Archive for the 'dxing' Category

A Review of the Tecsun ICR-110 Radio Recorder

Monday, February 17th, 2014

In a number of ways, the Tecsun ICR-110 is unlike any radio I've experienced. The operation is almost too simple. It's idiot-proof in a way that will please some and frustrate others. At the same time it's an innovative multifunctional device that works very well. For less than fifty bucks (including shipping from China) you get a sensitive AM/FM radio, an MP3 player and recorder, an amplified hi-fi speaker for your phone or laptop and an external sound card for your computer. The_110Not bad, right?

It's cool. But hardly perfect. The built-in MP3 player/recorder interface is as primitive as anything I've seen. But it does make nice radio recordings. People who gather podcasts online or archive radio shows on their own could find the ICR-110 quite useful. For me it was an affordable impulse buy, but others may find this shiny box practical for any number of reasons. One thought I had: the 110 could easily upgrade or replace someone's aging AM/FM cassette recorder.

It looks just a bit like the new Tecsun PL-880, but it's not in the same league. And it's lighter. Less oblong. While the more advanced electronics in the 880 add heft, both radios beat with the heart of a high-performance DSP radio chip. Don't expect any of the bells and whistles of the 880 on this one, yet the raw medium wave reception is almost comparable. And they both have a surprisingly warm and rich sound. When you play music at room volume on the ICR-110 the sound is impressive in your hands. It's more hollow than the 880 and you can really feel it throb with signal.

After playing with this radio for over a week, I like it. I'd even say it's kinda cute. The display says "HI" when you turn it on, and it comes in three colors. I opted for red. Despite the lack of English on the radio or in the manual, after a little trial and error I felt like I had mastered most of the functionality. And the more familiar I get with the ICR-110, the more I'm starting to think we may eventually see more radios with a similar feature set. And that might not be such a bad thing.
    
New Toys from the Far East

Through my adventures in translating Chinese web sites, I've concluded that the ICR-110 is just one example of a new generation of radios and media players they're building over there. Most aren't packaged or marketed for the rest of the world (at least not yet) and Tecsun is only one of many brands in the game. The Tecsun PL-880 seemed to kind of come out of nowhere for many of us in North America, but after taking a look at all of these brightly colored radios and media players being sold overseas it puts some of the wonders of the PL-880 in context.

The 880 quickly earned street cred in the greater SWL community for good reason. It’s a nice machine. Specifically built as the flagship radio of the Tecsun line, the PL-880 is like a greatest hits package of features that have impressed many of us who have handled Tecsun winners like the PL-660 or any of their DSP family of ultralights. With the addition of some contemporary technological frosting, Tecsun has come up with a reasonably priced super radio of sorts for shortwave listeners all over the world. Like anything these days, opinions will vary, but considering the current price tag of just over a hundred and fifty dollars, I challenge anyone to come up with a new shortwave radio in that price range that's a better deal than the PL-880, or more fun to use.

880-110This creative streak in Chinese electronics is the result of a rash of consumer devices being created to take advantage of the "radio on an IC chip" technology pioneered by Silicon Labs here in the U.S. The development of these DSP processors has made it possible to include excellent radio reception on all sizes and shapes of radios and media players at a low cost.

As the price of flash memory continues to drop, it's a nice bonus that so many of these new Chinese devices also play MP3 files from storage you slide into an SD card slot. And having the ability to play high fidelity music is greatly enhanced by the trend to integrate an innovative audio chamber into many of these things. Looking through the little holes in the speaker plate, you might notice Mylar diaphragm with a front vent mounted alongside the speaker. First seen on these shores on the Meloson M7, this setup provides a fuller bass and treble response in a small package, with audio that's less mid-rangy than most portables.

While the PL-880 display is a little brighter and more yellow than the black on orange display we've seen on recent Tecsun radios, most of the new ones reverse that color scheme. The ICR-110 and other new Tecsun products sport dark black displays, with all the reception information provided in bright orange text and symbols. Perhaps you heard that Eton here in America is giving their line of shortwave portables a makeover of sorts. Part of their new look will include changing over to this same orange on black display. And no surprise, those radios will be coming from China.

Most radios from that part of the world seem to come with a USB port lately. And although there are more interesting options these ports could provide, so far most are rigged as simple power inputs for charging batteries inside the radio (using either your computer's USB port or an external AC charger). Instead of using traditional AA cells, a lot of this new gadgetry is powered by Li-Ion batteries, either flat cellphone batteries or those beefy 18650 cells. Many laptops are powered by a few of these, but the ICR-110 and the PL-880 just need one. (Inside the battery pack for the Tesla Model S you'll find seven-thousand of those things packed together!) Many believe the 18650 will become the standard for the next generation of electronic products. But they're not your mama's D cells. If you're not familiar with these batteries, it's good to learn their quirks and to know how to avoid having bad things happen. And don't buy the really cheap ones on eBay.

Good Radio, Weird Tuner

When it comes to purchasing an ICR-110 you don’t have a lot of options. Unless you live in China. At the time of this writing, there's only one overseas eBay dealer offering it for sale. It wasn't a vendor I’ve used before, and while the radio did arrive here safe and sound, a few of the pitfalls of buying from China were part of the deal. The English in the emails was a bit mangled. The online tracking was dysfunctional. And it took almost a month to get here.

For a while now, I’ve gotten great service and fast shipping from Anon-Co in Hong Kong. Over the years, I've had problem-free transactions with any number of Asian eBay dealers as well, but it's always smart to do some research and check ratings and feedback before you buy goods on eBay. It seems that most vendors avoid selling Chinese-text radios internationally. But a representative at Anon-Co told me you can inquire via email (at this address) if you'd like to order an ICR-110 directly from them. And they say they're working on an English language manual for the 110 as well.

110FACEOn the eBay page where I found the ICR-110, the description combined real specs with a sloppy copy-and-paste job from the description of another radio. Despite what I read there, there is no “power/volume knob” on the 110. More significantly, it doesn't have a “tuning wheel” either. (Come to think of it, you don't see those power/volume knobs much these days.) The 110 has a power switch on the right side. And all volume adjustments happen via two buttons on the lower right corner on the face of the radio. But oddly there are no tuning controls – only scanning buttons. And a keypad.

It's not all Chinese on the radio case. The switch marked "AM/FM" is easy enough to figure out. But if you press and hold that button for a second or so, Tecsun’s ATS (auto tuning storage) will kick in and the 110 will scan the band for signals and store them as presets. It works well, most of the time. Using it at night on the AM band, I was impressed by how many REW-FFfringe stations it found. But it often misses one or two. Once ol' ATS skipped over the monstrous fifty-thousand watts of Radio Disney, which pollutes a swath of the AM band from just a few miles away. Maybe the radio includes some artificial intelligence chip as well.

Under the display, there are five round buttons which primarily control the MP3 player/recorder. However, the rewind and fast-forward buttons also serve as scanning controls. A simple push will nudge the tuner over to the next (or the previous) frequency caught by the last ATS grab (labeling them as CH:01, CH:02…). And if you only punch in one or two digits, the radio will automatically take you to that "channel" in the ATS database. Holding either button down a little longer the radio will scan anew for the next signal strong enough to trigger it to stop searching. But that's all it will do. Unlike other scanning functions I've used, this one has a mind of its own. It may not stop at your favorite weak station it passes along the way. If you are determined to tune to a particular frequency, the keypad will always get you there. Just type in the numbers and you're listening to it instantly.  Nonetheless, taking away the art of tuning will probably turn off many in the DX crowd, despite the fact that it pulls in a lot of signal.

MODESWITCHESThere are a couple of settings you can actually change. A pair of buttons with Chinese text above the AM/FM button adjust each band for international use . Press the left button while in radio mode and it will toggle to expand the FM band down to 64 MHz (for Russia and Japan) or back to the standard FM band for the rest of the world (starting at 87 MHz). The button on the right changes the MW scanning step. When I got the radio the first ATS scan barely found any stations. Then I realized it was because the step was set at 9 kHz. After an extended session of button pushing I finally figured out how to change the step to 10 kHz, the North American standard. Despite the Chinese characters everywhere, this was probably the only thing about the ICR-110 that wasn't immediately easy.

A Bare Bones MP3 Recorder and Player

Since the golden age of the radio/cassette boombox, I've always been attracted to radios that let you keep what you hear. And there are plenty of digital recorders with built-in FM radios to choose from nowadays. But AM? Not so much. In close quarters, digital audio circuitry tends to broadcast a little noise on medium wave. So in order for the old and new technologies to get along, you need some shielding, or something. For the most part, Tecsun seems to have gotten this right. I've gotten nice, clear, AM radio recordings from the ICR-110's tuner– I'd prefer to be able to set recording levels, but the ALC seems to work well. 

After extensive experimenting, I did hear a bit of noise introduced into the ICR-110 while recording weak AM signals. Like a bad spot on a vinyl record, I heard a brief "phhhht" sound come around about every twelve seconds. I'm guessing it might be the sound of data packets being arranged on the memory card. In retrospect, this might have been related to having a low battery. I've only heard it happen a couple of times.

While there don't seem to be any settings for the recording feature, I was really happy to see that it creates MP3 files at a reasonable bitrate (for radio recordings), and not those horrible low-sample rate .wav files or in some annoying and proprietary nonstandard format. (Oh, it's not an Apple product so we don't have to worry about that..) It fills the micro SD card with 128kbps stereo MP3 files (which I think are actually dual mono files). Considering that this radio doesn’t seem to tune in stereo, it’s a shame that the recording isn’t mono by default. It encodes using a non-standard sampling rate of 32kHz (instead of 44.1kHz), but that's not something you’ll notice on a radio recording. Another funny thing, since there’s no way to set the date or time on the ICR-110, you'll notice when you pull the flash card up on your computer that the MP3 files you've recorded have no date stamp. So, if you need to recall when you were making a particular recording you might wanna write yourself a note.

M8In some ways, the ICR-110 is like a slightly larger version of the Meloson M7 or M8, except it also records. Like the Meloson, it gives you a lot of boom in a small box. But it's a measure bigger so it sounds even better. And like the Meloson, the MP3 playback display is super primitive. All you see is the assigned sequential number for the track playing. But what makes the Meloson a formidable little music player (especially for travel) is that you can fill a flash card up with a few hundred or a few thousand songs and shuffle the whole lot of them for many hours of random fun. As far as I can tell, the 110 will ONLY play the files in order, period. For that reason I think it’s more practical for playback of podcasts or radio shows, unless you have some songs you want to listen to in alphabetical order for some reason.

When you’re listening to an MP3 file and then switch to the radio or shut the thing off, and then resume MP3 playback at a later time, it will start playing the file where you left off. This is a nice feature if you’re in the middle of an hours-long MP3 file (and holding down that fast forward or rewind button to find your place will take forever).

There are other quirks as well. When you’re recording from the radio you can change stations, but only by clicking through the ATS presents. While recording you cannot scan the band up to the next station by holding down the button. And you can’t change bands either. Of course, if you’re recording through the line input you can do whatever you want. And when you stop the recording it immediately starts playing it back to you. And the recording is noticeably louder than when you heard it the first time. It’s almost jarring. When you hit stop, playback ceases and it resumes playing the radio (or the line source audio) at the previous volume.

The ICR-110 treats the files you import onto the flash card differently than the ones you record. When you turn it on or switch to MP3 mode it automatically starts playing the last imported file played. Unless I've missed some setting, it appears that no matter what folder structure you've established on the card the 110 will simply play through each file on the card in alphanumeric order by path and name. But the recordings made with the radio are stored in a system folder the radio creates named “RECORD0" (at least that what it’s called on my card). The pair of Chinese text buttons that change the parameters of AM and FM will also switch the MP3 player's focus from the folders you've made on the SD card to the system RECORD0 folder, and back again. When in either mode you can move through the files in those folders by pressing the rewind and fast forward button once. However, when holding those buttons down the player will actually rewind or fast forward (silently) through the file at hand.

I also own another AM/FM radio recorder, the CC Witness. And while they do some of the same things, they’re very different gadgets. The CC Witness is a much smaller and more complex thing. And you'll pay a lot more for that. You can program it to record up to 20 different radio programs on AM or FM throughout the week, and encode them at bitrates you choose. But the line recording input doesn't have ALC like the Tecsun. When recording via the line input with the CC Witness, I've found it's better to dampen the felix-bose-110incoming audio with a headphone volume control adapter to avoid distorted recordings. Of course the CC Witness is nice, but everything about it feels very 2003. Not that I mind that at all, but the CC Witness is overdue for an update. My biggest complaint about the CC Witness has been the tuner. They could start there.

The CC Witness came into being when C. Crane smartly transformed a language learning tool called the TalkMaster Slim in Asia into an AM/FM VCR-like tool for all of us. And after spending some time with the ICR-110 I think this radio might have been engineered for a similar purpose.

Apparently in Japan (and probably other countries) language lessons are commonly broadcast on medium wave. A digital AM radio recorder would make a lot of sense for somebody learning a language that way, but if you shop around you'll discover that there are very few digital devices that include an AM radio, let alone offer you the ability to record AM radio programs. So it's not surprising that the few gadgets that offer this option might cater to language students. Like the CC Witness, the ICR-110 also has a looping feature.  While playing an MP3 file, you can press the button at the bottom left corner of the keyboard to select the beginning and ending of a chunk of audio and the radio will play it back ad infinitum, for pronunciation practice or mind control. Whatever works. But it's not like the voices in your head. When you press the stop button, the repetition ends. Once I discovered this feature, it made me think that the odd instant feature (when you stop an ongoing recording) is probably related to language acquisition as well.

A Radio, A Sound Box

And lastly, the ICR-110 is a fine speaker for your phone or your laptop, or anything really. It’s certainly portable and has a warm, full sound. All it takes is a 3.5mm patch cord inserted into the outlet above the headphone jack. The display will read “LINE’ and the speaker will emit any audio coming through that cable. However, like some of the other new Tecsun radios, the ICR-110 is different than radios we’ve seen before. When you connect the radio with the 110manualgrab02USB port on your computer it does more than just charge the battery. You’ve also probably just added an external sound card to your computer. When this is occurring you'll see “PC” on the display.

I didn't have much trouble navigating this, but depending on how your computer is set up (and your understanding of how it is set up), suddenly having another sound card may be problematic. I’ve used any number of external sound cards with computers over the years and when you attach and detach those things you may temporarily lose sound or change some settings. But if you were to use the ICR-110 as your primary computer speaker this could be an ideal scenario once you get it set up, with just one cable between the radio and the computer providing both the sound and power to the speaker.

I must say, other than that I haven’t really figured out what real advantages there might be to having the ICR-110 become a separate USB audio device when you plug it in. One thing I did notice: when connected to the computer USB, I hit record on the radio, and much to my surprise it recorded me. I don’t know where the microphone is hidden on this thing, but it's there somewhere. Again, this feature may be related to using the 110 as a learning tool.

Perhaps there are more hidden settings on this thing, like all the easter eggs found on PL-880. But I kind of doubt it. I’ve tried holding down numbers of the keyboard and such, but nothing special seems to happen. 110manualgrab01And I wouldn’t be surprised to see the MP3 playback and recording features of the ICR-110 added to a future version of the PL-880.

As I mentioned, the ICR-110 is just one example from a new wave of Tecsun radios and media players. You can find this radio's FM-only little brother, the ICR-100, on eBay, but you can take a look at the family of new Tecsuns here and here. And if twenty years of Tecsun radios has shown one consistent trend, I think it's safe to say that you'll see some of their new line of gadgets re-branded (and perhaps transformed a bit) for international distribution, and ultimately bearing logos like Eton, Kaito, C. Crane or Roberts. Or maybe some Radio Shack nameplate.

Bottom line, many of these new Chinese gadgets offer great sound and decent radio reception at a good price. They're fun to carry around and I don’t remember portables ever sounding this good. The ubiquitous flash card slot and MP3 playback seems like something that’s been a long time coming. As flash memory gets cheaper every day, one of these players and a packed memory card offers a world of high-fidelity music that fits easily in a knapsack, or even a pocket, at a price a pauper might afford. But the MP3 interface has got to get better. RockBoxThe displayed information and the choice of settings for these MP3 players (and recorders) on these devices is a far cry from all the playback options and ID3 tag information you see on devices from Apple or SanDisk, or with almost any contemporary digital audio player.

I’m a big fan of Rockbox, the open source alternative firmware for digital audio players. Over the years I’ve installed it on dozens of MP3 players, making them more versatile and more fun to use. And if the idea of being able to tweak and perfect your player beyond the stock settings sounds appealing, you might wanna check out their site and see if they’ve adapted Rockbox for your device. A few years ago SanDisk famously sent some Rockbox developers one of their new players at the time to help them reverse engineer their hardware. I wish Tecsun would do the same thing. A marriage of the Rockbox firmware, with over a decade of creating a highly stable and adaptable audio playback firmware, together with these handsome and innovative radios, would be a real technological game changer. And who knows? Maybe some of those old and tired electronics titans like Sony or Panasonic might actually wake up and start making innovative radios for this century for a change.

card110The predictions of the demise of over-the-air broadcast radio have always seemed a bit overblown to me. Maybe once they give every paper clip and bone in your body a URL, we can just surrender to that surging internet everywhere spirit and do everything online. Until then, the old AM/FM technology works fine (and it's nice to consume media without logging in). This DSP technology paves the way to keep terrestrial radio around as one choice of many in our media landscape for a while. Sure, there are good arguments to be made that the programming on AM and FM is overdue for new thinking, but there's plenty of dreck streaming on the web as well.

The truth remains– the old technology is stable, practical and proven. Why not improve it and make it more available, instead of trashing it? And why not include SD card slots on every kind of media player out there? Years ago when technology was in flux, we bought converters to dock to our radios and televisions so we could receive FM in our cars and UHF stations in our homes. But soon all those tuning options were built in. So after over a dozen years of fastening iPods and smart phones to the stereo, isn't it time that our listening experiences have to include docking little gadgets to bigger ones?

And perhaps, in between listening to their favorite songs and podcasts, people might turn the radio back on every once in a while. Just for fun.

(This review will also appear at the SWLing Post)

Goodbye Neighbor, Hello Brazil!

Monday, August 13th, 2012

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

(download)

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.

New York, New York, New Year (2010)

Saturday, January 16th, 2010

I know. I KNOW. And I’m sorry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hermit Kingdom On The 80 Meter Band

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Gather Sound From The Sky From Almost Anywhere

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(download)

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

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

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

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

More about that later.

The Cosmic Pirates Next Door

Monday, June 8th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(download)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or wait a minute. That can’t happen.

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

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

A Brooklyn Radio Triptych

Friday, May 22nd, 2009

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

(download)

9665 – Romania? Russia?

Unsure. But it is a song, and oooh it sounds crappy. Even after I lock on with the AM sync mode it’s still an unhappy little transmission knee deep in my noise floor.

9715 – RDP Portugal

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?

9870 – All India Radio

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

(download)

9535 Radio Exterior Espana

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.

9545 – Radio Republica
   
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.
                                       
9570 – China Radio International

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.

9580 – Radio Romania International

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…

Segment 3 – 31 Meter Band 0014 UTC 04-15-09  8:53

(download)

9665 – The Voice of Russia

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.

And anybody who listened with any regularity to Radio Moscow (and then the Voice of Russia) remember Joe Adamov of “Moscow Mailbag.” (who I wrote about here), another elegant radio voice from Russia, in English.

9675 – Radio Canção Nova?

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.

Thanks for listening.

Shortwave Souvenir (part 2)

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

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.

Kracker Remix – Allan Weiner vs. The Pirates

(download)

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.

Radio Azteca  44:52
(download)

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.

And I do wonder if anybody’s told the Commander that rabbits are not rodents

WBNY – Commander Bunny 61:48
(download)

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.

WBZO – A Hot Bozo Blast 15:33
(download)

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.)

Shortwave Souvenir (part 1)

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounded good to me. My kind of weekend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down Under, Up And Over

Friday, November 30th, 2007

When get to fooling around with a shortwave radio I usually don’t have much of an idea of what I might come across, or where the broadcasts I may find will come from. If you happen to be hunting up something originating (or relayed) from a hot nearby transmitter, shortwave listening is almost as predictable and practical as AM or FM  However, the real fun in scanning these forgotten bands is hunting for broadcasts from far-flung regions of the globe. It’s all about surfing those skywaves.

Instead of patiently scanning a SW broadcast band, this particular evening last July, I was quickly scanning several bands with my Degen 1103 looking for something, ah… exciting.

Okay, maybe “exciting” is the wrong word. I was fishing to find some exotic broadcast from far away, and preferably one in my native tongue. I’m sure there are other shortwave listeners who know what I mean. What gets my attention right away when trolling the HF bands is coming across an unfamiliar English language broadcast on a carrier marked by the scars of bouncing off the upper atmosphere a few times. Sure, It’s important that the reception has enough clarity to be understood, but shortwave radio waves from far over the horizon are infused with the sounds of the electrical and magnetic activity surrounding our planet. The audio itself often has an edge, even when listening with agile and fancy receivers. An aquired taste, the sonic anamolies of distant shortwave broadcasts have an inate musicallity, which you may appreciate  once your ears adjust to them. And the last time I heard the clear mutated throb of s strong distant transmitter traversing the globe was last July. I was sitting under the stars in the Michigan countryside when from over eight-four hundred miles away, New Zealand came calling.

RNZI (Radio New Zealand International) doesn’t seem to have any worldwide coverage mandate like CRI (China), the BBC or VOA or something. Their main purpose is as a regional service for the South Pacific. Dotted with a scads of far-flung islands, their broadcast zone actually covers a huge swath of the Earth’s surface. So just by making a point of covering this region well, RNZI is a major player in international broadcasting. (And sadly, I can’t remember when I picked up the BBC World Service as well as I heard New Zealand RNZI that evening.)

From my casual and primitive DXing experience, many powerful shortwave stations from around the world can be picked up from Eastern North America, as long as the signal doesn’t originate from anywhere directly blocked by the massive mountains of the top three quarters of the North American Continental Divide. In other words, with a booming transmitter from the closer sections of Europe, Africa, the Middle East and South America are the most likely catches from overseas. Deeper into these zones and continents (and Asia in general) are difficult terrain for DXing rewards from here. That said, with my limited portable equipment I’ve been able to pick up signals from at least three of the major broadcasters from the Southern Orient– India, Australia and New Zealand. I’ve always assumed that these signals ride skywaves over the lower mountains of the Southwest and Central America. But I’m no expert.

I do know that all the overseas states located directly west of the tall Rockies who are serious about reaching US citizens via shortwave rent relay transmitter time from Canada, as well as sites in the Carribean and Europe). In fact, if you happen to come across international broadcasts  from Vietnam, China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan or Thailand on shortwave in Eastern North America, you’re probably hearing a relayed transmission from several hundred miles away. But the recording I’m offering here is of reception from from far across the world. Considering the distance travelled, the reception here is fairly healthy. A little hairy, but practical. And there’s no local RF noise getting in the way. You really can hear the details it if you pay attention.

Radio New Zealand International pt 1 – 9615kHz – 07-07-07 0644 UTC 15:05

(download)

This first bit is an interview with Canadian chemist and author Penny LeCouteur discussing her book about molecules that have changed the world. Of note here– the legacy of how James Cook and ascorbic acid made the south seas safe for European explorers and colonists.

Then the cassette came to an abrupt stop, and the part two of this recording begins with the flip of the the tape. At the onset of this archive the interview is aborted in mid-sentence and a female announcer formally announces that Radio New Zealand International is closing on this frequency. After twice insisting that I “re-tune to six-zero-nine-five kilohertz in the forty-nine meter band” (followed by a clipped “This is New Zealand”), it all sounds so damn official that I felt compelled to follow the instructions. Although I knew that just because RNZI was booming in on 31 meters didn’t necessarily mean it would come in so strong (or might even be heard) on the 49 meter band.

You hear RNZI’s interval signal (the call of the New Zealand Bellbird) after the station ID, and then the signal at 9165kHz goes dead. I then put the tape deck on pause and punch up 6095kHz on the Degen and release the pause button. And there it was! The call of the Bellbird is quite clear there as well, although a nearby signal is chewing on the edges of the reception a bit.

Radio New Zealand International p2 2 – 9615 & 6095kHz – 07-07-07 0658 UTC 28:55

(download)

Whoever is running the board down there in the South Pacific was a little sloppy that night. After the interval signal the board-op starts to pot up the interview again (which is still running on one of the channels). But the mistake is corrected in a fraction of second, and it’s the news with Phil O’Brien. The lead story, a nationwide “Drunk Drive Blitz” the night before had netted over two-hundred inebriated kiwis on the highways down there. And an update on the aftermath of an unprecedented swarm of tornados that ravaged the North Island a couple of nights earlier.

After the news, it’s the beginning of a program I can barely believe I’m hearing in 2007. A faux flapper-era theme song launches a “nostalgia packed selection of favorites” that will saturate the skies of Oceania for the next four hours. While I love a lotta old music, the whole idea of “nostalgia” can get a little silly. Although I must say that old Joe Franklin used to pull it off with some charm on WOR here in New York City before he gave up the show a few years back. It’s really an approach to radio that’s all but dead here in the states. But apparently not in New Zealand.

As you’ll hear if you brave through this chunk of pulsing and buzzy DX radio, there are a couple of corny numbers to wade through. But I gotta tell you, that sitting outside in the middle of the night with an artifact-drenched AM signal from the other side of the world filling my headphones, it felt reassuringly twentieth-century. Maybe you’ll hear what I mean. And the Paul Robeson and Mills Brothers seemed quite appropriate.

I guess a little nostalgia isn’t so bad.