At the end of September, I escaped the big city again. And at a little cabin in the Catskills I unwrapped and unzipped a couple radios, my recorder and all the assorted cables, batteries and cassettes and set up another little DX outpost for the weekend. Hey, it’s how I have fun…
The reception wasn’t nearly as impressive as the last time I got a chance to scan upstate, but I had some luck on the 25 meter band in the late afternoon with my DE1103. I also had a chance to conduct a couple somewhat simultaneous band scans with the Degen and my analog Tecsun BCL-2000. The results were interesting and somewhat predictable. However, I’ve just gotten all that audio dumped into the computer and haven’t had a chance to go back over it yet. Somewhere in the next couple entries I’ll dig into some of these recordings.
Instead, I’m serving up some ham radio today. Late on Friday (September 29) I had already gone through what seemed to be happening on medium wave and the 49 meter band. I had heard quite a bit of sideband activity as I prowled around, so I decided to turn on the SSB and dig on into that action. The two hot spots I’d come across were the 40 meter band (just above 7000kHz) and 20 meter band (just below 4000kHz) bands. That’s where I came across the reception below.
Amateur radio operators, or hams, are licensed independent broadcasters who talk to each other on specially reserved chunks of the radio spectrum, a number of which are within the shortwave (or high frequency) range. Some hams still use Morse Code for communication, other’s have added digital technologies, and some are actually broadcasting television these days. But all I know anything about are the guys who talk to each other, over the radio.
From what I understand (and I don’t know that much), hams typically bond together into roundtable groups for “ragchew” sessions (yes, that’s the term they use). At certain times or days or frequencies, people who have over time become part of a group will look for each for a chat on some agreed schedule. There’s bigger moderated operations called “nets” where large groups of people check in on some frequency and a big radio powwow ensues.
I haven’t spent much time eavesdropping on these net gatherings and I don’t know enough about how they work, but I have heard a number of ragchew groups over the years. And it can be as interesting or boring as any group of friends sitting around bullshitting. One thing that’s distinct (and a little odd) is that the biggest topic of discussion when hams gather on the radio is the radios and gear they’re using to have their conversation. By nature, these guys (and they are almost always guys) are gear heads, geeks and electronics aficionados. So if they’re not carrying on about their transceivers, they’re talking about computers, TV’s, or other radios or toys. But sometimes they talk about what’s going on around the house in more personal terms, and that’s where it can get interesting (to me). But rarely do the conversations get intimate or bizarre or emotional. They know they can be easily heard, and there’s some basic rules and etiquette that comes along with being a ham operator. And although I’m sure it happens now and then, I’ve never heard a ham spew on another or be anything less than polite.
While most of what you hear are just guys socializing and jargon-ridden small talk, public service has always been an important (and at times strategic) element of the amateur radio scene. During emergencies and disasters hams often play an important role in saving lives, like during Hurricane Katrina.
As I said, when I turn on the radio I’m usually more interested in programming rather than casual conversations. But there is an appeal in the hearing the real home broadcasting of ham radio, even if it’s very rarely exciting or controversial.
Most hams broadcast on sideband (SSB) because they get more oomph out of their transmitters that way. So in order to hear them you need to have a radio that has SSB functionality (although there are ways to listen to sideband with one or two ordinary shortwave radios). While the DE1103 is a solid inexpensie receiver, it’s not as easy as it should be to focus in on SSB signals with the Degen 1103, I found that once I did get a good copy of a ham conversation (by carefully adjusting the fine tuning to de-weird the audio) I could scan through that same ham band and generally not have to fine tune again. From what I’ve read, ham broadcasters generally use lower sideband (LSB) when on the 40 meter band on down, and upper sideband (USB) when they’re using the 20 meter band on up. But unlike normal shortwave broadcasting, they don’t hold to the 5kHz rule (with all frequency’s ending with a 5 or 0). For example two of the frequencies the recordings below were found on 3937kHz and 7197kHz.
Anyway, the world of ham radio is quite complicated, with a long heritage and plenty of jargon. And the hams themselves seem to be getting older as well. While it’s hardly dying, there isn’t a big youth movement in the amateur radio hobby right now. Most of the guys you’ll hear in these clips are middle-aged to elderly, and many sound to be from more isolated areas of south and midwest. I have heard hams from around New York City from time to time, but it just seems like it’s probably more common way to communicate out in the low population zones where it’s not so easy to find many friends to sit around and “ragchew.” And whether you listen or not, that seems like a good thing. It’s not as common as it used to be, but it’s still nice to hear that radio is serving such an purpose in people’s lives.
So, here’s nine chunks of hamcasting from late night on Friday September 29 (or early morning on the 30th). It gives you an idea what you might hear if you scout out these bands late at night. But I should tell you that there’s plenty of action earlier in the evening, on these bands and others. I apoligize in admitting that the files below are wrongly marked 09-28-06, but I’ve already uploaded them with the wrong date and I don’t feel like doing it all over again. I’m sure that’ll okay with you. If you’re keeping track, add a day or two.
It was raining that night, and somewhere over the horizon there must have been some lightning as well, which you’ll hear. Some of the recordings are better than others, and on a few you’ll catch a bit of simultaneous conversations or off-frequency buzziness. The fi isn’t so hi half the time. However, if you take the time to listen you’ll get a nice pink stack of homespun heartland geekiness from a number of night owls roosting in their ham shacks.
Ham Conversation #1 Late Night Coffee 09-29-06
The louder voice here is Larry, who had downed a coffee or two so he could stay up late and banter on the radio. Like most of the hams I received that night, it sounds like they’re country folk (Even folks in suburbs don’t have chores). Larry plans to barter some garden harvest for spare parts (for his antenna?). At the end of this clip I believe they’re discussing the wisdom of pacing yourself when climbing your tower to work on your ham radio antenna.
Ham Conversation #2 Ham Radio Etiquette 09-29-06
A little bit of a discussion on the rules and manners of ham radio social intercourse. Roundtable discussion groups can last many years, and while civility is routinely practiced within amateur radio itself, it can be bad manners to jump into a group of long standing radio buddies and leap into the festivities without being invited or spending time on the sidelines. Other operators and groups are more open about things, like the larger moderated net mentioned here– “The Freewheelers.”
Out of all these clips, the fidelity on a few of these is rather dodgy. Quite a bit of crosstalk, and my reception is slightly off frequency.
Ham Conversation #3 Pig Psychology & Modern Farming 09-29-06
Believe it or not, here’s a ham radio chat centering around the pink sweet meat itself. Jerry the swine farmer offers some tips and tricks of the hog trade. Learn how to fool a pig into loading itself into a trailer, and how offering the porkers extra helpings of fresh water can improve your yield and dollar return.
While animal husbandry and farming in America is overwhelmingly run by corporate interests these days, independent farmers are still out there. But as you hear in this clip, there are more options (fish and tree farming) to raising traditional crops and animals nowadays.
Ham Conversation #4 RF Woes
Reception not great here either. Lots of distant thunderstorms all through this clip. In fact, this conversation is about interference, namely the RF horrors of entertainment and household electronics. The radio spectrum where the shortwave and ham bands reside sadly coincides with the majority of the same frequencies many modern appliances and electronics radiate as noise. For example, one of the fellows in this discussion bemoans the horrible RF noise of his giant TV, calling it a “splatterbox” (That’s a new slang term to throw around.). And there’s another problems– the damn Dell printer bleeding noise into the repeater. Some "freaky stuff."
Ham Conversation #5 Gadget Tweakers 09-29-06
Lots of talk of programming, frequencies, and resetting things. Men. Can you imagine two women chatting sociably about such esoteric electronic dilemmas?
Ham Conversation #6 Geek Geezers 09-29-06
Here’s some aging good old boys boasting how they were playing games on computers and sending email decades before "it was cool." Then their ragchew associate "Terry" breaks into the conversation. but he’s “a speck-tad off frequency” and distorted. Eventually Terry adjusts himself (coming down fifty cycles or so) and begins to sound more human.
Then the discourse drifts into radio esoterica– single, dual and triple conversion receivers, selectivity, big antennas, radio kits, and a recollection of a radio with so much gain you could “hear a mouse cut cheese on the other side of the Earth.” And then there’s that ankle injury…
Ham Conversation #7 Bait and Switch 09-29-06
Some tales of electronics shopping– a small victory in a bait and switch scenario, and the sad story of a defective Shure microphone that kept “fryin’ like freakin’ bacon in the pan.” Also, some insight into the correlation between audio quality and signal manhood.
Ham Conversation #8 Bad Luck 09-29-06
In my limited experience in eavesdropping on the ham bands I’ve heard plenty of tales of poor health and some tragic stories now and then. But the bad luck discussed here is of more a financial nature. One of the guys here (John) mentions he’s in the middle of Ohio. Then their friend Jim pops up (from near Allentown, PA) who they haven’t heard from in “a coon’s age.” Apparently he has a “bodacious signal,” but I’m sure not getting a good copy on it from upstate New York.
Ham Conversation #9 Antenna Talk 09-29-06
Typical rig talk– wires, dipoles, pulleys. And also some updates on the garden crops.
That’s it. In the next post, shortwave. It’s been a little while. And the next time you see a live pig, think of how you might cajole him into a trailer.
Thanks for listening.
(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)