Archive for the 'Radio' 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.

The Towers of Microville

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Followed by the soothing announcer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1370kHz WSPD Toledo, OH – Cleveland Indian Baseball Game

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

And now part two.

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

1560kHz WTOD Toledo, HO – Dwight Schultz Goes Bananas

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

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

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

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

1520kHz WNWT Rossford, OH – K-Love

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

1230kHz WCWA – Toledo, OH – The Festival           

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

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

560kHz WRDT – Joey Was Eleven Feet Tall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll be back soon. Thanks for listening.

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 Country

Thursday, September 10th, 2009

I wish I could travel more. Not a lot more, but a little more. But this year’s been tougher than most and even the quick excursions upstate haven’t been as common as in recent years. For any number of reasons I’m not so picky about traveling. Just about anywhere’s interesting for a day or two. And as is my nature, I’m always curious about what’s on the AM dial there. While moving through the FM Band can feel a little like strolling through the local mall, a journey though the AM dial can be more akin to viewing a town from railroad car window (if you’ve ever done that). You may actually get a feeling for how a town gets its work done. And perhaps a sense of how the other half lives. That kind of thing.

What I really like (and what I’d like do a lot more often if I had my way) is to get as close to nowhere as I can, within reason. To drive and drive until you can see the Milky Way clearly and distinctly after dark, and where local radio stations don’t really exist. Then when the sun sets on my picnic table or in the rented cottage I’m suddenly closer to the entire continent and the rest of the world when I turn on my radio. It’s such a powerful feeling to turn through the shortwave dial with no stray RF bumping and buzzing and whining through the frequencies. And then when I look up at night I can almost get a grip on my place in the galaxy. Or at least it feels that way, which is good enough for me.

That didn’t happen this year, so my almost annual trip to see the family in Michigan was even more anticipated. The dusty trail surrounding our galaxy is a little vague in the sky there. And the lights of sad old Flint have their corner of the sky. But the stars are much better. And so is the RF pollution. So, from my brother’s deck at night I still occasionally find my place in the broader circles of existence when the weather’s good. And I hear some radio too.

But that’s not what this post is about. Here I’m featuring the sound of small town radio in daylight. This particular station transmits just south of Flint, and it’s an earnest little heart-warmer. The call letters are WCXI, and this isn’t the first time I’ve blogged about this modest wonder. It’s a simple classic country outlet. No frills and only a thousand watts. But the music’s great.

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 1 of 4
(download)

Brian Barnum (who I believe is the DJ in all four of these airchecks) is rock solid. Great voice. Low key banter. He doesn’t sound all that old, but his approach is old-fashioned. No matter what happens during the breaks between the music, whether he’s doing a live ad or talking about the weather or a local event, he’s usually arranged some seamless way to introduce the next song within the subject matter at hand. He’s almost as good as Tony Oren that way.
                           
I didn’t go through these recordings in any detail, but I did listen to quite a bit of them as I prepared them to post. I heard some hits I knew, some singles I never heard before and a few neo-traditional things I liked quite a bit. My only complaint was that I don’t know that heard any western swing. I mean, you gotta play Bob Wills every once in a while.

As I mentioned, I already posted a few airchecks from WCXI. And I go more in depth into the history of the station in this post. I just happened to catch a few hours during this trip. Just for my own enjoyment, and I thought I should share. There’s some funny whirrish noise on these recordings, which is mostly noticeable during the mic breaks. Some problem with some stray RF combined with some an auto-gain issue with the radio, tape deck or the radio station. If you can get through Brian’s breaks the music will blossom through relatively clear once again. And don’tcha just love a mandolin?

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 2 of 4
(download)

A lot of people associate country music specifically with the American South. But once you get into the broad appeal of the genre you realize that country and western is as at home in the plains of Canada as it is in Kentucky or Texas or California. And in Michigan..well, that’s somewhere in between all that. And there’s lots of southern transplants around Detroit and Flint from the era when the automotive industry was still healthy and profitable.

One thing that’s always been associated with country music is the hardscrabble life, having to make a living with your hands. (Or trying to…) And that’s been part of the southeastern Michigan lifestyle since the settlers arrived. Through the 20th century a lot of farmers came to this part of the country to get the best jobs an unskilled laborer could hope for– building automobiles. Like my grandfathers. But they didn’t live long enough to see their beloved Pontiac and Oldsmobile brand names disappear into history. Like we are.

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 3 of 4
(download)

After you spend some years away from the area of the world that raised you, you start to get a better grip on the character traits of the culture where you learned to be a person. At least that’s been my experience. When I go back to Michigan I don’t so much feel at home as I feel almost reluctantly defined by the unassuming flatlands surrounding Detroit. The rust belt is full of reservation and restraint and a measured way of talking. WCXI always reminded of that introverted Michigan countryside. (Or at least the few miles you can see of it from US-23 out that way.) I hear it in some of the songs as well as their paced and simple approach to broadcasting. And I’m fond of the understated enthusiasm of Brian Barnum on the radio. It kinda reminds me of how I prefer to experience life in the face of adversity. Calm and Michigan. Nothing extra special.

WCXI – Fenton, MI August 2000 pt 4 of 4
(download)

The last aircheck here is from the end of their broadcast day. But at least they’re still there, every day until six. And I don’t know for sure, but I suspect WCXI is one of those stations where the DJ’s might still be choosing some, if not all, of the music you hear when they’re on the air. Is that radical or what? Can’t they afford some consultants?

And if you happen to find yourself within the range of their one thousand watt transmitter you might wanna can call in and make a request. But please only one per day. Give everybody a chance.

Tony, Tony, Tony (and more Tony Oren)

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ship That Came In (On Four Radio Bands)

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trolling The American Id Between Four And Eight Megacycles

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

A few generations ago, another American president took office when our country was mired in another devastating financial disaster. Of course, I’m talking about Franklin Roosevelt, a president to whom Obama is occasionally compared (after JFK and Lincoln, I suppose). And following tradition, he addressed the nation announcing his vision for America. It was a bit of pep talk really. And although few who actually heard that rousing speech are still around today, we’ve all heard (or read) the declaration he delivered in this opening remarks:

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Always presented to me as the key phrase of a historic speech, those words themselves never rattled with great wisdom for me. It always seemed a little redundant, and too straightforward to offer much in the way of revelation. But then again I didn’t grow up during the Great Depression.

Now we’re living though the worst economic crisis since that time, and while our circumstances aren’t nearly as dire as the day Roosevelt moved into the White House, no one knows how much worse things may get. Or where we are headed as a nation. And as luck would have it, we seem to have brought in a decent and thoughtful man to help steer our country out of this new financial morass of our times. It seemed almost hopeful.

And then the fact that he happened to spend some formative years overseas in a Muslim country seemed fortuitous as well, following on the heels of an administration that incited so much hatred and animosity from Muslims around the world. Yet, for all the logic or serendipity that seemed inherent in the rise to power of Barack Obama, others see something else.

There is a bizarre streak of American humanity which is utterly convinced that Barack Obama is not an American citizen. And once you’re willing to chain your brain up to that premise, it’s an easy leap in logic to assume that this astute mulatto man must be an an evil foreign agent assigned to destroy our country. And there’s more. A lot of these less than enlightened Americans also are certain that Obama is a communist, the leader of the evil “new world order,” the devil or the Anti-Christ (are they the same thing? I’m still not sure), a fascist dictator, and perhaps gay or a Muslim, or worse– the most liberal politician alive. And they are scared. They are angry. And what should worry ALL of us, is that they seem to be beyond the reach of all logic or common sense.

And now I get it. FDR was right. As a country in crisis at a critical point in our history, the greatest thing we have to fear IS fear itself. And I don’t know about you, but I’m beginning to really fear the fear. And I think the paragraph that surrounded his heralded declaration back in 1932 is even more illustrative of our current dilemma:

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

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And this is EXACTLY what’s going on– now, in these critical days. In the face of across the board loses at the polls, the Republican party and their media agents have chosen to unleash an unheralded fear and smear campaign to brutalize the enemy (i.e., the actual elected government). Rush Limbaugh, the defacto (media) leader of the G.O.P., openly cheers for the failure of our government under Obama. And he’s just setting the tone for a massive ongoing effort– nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror is being instigated and encouraged via the many-headed hydra of the right-wing media machine. And it’s nonstop.

And it’s no secret around the world that Americans, in general, are some of the most ignorant people on the planet. Add to that, the anxiety that continues to grip our country since the September 11th attacks and the inconvenient collapse of our economic system, and there’s suddenly a buzzing and bristling bunch of screwed Americans who suddenly want to know what the hell is going on? (While they didn’t seem too concerned during eight years of mayhem and plunder under Bush.)

I suppose it’s only natural to look for BIG answers when you’ve got big problems. And two unrelated historical milestones (moving into a new millennium and electing a black president) seems to have driven some of the logic-deprived among us to apply grandiose meaning to current events and invoked lots of irrational suspicion regarding any proposed changes in governance or our economic system. The three horsemen of contemporary apocalyptic fear (religiosity, paranoia, and xenophobia) were already mounted and ready to ride before Obama’s election. And since that historic moment, a fourth has come forward. And I think he’s going to lead the charge. Perhaps you already know where this is going. (Let’s just say he used to wear a white sheet.)

Despite the fact that we miraculously elected a man with African heritage to our highest office, there’s a seething element of race hatred that’s still alive and well in this country that once enslaved people who looked like Barrack Obama. And although the dirty racist words and imagery are only used by the most extreme and extroverted of that crowd, for every one of them there’s hundreds more across the fruited plain who will never accept or respect that uppity brown man who gets on the television and has the nerve to act like he’s president.

And make no mistake about it, all this garbage about the invalidity of Obama’s birth certificate, and all the disenfranchised and hateful white people alleging Obama is something "other" and not like you and me– it’s all frosting and filagree on top of the word they dare not utter– nigger.

And whether or not the people who are behind all this incitement of hatred and fear mongering are actually racists themselves is beside the point. I mean, Karl Rove’s atheism never got in the way of manipulating fundamentalists to vote (and campaign) for Republicans. It’s not hard to see how it works. There’s no shortage of less-than informed Americans to run through manipulative focus group studies. Then with data in hard, you go forward with media weaponry you know will be effective– no matter how profane or irrational the entreaty might be. Lee Atwater was an expert at this kind of thing, and he didn’t seem to be an actual racist in his personal life. And when Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the Democratic nomination began to founder, her operators started experimenting with the same kind of toolbox.

If you haven’t seen this clip online of Shepherd Smith of Fox News, you oughtta take a minute and ingest this artifact of contemporary culture. I don’t watch enough of Fox (mostly clips online…) to know much about the guy, but he seems to be emerging as some kind of reactionary conscience over there. (Like this outburst regarding our government’s involvement in torture, or his habit of making fun of his unbalanced Fox News cohort, Glenn Beck.)

But in this particular clip (from the day that white supremacist loon went ballistic at the Holocaust Museum in D.C.), Smith noting he’s frightened by the torrent of twisted and psychotic email that’s been filling the Fox News servers since Obama’s election. Mr. Smith and his guest agree– the realms of the internet provide a powerful clubhouse for all sorts of angry and misinformed people to feed into each other’s insanity, loading up with “hate not based in fact”. Although Smith seems shocked to discover some Fox viewers are “out there in a scary place." I’m sure others weren’t surprised at all.

And what he doesn’t say (and what he can’t say), is how much the network he works for is feeding these people tainted factoids and manipulative Republican propaganda. Even Charles Krauthammer came out this year to congratulate Fox News for creating an “alternate reality.” And he said that the relative consensus on current events we used to enjoy in our society was the result of a “liberal bias” in the media…which apparently existed for all time until Fox News came along to balance everything out. Which makes you wonder what a network like Fox News would have had to say during the great American labor struggles or the civil rights movement.

Of course his argument is bogus. But it doesn’t matter. There’s always Fox News, and NewsBusters, and the World Nut Daily out there to back him up. Once we had a marketplace of ideas where agendas and opinions and versions of events battled it out for the public’s allegiance, and at a certain point some semblance of common sense would win out, and as a nation we would decide that slavery was wrong, and women should vote, and minorities should have equal rights, and wars of choice like we had in Vietnam were immoral. Sure, not everybody agreed. But some form of consensus came to pass and differing sides moved on to other battles. But not anymore.

Today, the natural coalescence of public thought is easily thwarted the monied and manicured "alternate reality."While some semblance of consensus is battled out in (what is pejoratively called) the "mainstream media," a conservative flavored narrative flows freely beside it as a more simplistic consumer-friendly product.

And it’s not that corporate America or the Chamber of Commerce is necessarily invested in all that ignorant claptrap, but by putting that kind of manipulative language and cynically clever sophistry churned out by Karl Rove or Frank Luntz. And there’s not a lot of quality control on some of these mindless appeals to the lowest of the lowest common denominator. An example might be a headline I saw at the Drudge Report on a slow day in June– BEWARE THE OBAMA ‘EVIL EYE. Again, this was a headline on one of the most clicked pages on the web. Assorted photos of Obama’s "menacing glance were included with this short and shabby piece of original Drudge journalism (something you rarely see)." And while it’s easy to find almost any facial expression imaginable when you’re dealing with someone as photographed as a sitting President, but the shots Drudge put together merely showed Obama looking attentive or tired, or perhaps just appropriately sober. Take a look yourself. It’s ridiculous. And everybody knows, President Hairy-Eyeball went back to Texas months ago.

How did things get so ludicrous? You might wanna check out this confidential memo written by a corporate attorney named Lewis Powell (soon to be a Supreme Court Justice) back in 1971. It was a manifesto outlining how the business interests of America needed to get serious about shaping public opinion in their favor. It’s one of those little known documents that truly changed the world, and not in a good way.

And if you recall those days so long ago, they used to call the mechanisms of wealth and power in this country “the system.” And visionary people like Upton Sinclair, Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader successfully took on “the system” and helped protect millions from the deadly consequences of amoral profiteering and unregulated capitalism. Well, Lewis Powell saw these people as the enemy. And through his writing and counter-activism he helped create a broad public relations front in media and academia to defend and protect the raw capitalist ambitions of the system itself. But even the late Mr. Powell (who is often recalled for his perfect manners and genteel nature) might be shocked at the divisive and brutish behavior of the swarms of ignorant and politically agitated Americans who have been home-schooled by a sensational and partisan united front of right-wing media he arguably fathered.

In a recent column, Frank Rich discussed Shep Smith’s scary inbox and how the new wave of anti-Obama rhetoric is increasingly paranoid and irrational across the board. While some white voters wouldn’t support someone like Obama in any situation, the fact that they see him as the cause and architect of all the frightening generational changes that are happening all at once. He’s the new boogie man– the embiodiment of a new century they’re not ready to understand.

In closing, Rich linked to this video featuring Jon Voight at a Republican fundraiser, where he called Obama a false prophet, and said the Republicans have to get back in power so they can “free this nation from this Obama oppression.” Which on the face of it seems like just so much mean-spirited red meat for the conservatives on hand, but in reality words like “false prophet” resonate profoundly in religio-paranoid circles. (And a lot of them have guns…) Plus– saying Obama is the cause of whatever “oppression” people might be feeling in the middle of a financial disaster that was coming on long before Obama came to power isn’t just disingenuous– it’s toxic. (And did you hear about his evil eye?)

And conversely, this column from a Fox website might be as good of an illustration as any of how much self-serving bullshit can be crammed into a short editorial. I don’t even know where I ran across this piece, which reads like a ten-year old’s attempt at a persuasive essay. The author of this gem is a guy named Noel Sheppard, who routinely churns out rightist grist for the unintentionally comical “NewsBusters” site (which often reads like a lampoon of a conservative news portal). But his point is this– if the electorate wasn’t scared off by all the guilt-by-association tactics used by douche bags like Sean Hannity (i.e., using Bill Ayers, Reverend Wright and Tony Rezko as scarecrows), then the press must have hypnotized us into electing Obama. How else could it have happened? I mean, McCain had so much more charisma

Sheppard’s weak thesis somehow merited over four-thousand comments before they shut the floodgates. And if you have the stomach for it, you can go read a few. But I wouldn’t recommend it. I hate to think of all the time I’ve wasted looking at all the ignorance and vitriol on display in the comments addendum to online articles and opinion pieces. Especially if I happen to follow a link from the ultimate right-wing portal behind this new Age of Unreasoning– The Drudge Report.

Anyway, I could spend all day linking to all the spewing spigots of ignorance and intolerance on the web. But I won’t and I can’t. But I will say this, when we went and hooked ourselves all together with all these computers and cell phones and hand-held whatchamacallits there was a general feeling that being able to share so much “information” was going to make us smarter or wiser. But “information” is neutral, it’s just patterns of data. It can be good or bad or right or wrong. Or persuasive, if you have a particular mindset you wanna spread around.

And all we’ve done is make it possible to share “data” between ourselves like never before. We’re not creating more truth. And just as old “information” industries like newspapers, magazines and the film and music business see all this data sharing as a devastating profit killer so far, there’s no assurance that setting all this information free has made us any smarter either.

Like the flood waters after Katrina, some of the information that floods the American mind is a toxic soup. Awash in carefully targeted misinformation and logic-free passion screeds, there is a pandemic of fear and ignorance sweeping this country. And all this unjustified terror is poisoning American political discourse and is most certainly paralyzing “needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Thanks to the craven manipulation by people who should know better, the new American ignoranti are marching backward– into our racist past, into a new McCarthyism, and eventually all the way back to that Christian apocalypse continually predicted since the first century. And when these folks fire up their PC in search of information, you can bet they’re not looking for verifiable facts, reasoned journalism, or opposing views. No no no. That’s stuff the devil uses to fool ya.

And it gets worse. Since Obama’s election there’s been a huge surge in sales of guns and ammunition in this country. Prices are up and ammo is getting scarce. People are stocking up. For what? Good question. Meanwhile, the Obama administration really hasn’t made any moves or statements indicating any coming new gun control regulations. However, there’s lots and lots and lots of “information” out there telling folks that “Obama is coming to take their guns.” So, are you scared yet?

After talking about so much trouble in our midst, there’s an urge to come to conclusions– to predict or to warn of some assassination or apocalypse. Or perhaps to offer some road to widespread common sense in all this madness. But I don’t have a good answer to plug into such an equation. When you have human beings as your adversary, there’s always the last resort call for decency, or that chance of some recognition by the losing side that their goals or motivations may have been flawed. The system fights dirty. And empathy that makes us human is our fatal disadvantage.

When the Supreme Court granted corporations the rights of human beings and equated the money they spend as free speech (with the same Lewis Powell writing the majority opinion)– it set loose the hellhounds of capitalism in this country, allowing amoral ambition and soulless motivations to run rampant in the marketplace. And then Ronald Reagan came along to make it all official. And the legacy of Powell and Reagan (and more contemporary operators like Grover Norquist) is a Republican media machine that works on behalf of the large corporate financial concerns. Period.

And the Democratic party? Some of them are better than others. I generally trust Robert Kennedy Jr, who believes that the constant influx of big business money has completely compromised our political process, and says: "the Republicans are 95 percent corrupt and the Democrats are 75 percent corrupt." Sounds about right. It certainly helps to explain the inadequacies of the House and Senate under Pelosi and Reid. And while the nature of the Republicans is to stick to "the plan," the Democratic party is bigger, more varied, and unlike the Republicans they have to deal with the tough stuff– like consensus, ordinary constituents, and the most difficult of all– reality. The Republicans are in favor of God and lower taxes.

And if that sounds like a sinister plot, I suppose it is. And while you could make a case that this powerful triumvirate of transnational capitalists, the Republican party and assorted dark masters of media had a good ride, from the Gipper to the attack on Iraq. (Making Clinton’s Presidency about a sex scandal was even somewhat of a victory, and he was half-Republican anyway.) And now we’re left with a broken economy and two endless military occupations, and the Republican Party unpopular and out of power across the board. Yet, despite so many recent political losses their alternate reality media machine seems to be cranking even harder into the American psyche. It might seem counterintuitive, but winning isn’t everything. It’s all about not losing (money).

And I don’t think you can blame it all on Rupert Murdoch or Rush Limbaugh or any of those guys. And if you look at the movie "Network," Paddy Chayefsky was incredibly prescient in almost predicting what would become the Fox Network and Fox News (although Glenn Beck is far less appealing version of Howard Beale). But I don’t think the Ned Beatty character in that film really exists. My personal idea for this incredible conspiracy of fear and unreason is that there is no evil leader behind it all. I think we’re through the looking glass now and a simple mathematics created to serve the short-term profit margin of the entrenched financial status quo is in charge now. And the right wing noise machine is running on autopilot. The reason there’s no leadership on the right is because they don’t need it (or can’t have it). The politics, policy and all the Republican party products are generated by a big simple algorithm. And all their major candidates need to do is step up and put it on like a nice blue business suit. (Remember how McCain "transformed" during the last election?)

While they’re getting the white and right crowd energized by these tactics, they’re not winning over the rest of us. Big money had an eight year free reign over our government and economy, and it didn’t work out so well. They’ve spent their wad, and run out of ideas, leadership, and vision, and all seem to do right is make a mess, while the media machine does all the heaving lifting. All the links on the Drudge Report and everything that comes out of Sean Hannity’s mouth is the result of this crude media mathematics. And there is no real rumination behind the on-air musings of Bill O’Reilly or Michael Savage, and no innate desire to leave a legacy of a life dedicated to the greater good of mankind. No, it’s much simpler than that. When the other side is ahead in the polls, you operate like Limbaugh during the Democratic nomination process. You cause trouble. "Operation Chaos."

Perhaps by this point you’re wondering what does all this have to do with radio? Well, for as long as I remember, in between the sane programming coming in from around the world on shortwave there’s always been mad preachers and nutjobs from America exporting fear to the planet. And now that kind of diseased discourse has spread far beyond shortwave. Especially on the web. And Glenn Beck and his eyeballs have brought paranoid lunacy into the mainstream like never before. But shortwave has more charm. And you don’t have to look at their faces.

So for a week in June I went back to the source, scanning the back alleys of radio with my antique Zenith Trans-Oceanic. It’s an H500 from the early fifties, and it still works pretty good– at least on the band setting between four and eight megacycles. (We call ‘em megahertz these days.) And more significantly it overcomes a bit of the RF noise of my Brooklyn digs. I guess it was my steampunk adventure of the summer– drinking hot tea and tuning in the apocalypse with a big gilded vacuum tube device.

It’s a fun radio to use, but it’s not so good for bandscanning. There’s no digital frequency readout (for logging and ID purposes). And the dial itself needs to be calibrated. And besides, I wasn’t DXing. For the first time, I was intentionally looking for as much stupid as I could find. Because of other obligations most of my roaming occurred after nine or ten at night. But I don’t think there was any time when I couldn’t find someone, somewhere saying something ridiculous. For this post I scooped up some of the more flavorful froth I found from the 60 and 49 meter bands. And I invite you to join me for some urgent and uneasy listening. You just might unlearn something.        

WHRI – Trunews with Rick Wiles & guest Roy Moore 4:15
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In this clip, former judge Roy Moore is chatting on the phone with Rick Wiles of Trunews. Which is not just the “end times newscast,” but also the “only nightly newscast reporting the countdown to the second coming of Jesus Christ.” And Wiles says that Obama has been put in office for one purpose– “to start a civil war in this country,” just to give a flavor of the thoughtful rhetoric on this program.

Ever wonder if America just might be better off without all that “separation of church and state” business? And public school teachers reading the bible to our children, and religious police would enforce public morality? (like in… Saudi Arabia?) Then you might wanna head over to Alabama and get behind Roy Moore’s 2010 campaign for Governor.

Perhaps you recall when Moore was the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court a few years ago. Because there was a big stink when he refused to remove an ostentatious display of the Ten Commandments from his courtroom. Not surprisingly, his stubborn religiosity cost him his high court gig, but it gained him a lot of brownie points with fundamentalists across the country, and served as the launching point for his new political career. And in his state he’s effectively established a splinter sect of religious conservatives who are working on taking over the Republican Party there.

At first, Wiles gets Moore lathered up with talk about Obama’s socialist agenda, but Moore quickly diverts the conversation into more religious territory– decrying Obama’s recognition of Gay Pride Month. Perhaps if Moore is elected he could counter this move by observing a month of gay shame in Alabama.

“It’s a travesty,” Moore says when Wiles tells him there was actually a “gay party” in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. While it doesn’t seem likely that all of our tax dollars that have gone toward death, torture and destruction would bother Moore all that much (he doesn’t like Muslims much anyway), the idea that American money has gone toward letting a few gay service people blow off steam is too much for him to bear.

Only God can right these matters,” Moore says, seeming to stop himself from finishing where that thought might have been going. I’ll leave it to you to ponder how that might play out if Moore and his ilk could play out their theocratic fantasies in real life.

(Probably WWRB) – The Prognostications of a Yahweh Cult Couple 29:59
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I suspect this broadcast originates from one of the two giant brokered shortwave monsters in Tennessee– WWRB or WWCR. It’s "Mark" and a female co-host I assume to be his wife. I guess you could call them radio missionaries working on behalf of the big sky guy– Yahweh. There doesn’t seem to be any production to the program itself. It’s just your basic phone call to the transmitter. Mark has a handful of notes and news stories to share, and when gets lost in his "documents" he hands the phone to the wife, letting her riff on the wornders of Yahweh until he has paperwork in order.

This clip starts out with Mark reading a letter from a concerned soldier from Kentucky regarding how the army is actively taking detailed inventory of all the personal firearms belonging to soldiers and officers on base. Hmmm. Could this have something to do with the internal Department of Homeland Security report on the threat of right-wing extremism that became public last April?

I don’t know about you, but I kind of like the idea of the government keeping better track of heavy-duty home weaponry these days. The recent murder of an arbortion doctor as well the bloody incident at the Holocaust Museum added more validity to the warnings of Janet Napolitano and the DHS report she presented on the dangers of the deep and dark entrenched right-wing element in America.

And Mark has more bad news. Apparently, the world elites (including Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and the Rockefellers) are meeting on yachts and planning to kill off most of the rest of the people in the world. And I gues this may happen quite soon. Before the rapture. Massive depopulation theories have been popular on shortwave since I can remember– almost as common as the world government-new world order paranoia. And I guess it all feeds into the same colorful narrative, as the last hurrah of the evil forces on Earth before the messiah comes down and takes the faithful up to heaven for a big shindig– while the rest of us spend eternity as human barbeque. Burn baby burn.

Next up, some rather animated fire and brimstone style conspiracy radio.

WWRB – The Beast Preacher  1:38
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This guy’s worked up. And his sermon almost plays out like an exorcism, as he proclaims the names of all the evil he can think of– OLD Satan, and the anti-Christ of course– and THE BEAST, and then he goes down a list– the serpent, the old dragon, the devil, the son of perdition, Lucifer, the Destroyer, and more. Not only is the reception bad here, but he’s a loud and boisterous guy and it’s hard to understand all the prognosticating going on. But what he does do is move onto another important list. This time he proclaims the names of the embodiment of the “the beast” on earth. Specifically the one world government problem– the “one-worldism, the United Nations, the new world order, the Knights Templar, and the Priory of Sion (who apparently are even more powerful than the Illuminati), and all the sons of Cain. It sounds like the devil has quite a social calender.

He ends his rowdy lecture with a spirited sign-off worthy of a Latin American football announcer. All in all it’s a testosterone-soaked overview of most (if not all) of the paranoia conspiracies that have haunted the followers of Jesus for hundreds of years. And then when it all ends with a telephone disconnect and an automated recording (just like the Yahweh cultists radio show) it even seems a little stranger, that this big voice being broadcast on an international radio transmitter was just another guy yelling into a telephone.

And the fact that this program cuts off in the same sloppy manner as the Yahweh believers program tells me that they were probably broadcasting on WWRB as well. And it seems that this big international radio outlet doesn’t pay for an actual human board operator in the evening hours. From these recordings it appears their programming runs through some sloppy automation interface that doesn’t compensate for incoming programming on the telephone ending a few seconds early. I guess everybody’s cutting back these days.

Of course, if you listen to shortwave radio you’ve already heard all this heebie-jeebie hullabaloo before. All this rapture preparation and mark of the beast anxiety didn’t just hit the airwaves when Obama was elected. It’s a bizarre sickness in the very fabric of our culture. And while it infects so much discourse and entertainment all around us, only on shortwave you can hear (and almost smell) the mythical doom visions in their unrefined state. And while we didn’t invent crazy religious thought, the United States of America has been a breeding ground for it for a mighty long time. Much in the same way Australia later became a dumping ground for unwanted criminals for the British Empire, the new world was a dumping ground for all sorts of wild-eyed religious fanatics from Western Europe. And their legacy lives on.

A 2002 Time Magazine poll found that almost sixty-percent of Americans believe “the events in Revelation are going to come true.” And an AP poll in 2007 determined that one in four of us believed that Jesus was going to return to earth that very year. You get the idea. We is crazy. At least a lot of us are. And even among people who might not consider themselves overtly religious, there’s still plenty of superstition and irrationality to go around. After all, when it comes to apocalyptic sensationalism and pornographic arousal of the conspiracy gland, why should the religiously-ill have all the fun?

WWCR – The Alex Jones Show – with special guest David Icke
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Here you have a couple of the most successful secular scaremongers in the world in a bizarre radio pow-wow. It’s one-time rivals Alex Jones and David Icke, rolling around in the mud of some middle-ground they’ve cleared between their divergent paranoid theories. These apocalyptic showmen mine the concepts of science fiction TV and movies instead of using the King James Version for narrative support. And a few years ago these two giant fear-purveyors realized that there were just too many more books and DVDs to sell if they could put their differences behind them and create some viable consumer crossover business by joint media appearances, like this one.

For those who don’t know the history of these two professional paranoids, let me offer a little background. David Icke (pronounced like “Ike,” not “icky.) was a BBC sports announcer and then a spokesmen for the UK Green Party when he realized he was “the son of god.” and from that time forward he’s taken himself quite seriously and has created a whole cottage industry based on his own magnificence and need to enlighten us all. While he seems to have abandoned all the son of god business, his claim to fame eventually came through exposing the evil cabal of shape-shifting reptile people who rule our world (like the Queen of England, Henry Kissinger and Bob Hope). Alex Jones on the other hand, is a big loud Texas talk radio host who got his start on Austin cable access TV. I"ve written about Jones before (which you can read here), and hardly feel the need to promote a guy who’s one of the most ambitious self-promoters I’ve ever seen. When it comes to secular "new world order" conspiracy, Alex Jones is probably at the top of the heap these days. And at first he considered David Icke’s presence in the paranoia panorama as a big problem. His concern over letting blood guzzling reptilians into the conspiracy cannon led Jones to call Icke a conman and an opportunist, and his theories the "turd in the punch bowl” for all the seekers of hidden truths.

In an odd turnabout, in this clip Icke kicks into some rambling discussion about the inherent weakness of our “reptilian brain.” And he’s NOT talking about scaly skin blood suckers, but the brain stem and all that squishy stuff around it that makes up the vestigial remnants of our pre-mammalian legacy. In light of Icke’s long-standing fixation on reptilian villains, Jones steps in to let his listeners know–“this is not debatable. ” Icke is talking about real brain science this time, not scaly-skinned Republicans. And Icke responds with a quick hint of nervous laughter before carrying on with his neurological mumbo-jumbo. And so the ambitious Mr. Jones has kept the “turd” out of his punch bowl once again.

But here’s the funny thing. Protestant Armageddonists are even more bizarre. Instead of tending to their own souls, they seem more obsessed with the “sins” of other people– total strangers who don’t necessarily have the same religious beliefs. And many long for the day when America will become the theocratic state they believe it should have been all along. The dream of Roy Moore and his ilk is to indoctrinate our children in the public schools. And let’s face it, the only reason these people can keep riding that same sick pony around the American stage is because too many people let religiously infected people get a hold of their children at an early age. As their irrational belief beliefs are passed down generations it’s not just child abuse– it’s a viral infection that continues to stunt our spiritual growth as a nation.

However, the post-religious doom prophets don’t worry about everyone’s sins. They realize all that perverse religion turns a lot of people off. So, instead of putting a modern spin on ancient myths, they put an ancient spin on contemporary economics and politics. If you figure out we’re under the thumb of powerful people, they’ll tell you it all stems from bizarre rituals, or exotic bloodlines or visitors from outer space. Whether their conspiracy theories are more ridiculous than the burning bush or the impending return of Jesus doesn’t much matter. Dressing up the machinations of big money and the world power mafia in the garb of the Illuminati or jumbo lizard suits just turns your righteous anger into comic angst. Because you’ve invested into a load of crap.

If you’re willing to wade into the online swamps that surround showmen like Icke or Jones you can read how all these earnest believers create a burgeoning support group together to brace themselves against the coming cosmic doom they both predict. in their narratives, a seductive mix of fact and fantasy is always at play. Legitimate concerns about transnational corporations and governmental regimes twisting the truth, stealing our money and taking away our rights are all shuffled into fantastic all-encompassing conspiracies. And If I happened to be full of money and the devil, I’d pay clowns like Alex Jones or David Icke to exaggerate my crimes and mythologize my powers. Not only do the bad guys get all the best roles in the extravagant sci-fi narratives they fashion around themselves, but they also magically discredit every legitimate concern that gets sucked up into their conspiracy narrative. Call it disinfortainment.

I say this while hoping not to attribute any more power or pedigree to the postmodern carnival provided by David Icke or Alex Jones. They’re more like parasites than movers or shakers in all this insanity. And when they talk about corporate bias in mainstream news and our government relieving us of rights and choices we once enjoyed, it’s got to be seductive to people who are half-aware of what’s going on. And if it’s already in your makeup to believe in miracles and people rising from the dead, then how much of a stretch is it to imagine Dick Cheney (or Barack Obama) as a blood sucking reptile, or to obsess over what Republicans really do in the woods around the bonfires of Bohemian Grove.

And none of these samples of American sickness on shortwave radio are in and of themselves worthy of any great significance. But it’s all symptomatic of something strange going on. In a country founded in the Age Of Enlightenment by thoughtful and brave men who wanted to improve on the European models of government for the greater good of our people, there’s always been a counter-story. To get the United States off the ground, we relied on enslaved Africans for many decades. And then the mindset that helped people accept and embrace that kind of inhumanity didn’t go away. It evolved into an ugly legacy of lingering bigotry and hatred. And it’s easy to qualify the bizarre fundamentalism and the mindless racism as artifacts of the American South, but all this irrationality is much more widespread than that. (I’m resisting the urge to quote Pogo.)

While the Republican Party is in more serious disarray than ever, the big brutish media operation that brought them to power seems to be set on automatic, creating at least enough havoc to justify its cost. And lots of nameless unreasoning is indeed sweeping the nation. And when Icke sticks to the script he used on the air with Jones, that our lower "reptilian" mind is being manipulated by the man, he’s stumbling onto some truth there.

As far as shortwave radio these days, I guess the tables have tuned. Once a tool that brought us the rest of the world is fast becoming more relevant as a way to tune inward, into the lower brain of our very republic. And plenty of people get in touch with their creator that way. And even Tim McVeigh found inspiration and guidance through listening to his shortwave.

And when you’re out stocking up on ammo, you might wanna pick up some extra batteries for that radio. After all, a lot of folks are hoping for bad news.