out of power across the board. Yet, despite so many recent political losses their alternate reality media machine seems to be cranking even harder into the American psyche. It might seem counterintuitive, but winning isn’t everything. It’s all about not losing (money).
And I don’t think you can blame it all on Rupert Murdoch or Rush Limbaugh or any of those guys. And if you look at the movie "Network," Paddy Chayefsky was incredibly prescient in almost predicting what would become the Fox Network and Fox News (although Glenn Beck is far less appealing version of Howard Beale). But I don’t think the Ned Beatty character in that film really exists. My personal idea for this incredible conspiracy of fear and unreason is that there is no evil leader behind it all. I think we’re through the looking glass now and a simple mathematics created to serve the short-term profit margin of the entrenched financial status quo is in charge now. And the right wing noise machine is running on autopilot. The reason there’s no leadership on the right is because they don’t need it (or can’t have it). The politics, policy and all the Republican party products are generated by a big simple algorithm. And all their major candidates need to do is step up and put it on like a nice blue business suit. (Remember how McCain "transformed" during the last election?)
While they’re getting the white and right crowd energized by these tactics, they’re not winning over the rest of us. Big money had an eight year free reign over our government and economy, and it didn’t work out so well. They’ve spent their wad, and run out of ideas, leadership, and vision, and all seem to do right is make a mess, while the media machine does all the heaving lifting. All the links on the Drudge Report and everything that comes out of Sean Hannity’s mouth is the result of this crude media mathematics. And there is no real rumination behind the on-air musings of Bill O’Reilly or Michael Savage, and no innate desire to leave a legacy of a life dedicated to the greater good of mankind. No, it’s much simpler than that. When the other side is ahead in the polls, you operate like Limbaugh during the Democratic nomination process. You cause trouble. "Operation Chaos."
Perhaps by this point you’re wondering what does all this have to do with radio? Well, for as long as I remember, in between the sane programming coming in from around the world on shortwave there’s always been mad preachers and nutjobs from America exporting fear to the planet. And now that kind of diseased discourse has spread far beyond shortwave. Especially on the web. And Glenn Beck and his eyeballs have brought paranoid lunacy into the mainstream like never before. But shortwave has more charm. And you don’t have to look at their faces.
So for a week in June I went back to the source, scanning the back alleys of radio with my antique Zenith Trans-Oceanic. It’s an H500 from the early fifties, and it still works pretty good– at least on the band setting between four and eight megacycles. (We call ‘em megahertz these days.) And more significantly it overcomes a bit of the RF noise of my Brooklyn digs. I guess it was my steampunk adventure of the summer– drinking hot tea and tuning in the apocalypse with a big gilded vacuum tube device.
It’s a fun radio to use, but it’s not so good for bandscanning. There’s no digital frequency readout (for logging and ID purposes). And the dial itself needs to be calibrated. And besides, I wasn’t DXing. For the first time, I was intentionally looking for as much stupid as I could find. Because of other obligations most of my roaming occurred after nine or ten at night. But I don’t think there was any time when I couldn’t find someone, somewhere saying something ridiculous. For this post I scooped up some of the more flavorful froth I found from the 60 and 49 meter bands. And I invite you to join me for some urgent and uneasy listening. You just might unlearn something.
In this clip, former judge Roy Moore is chatting on the phone with Rick Wiles of Trunews. Which is not just the “end times newscast,” but also the “only nightly newscast reporting the countdown to the second coming of Jesus Christ.” And Wiles says that Obama has been put in office for one purpose– “to start a civil war in this country,” just to give a flavor of the thoughtful rhetoric on this program.
Ever wonder if America just might be better off without all that “separation of church and state” business? And public school teachers reading the bible to our children, and religious police would enforce public morality? (like in… Saudi Arabia?) Then you might wanna head over to Alabama and get behind Roy Moore’s 2010 campaign for Governor.
Perhaps you recall when Moore was the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court a few years ago. Because there was a big stink when he refused to remove an ostentatious display of the Ten Commandments from his courtroom. Not surprisingly, his stubborn religiosity cost him his high court gig, but it gained him a lot of brownie points with fundamentalists across the country, and served as the launching point for his new political career. And in his state he’s effectively established a splinter sect of religious conservatives who are working on taking over the Republican Party there.
At first, Wiles gets Moore lathered up with talk about Obama’s socialist agenda, but Moore quickly diverts the conversation into more religious territory– decrying Obama’s recognition of Gay Pride Month. Perhaps if Moore is elected he could counter this move by observing a month of gay shame in Alabama.
“It’s a travesty,” Moore says when Wiles tells him there was actually a “gay party” in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. While it doesn’t seem likely that all of our tax dollars that have gone toward death, torture and destruction would bother Moore all that much (he doesn’t like Muslims much anyway), the idea that American money has gone toward letting a few gay service people blow off steam is too much for him to bear.
“Only God can right these matters,” Moore says, seeming to stop himself from finishing where that thought might have been going. I’ll leave it to you to ponder how that might play out if Moore and his ilk could play out their theocratic fantasies in real life.
(Probably WWRB) – The Prognostications of a Yahweh Cult Couple 29:59 (download)
I suspect this broadcast originates from one of the two giant brokered shortwave monsters in Tennessee– WWRB or WWCR. It’s "Mark" and a female co-host I assume to be his wife. I guess you could call them radio missionaries working on behalf of the big sky guy– Yahweh. There doesn’t seem to be any production to the program itself. It’s just your basic phone call to the transmitter. Mark has a handful of notes and news stories to share, and when gets lost in his "documents" he hands the phone to the wife, letting her riff on the wornders of Yahweh until he has paperwork in order.
This clip starts out with Mark reading a letter from a concerned soldier from Kentucky regarding how the army is actively taking detailed inventory of all the personal firearms belonging to soldiers and officers on base. Hmmm. Could this have something to do with the internal Department of Homeland Security report on the threat of right-wing extremism that became public last April?
I don’t know about you, but I kind of like the idea of the government keeping better track of heavy-duty home weaponry these days. The recent murder of an arbortion doctor as well the bloody incident at the Holocaust Museum added more validity to the warnings of Janet Napolitano and the DHS report she presented on the dangers of the deep and dark entrenched right-wing element in America.
And Mark has more bad news. Apparently, the world elites (including Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and the Rockefellers) are meeting on yachts and planning to kill off most of the rest of the people in the world. And I gues this may happen quite soon. Before the rapture. Massive depopulation theories have been popular on shortwave since I can remember– almost as common as the world government-new world order paranoia. And I guess it all feeds into the same colorful narrative, as the last hurrah of the evil forces on Earth before the messiah comes down and takes the faithful up to heaven for a big shindig– while the rest of us spend eternity as human barbeque. Burn baby burn.
Next up, some rather animated fire and brimstone style conspiracy radio.
This guy’s worked up. And his sermon almost plays out like an exorcism, as he proclaims the names of all the evil he can think of– OLD Satan, and the anti-Christ of course– and THE BEAST, and then he goes down a list– the serpent, the old dragon, the devil, the son of perdition, Lucifer, the Destroyer, and more. Not only is the reception bad here, but he’s a loud and boisterous guy and it’s hard to understand all the prognosticating going on. But what he does do is move onto another important list. This time he proclaims the names of the embodiment of the “the beast” on earth. Specifically the one world government problem– the “one-worldism, the United Nations, the new world order, the Knights Templar, and the Priory of Sion (who apparently are even more powerful than the Illuminati), and all the sons of Cain. It sounds like the devil has quite a social calender.
He ends his rowdy lecture with a spirited sign-off worthy of a Latin American football announcer. All in all it’s a testosterone-soaked overview of most (if not all) of the paranoia conspiracies that have haunted the followers of Jesus for hundreds of years. And then when it all ends with a telephone disconnect and an automated recording (just like the Yahweh cultists radio show) it even seems a little stranger, that this big voice being broadcast on an international radio transmitter was just another guy yelling into a telephone.
And the fact that this program cuts off in the same sloppy manner as the Yahweh believers program tells me that they were probably broadcasting on WWRB as well. And it seems that this big international radio outlet doesn’t pay for an actual human board operator in the evening hours. From these recordings it appears their programming runs through some sloppy automation interface that doesn’t compensate for incoming programming on the telephone ending a few seconds early. I guess everybody’s cutting back these days.
Of course, if you listen to shortwave radio you’ve already heard all this heebie-jeebie hullabaloo before. All this rapture preparation and mark of the beast anxiety didn’t just hit the airwaves when Obama was elected. It’s a bizarre sickness in the very fabric of our culture. And while it infects so much discourse and entertainment all around us, only on shortwave you can hear (and almost smell) the mythical doom visions in their unrefined state. And while we didn’t invent crazy religious thought, the United States of America has been a breeding ground for it for a mighty long time. Much in the same way Australia later became a dumping ground for unwanted criminals for the British Empire, the new world was a dumping ground for all sorts of wild-eyed religious fanatics from Western Europe. And their legacy lives on.
A 2002 Time Magazine poll found that almost sixty-percent of Americans believe “the events in Revelation are going to come true.” And an AP poll in 2007 determined that one in four of us believed that Jesus was going to return to earth that very year. You get the idea. We is crazy. At least a lot of us are. And even among people who might not consider themselves overtly religious, there’s still plenty of superstition and irrationality to go around. After all, when it comes to apocalyptic sensationalism and pornographic arousal of the conspiracy gland, why should the religiously-ill have all the fun?
WWCR – The Alex Jones Show – with special guest David Icke (download)
Here you have a couple of the most successful secular scaremongers in the world in a bizarre radio pow-wow. It’s one-time rivals Alex Jones and David Icke, rolling around in the mud of some middle-ground they’ve cleared between their divergent paranoid theories. These apocalyptic showmen mine the concepts of science fiction TV and movies instead of using the King James Version for narrative support. And a few years ago these two giant fear-purveyors realized that there were just too many more books and DVDs to sell if they could put their differences behind them and create some viable consumer crossover business by joint media appearances, like this one.
For those who don’t know the history of these two professional paranoids, let me offer a little background. David Icke (pronounced like “Ike,” not “icky.) was a BBC sports announcer and then a spokesmen for the UK Green Party when he realized he was “the son of god.” and from that time forward he’s taken himself quite seriously and has created a whole cottage industry based on his own magnificence and need to enlighten us all. While he seems to have abandoned all the son of god business, his claim to fame eventually came through exposing the evil cabal of shape-shifting reptile peoplewho rule our world (like the Queen of England, Henry Kissinger and Bob Hope). Alex Jones on the other hand, is a big loud Texas talk radio host who got his start on Austin cable access TV. I"ve written about Jones before (which you can read here), and hardly feel the need to promote a guy who’s one of the most ambitious self-promoters I’ve ever seen. When it comes to secular "new world order" conspiracy, Alex Jones is probably at the top of the heap these days. And at first he considered David Icke’s presence in the paranoia panorama as a big problem. His concern over letting blood guzzling reptilians into the conspiracy cannon led Jones to call Icke a conman and an opportunist, and his theories the "turd in the punch bowl” for all the seekers of hidden truths.
In an odd turnabout, in this clip Icke kicks into some rambling discussion about the inherent weakness of our “reptilian brain.” And he’s NOT talking about scaly skin blood suckers, but the brain stem and all that squishy stuff around it that makes up the vestigial remnants of our pre-mammalian legacy. In light of Icke’s long-standing fixation on reptilian villains, Jones steps in to let his listeners know–“this is not debatable. ” Icke is talking about real brain science this time, not scaly-skinned Republicans. And Icke responds with a quick hint of nervous laughter before carrying on with his neurological mumbo-jumbo. And so the ambitious Mr. Jones has kept the “turd” out of his punch bowl once again.
But here’s the funny thing. Protestant Armageddonists are even more bizarre. Instead of tending to their own souls, they seem more obsessed with the “sins” of other people– total strangers who don’t necessarily have the same religious beliefs. And many long for the day when America will become the theocratic state they believe it should have been all along. The dream of Roy Moore and his ilk is to indoctrinate our children in the public schools. And let’s face it, the only reason these people can keep riding that same sick pony around the American stage is because too many people let religiously infected people get a hold of their children at an early age. As their irrational belief beliefs are passed down generations it’s not just child abuse– it’s a viral infection that continues to stunt our spiritual growth as a nation.
However, the post-religious doom prophets don’t worry about everyone’s sins. They realize all that perverse religion turns a lot of people off. So, instead of putting a modern spin on ancient myths, they put an ancient spin on contemporary economics and politics. If you figure out we’re under the thumb of powerful people, they’ll tell you it all stems from bizarre rituals, or exotic bloodlines or visitors from outer space. Whether their conspiracy theories are more ridiculous than the burning bush or the impending return of Jesus doesn’t much matter. Dressing up the machinations of big money and the world power mafia in the garb of the Illuminati or jumbo lizard suits just turns your righteous anger into comic angst. Because you’ve invested into a load of crap.
If you’re willing to wade into the online swamps that surround showmen like Icke or Jones you can read how all these earnest believers create a burgeoning support group together to brace themselves against the coming cosmic doom they both predict. in their narratives, a seductive mix of fact and fantasy is always at play. Legitimate concerns about transnational corporations and governmental regimes twisting the truth, stealing our money and taking away our rights are all shuffled into fantastic all-encompassing conspiracies. And If I happened to be full of money and the devil, I’d pay clowns like Alex Jones or David Icke to exaggerate my crimes and mythologize my powers. Not only do the bad guys get all the best roles in the extravagant sci-fi narratives they fashion around themselves, but they also magically discredit every legitimate concern that gets sucked up into their conspiracy narrative. Call it disinfortainment.
I say this while hoping not to attribute any more power or pedigree to the postmodern carnival provided by David Icke or Alex Jones. They’re more like parasites than movers or shakers in all this insanity. And when they talk about corporate bias in mainstream news and our government relieving us of rights and choices we once enjoyed, it’s got to be seductive to people who are half-aware of what’s going on. And if it’s already in your makeup to believe in miracles and people rising from the dead, then how much of a stretch is it to imagine Dick Cheney (or Barack Obama) as a blood sucking reptile, or to obsess over what Republicans really do in the woods around the bonfires of Bohemian Grove.
And none of these samples of American sickness on shortwave radio are in and of themselves worthy of any great significance. But it’s all symptomatic of something strange going on. In a country founded in the Age Of Enlightenment by thoughtful and brave men who wanted to improve on the European models of government for the greater good of our people, there’s always been a counter-story. To get the United States off the ground, we relied on enslaved Africans for many decades. And then the mindset that helped people accept and embrace that kind of inhumanity didn’t go away. It evolved into an ugly legacy of lingering bigotry and hatred. And it’s easy to qualify the bizarre fundamentalism and the mindless racism as artifacts of the American South, but all this irrationality is much more widespread than that. (I’m resisting the urge to quote Pogo.)
While the Republican Party is in more serious disarray than ever, the big brutish media operation that brought them to power seems to be set on automatic, creating at least enough havoc to justify its cost. And lots of nameless unreasoning is indeed sweeping the nation. And when Icke sticks to the script he used on the air with Jones, that our lower "reptilian" mind is being manipulated by the man, he’s stumbling onto some truth there.
As far as shortwave radio these days, I guess the tables have tuned. Once a tool that brought us the rest of the world is fast becoming more relevant as a way to tune inward, into the lower brain of our very republic. And plenty of people get in touch with their creator that way. And even Tim McVeighfound inspiration and guidance through listening to his shortwave.
It was easy to come home from the SWL Winterfest with a slight case of equipment envy. But times are tough and I don’t need another fancy shortwave radio right now. But it sure would be nice to have one to play with now and then. But suddenly, I do.
On loan from the most gracious David Goren, I have a big plastic Chinese monstrosity known as the Grundig Satellit 800 (made by Tecsun, and recently discontinued). If you wanna know the vintage, it’s also called “Millennium,” you know like that spooky TV show you probably never saw back in the late 1990′s (at least I didn’t). And until the incredible Eton E1 came along in 2004, it was a top of the line portable (but it’s really too big to be very “portable” outside the house). And while it’s not an especially cute radio, it is a damn fine receiver. And it has a feature I’ve never gotten to play with– an AM sync detector. And it also has three bandwidth settings. In other words, when you come across something weak and distant you have a few options to make the signal a little more palatable.
Nonetheless, the RF noise issues within my Brooklyn apartment still give the Satellit 800 a lot of grief. Having such an impressive radio set in the house put me into a more detailed hunt for stray RF around my little home. I would tune to particularly nasty blasts of RF and then start systematically shutting down just about every electrical device in the house (including “always on” things like TV’s and stereos). I did find one really awful (and LOUD) power supply on an external hard drive, which I’ll now always unplug if I plan to DX. Even with the extra quiet that may offer, there are still some roaring sheets of nasty RF mayhem coming into my apartment, no matter what I do.
Actually, David Goren came by recently (to visit his radio…) and experienced the RF hell here that I’ve discussed so often in these pages. From the sound, his guess it that it may be some issue with the power wires outside. A bad insulator or something. And you know, he might be right. But I’ve had enough problems over the years making sure that the telephone service, the internet bandwidth and hot water are all getting into my apartment in a timely manner over the years. I guess I just don’t have the courage to ask Con Ed to come by and do a bunch of work so I can get radio signals from Asia a bit better.
Yet, the 800 is a better and stronger animal than the other receivers here and does drag some signals up out of the noise floor better than most. And last April the girls went away for a week to visit the in-laws down in the sub-tropics, and me and the 800 had the run of the place for a little while. I spend a few nights out on the kitchen table with the whip antenna flush up to the north facing window trying to see what kind of reception I could lure onto my tape recorder. And this post includes some of these adventures on the 31 meter band.
In my limited experience trolling shortwave bands, I’ve had some my most interesting DX journeys on 31 meters. And there’s less religious and paranoid garbage as well. In fact, there’s not one warped preacher or “new world order” freak in any of these clips. (At least not in English.)
All these bandscans were captured on two separate evenings in mid-April. I’ve opted to offer highlights rather than more complete scans, just because some of the ripping interference through some of the reception here in my Brooklyn radio setting can be rather obnoxious. But you can still get some of the raucous flavor of what I have to deal with when I try to DX at home.
Other than the lack of mental illness, these samples are rather representative of what you’re likely to find on shortwave these days. There’s some English language programming here, and some tasty music from other continents there. And not one second of Gene or Melissa Scott. Let’s begin.
This one starts out a little shady, but it gets better…
31 Meter Band – Segment 1 – 0041 UTC 04-15-09 24:29
It’s such an “ah…” moment turning the dial out of that racket into this Portuguese music. Fado, I believe. Nice and meaty signal from Western Europe and the songs are splendid. I leave the knob untouched for over ten minutes. Great bittersweet minor-key stuff. It might sound even better accompanied by a jug of wine and some stinky cheese.
And significantly, Spain and Portugal offer the only broadcasts from Western Europe in the batch of reception I’m offering here. There ain’t much left, and very little of it is in the English language. So, let’s get back to the noise…
9820 – Hmmm
I don’t know what this is. I can’t get it to sync either. Here how awful the RF can be here when there’s no signal to hold the receiver’s attention?
And here’s a ragged signal from far far away. It’s not a pretty sound, at least not at first. However, I am able to work a little alchemy on the poor thing with the big Grundig beast. I pinch down the bandwidth, reducing the fidelity a bit (but mostly reducing the fidelity of the NOISE) and then turn on the sync. It locks nicely, although the signal is NOT a strong one. I fiddle with the SSB to get the best side of the frequency and well… It is listenable, in a forgiving DX kinda way. The cosmic Indian music comes through, up to a point. But the announcers, not so good. But after all these years I still marvel at the sound of exotic music falling out of the sky from the other side of the world.
31 Meter Band – Segment 2 – 2355 UTC 04-15-09 13:13
Care to dance? Some urgent pop music. Boy singer, electric guitar, loco-rhythmic keyboard funk, then silence– some top of the hour tones and a clear ID in Spanish. Good evening from Spain. As the news begins I pack up and head further up the dial.
Ah… Radio Re-POOB-lee-ka!. Sounds like the interval signal (or an extended station ID) from this Florida clandestine operation run by the Cuban Democratic Directorate (a “pro-democracy” NGO, Republica that supports human rights causes in Cuba. And it often jammed by that country. I can’t tell if that whizzy audio interference is Castro’s jamming or just RF problems on my end.
However, I move on again to find something in my native tongue.
It’s the news– typical “statist” shortwave-style headlines in accented English. Mostly unadorned bullet points from Beijing. International stories, matter-of-fact national boasting as well as some reassurance that things are getting better all the time. Except for relations with North Korea.
However, the cross-straits complexities between Taiwan and “the mainland” don’t seem to be getting in the way of the “two Chinas” improving their political relationship. Did you know that China has become the world leader in "ultra high voltage power transmission and transformation technology"? Me neither. But it’s good news for the Chinese power grid. And their infrastructure in space just got a boost as well, with a new navigational satellite now in place in the Chinese sky.
News with female reader. Clipped Romanian monotone. Nice signal. She says Obama is doing a decent job with the American economic crisis so far. And how about that bumper music? Right out of the 1970′s.
Actually, this news broadcast and the previous one from China sound remarkably similar to what you might have heard from these “communist” countries so many decades ago. Sure, Romania is no longer a Soviet satellite nation and the flavor of communism in China is quite different than it was back then, but it’s more than just the production values that make these shortwave newscasts sound like vintage broadcasting, but all the talk of nuclear weapons and missile programs makes you wonder if the cold war didn’t actually end, but turned into something less distinct but just as dangerous.
And now I’m skipping over some rather uninteresting reception of Spain and Cuba in Spanish, which was accompanied by a loud and grating noise floor. And then on to another former Iron Curtain nation, once the heart of the Soviet empire…
I don’t know if Russia is spending more money on their shortwave service than CRI or VOA, but it always sounds better than they do. I think it’s those voices.
Like the male announcer at the beginning of this clip, talking about Russian sailors patrolling the Somali coast to defend international merchant traffic from piracy. I believe this fellow has been around since the “Radio Moscow” days. But what a voice. It’s from another era. The woman is good as well. But I’ve always that there was some odd magic in the processing of the audio over there in Moscow, or some extra sauce in the transmitter that just gave the sound of both Radio Moscow and now the Voice of Russia this extra texture, some richness I can’t describe because I’m not a tech guy that way. But it’s something I remember distinctly when I first began to really listen to Russia on the radio in the 1980s, that they had a “sound.” And that radio magic is still there. In fact, it sounds very 20th century to me.
And the woman who does the light news feature on the annual return of migrating cranes to Moscow is awesome as well. It’s just the kind of human interest non-news that RCI offers all the time, but it you would be in the hands of some chirpy radio amateur instead of this smoky and authoritative Russian woman discussing elegant birds in their nation’s capital. I guess there’s a bit of mystical grandeur to the way their English service presents Russian culture and history and natural resources on shortwave. And while it may be overblown and self-serving, they still have veteran radio professionals in house making it believable on the radio.
Portuguese… is it? But instead of talking about the glories of the Pope, it sounds like she’s talking about some “final four” sporting event.
It seems rather clear and strong for such a low-power operation, otherwise I don’t know what I’m listening to. Please comment if you know what this is, or what she’s talking about. And you know, if you have something to add (or I made a mistake with my logging or guessing) please leave a comment below, or you can send an email.
Also, I’ve been doing some work on the blog behind the scenes (and have more to do if I find the time), and I’ve linked some of my past content to the categories in the sidebar. Like if you like these bandscan posts, you can find a bunch more by clicking that category. They all have audio as well.
It was Friday night at the SWL Winterfest in Kulpsville, PA, where I was at a suburban hotel as part of the biggest annual gathering of shortwave listeners in North America (perhaps the world). At the Listening Lounge I scanned the room and noticed there were more empty seats than I’d seen at the afternoon presentations. Then again, it was an evening event and some of the older guys might have hit the hay. Then again, I didn’t see any of the pirate radio folks either. And I don’t think any of them were sleeping (although I’m sure there was some recreational sedation in the mix).
This was my first time at the Fest, and by nightfall I began to get the feeling that the Fest had fractured into a number of gatherings around the hotel. And I eventually noticed that a lot of the pirate people (and their friends at WBCQ) were missing for long stretches of time during the whole weekend. While it wasn’t what I expected, it made sense all things considered. They come to the Fest not just to talk about radio, but to broadcast. And I suppose at least a few guys were doing what they always do– sitting alone with a warm receiver and scanning the bands. (Hey, it’s the kinda thing I do in a hotel away from home…).
Meanwhile at the Listening Lounge, those who came were having a good time. David Goren was playing the hits– shortwave radio interval signals actually. When the acoustic guitar and chirpy bird from Radio RSA came on it hit home with me. When I started listening to shortwave back in the early 1970′s, this was a very familiar sound in my teenage bedroom.
And even better, Marty Peck came up to play a few of the interval signals on his flute. He’s quite good at it, and he was taking requests. And since it had worked so well last year, David decided to have the audience recreate the interval signal of Radio Botswana. One side of the room would be the chickens. The other side would be the mooing cows. “Ready!” It was silly and the cows were really lame. Kim Andrew Elliot was sitting two rows back. “It’s the sound of a hobby dying,” he jeered. It was sort of a joke. But if you’re a regular visitor to his site you know that shortwave radio is no joke to Kim Elliot.
It was a familiar theme. Earlier that day I met Sheldon Harvey, another Winterfest veteran like Elliot. Harvey had a large table at the exhibition area at the fest, selling all manner of cool and beautiful radio books as well as some radio gear and odds and ends. “These tables all used to be filled up,” he told me. “There used to be a lot more people.”
And then I looked around and I could imagine how it was, or how it could be– with table after table of people pushing radios, and splashy pamphlets promoting new programming, and the public relations crews from dozens of foreign nations wanting to meet and greet and woo all these “listeners” who have taken the time to come here and learn more about what they love. Radio.
But in March of 2009, it wasn’t like that at all. There were just a smattering of vendors around the perimeter of the room, and a raffle table in the corner. That was it. It was kind of odd. Here was a hardcore group of enlightened consumers of eclectic radio gadgetry, and not one major seller or manufacturer of radios or radio related gear thought it was worth making the effort to push their products here. Sure the economy’s bad. But most people who DX or listen to shortwave are always fantasizing about the next receiver they’d like to own. They never really stop buying radios. Outside of a few catalogs out on tables, there was no effort to seduce all the easy targets wandering around. There was however, Tracy Wood showing off some satellite television related stuff. But no Eton. No Kaito. No Ten-Tec. No C. Crane. Nothing like that.
While that seemed like a real oversight to me, I was even more surprised that not one shortwave broadcasting service or station or program host saw fit to come out to the Fest this year. Well, there was a few folks from WBCQ. But they didn’t have a vendor table or any official presence, just the live radio shows Timtron and company were sending out upstairs. But of all the countries who still broadcast to us every day in English (China, Russia, Spain, the Czech Republic, Vietnam, Cuba, Bulgaria, etc), they sent no one to commune with all of us North Americans. The hundreds of religious broadcasters on shortwave didn’t have much of presence at the Fest either. Except a table for WMLK and the friendly Mr. Ladd and his Madagascar Mission slide show that I had mentioned in the last post.
In theory, a bunch of shortwave listeners in one place would be a prime target for some commercial interest or broadcasting entity to solicit and exploit. But in a sense, we no longer exist and this conference wasn’t really happening. I found statistics online that state that less than one percent of American households have a shortwave radio. And it might be less than that these days. And then when you break it down further, into which families might listen to shortwave radio (or even consider it), then you can see how the Winterfest attendees are a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of one percent. It’s the kind of math the BBC was doing a few years ago…
Long before the newspaper industry started taking a real hit from the rise of the web, what was left of America’s shortwave audience was already devastated by the new technology. But even before the ribbon was cut on the information superhighway, shortwave radio was already on the ropes in America. The international bands had disappeared from consumer radios. The end of the cold war tamed a lot of the fun and fireworks out of overseas broadcasting. And the rise of the 24 hour cable news stations might have played a part as well. But shortwave radio has never recovered from the proliferation of worldwide multimedia networking the internet provides.
It’s a little depressing to see how something so fascinating is losing its cultural cachet so quickly. You would think that all the shortwave stations have stopped transmitting. Or that the receivers don’t work any longer. But neither is true. While the content available here in North America isn’t nearly as lively or thoughtful as it once was, the new radios have actually improved (or at least you can get a far better radio for less).
If the broadcasting of audio content over the shortwave bands were to completely disappear, the dissemination of news and information around the world will lose an element of privacy for the end user. Unlike surfing the web, there’s inherent anonymity to the old technology. When you listen to a shortwave station, it’s just you, your radio and whatever the transmitter on the other end is sending into the atmosphere. There’s nothing in between– no logs, no middle man, and no connective technology. Your tuning cannot be tracked. And it’s always free. There’s no provider to pay. I’m sure these are some of the reasons paranoids and kooky patriot types still love shortwave radio. But why should they have all the fun. Especially when there might not be much fun left.
Like the internet, shortwave radio has always been worldwide. In fact, it was the first real-time global technology available to ordinary end users. And once you get out of developed world, and farther away from cities and (what we like to call) civilization, shortwave radio remains a practical and common household technology. In many African countries, over ninety percent of homes have shortwave radios and over thirty percent of people regularly listen to international broadcasts on shortwave. And as long as broadcasters continue to serve these communities around the world, there will still be people here in America DXing those far-off signals.
As far as shortwave listenership, America and a place like Somalia are the two extremes. In other countries, shortwave listening is much more common than the states, but not ubiquitous as it might be in the desert or a tropical rain forest. In Sri Lanka for example, where over 85% of households still have a shortwave radio at hand. And I’ll bet Victor Goonetilleke has dozens of them around the house.
While none of the broadcasters from the other side of the world made it out to the Fest this year, a listener did. A DXer of some renown, Victor Goonetilleke had traveled from his native Sri Lanka to Kulpsville before, but I sensed that his long journey made him more of a special guest this time around (as none of the overseas broadcasters were willing to make the trip this year). And then his importance at this gathering made more sense when he gave a short inspirational talk at the banquet, recounting the joy of realizing his childhood dream– owning a “communications receiver.” It was something a lot of guys in that banquet hall could understand. (And gosh, I’d like one too…)
And it’s a safe bet that most of the attendees (and the many thousands they represent) agreed with Victor’s sentiments– that shortwave radio is “being killed by people who should know better.” And while he may have been preaching to a choir of American “hobbyists” on a weekend lark, where Goonetilleke lives, shortwave radio itself is still a visceral and vital thing. For one thing, shortwave is the best way for most people to find news and opinion from around the world. A battery powered portable shortwave would make a lot of sense in rural Sri Lanka, where over a third of homes don’t have electricity. And those that have power aren’t using it to browse the web much, as less than three percent of households in the entire country have internet access (as of 2008). Ad to that the fact that Sri Lanka has an ongoing civil war that’s raged on and off for decades, and then just four years ago was hit hard by one of the worst natural disasters in human history (the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami), and you can see why keeping informed at home with a world radio makes a hell of a lot of sense on that island nation.
Sri Lanka also holds a special spot in the history of shortwave radio as the home one of the oldest radio stations in the world– “Radio Ceylon.” A radio service that blanketed the largest continent on the globe and could be heard worldwide, Radio Ceylon was a dominant international radio voice in the middle of “the rest of the world” for decades. In 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary was the first to scale Everest, he picked up his radio and tuned in Radio Ceylon, transmitting in English from over a thousand miles away. (Meanwhile in 2009, the world’s a little smaller. It’s no big deal to utilize the internet via satellite from the highest peak on Earth. And you probably have a home office setup down at your base camp too.)
And it should be noted that although shortwave listening (and shortwave programming for that matter) is most certainly in decline, I never sensed the gathering in Kulpsville to be an overtly nostalgic or quixotic affair. To the contrary, serious radio hobbyists are generally quite a technologically ambitious bunch. Most are pretty savvy about today’s gadgets and the evolving technologies, and that was reflected in a number of the presentations I sat in on at the Fest.
What I didn’t hear during the panel discussions was a lot of sour grapes over the demise of shortwave radio. Instead I learned a lot about the current state of radio and radio listening, and heard some insightful overviews of new radio (and radio-like) technology. Digital radio, satellite radio, internet radio, and podcasting were all discussed at the Fest. Each in its own way is an intriguing vehicle for the delivery of audio programming, but none of these systems have garnered any real dominance. And no one is sure if any of these platforms are going to last long either, at least not in their present incarnation.
We live in strange times, where all the old media is in a real fix– broadcast radio, broadcast tv, newspapers and magazines are all losing market share to a myriad of digital alternatives (many of them free, or potentially free). However, in North America shortwave radio is not “in trouble." It’s mortally wounded. And not likely to ever mount a comeback. But it ain’t dead yet.
So what keeps the shortwave faithful faithful? I suppose the sport of it, and all the magical gadgetry.
Perhaps you saw this article in the New York Times a few days ago. Apparently there’s a movement afoot among a few obsessive Star Trek fans to build their own “Captain’s chair,” as in Williams Shatner’s roost on the set of the original “Star Trek” series. Kooky, right? I think so too. But then again, I do get the concept. And I’d wager that almost everyone at the Fest isn’t unfamiliar with the captain’s chair concept. However, the chair itself isn’t usually so important. It’s all those “control panels.” It’s a technological nest, otherwise known as a “shack” (AKA a “radio shack), and every radio-style human being has one around the house, even if it’s only a glowing bedside kind of thing. These days it’s usually a radio workbench merged with the home office. My better half has always called my spot my “command center.” Whatever…
But in truth, I’ve always been fascinated by nesting behavior. And this year at the Fest they had a new feature where people contributed photos of their home radio situation. You know, their command center. While the tech forums were informative and the pirate radio presentations were entertaining, the review of home shacks was a lot of fun– personal and occasionally inspiring. There’s something about setting up a personal communications outpost that evokes a spirit of empowerment and a curiosity about the world. And not only did people share pictures of their radio nests, but they also offered some detailed explanations of some technological problem solving that improved their shack. Like Mario, explaining how he managed to neatly connect forty radios to his big backyard antenna.
For the scanner people and the ham crowd, equipment almost seems to be everything, and neither habit/hobby offers the wonderful radio content you can still find on shortwave radio on a good day– like news, music, cultural features and religious brainwashing.
But for all forms of radio monitoring, DXing is the sporting side of the avocation. Bagging the elusive quarry. The science of turning sound into powerful electromagnetic radiation and receiving those particular radio waves from a distant point on Earth and converting it back into audible content is still quite a trick, and once you get the hang of it you get the bug to better your last conquest.
And the receiver and antenna can make all the difference, a personal acumen with the radio and a trained ear and good tuning fingers can sometimes make pulling in a distant station feel like playing a musical instrument. And it grows even more personal when you manipulate and tweak an antenna, or with a portable set when your body becomes an antenna annex. It can feel like a real human event when you are able to log some obscure signal from a seemingly impossible distance.
And it’s nothing like waiting for data packets to fill a buffer. Okay?
And while shortwave DXing isn’t going away anytime soon, DXing readable radio programming in English gets less common all the time. Finding an obscure little transmitter from Africa or Asia on your radio dial is certainly invigorating, but hearing the world and local news in English from a distant nation you know very little about can be a hell of an interesting listen. It’s what first hooked me to tuning in the world bands when I was a youngster. And that is what is going away.
So what does a U.S. DXer get these days? Well this ongoing solar minimum is making it difficult to pull in anything exotic. But in general, most of the frequencies you hear are not in English and you generally hear less radio than you once could in North America. There was a time, not long ago, when a North American shortwave listener could find a wealth of intelligent programing (news magazines, documentaries, variety shows…) in English from the countries like the UK, Canada, Germany, Israel, and The Netherlands. Most of that is gone. Except for the non-stop kooks and religious nuts who pollute the radio skies in this part of the world, most of the English language programming you hear on shortwave is from our old cold war adversaries– China, Cuba, Russia and a bunch of the former Soviet republics and satellite nations. Although the propaganda isn’t as quite as entertaining as it used to be.
What’s kinda cool (and a little bittersweet) is the frozen-in-time feeling to shortwave that lingers in the production and formatics of the programming. It’s like how they keep putting 1950′s automobiles back on the road in Cuba. It’s hard to tell where production honoring the legacy sound of shortwave broadcasting ends and blindly carrying on the same way due to lack of funds begins. To my ears, some of the radio production I hear out of our own Voice of America sounds like vintage 1970′s radio news stuff. And not necessarily in a good way. And the old Soviet block countries sound antiquated as well, but have more depth and minor key elements in their presentation. There’s an abundance of C.R.I. (China Radio International) radio (which is often frighteningly happy when I tune in), it’s not sparkling or passionate radio. And like VOA, it all sounds like it’s done on the cheap.
While you’re just not going to hear a lot of money spent on talent, production or program development on shortwave in the states much any more, there is some intriguing creativity on a shoestring going on from time to time. And a few of the perpetrators are typically in attendance at the yearly gatherings in Kulspville. They kind of have their own parallel fest going on at the same time.
Of course, I’m talking about WBCQ and the pirate radio clan. Because if you’re looking for something actually new (or at least novel) on the shortwave dial in North America, that’s probably where you’ll end up. Although WBCQ is a legit operation, it’s easy to throw them in together because they’re the closest thing shortwave radio has to a “youth movement, and not surprisingly many of them are associates and friends. Of course, the owner and operators over there started out in radio as youthful pirate radio operatives. And lately, WBCQ has (via their 5100kHz transmitter) been offering a nightly programming block they call “Area 51," which mixes in original airchecks from some domestic pirate broadcasters.
If there’s a vibe to the post-radio pirate scene on shortwave, it’s a postmodern pastiche version of what was once called on “underground” radio on FM. You could call it freeform, but has more attitude than that. I actually find the term “freeform” to be kind of overused and useless these days. Think about it. It’s meaningless. There’s actually always some form or format at play, and denying it seems disingenuous. Vague.
Typically the pirate radio attitude is prankish and a little dark (with some occasional subgenius stylings, if you know what I mean) And the laughs? Ah… usually sophomoric and rather geeky. Lots of sarcasm. And it almost seems like the music in the mix could be almost anything, the programming doesn’t often seem to be steeped in music choice. And more than anything the pirate radio I’ve come across lately is incredibly self-referential, with plenty of mentions of partners in crime and the whole pirate radio scene in general. And not only do they have their own proprietary slang, but many of the programs are so filled with in jokes and insider humor that the newcomer is bound to do a little head scratching when first coming across these illicit shortwave broadcasts.
There’s actually quite a lively pirate scene. And I haven’t come close to sampling everything that’s going on. However I came across this clip at the Area 51 site the other day that’s kind of a nice little overview. It’s the infamous pirate Kracker on WBCQ, where he’s been expanding his reach by being a part of the new Area 51 programming block on 5100kHz. His guest is George Zeller, who writes a pirate radio column for Monitoring Times. And George is also a mainstay and presenter at the yearly SWL fest, and hosted his pirate radio forum this year in Kulpsville. (This clip is slightly edited.)
WBCQ (Radio Jamba International) – Kracker talks to George Zeller 6:25 (download)
I’ve run across Kracker’s creative hijinks on shortwave before, and actually got to meet him at the Fest this year (He kind of ran away when I was taking a couple random snapshots. I guess he’s shy.) Kracker’s on-air persona is often brassy and even abrasive, but here the beer was flowing and the mood is lubricated. (You can get all of the whole wild two hours of Kracker’s show here. Be careful, you could catch a hangover…)
Zeller applauds the creativity and spirit of both the pirates and WBCQ. I did notice that he says he’s been “a big supporter of what WBCQ’s been trying to do.” And that’s the thing about WBCQ, is that it’s a great idea that is occasionally realized. Despite the fact that they offer incredible rates for slots of air time and actively invite and encourage creative broadcasting on their transmitters, many hours are still taken by the typical religious garbage and conspiracy kooks. And there’s still plenty of unfilled hours if you’ve got an idea.
And speaking of that, I thought this was kinda funny.
This little edited clip comes from the beginning of Kracker’s show. It’s something Kracker (or someone) cut up from Allan Weiner’s radio show on WBCQ, where Allan (who was once one of the most well known radio pirates in the states) making fun of the shortwave “pirate slugs” who use “piece of garbage ham transmitters” to play “weird distorted crappy music” and think they’re god’s gift to free speech broadcasting.
It’s kinda funny. And kinda true. But Allan is also doing what he always does at some point on “Allan Weiner Worldwide.” Looking for another angle to lure people to buy time on WBCQ. And the truth is he wants people like the pirates to get on board, instead of adding more demonic preachers and new world order paranoia. And like George, I’m one of those supporters of what WBCQ is trying to do. No one else in this part of the world seems to be doing anything worthy of notice or merit these days on the shortwave dial (at least not legally).
Obviously, setting up your own shortwave radio station isn’t likely to make you rich. Especially if you’re trying to keep the programming a couple notches up from the LCD programming on most U.S. shortwave operations. And on his show, Weiner treads a fine line between optimism about the future of the station and letting you know that they’re often just one unpaid bill or major malfunction away from disaster. But what I hear every time Allan comes on the air is how much he really loves what he’s doing– running his own (legal) international radio station, WBCQ (AKA “The Planet.") So far, Weiner’s radio experiment at the northeast corner of America has survived over a decade and has been the brightest glimmer of hope on the North American shortwave in a period where so much intelligent content has vanished.
And then the lack of weather on the sun has been rough on WBCQ’s propagation. I’ve found difficult to hear either of the two frequencies I check (5110 and 7415kHz). A few years ago I could often get 7415 through the night. For the last couple years it slips after dark. And I’ve been especially interested in the new Area 51 programming on 5110, but the times I’ve checked I’ve found a whole lot of nothing at that frequency for the last couple weeks. And from what I understand, the programming on that frequency is all being handled by Cosmik Debris of the Lumpy Gravy radio show on WBCQ. And as I mentioned, he’s got a great site for “Area 51" you can find here or anytime in my sidebar (and thanks for the clips!). And his blog there has become quite an archive of pirate radio lately, and I advise anybody interested in what the hellions with garbage transmitters across the countryside might wanna pay that site a visit. Tons of downloads available, and more eclectic radio audio added all the time.
And if you want to delve deeper into the pirate radio panorama, I’d advise you check out Ragnar Daneskjold’s Pirate Week website and podcast. His weekly show is an easy listen and you get all the latest news from this oddball incestuous radio universe, including audio clips and gossip. There really is a “hall of mirrors” feel to the shortwave pirate radio scene and Daneskjold can be your guide to help you sort out who’s who, and how you might hear whoever at frequencies like 6925 or 6955kHz next weekend. You can subscribe to his podcast at his site, or you can go for the jumbo fun pack podcast at Ragnar’s "HF Programs" site where you can not only get his program delivered to your hard drive, but other fine SW related shows like Allan Weiner Worldwide, The Shortwave Report, a couple of DX programs and more! Nice package.
Speaking of pirates, I did bring some recordings home from Kulpsville.
Here’s “Radio Azteca.” From the stale nature of some of the humor in this aircheck, I’d say this is an archive or two from the 1990′s. Your host is “Bram Stoker,” and his style is non-stop puns and goofy jokes with a sardonic delivery. It’s silly. It’s deep geek comedy. Very cassette as well.
From what I understand, Commander Bunny is one of the more prolific pirates out there these days. And this aircheck certainly speaks to his industrious nature. To my ear, the aesthetic of the Commander is somewhere between Ren & Stimpy and Doctor Demento. Lots of goofy comedy and plenty of original collage elements. It’s frenetic and ridiculous radio.
Like the Azteca aircheck, this seems to be at least a couple separate shows, all played back to back, probably unattended, on one of the handful of transmitters running all during the Fest.
As I already mentioned, pirate radio is very self-referential. And each show seems to send shout outs to other pirates and all the radio heads they know who listen, and the folks like Ragnar and George who cover them in the radio press (such as it is). And in all the mentions of friends and associates, there’s plenty of jibes and jokes and making fun. And it can get kinda harsh. And I don’t mean just calling people “monkeys.”
A few of the people who are regular attendees at the Fest (who aren’t part of the pirate radio “crowd”) have found themselves as targets for the shortwave pirate joke machine, and the resulting attacks and satire starts to turn into some mean spirited weirdness that surprised me when I first heard some of it. There’s almost a “Lord of the Flies” element– where some of these folks seem to almost get a little feral as they circle around and gang up on people like wolves or something. Especially when it comes to “Bozo.”
And I’m not talking about Larry Harmon, or the TV kiddie show franchise he created, but a fellah I’ve never met. All I really know about Jay comes from the constant torrent of insults and gags and jokes that I run into when I hear some pirate radio shows, or come across some of the stuff they’ve posted on the web.
Although he didn’t attend this year (he’s was in the hospital with congestive heart failure), Jay usually always shows up in Kulpsville. From the photos, it’s not hard to see that he’s overweight and has funny hair. And I’ve heard he’s gay as well. Maybe he has an offbeat walk too. I don’t know and I suppose I don’t care. But he loves radio and shortwave radio, and the pirates love to make fun of him. They seem to live for it. It’s strange.
If you remember the pirate radio clip from last week, of WBZO? There was a bit in the middle of it with some Jay jokes. Of course, the name WBZO is another poke at n Jay. I think I read that WBZO (and KBZO and CBZO) are all Kracker creations. (But as I’m on the outside of the pirate scene, I’m not sure who’s secretly who, and all that jazz.)
But even if Jay is as annoying or peculiar as the pirates make him out to be, when I hear some of the heavy-handed Bozo parody stuff it seems kind of sad. I mean, these pirate transmissions on the HF bands potentially cover a wide swath of this hemisphere, and the touchstone of their content and the very handshake they offer from their culture, is a bunch of less than empathetic parodies revolving around a harmless chubby geek from upstate New York? Is that the “message” of pirate radio in 2009? Really?
Okay, not all the pirates are having taking potshots at Jay, but within a certain subset of these illicit broadcasters creating mean-spirited mayhem with Jay’s voice (and image) is incredibly pervasive. And I don’t get it. At one point during the Fest I stepped out to run out to a store, and tuned to one of the temporary Fest pirate stations, WBZO in fact. And there was Kracker, calling up Jay "on the air"– in the hospital I assume. It sounded live. And Kracker took the conversation to male masturbation within a minute or two.
I didn’t have a recorder with me to catch that particular magic moment, but here’s an acidic spell of Jay bashing from WBZO that I happened to record during the Fest.
You know when it comes to satire and making fun of people’s flaws, I think that celebrities and the rich and famous and political figures are all fair game. And you get extra points if you play off of some meaningful hypocrisy. But riffing off the imperfections of some oddball dude ad infinitum seems like overkill to me. I do admire the ambition and anarchic creativity I hear on shortwave pirate radio. And some vulgarity and twisted humor seems par for the course. But why so mean?
Another reason it’s easy for me to lump the pirates and WBCQ together, is that they are actively broadcasting some English language content on shortwave that doesn’t try to convince you into worshiping a supernatural being or buy into a conspiracy theory. Which is nice. In the end, I suppose all of it beats Family Radio for pure entertainment hands down. Even the dick jokes.
Like many people who delve deep into niche behavior, the shortwave pirate scene seems to be quite networked through the internet– with a number of sites, message boards, as well as Usenet and a bit of IRC action. When ever I’ve heard any pirates on shortwave I’ve usually been able to find more than I needed to know just though a Google excursion or two. It’s all out there if you’re interested. However, if you want to know all you really need to know about the shortwave pirate scene, you can always check out the Pirates Cove, the Area 51 site (or Zeller’s column in the Monitoring Times).
Speaking of Zeller. On Saturday night, after everyone’s had their chosen chicken, beef, or vegetarian meal at the banquet, the yearly Grande Raffle began with Mr. Zeller presiding. Now I’d never been to the Fest before, and started out feeling pretty good about the twenty bucks or I decided to invest (okay… gamble) in the raffle. However, the raffle table was getting a lot of traffic on the banquet night, and the hopper was really packed with tickets. I decided to up it another ten bucks. What the heck.
After the Fest I heard that some of those guys were into that raffle for over a hundred bucks. I wouldn’t be surprised if some were into the raffle much deeper than that. Hell, it was a lot better deal than all those damn lottery tickets folks piss their incomes away on. The odds are infinitely better AND the money goes to charity. And there were SO many cool shortwave radios that you might actually get to take home. A few real dream receivers, as well as some damn nice radios, as well as some wi-fi gadgets and a few fancy PC receivers. For a radio guy like me, approaching the Grande Raffle prize table was enough to up the heart rate just a little.
And it was fun to get to see the little bit of pomp and ceremony that Mr. Zeller adds to the proceedings, including some unique headgear. Avuncular and silly, George is a non-stop cut up, and a perfect MC for all the excitement. And just to give you a flavor fo the proceedings, here he is. Giving away a CC Radio SW and a wi-fi clock radio.
Zeller’s two “lovely assistants” are none other than the guys who have kept the SWL Fest up and running the last decade or so– Richard Cuff and John Figolizzi (Richard is the one with more hair…). A couple of really nice guys. And over the course of the weekend I began to notice that the whole Fest is not only a smooth operation, but the whole event was a relaxed affair, with almost no drama and not a lotta attitude either. That kind of vibe is set from the top down, and Richard and John obviously realize how important it is that everyone have a good time. I know I did.
And no, I did not win. At least nothing from the raffle. Not this year. But it sure was fun hoping.
After the dinner and the drawing, they closed up the Fest officially and lots of people went their separate ways. But some of us convened to the Hospitality Room to await the actual final event of the Fest, when Pancho Villa comes on the air at twelve o’clock sharp. (Eh? I’ll explain in a minute…)
The hospitality room is a little meeting space that the Fest keeps stocked with beer, soda and snack food from Thursday night until late on Saturday. It ain’t fancy, and there’s not even close to enough room for everyone to hang out in there, but there was more than enough room on Saturday night for those who weren’t ready to go bed or didn’t have a pirate radio station to operate. I guess you could have called it a party. I actually got to meet some interesting guys that night, swapping radio stories and talking about our lives, changes in technology and the demise of shortwave radio .
As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, Marty Peck can pick up a melody by ear and can play plenty of shortwave interval signals (from memory) on his flute. And Saturday night in the hospitality room he was talked into a repeat performance.
Now about the Pancho Villa thing. From what I understand, the very first SWL Fest was held in the pink and purple Pancho Villa Room of the Fiesta Motor Inn in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. The motor inn is gone, but Pancho remains in spirit in the form of a yearly midnight broadcast at the SWL Fest, called the Voice of Pancho Villa. It’s a kooky pre-recorded bit of “contemporary” satire, that I believe was broadcast by just about every pirate radio station at the hotel.
You can download the whole glorious “Voice of Pancho Villa” from this post on the Area 51 blog. And if you want more, you can go here and collect up almost all the Pancho Villa broadcasts. And who puts this thing together every year? Good question. I think I might recognize a voice or two, but in the pirate universe everything and everybody is sorta secret.
In closing my two part epic on the Winterfest, I feel the urge to say something meaningful about what I learned there or to ruminate on the meaning of shortwave radio or something. But I suppose I’ve been trying to do that for a few thousand words now. I guess the overwhelming impression I was left with by the end of the Fest, was how incredibly normal it was to be there.
Part of the reason I started blogging about DXing was that I was going through a resurgence with a hobby I’d fooled around with off and on for decades. But more importantly, it was because I was kind of sick of being so damn interested in something all by myself. I mean, it only makes sense to spend quality time tuning on your own, but not being able to talk about what I heard or what I was doing in any intelligent way just seemed weird. And then there’s the way the in-laws and the neighbors may be baffled or alarmed at how you park yourself at a table or out on the porch for hours on end intently listening to the radio (possibly with headphones or strange antennas connected to your receiver).
But in Kulpsville, for one weekend a year you’re just another person who knows how to work a receiver– someone with a passion for sorting far off signals out of the wild atmosphere, and what you can learn about the world by doing so. And perhaps we are a dying breed, or perhaps shortwave listeners are evolving with the culture and the technology and turning into something else. I don’t know. And this is a topic of interest at the Fest. It’s strange to contemplate the impending extinction of something you love.
Yet, the Fest is a positive affair. A celebration. And if you have an abiding interest in shortwave or pirate radio or scanning or amateur radio you might just have a lot of fun at the Winterfest. Hot thrills and wild chicks, not so much. But if some radio fellowship sounds like it might be fun, then you’d probably feel right at home.
Brenda Ueland, a writer born just a few years before the dawn of radio has an oft noted quote that I’d apply to the HF band explorers I met in Pennsylvania. She said– "Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force." And I believe that’s what separates those of us who DX and listen to these (now) obscure radio bands from most people who usually tune to a local station and leave it there. We go on radio excursions, seeking out the exotic broadcast, the novel station, the distant signal, the foreign voice. Radio as craft. A technological expression of self. And if I had to describe the people I met at the Fest, I’d day most were working class intellectuals. Smart people. A breed of bandscanning autodidacts who have made themselves more worldly by anticipating the bounce of distant radio waves.
What else is there to say? Just thanks I guess. It was an honor to attend NASWA’s annual SWL Winterfest. And as long as it remains such a class act, it oughtta continue, and thrive in its own way. It’s there once a year for all of us who still listen to our shortwave radios.
And I do hope to see you next year.
(If you missed it and you don’t see it below, part one of this post can be found here.)
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 alwaysRadio 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 coupleposts 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.
I know. It’s been a while. And I apologize. With all the holidays and hullabaloo coming at me, I kinda took a break from the blog. And then somehow I got bogged down in a painful post. And that post will be up here shortly, but I wanted to come up for air just to let you know I’m still here, typing and listening and fooling around.
Actually, I have been sorta busy. One of the things I’ve been doing is playing around with a new webstream, which (at least for now) I’m calling “Radio Kitchen Radio.” And you’re welcome to check it out, by clicking on the little icon below that happens to match the media player scenario on your computer.
RADIO KITCHEN RADIO
What’s playing? Well, the same kind of crap that I feature on the blog– airchecks and bandscans of shortwave and AM radio broadcasts. It’s kind of a grab bag, some good music, some odd talk radio, and then there’s that wonderful sound of throbbing faraway stations bumping around in the dark. And of course, all sorts of people talking and squawking in languages I don’t understand. I like it. Maybe you will too. If you’re looking for some interesting background noise while you toil away online, try it out. There’s a bunch of scary radio from September 11, 2001 I recorded here in New York in the rotation. And if you like WHVW half as much as I do, you’ll be happy to know there’s a couple dozen hours of that station in the rotation too. And I’m just gonna keep adding more radio recordings to the pile.
I’ll be in a day or two or three with a real post. Honest.
My friend David Goren is contributing some interesting odds and ends for my little radio station. And if you’ve got some compelling AM or SW airchecks, bandscans or tidbits, drop me an email. I’m interested. And I’m equally curious to hear any feedback on the stream content.
Meanwhile, let me finish up this post that has taken me too much time already. I’ll be back…
Deep in downtown Manhattan, there used to be a street of dreams– Courtland Street. The far western end of it was known as “Radio Row.” From what I understand, it was an old-fashioned electronics paradise. If I could afford one of those high-end time machines and could simply whoosh back to 1949 or 1958, one of the first things I’d do would be to jump on the Broadway IRT down to Chambers street and wander Radio Row– ogling the glowing dials, fondling those bakelite knobs, and tracing my fingertips over the bins and racks of cables and adapters and connectors. (And then… Coney Island!)
That end of Courtland Street is long gone. Tore it all down to build a couple of hefty skyscrapers back in the mid-60′s. Strangely enough, they actually fell down seven years ago (you probably heard about it) and there’s still just a big hole there with a bunch of men doing stuff. Heard they’re gonna make a “freedom tower” (whatever that is). But you can be sure that they’re not bringing back Radio Row.” But I wish they were. Electronics stores don’t fall over so easily.
Sadly, I didn’t grow up in New York. Never saw radio row. (Never had a sandwich at an automat either.) I’m from the land where the strip mall and the tri-level home were perfected, where the lawns were manicured and grownups beat you every now and then. And if you had a passion for patch cords, police scanners or little suction cup doodads that could record your phone calls, you didn’t have a radio row. You had “Radio Shack.” And you had to love it. And they sent you full color catalogs in the mail. In fact, they used to ask for your address every time you bought something. They knew you wanted the catalog. Probably the second best type of bathroom reading a boy could get for free.
Now you may think it silly to say anything reverential about a chain store. And for many, the name “Radio Shack” was kind of a punch line for any joke about shoddy electronics. And if you were lucky to have a classy radio shop in your town, or a hot and well-equipped electronics franchise in the neighborhood, you could easily look down your nose at all the knock off goods with silly brand names like “Realistic” and “Optimus.”
But what Radio Shack did do, they did very well. They served the working stiff and the average family, providing inexpensive and (somewhat) durable electronic gadgets and gear at reasonable prices– in a small “Sears” kind of way. But more uniquely, they were the neighborhood place to find all variations of audio receiver. And if you needed some part or piece or connector for a radio or sound system, you knew you could find it at your local Radio Shack. And it probably wouldn’t cost you a fortune. The Radio Shack chain was a practical American reality. Like having a gas station nearby. And with more than six thousand stores across the country, there was usually one just a short drive away– at the mall, the shopping center, or out on the highway. And while Radio Shack was always handy for batteries, tapes and wires, I was always profoundly aware that these little stores always had cool radios in stock. Especially shortwave radios.
In retrospect, your local Radio Shack didn’t really have the very best shortwave sets on the market, they always had a few really good ones. And in the days before more sophisticated anti-pilfering technology, the pricy/fancy radios were usually behind the counter or up on a high shelf over your head. For all the hundreds of times I visited Radio Shack outlets, I doubt I ever went out the door without at least briefly casting my eyes on the store radio shrine, and all the chrome and buttons and green digital display screens.
As I’ve been speaking of Radio Shack with atypical nostalgia (and using past tense) you may be working your way through this post looking for the obituary– a story of stores closing or some transformative merger at hand. Nope. In fact, you can stop looking for any definitive news about Radio Shack at all. Because the point here is more about definition, about how a huge chain of stores slowly stumbled away from its identity so far that it’s not much more than a tiresome "Rite Aid” of electronics.
As you might imagine, the Radio Shack chain started as not much more than a supply store for radio hobbyists and professional radio operators. Then back in the early 60′s they merged with a leather goods chain run by an ambitious dude named Tandy, and his vision made Radio Shack the ubiquitous hobby/technology mart we all knew and needed, and some of us loved (even if we wouldn’t admit it). In the late 70′s they started selling their own make of computer that did very well, and the chain flourished. It’s easy to forget what computers were like so long ago. There was no public internet and very little software available. If you had a computer you could crunch numbers, write programs, and most significantly you could play games with them (which were incredibly primitive by today’s standards). The point being it all fit in with the Radio Shack vibe– providing complex toys and all the accessories, for people who were serious (and even thoughtful) about having fun.
And then there were the radios. Radio Shack always had a wide variety. And a scan of the high-tech receivers on their shelves, or thumbing through one of their catalogs, gave you that big futuristic American feeling of technology on the march. And they had their own brand of radios. And the more elite and muscular models had bizarre features far beyond the understanding of most casual listeners. Radio Shack had radios for people who loved the gadgetry of radios and for people who wanted high-performance radios that could tune in signals from the other side of the world. Like me, and maybe you.
Through the 1990′s there were changes afoot in radio-land. Beginning with the end of the cold war, which for many years had generated the scintillating content that kept people listening to shortwave radio. Then the march of technology made the need for elaborate lo-fi radios less relevant by some measure–In 1992 the world wide web was opened for business, and the next years web (streaming) radio, became a reality, followed by the creation of the graphical web browser in 1994. And then the next year an executive from Ralston/Purina took the helm of Radio Shack. While Radio Shack had become much more than a supply store for radio freaks, putting a pet food magnate in charge of a huge electronics chain with a very unique (and some might say eccentric) heritage might have been kind of a mistake.
Although there was a change in logo that came with the new guy in charge, Radio Shack didn’t change all that much at first. But as the 1990′s were grinding to a close, a lot of Radio Shack customers began to notice that a few things weren’t right at their neighborhood "shack." Like the lack of radios.
I wasn’t able to find any definitive writing on what really happened to Radio Shack, but I did find this article in a retail trade publication from 2005 all about the new and improved version of the electronics franchise, called “The Stuff Shack.” And to read this insider write-up is to see just another example of how in our era of über-capitalism (is it over yet?) a retail entity which had long provided a valuable service to particular type of consumer abandoning their base clientele to pursue massive profits predicted by people with no fundamental understanding what made the business successful in the first place. In a nutshell:
“Earlier this year, the company announced plans to accelerate the rollout of a new product mix. The concept favors the chain’s seven best categories: wireless, accessories, power, modern home, personal electronics, technical and services.”
No mention of radios. Searching the document I found no instances of the words: “shortwave”, ”cables”, “adaptors” or “antennas.” These were all the reasons I usually went to Radio Shack. I really don’t think many people begrudged Radio Shack for carrying a bunch of big ticket items and pushing cell phones like candy, but when their stores got really slack about stocking the kind of goods they were famous for, and the handy friendly geeks at the counter were replaced by slick sales sharks, it became painfully obvious that the service Radio Shack provided for thousands of communities was abandoned in the name of tawdry short-sighted greed. And the article I just quoted had one big revelatory announcement– Radio Shack had just hired a new Chief Operating Officer, a visionary woman who had spent the spent the last thirty years climbing the corporate ladder at McDonald’s. (In her defense, I guess she did help “spearhead” the launch of McDonald’s salad products and shepherded the "McRib” concept to fruition.)
The fact is the vast majority of radio related items that used to be the heart of the Radio Shack catalog have been discontinued. I’ve actually been in Radio Shack stores that had only one or two shortwave radios in stock. And forget about asking the floor hustler staff on hand any technical questions about them, or almost anything else. As you might imagine, I’m not the only one dismayed by the dawn of the super slick “Stuff Shack”. (Check out some similar gripes here, here or here) So as a remembrance from the late glory days of Radio Shack, here’s a souvenir. It’s an informative starter kit for the fledgling shortwave radio listener.
Radio Shack Tape – The Sounds of Shortwave (1992) pt 1 10:53 (download)
“Welcome to the world of shortwave radio!” beckons this cassette tape after teasing with a tasty little collage of HF turning. “Listening to Shortwave” offers a respectable overview of how shortwave radio words and how to listen. Certainly not the masterpiece created by pop producer Mitch Murray (Long Live Shortwave!) that I offered in this post, but this Radio Shack production is more contemporary and discusses the more modern digital tuners we use today. Although more experienced listeners won’t learn a lot listening to this tape, it really is a fairly thorough overview of the how and why of shortwave listening.
Side two is more fun, bringing home the “world at your fingertips” thrills that radio boys (of all ages) can still find so compelling. “So what’s out there?,” the announcer ponders, and then the production “hops around” the shortwave bands offering some radio flavor from some of the big players in international radio (BBC, DW, The Voice of Russia…). The samples aren’t amazing, but they’re good. Most offer tidy reception, although the sound is authentically rich with the inherent distortion that you grow to love as a shortwave listener. Not static, but the poetic audio artifacts of the technology and the planet it traverses.
Radio Shack Tape – The Sounds of Shortwave (1992) pt 2 11:28 (download)
One thing that’s completely left out of the mix on this tape is all the evangelical stupidity and insanity that infests North American shortwave broadcasting. Probably because it’s a touchy issue, and as this package is also sales tool to market Radio Shack’s shortwave radios they wouldn’t want prospective radio buyers to realize the scope and disturbing nature of Christian dreck clogging up the shortwave dial in the states. So although it’s understandable, ignoring this reality makes this tape and booklet less than representational of "what’s out there."
The “bandscan” offered is really a collage and not an accurate representation of the noise and faint signals you’d run across in a typical trek through the kilocycles, but with so many changes in what’s available on the shortwave bands (and what’s offered) it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic when you hear some of these snippets of shortwave broadcasting. But then again, 1992 feels like a long time ago right now. And at the end when the announcer talks about hooking your computer up to a couple of shortwave radio bulletin board systems (BBS) to pick up “a load of information” about shortwave schedules and propagation conditions.
Speaking of information– the accompanying book that came with this tape, “Listening to Shortwave,” is a much more thorough shortwave radio primer, with plenty of charts, graphs and illustrations that would make any shortwave tenderfoot smarter, wiser, and better at small talk at any hamfest or at the annual Kulpsville gathering. And as a lagniappe for stopping by The Radio Kitchen today (and reading this through to the end), I offer you your very own copy of “Listening to Shortwave” as a PDF file. (Which you can download by clicking here.) And you’re welcome.
When this kit was created, Radio Shack had specialized in shortwave radio for decades. And I’m sure they thought this starter kit would have a shelf life of a decade or more when they put it together. But time was not on the side of radio-heads at the Tandy corporate headquarters. The web opened up to the public that same year, and many things would soon change. The BBS systems that remained would be integrated into the internet, broadcasting around the world could soon be accomplished with a modem and a net connection, and in a year or two interloper food executives would start to turn a national hobbyist’s lifeline into a mega-chain “stuff shack” for couch potatoes and teenage girls.
And I’m not even going to mention the BBC, and Deutsche Welle and now the RADIO NETHERLANDS ( !) all abandoning their English broadcasts to North America in this decade. It’s just too damn depressing…
I probably never would have admitted the importance of Radio Shack in my life until recently. It was easy to make fun of the clips and coax and scanners– and some of the people you might see there (like me!). But ever since I was a kid, it was dependable– for radios I usually couldn’t afford as well as practical patch cords and adapters I had a hard time finding anywhere else. And once I started to notice the radios missing from their shelves, and to find more and more people behind the counter at Radio Shack stores who didn’t know a shortwave radio from a continuity tester ("But would you care to take a look at this humongous flat-screen TV?.") I realized I was beginning to grieve…
However, recent visits have led me to believe that the Radio Shack enterprise may actually be getting serious about reclaiming a little bit of their heritage. As I duck into RS outlets in my travels, I’ve been seeing a few of the new shortwave models on the shelves. I don’t sense they’re rebooting their brand again, but there seems to be a corporate move afoot to put a few radios on display at their outlets (as decorations perhaps?). If I had to venture a guess, it might just be that after years of customers coming into Radio Shack looking specifically for radios they might make a little cash if they had a few on hand… just in case. (I wish some of the great shortwave services of Western Europe would see it the same way, and beam some content over this way, just in case some of us might be listening.)
Here’s how the “Sounds of Shortwave” tape ends. I admit it’s hokey, but nonetheless, I approve this message:
“Just think of it. As you sit there listening to this tape, or flipping through the pages of the book, thousands of signals are zipping by you at the speed of light– voices and sounds from all over world just waiting for you to listen. All you need is a shortwave receiver, and some electricity to power it. And you’re off on a wonderful adventure in the magical world of shortwave broadcasting.
NOTE: My friend Doug Hammond just sent me this amazing link– a whole bunch of old Radio Shack catalogs online! Browse through the glorious yesteryear of Tandy Incorporated to your heart’s content. And you can help by contributing images of catalogs they don’t have yet. Amazing. Thanks Doug!
Do you ever find yourself waiting for something to be invented? I take that back. What I really mean is– do you ever wait for a specific type of gadget to hit the market, so you can buy one? I’m not talking about science fiction, but just wishing for a practical tool to be created, built and sold; one that seems well within reach of current technology. I want an MP3 player/recorder with AM & shortwave radio. Is that too much to ask?
My desire is a utilitarian thing. A simple tool (and not too big) which will easily record and store MP3 recordings of reasonable quality from an onboard SW/AM radio. It’s not a crazy idea. Plenty of cassette boomboxes in the early 80′s did almost all that more (but took up more space). Of course, I want it to work well. And I’d prefer that I could also schedule automated recordings, like a VCR or a TiVo does for video. FM band? I don’t need it, but other consumers will probably want that too. This whole idea is not beyond today’s technology. Yet, I wait.
When I record radio for this blog, I use old-fashioned audio cassettes (which I then digitize). It’s still a reliable technology for which I have admitted affection. But in practical terms it using them eats up critical time and space in my already cramped and cluttered lifestyle. Unless I’m just recording a strong or local station, I generally have to rig together a tape deck and a favored shortwave portable with a patch cord. This can be more problematic than you think. Cords and connections may short out when moving the radio or antenna around to improve reception. (And I don’t know enough about electronics but there’s some kind of a buzz that seems to get into some kind of a feedback loop that at least seems to be caused by the patch cord.) And then everything takes twice as long as I end up dumping all the audio into my laptop, and then compressing them to MP3 for my archives. Recording straight to MP3 would just make sense for me. And while there’s probably not a mob of radio consumers who actively archive shortwave radio out there, as I do. However, the ability to schedule MP3 recordings of AM or shortwave would benefit all sorts of folks.
Actually, there is such a device. The Kaito 1121 (or DE1121) does record radio as MP3 files, but the online reviews have kept me from investing in one. Although the reception is supposed to be pretty good (as most of the Degen made radios), but firmware is supposed to be rather quirky and difficult to use. Sadly, it’s notoriously buggy and has only a half a gig of storage. The general consensus I’ve seen online is that it’s a cool concept when you can get it to work, but more research and development could have come up with a better product. And for all the excitement generated by the new and innovative shortwave receivers coming out of China, that’s a consistant problem. Instead of perfecting the engineering of their new radios, the Chinese companies end up putting them on the market too early and let the consumers find the flaws.
To be fair, those of us in the states who care about shortwave radio are happy the Chinese care. Almost every heritage brand name in consumer shortwave portables has gotten out of the business, or like Sangean and Sony they just keep selling their 1990′s era models (perhaps until they run out of stock). Unlike here, for people in China and around the globe (especially in the third world and isolated areas) shortwave is still a significant source of news and information. So for an ignored and oppressed minority like North American shortwave radio consumers, we look with hope to China via the web to see what the Chinese radio manufacturers like Degen, Tecsun and Redsun are putting out on the market overseas. And with the vast success of the MP3 format over the last decade (not for the record companies, but for electronic manufactures, their consumers and podcasters and more…), but the marriage of MP3 technology and shortwave reception hasn’t gone well. At least not yet.
Before the 1121, there was a great radio of the decade that was never was– The Degen 1108. There was a fanboy conga line booming along for a while a couple years ago, where more and more features were anticipated into the damn thing that it was eventually imagined as some great merging of the Sony 2010, the Bose wave radio and an iPod… only better. Okay, even I was stupid enough to join the Yahoo group for this fantasy radio. It never happened. I’ve never heard for certain, but it seemed like the project was simply killed without warning and the development work on the 1108 probably was cobbled together to put out the mediocre but interesting 1121.
Then there was the Grundig G4. Man, this thing sounded like a winner. Announced with a smattering of fanfare at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas a year ago, the G4 (otherwise known as the DE1122 in China if you’re keeping track) was going to solve some of the problems of the 1121. No nifty pull-out MP3 recorder like the 1121, but easier to navigate controls and firmware with an SD card slot wisely included to add digital storage if desired. And the MP3 technology was piggybacked on a radio that was already well-liked– the Kaito/Degen 1102. I blogged about the G4 not long after it was announced, and the post was followed by quite a number of comments and people interested in the radio continue to find that post. And now, it appears that the Grundig/Eton G4 radio has been discontinued. Wow.
Oh, you can still buy it. There seems to be quite a few around from online sellers like Amazon, ebay, Universal, etc. However, it’s been listed on Eton’s site as part of their “Past Collection.” And then Passport’s Receiver News blog announced the demise of the G4 last month. But while the radio did and does exist, as far as what most of us thought it would do, it’s practically a vapor-gadget like the Degen 1108.
Since I researched and wrote a post about it several months ago, I’ve occasionally strolled onto the web to follow up on the G4. Generally, when I’m interested in a radio I go to sites like eham or Radio Intel where almost any shortwave radio worth much gets a round of reviews and write ups from consumers and people who know radios. At this writing, there’s still not one review of the G4 on either site. Strange. And then there’s Amazon, where any electronic gadget usually gets quite a bit of feedback. Sometimes the people who write there are less than knowledgeable about shortwave radios, but there’s usually dozens of critiques to wade through. Last I looked at Amazon there were only three reviews of the G4. One very favorable (but short on feature specifics), and two panning the portable. Actually, one seems to have been written about a completely different radio. (In case you’re wondering, there seems to be no real quality control for Amazon reviews in general. Plan on reading some ignorant customer reactions, and figure that a few favorable write-ups are probably planted by the manufacturer.)
What I’ve finally learned is this– the G2/1122 is an overpriced dog. Period. The reception isn’t bad, but the original Kaito/Degen 1102 receiver is around half the price. The recordings are reportedly awful. Instead of recording MP3′s like its sister gadget– the 1121, the 1122 records down and dirty lo-fi wav files, like a budget voice recorder. Now I don’t want to get into a big discussion about digital recording and audio compression, but believe me this is a big mistake. The fact is, large full-fidelity wav files (like those ripped from a commercial CD) are HUGE. And when you try to make a wav file small by cutting way back on the resolution and sampling rate, instead of using a carefully long-developed compression algorithm like MP3, you create something that sounds pretty nasty. And while there are valid arguments for more efficient compression algorithms (ogg or AC4 for example), MP3 is ubiquitous now, and can be utilized in almost any contemporary application imaginable. The fact that all reviews I’ve read say the recordings made with the G4′s recordings sound muddy and godawful is not surprising. I understand the radios will actually playback decent MP3 files until the cows come home, but all it can create are buzzy and hollow sounding recordings like a twenty-five dollar digital voice recorder, and you won’t be able to play them back on most MP3 players on the market.
Meanwhile, it’s important to note that not only has there been a dearth of shortwave/MP3 devices on the market, but it’s been almost impossible to find an MP3 player with a mainstream medium wave (AM radio) receiver on board. Many, if not most, MP3 players now have FM radios but up until recently only a company called Pogo Electronics actually made an MP3 player/recorder with an AM/FM radio. They had their fans online, but storage was an issue with their “Radio YourWay” products. As I recall they used to have one with only 128MB of storage, and eventually graduated up to an LX model with a half a gig of room for files. I don’t recall that any of their players have had a card slot, and their latest model islisted on Amazon, although unavailable. And now I notice their website is gone too. Oh well. Bye Pogo.
The C. Crane “Witness” seems more promising. Although their toys are pricy, C. Crane does cater to the AM and shortwave radio geek in a more real and sincere fashion than Radio Shack these days. And they have comprehensive customer service. Their “Witness” seems to be a viable and well thought out AM/FM radio MP3 recorder, with the ability to pre-program the recording of up to 20 shows. Impressive if it works as well as they say. I’d like to get my hands on one, but at well over two-hundred dollars I’m just not ready to pay that much for an AM radio, or an MP3 device. I don‘t own an iPhone either.
And lately there’s been more rumors wafting across the Pacific about a MP3/shortwave combo toy in the works in China. And this time it’s not only a brand new design, but it’s also a real pocket shortwave/AM/FM radio and MP3 player. And it’s also a Degen product, one model number up from the failed 1122– the DE1123.
Honestly, most of what I’ve seen has beenonChinese language sites. So most of what I’ve known about the radio has been gleaned from photos and short cryptic feature lists in English. Then there’s been a couple updates at thesetwo sites (the second requires a simple free membership login to read the article). But after the DE1108 radio mirage of a couple years ago, I wasn’t sure if this was a real product yet. Now I’ve seen it on ebay, so it seems to be both real and for sale in the real world. But again, it’s apparently not exactly what it should or could be.
So far, the good news is that the radio isn’t going to cost a lotta dough. About the price of the DE1103, which is less than half the cost of the CC Witness (with shipping from China). And it’s cute. Of course, we have no idea of how well the radio or recorder works, or whether it’s easy to operate. It actually sports a built-in speaker, but will undoubtably sound better through headphones. But the bad news? Only one gig of storage. And NO card slot to upgrade the storage yourself. But worse? Like the G4, according to the feature list on the ebay auction it only records crappy voice recorder quality (wav) files. Why? While it also plays MP3 files, who cares? Just about any digital toy will do that these days.
So we’ll see what happens. But if you wanna take a risk, you can go to ebay and buy one from China right now. But I’d advise waiting for the reviews to start coming in. And be aware that Degen and Tecsun occasionally improve their radios while in production and later models may be better buys and less buggy. In fact, I was just reading that the Tecsun PL200, otherwise known as the Eton 100 (link requires login) here, has recently been upgraded from a single conversion receiver to a dual conversion model with no public announcement or price increase. But on the other hand, there’s something more fundamental that makes the DE1123 interesting, and perhaps exciting as well. It’s a different kind of receiver, with a recently invented DSP chip serving as the brain and guts of the device. It’s known as the Si4734/35. And this chip, or just the technology it introduces, could reinvigorate shortwave radio for the masses. Or maybe it’s just my imagination on the loose.
The Si4734/35 is a first, squeezing a whole circuit board of an AM/FM/SW radio into a little teeny wafer. It’s kind of like shortwave radio crossed over into this century. Not only does DSP technology open up the possibilities of vastly improved noise reduction and other audio enhancements, but the incredible shrinking radio chip could bring shortwave functionality to almost any audio appliance out there (including pocket devices like MP3 players or cell phones). Almost any radio or audio appliance could have AM or shortwave radio on board with practically no sacrifice of space inside the machine, all at a low cost and with almost no extra labor (from what I understand there’s no need for tuning at the factory, which has always added to the cost of the production of SW receivers). There are certainly issues like RF shielding to avoid interference in the HF bands (I guess the CC Witness radio recommends that you shut off the display to reduce noise on the recordings), but these problems shouldn’t be that difficult to solve. But what’s really interesting about this chip, is that you’ll be able to actually upgrade the radio yourself, without breaking out a soldering iron or a repair manual. Just like almost any digital device with onboard memory, you’ll be able to flash the chip and upgrade the firmware (the software that controls the gadget) whenever a new version is available. This is a big plus.
So here’s what I don’t know (besides whether this chip is actually hot little receiver or a dud). When or if this radio will be marketed here as an Eton/Grundig, Kaito or C. Crane radio. But I’ll tell you one thing, Eton seems even more confusing and convoluted promotion and marketing schemes for their radios in action. They’ve been changing colors and nameplates at will and making about 36 different varieties of emergency hand-crank radios (collect ‘em all, trade ‘em with your friends). And right now on their front page they have these two “Porche designed” monstrosities that are supposed to be shortwave radios, as well as twelve other things. I don’t know who or what is the target market for these bizarre looking objects, but I’ll be they’re reallyexpensive. And I’ll bet they fail almost as quickly as the G4 World Recorder.
And I also don’t know if the recorder can be upgraded to MP3 capability with a firmware upgrade, but it seems within the realm of possibility. There’s a number of open source projects online (like Rockbox for digital audio players and CHDK for Canon digital cameras) where sharp geeks and consumers have created completely alternate firmware for these gadgets, and they are constantly improving it. I love this whole concept, taking control of your gizmos and making them better and more useful.
Speaking of useful, between the economic meltdown and the (increasingly unlikely) threat of Sarah Palin possibly becoming one frail John McCain heartbeat away from the helm of our nation, I’m starting to think that it might not be a bad idea to have one of those emergency crank up radios around the house. I mean, you never know. If you can’t afford batteries, at least you’ll be able to crank out some armegeddon updates.
Okay, I’m letting my imagination run wild again. But don’t forget to vote.
And you can find a follow-up of sorts to this post right here.