Extravaganzo On The Hudson

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

Almost exactly a year ago, I put together a post (The Hip Spot On Your Dial) about anachronistic wonders of WHVW in New York’s Hudson Valley. We have family up that way, so it’s always on mind (and on my radio) when we come to visit. And I always record a little.

Just a little AM station with a little signal, WHVW is the vision of Joe Ferraro (AKA Pirate Joe), a guy who likes his music musty– old, funky, swingin’, stompin, and rockin’. Music that makes you wanna beat on something. In a good way.

WHVW – 11-28-08 part one  58:24
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You can certainly read more about who, what and where of WHVW in my earlier post, but suffice to say that other than weekday drive time and certain hours over the weekend, WHVW is an automated affair. Which doesn’t bother me. In fact, it’s just about the best radio automation I’ve ever heard. And that’s what you get in these two files from last week– “Murray the Machine.”

Last year after I wrote about WHVW, I stopped by the studio for a short visit. I met Pirate Joe, who was very gracious. And every bit the unique character I expected to meet. Boring people don’t create magical radio stations that shouldn’t exist.

One thing that puzzles me. I recall taking a few pictures while I was there, and I haven’t been able to locate them on any of my stray hard drives here at headquarters. It’s too bad. Because I got a look at Murray, the “machine” that fills most of the hours of programming on WHVW. It’s a set up that would make a lot of sense, if it was 1992 (when Pirate Joe bought the station). In a small hot little closet at WHVW there are three 100 CD changers all hard-wired into a vintage late 1980’s computer running some DOS based radio automation program. And I asked Joe about it, wondering in particular about the hard drive in that thing. And you guessed it, the tiny old thing is just about as old as the computer itself. Of course it could blow any day and as I recall I think he said he doesn’t have a back up. Ouch.

WHVW – 11-28-08 part two  62:01
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I remember a friend of mine had a pirate radio station for a while in the mid-90’s and he filled all the hours without DJ’s with a 100 CD machine, and I thought it was quite an amazing device. Then again, nowadays you could fit over 100 albums on a micro memory card as big as a fingernail. That is, if you compressed them as MP3’s. I happened to mention to Pirate Joe that he might wanna get that library converted to MP3’s and run it all off of a more contemporary machine (with back-ups of course). But he would have none of it. He said MP3’s just sounded horrible.

Now I know a thing or two about MP3’s and I’ve done quite a bit of encoding and listening, as well as reading a thing or two about MP3 compression. I’m no scientist, but I can tell you that if WHVW switched to MP3 music tomorrow, as long as they were encoded at appropriate bitrate (I’d say at least 96K mono, w-high quality set) that no one could ever tell the difference (even Joe). Specifically after going through the WHVW audio chain and the AM transmitter, nothing would ever be missed. In fact, I’m sure you probably encode much lower and most ears would never notice. However, as an opinionated curmudgeon myself, I knew better than to question Pirate Joe’s ears or expertise. Not a chance in hell I could change his mind, and that’s okay. He runs a wonderful radio station– creaky old DOS box and all.

The studios are in a small office in the center of Poughkeepsie. While downtown Poughkeepsie isn’t all that appealing, the WHVW studio and office were quite fine. I guess they’re in newer digs since the New York Time’s article a few years back. Although small, it was quite a modern little two or three room affair Pirate Joe has for his radio nest.

And I asked him about his great show (AKA: “Pirate Joe’s Country Music Show and Blues and R&B Extravaganzo”), which has been on hiatus for a few years. A damn good show. Heavy on the 78RPM. Anyway, he had some convoluted technical reason he couldn’t do the show. Problem with playing the 78’s he said. Something about the needles or cartridges or something. Seems to me that it wouldn’t be all that hard to fix or figure out. But who am I to question Pirate Joe…

In my intermittent recording of WHVW I did catch most of one particular Extravanzo broadcast, which I offer you here. And it’s one long piece of radio, over an hour and a half in one file.

WHVW – Pirate Joe Show 12-03-03  102:48
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What a great meandering prosaic style Joe has on the mic. And the music is top notch. Rhythmic and raw. And as it comes from almost exactly five years ago, the seasonal topics are appropriate to the time this post is planted atop the blog. And as far as Joe’s Christmas music phobia… Can I hear an amen? It’s already driving me insane. Nothing chases me out a store faster than some holly and jolly shit spewing from the speakers.

It’s funny. Joe’s patter reminds me more than a little bit of WBCQ’s Allan Weiner. Which makes sense, because they were friends at one time– fellow radio pirates in fact. Sadly, they had a falling out, which I once heard Allan mention in passion on his show. Apparently money was a problem and maybe some broken promises too. I don’t know the details. But it occurred to me as I was listening to Joe’s show, that if you could somehow combine WBCQ and WHVW into one radio station, it could be a killer combination. Then again, they already kinda did that, as two kids sharing an illegal frequency back in the 1970’s.

Maybe someday Pirate Joe will once again air his 78’s in the afternoon. Meanwhile he continues to host a classical music show each weeknight, which doesn’t do much for me. But I’m sure it makes someone happy.

But other than Curt Roberts excellent morning drive rock and roll show, most of the great human (as opposed to automated) programming happens on the weekends. Like Dungeon’s Serenade. A Sunday afternoon offering, and I think it’s a relatively new arrival on the WHVW roster. This recording is from March of last year.

WHVW – Dungeon Serenade 03-25-07  66:47
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I’m a sucker for a good doo-wop show, and this is the real thing. Tony O has this old school nasal edge to his voice, a warm kinda crooked sound. It’s a quirky announcer vibe that goes perfect with all the boom-boom-pa-boom shoo-wah stuff.

Then right when I getting into that 1959 Buick feeling Tony kinda blew it by talking about his new friends on his MySpace page. But that’s okay. He’s on a real radio station in the 21st century playing some awesome aching harmonies from someone else’s youth. And not only is that all right with me, it’s also not WCBS-FM. If you know what I mean.

What you get with Tony O is lots of passion for the records. His playlists are well-crafted, and it’s not the standard oldies fare to be sure. I haven’t listened to the whole thing again, but I do remember an amazing old Miracles song in there somewhere. And this clip is over an hour as well. And if you’re like me, you might find that these airchecks stand up to repeated listening. Which (if you happen to like WXHD) is a good thing. Especially considering that won’t be streaming the station online anytime soon.

I recall Pirate Joe had all sorts of reasons why he was holding off on putting WHVW on the web. And you know, even though the cost to do so would be infinitesimal compared to running that megawatt sucking AM transmitter, and there’s probably quite a few people who don’t happen to within a tight radius of Poughkeepsie, New York who might wanna tune in to the hip spot now and then…

But hey, I’m not gonna argue with Pirate Joe. It can’t be easy keeping an eccentric little radio station on the air these days. And he’s doing a pretty damn good job. I do wish we could all hear it at home, live. But I have my recordings, and when I cruise up the Taconic Parkway, it’s always there waiting. And you have over four hours of WHVW. Right here. And don’t forget, there’s more WHVW archives back here.

Have fun. And thanks Joe! Keep up the good work.

The Hip Spot On Your Dial

Monday, December 10th, 2007

I’m old enough to remember when they first pulled the oldies radio concept out of the box and plugged it into the wall. And it literally was a gadget. A machine. I was a kid in suburban Detroit in the early 1970’s when I found one of very first all "oldies" stations to go on the air. The station (which started on FM, then simulcast on AM and eventually became an AM radio station), and then became known as “Honey Radio.” There were no DJ’s, just jingles and commercials and lots of dated top 40.

Automatic or not, the programming of Honey Radio was immediately intriguing to me and some of my friends at the time. As the album rock format was wandering deeper into crap like Uriah Heep and Kansas, I’d impatiently fumble with the dial looking for something (anything) different and kept perching the needle on this new station that played only old rock and roll. Half of it I’d never heard before. 

It’s hard to imagine now, when most oldies stations play such a tight and boring playlist, but the original oldies format was born in the "American Graffiti" (and then "Happy Days") era, when old rock and roll was immediately more evocative and uplifting than the arena rock epic thud and guitar solos that were clogging up the album rock format.

From what I recall of early Honey Radio format, the music spanned from 1955 until 1967 or ’68. I started soaking it up– Rockabilly, r&b, doo-wop, even dopey pop. I loved it all (okay, except Neil Sedaka…). And it filled in a missing chapter in top 40 history for me– between my mom’s record collection and the music I had been hearing on the radio since diapers. Listening to the station turned me on to a whole world of recording artists I barely knew before (and ones you probably won’t hear much on oldies radio nowadays), like Huey “Piano” Smith, Ral Donner or the Impressions. And not just the big canonical hits, but other choice tracks that charted too. All that from a robot radio station. 

A little later (after I’d stopped obsessively listening), Honey Radio added real DJ’s and in the final tally had a good run as Detroit’s premiere oldies station until shutting down in the early 90’s. The demise of Honey came as the format’s followers were surging into middle-age, and the new thinking in advertising advocated virtually abandoning that once valued demographic. This shift in advertising strategy drove more and more oldies outlets to desperately expand their playlists into the hits of the1980’s, and drop almost all the 50’s and early 60’s music that fueled the original format.

There are some good, even interesting, oldies stations that are still out there (WLNG, for example). And a few brave ones have popped up and bucked the era-shift gentrification of the oldies format, and specialized in the early rock era with music libraries much larger than the mind-numbing 300 tested superhits that make up the format in most markets. However, these days radio stations exist in a cutthroat environment, where anything but sucking in big piles of money every day isn’t just unacceptable. It’s fatal. The profit margin possible with creatively (or lovingly) programmed oldies radio is almost never enough to keep these stations alive for very long. It’s not that true-blue oldies stations don’t attract a loyal audience, it just isn’t big enough or young enough to have a chance in the dog-eat-dog world of contemporary radio advertising. That is, unless you happened to have purchased a radio station for a really reasonable price, and making a fat profit isn’t necessarily your goal. Then you have choices. Then you have WHVW.

A true media miracle, WHVW in Hyde Park/Poughkeepsie, New York, is the ultimate oldies station for the culturally inspired fan of American roots music. While there’s a number of hosted regular programs, the majority of the WHVW’s air time is occupied by a music automation system, otherwise known as “Murray the Machine.” 

Programmer/owner “Pirate Joe” Ferraro has radically expanded the oldies format with Murray. But instead of following the present-day model of stretching the format forward in time and taking on dodgy material, Joe has lopped off the late 60’s music and everything that followed. No psychedelia, no bubble gum, and thankfully no Jim Croce. While he’s held on to the doo-wop and rockabilly of the classic 1955 to 1964 era (adding a helping of folk music that was popular at the time), the rest of library goes further back in time. But unlike the hit parade highway you might here on senior citizen radio, Ferraro opts for the rural routes of r&b, blues, old jazz, and classic country. All and all, it’s the rockin’ 20th century– an “oldies” overview based on favorites of record collectors and the kind of music that kept people putting nickels in jukeboxes for decades. While I haven’t done a scientific study of all the ingredients of Pirate Joe’s automated format, but I can tell you one thing– it’s compelling, and unlike any radio station I’ve ever heard. And it makes a lot of sense.

For the last decade or so, I’ve had family in Poughkeepsie, which places me within the transmission range of WHVW a few times a year. I’ve stacked up a number of airchecks of WHVW over the years– mostly captures of Murray on the job. But what a well nursed and well-fed automation system Ferraro has set up. No matter how many tapes I’ve gathered of his automation over the years, it always sounds fresh.

WHVW – Murray the Machine 11-23-07  61:35

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While the Pirate Joe’s music machine does a heck of a job, there’s a skeleton crew of real live on-air personalities who keep WHVW human as well, and fun to listen to. Like Pirate Joe (who up until recently hosted an all 78 RPM afternoon drive program himself), the DJ’s musical appetites are mostly variations on Joe’s musical themes– record collector/characters who live and breathe old juke joint hits and rarities. Curt Roberts, the morning drive guy goes for more of an eclectic golden oldies approach, adding some soul and garage sounds to the mix. And what a voice. And the personalities of Roberts and Ferraro set the tone for the on-air persona of WHVW– wry and dry and isn’t the music great. It’s straight-forward– rarely exuberant and rarely boring. And I like it.

WHVW – Curt Roberts 11-22-07  29:55

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I don’t get up in WHVW territory enough to know the schedule well, and their website (which looks like it was put together with mid-90’s know-how) usually seems a bit out of date. But you can see what the official schedule was late last year here (the link to this page has mysteriously fallen off the home page). And while it’s not much a web site, there is some history of the station and a few pictures. And sadly, they do not stream their air signal there (or anywhere). But if you want to get an idea of some of WHVW’s glowing fan mail, Joe has posted a bit of it on this page.

One show that’s been a Sunday mainstay for well over a decade now is Darwin Lee Hill’s “Real Hillbilly Jamboree.” It’s a three hour hand-crafted hootenanny, featuring hits & obscurities from all the classic country music sub-genres, as well as some more recent material from neo-traditionalists and aging legends. That said and all technical descriptions aside, Darwin’s show is consistently warm and informative radio, including occasional interviews with country legends. And the music is always heartening. Kinda makes you wanna buy a second home in Poughkeepsie.

WHVW – Darwin Lee 11-25-07  62:08

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I wish I could say that WHVW could be the harbinger of a new creative era of AM music programming. But I’m a realist, and there’s little reason to think that the glory of this little radio station is much more than fortunate happenstance. As his nickname implies, Ferraro is a former radio pirate, someone with synergistic mastery of musicology and old radio technology, who happened to get a good deal ($350,000) on a lowly class D AM station. While there’s still bargains like that around, they’re more likely in desolate North Dakota or rural Mississippi. WHVW is located in an actual city (albeit a small one), surrounded by the fringe suburbia of New York City. It’s a convergence that brings a big chunk of musical Americana to the radio dial in a place where people really live and play, or at least drive through on their way to Albany.

And the station doesn’t operate in a vacuum, WHVW really serves the community. They have locally oriented talk shows and local news, something you don’t hear very often these days on stations with far larger budgets and bigger transmitters. And requests from listeners carry a lot more weight when the DJ actually programs their own show. For folks who live in the mid-Hudson Valley who love great (and occasionally obscure) old music, WHVW must be a godsend.

For those who might have dreams of snatching up a cheap radio station and running it on a shoestring, Ferraro’s WHVW offers an intriguing model. Two people on staff (including the owner) handling the weekly drive-time slots and then a roster of weekly volunteer hosts doing shows for the love of it (and perhaps the advertising they can generate), with the rest of the broadcast day filled with the offerings of a tasteful and compelling automated music mix. This way a small radio station can maintain a local connection and eschew the predictable dependency on pre-packaged music formats and syndicated talk shows. And I think that WHVW disproves the bias of a number of non-conformist radio types I’ve known who equate radio automation with a lack of imagination or laziness. It all depends on who’s programming the machine.

Now in the age of mp3 players, I suppose you could spend a couple of years loading up on thousands of old shakin’ and stompin’ classics and kinds create your own WHVW in your pocket. But it would still be an imitation of Pirate Joe’s musical vision. Which is on the air right now by the way. Filling the sky of Dutchess Country with radio waves carrying the likes of Coleman Hawkins, T-Bone Walker or Harry "The Hipster" Gibson, proving that automated radio can be a non-conformist’s best friend. And that it’s not impossible for a radio station to be a better music machine than a money machine.

EXTRA BONUS – A follow up to this post can be found here, including more audio archives of WHVW.

Adventures In Amplitude Modulation – Part 15

Tuesday, April 11th, 2006

Rf2200_dial I really prefer to post some audio with every blog post. Specifically, radio reception I’ve recorded somewhere or somehow. After featuring shortwave radio in the last four posts I was ready to go back to some of the sounds of medium wave (AM) again. However, recordings I had thought I would feature were either of poor quality, not all that interesting, or missing in action. What’s worse, it took a few hours of listening and searching to figure this out.

Actually, it would have been easier to comb through some shortwave recordings I have ready to go, but now and then I do want to talk about AM radio in this series as well. While it isn’t as exotic as shortwave, the AM band is very 20th century– an era I’m still rather fond of. Instead of spending additional hours digging through boxes full of cassettes and trying to find something compelling I decided to do the obvious– turn on the radio.

In previous posts where I’ve gone over some AM stations, I’ve barely touched the higher half of the band. There’s a reason for this. A big chunk of the AM up that way is allocated to local and regional broadcasting. In other words, there aren’t any far off high power stations to clearly hear and savor. And unless you’re near one of these minor signals at each 10 kHz stop on the AM Radiostationsband all you usually hear is a cacophony of low power stations meekly throbbing from afar.

Just for fun I decided to explore this AM wilderness late Sunday night (the wee hours of April 10) and record the results. There are no 50,000 watt powerhouses from 1230 to 1490 kHz (and none past 1680 kHz (including the medium wave band extension up to 1700 kHz in the U.S.). And frankly, there’s not much compelling English language programming to be found from New York City on this segment of the AM band. During the day, once you get past WLIB (Air America’s home base/NYC outlet) at 1190 kHz almost everything is in another language. Mostly Spanish. At night it’s not a lot different except that multitudes of non-local low power stations fill the holes on the dial. You’ll hear a lot of that in this recording.

IrmedwavechartAs far as content, what you’ll get in this bandscan is (in most ways) less than compelling. It’s more about radio reception itself, and what the lonely end of the AM band sounds like from New York City at night. If you’re tickled by the sound of a dozen or more distant radio stations buzzing together at once then you’re going to enjoy this audio sampling.

There is nothing amazing or profound here and it’s not easy listening. Some DXers love to dig into these less popular AM frequencies and seek out the teeny transmissions out in the noise. This can take plenty of skill and patience, and good equipment and antennas can make all the difference.

The reception in this recording is accomplished with my trusty Panasonic RF-2200. Since it’s an analog rig I verified a number of these frequencies with a nearby digital receiver– a Sangean ATS-505. And unless there was loud local bleed over from another frequency, the old Panasonic had a much better grasp on the reception. The RF-2200 (even in Brooklyn) is a hearty performer on medium wave.

More than any other band scan I’ve offered in this series, this is a real noisefest. While I do hope that many readers download and check out the audio provided in these posts, I should admit that this particular scan may only be of interest to those who ears are Crystal_dx_radioattuned to dodgy AM reception. And while I think I’ve offered some pretty compelling and unusual broadcasting in this series, the content here isn’t really the point. It’s the lonesome sound of the forgotten end of a nearly forgotten broadcast band in the middle of the night.

However, for a strange guy like me there’s still a musicality in barely making out a voice in a sea of unintelligible signals, as well as just being awash in a multitude of extremely faint radio stations all at once. And this experience is unique to AM radio. No where on the FM or shortwave dial can you hear so many stations simultaneously. And for me personally, there’s something promising in the electronic hubbub. It means I’m listening to a sensitive AM radio, and that I may hear a station or program I’ve never heard before.

I assure you, if digital broadcasting one day usurps analog amplitude modulation on medium wave the sound of multitudes of stations offering incomplete digital data on frequencies like these is going to offer something much more raw and much less human. That said, I’m not convinced this will ever happen, but if it does DXing will never be the same.

Brooklyn Late Night Medium Wave Scan 04-10-06 (1220 to 1450kHz)  23:04

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1220  – WHKW Cleveland, OH

Acljlogo Just to the right of WHPT in Philadelphia I found this. Something about Jesus and school. Maybe some information about the ongoing sadistic war on Christianity. In this mess I also hear reference to Pat Robertson’s evil “American Center for Law & Justice,” sort of like the anti-ACLU which basically works to protect the rights of theocrats and their kind, not human beings in general. I believe this is a rebroadcast of the ACLJ’s “Jay Sekulow Live!”

Although this is a 50,000 watt station it’s a very directional signal aiming north and south and not easy to hear out on the east coast. When I was a kid this was WGAR, a normal radio station. Actually, this frequency in Cleveland has gone through quite a few changes in the last couple decades, which you can read about here.

1230 & 1240 – Nothing But Noise

Quickly skipped over. Really couldn’t hear anything over the background roar.  In fact these two frequencies (along with 1340, 1400, 1450 and 1490 kHz) are known as “graveyard frequencies.” Originally known as “local channels,” these frequencies were allotted to very low power stations to serve local communities. Before 1960 a station broadcasting at these spots on the dial could only put out 250 watts. These days they’re allowed to play with up to 1000 watts.

Chubbysweater 1250 – WMTR Morristown, NJ

With a crowd of distant stations pulsing in the background, you hear a lo-fi rendering of the beginning of an insurgent 60’s hit by the Spencer Davis Group. Back in the 70’s and 80’s the AM dial was teeming with oldies stations like this. No longer. The ones that are left are mostly on FM these days, and often try to skew their programming too a slightly younger crowd by dumping MTV-era pop into the mix. While I don’t tune in WMTR very often, I don’t believe they’ve done that yet.

It’s only thirty some miles away, but their nighttime 7000 watts isn’t all that impressive here in Brooklyn. It’s a little better during the day, and once you get across the Hudson and into New Jersey reception improves pretty quickly. Considering that New York City no longer has an “oldies” radio station or ANY English language music formats on the AM dial, I’ll bet there’s probably a few diehard folks in the city who remember the heyday of AM Top 40 stations like WABC and WMCA and keep a little radio near the window tuned to hear Fats Domino and the Dave Clark Five on WMTR.

1260 – Nothing Intelligible

1270 – Nothing Intelligible (plus WADO bleeding into the frequency)

Wadoold 1280 – WADO New York, NY

This has been a Spanish language news and talk station in New York City for over forty years. It’s coming in strong, and you get the ID with a little music.

1290 – Nothing Intelligible (WADO bleeds into this frequency as well)

1300 – A Jumble of Stations

This is typical of frequency stops where there’s no local station. Just how many layers of distant radio signals are piled on top of one another here in this throng of sound? What’s interesting to me is that it seems that it seems to be a dozen or more male voices talking at once. Which shouldn’t be surprising, since that’s what most of AM radio is these days– the sound of so many men talking. Years ago, this type of accidental collage would have been mostly music with a few voices all pulsating together.

1310 – A Jumble of Stations

Another mass of voices, not as loud as the mob at 1300 kHz.

1320 – Nothing Intelligible (WADO bleeds into this frequency as well)

1330 – WWRV New York, NY (Radio Vision Cristiana)

Christian propaganda in Español coming in strong with a reverb sheen and soothing music. Strangely enough, this station is rebroadcast with a monster transmitter from the Carribean and can be received locally in New York at 540 kHz as well (which I had mentioned in this post). Christian broadcasting, it’s relentless.

Graveyard 1340 – Another Jumble of Distant Stations

This is another one of those “graveyard frequencies.”

1350 – Another Jumble

Another mess of stations, but with a sappy adult contemporary ballad faintly leading the pack.

1360 – Another Jumble of Stations

1370 – Jumble

However, there seems to be two stations in front on this frequency. One or both seem to be playing commercials. And it’s just a few minutes after 3 am at this point, a typical time for spots after or during the news. I think I hear a violin in there somewhere.

Medium_wave_multiplexing_equipment_1 1380 – WKDM New York, NY

A mambo! This frequency in New York has been broadcasting in a number of languages (mostly Spanish) since the 1960’s and has a few call letter changes as well. It’s currently a “ brokered” ethnic station, meaning people who speak languages than English buy blocks of programming to do their thing. Obviously, it’s Spanish here and a bit nostalgic as well.

1390 – Another Jumble of Stations

Many stations here again. Could that be CCR ever so slightly sticking out atop this pulsating audio slop?

1400 – Unknown Talk Station

Coming in very poorly on this graveyard frequency, it’s a right-wing female talk host spouting off about the immigration bill in the Senate. Not much to go on here, but a little detective work leads me to think this might be WSTC in Stamford, CT or WWGE in Loretto, PA, or maybe something else.

Limbaugh_on_kqv_in_70s_1 1410 – KQV Pittsburgh, PA

Some patient dial manipulation and antenna tweaking pulled this one up out of another frequency pile up. In fact, in a moment of DX happenstance the station seems to come in at it’s strongest right when they give the ID. This was a successful top 40 station for many years, and now it’s all news all the time. Oh, and El Rushbo was a hotshot rock jock here years ago too.

1420 – Jumble

More messy reception with a nice heterodyne whine for your pleasure.

1430 – WNSW Newark, NJ

Not coming in as well as usual, this is another brokered (mainly ethnic) station at this end of the dial in NYC. And they’re playing some sweet Spanish ballads. Sounds Mexican to me, but what do I know.

Earlier in the evening you can hear big band/standards stalwart Danny Stiles on this frequency playing old and moldy classics and rarities. And via the miracle of minidisc recording he also broadcasts late in the night on a stronger frequency in the city on sister station WPAT at 930 AM.

1440 – Unknown Christian Station

Not coming in very well. A creepy preacher carrying on. Something about a human conspiracy (is there any other kind?) in ancient Rome. Don’t really know what this is. I suppose it could be WNYG out on Long Island, but offering only 38 watts after sunset that seems unlikely.

1450 – One More Messy Jumble of Stations

One more stop in the graveyard. Absolutely nothing to hear at this frequency except that fact that somewhere out there a whole bunch of stations are using up electricity.

That’s it for my impromptu scan of the upper end of the AM band. Considering the fact that my apartment is less than five miles from 50,000 watt WQEW at 1560 kHz the next few Wqew_1 frequencies are polluted by the Radio Disney garbage they spew into the atmosphere. The signal is so strong that it bleeds into my stereo system if there’s bad connection and you can hear the station by just picking up the pay phone down the street.

During the 1990’s, WQEW was the home of damn good standards/nostalgia station, but in 1998 the owners of the license (The New York Times) saw fit to rent out this wide-coverage clear channel frequency to the freaks at Disney/ABC for their automated kiddie format. Those guys at the Times are such visionaries.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog.)

The Intimate Audio Gadget

Thursday, October 27th, 2005

Really portable music is a wonderful thing. It’s both empowering and comforting to have a shiny music machine in your pocket that plays a variety of your favorite tunes at the whim of your finger on a little wheel. It’s futuristic technology that has made listening an intimate experience… for over FIFTY years.

Back in the early 50’s a company called Texas Instruments was making good money churning out piles of newfangled little transistors for military applications, but they envisioned a wider public marketplace for the little buggers. And in 1954 the TI engineers created a prototype transistor radio. It was small, it worked, and it seemed like a great idea. However, Texas Instruments wasn’t in the business of manufacturing consumer products back then, so they shopped their concept around to several big radio makers of the day. Surprisingly, RCA, Sylvania, and Philco all said "no thanks" before a small outfit in Indiana (the Regency Division of Industrial Development Engineering Associates) took the bait.

Blue_tr1_3Within a matter of months the first commercial transistor radio was a reality. Besides being cute and colorful, the TR-1 was the very first mass-marketed transistorized gadget. It was made here in the U.S.A., and in that spirit the it was prominently on display in stores across America just in time for Christmas 1954. The price? A whopping $49.95. Adjust the cost for inflation and you’re lookin at almost $350 in today’s dollars, not far from the $399 price tag on that first iPod.

Meck_tube_portable_4Before the TR-1, any portable radio you might buy had a "luggage" quality, with big top handles and a bit of heft. They just weren’t all that portable thanks to the warm glowing vacuum tubes they contained. These days, audiophiles and technical stick-in-the-muds properly laud the aural beauty of the "tube" sound, but the glass casings and inner workings of vacuum tubes are rather fragile and they need a protective case, as well as some large batteries to power up. And of course, the tubes themselves aren’t all that tiny either.

Because it was the very first device of it’s kind, the Regency TR-1 has become a legendary and very collectable artifact. A fellah named Steve Reyer has an impressive website chronically the history of (and his passion for) the TR-1. Lots of images and links there, as wellClear_tr1_1 his own tale of bringing one back to life (including audio clips of radio reception from his resuscitated TR-1). What makes these radios even more valuable is the fact that they were manufactured for only one year, and they were made in a variety of shades of plastic, some of the colors are VERY rare. To give you an idea, recently a nice average TR-1 in good shape sold for almost seven-hundred bucks on ebay. The more obscure models can be worth much more.

While it’s very collectable, the TR-1 wasn’t the most beautiful or the best performing transistor of its day. However, if you can just transport yourself back to late ’54 or 1955 for a minute  and imagine you were blasting some Chuck Berry from the palm of your hand with one of these things, you wouldn’t just be rockin’, you’d be one stylin’ technologically advanced human being.

The ultimate hipster showman of that era, Mike Todd, filmed his monster extravaganza "Around The World In 80 Days" during the year the TR-1 was on the market. Todd financed a lot of the movie by dipping into his own personal fortune, and kept his budget down by working Trevor_howard_1out barter arrangements with over forty celebrity friends who made cameo appearances in the film. As part of the booty he offered his big shot buddies for their walk-on roles was a TR-1 encased in a personalized mock leather "book."  Not surprisingly, these are highly prized artifacts today. Have a look at this one, Shirley MacLaine’s "Mike Todd" edition TR-1 Radio.

IBM CEO of the time, Thomas J. Watson Jr, made the decision that same year to "transistorize" all his IBM products by June of 1958. This change generated a lot of internal resistance, and whenever one of his engineers whined about dumping the dependable old vacuum tube, Watson would hand  them a shiny new TR-1 radio as a technological wake up call.

Not long after the debut of the Regency TR-1, a bunch of transistor radios hit the market. Jumping into the fray: Raytheon, Zenith, and a small Japanese tape recorder company who had just changed their long complicated name from "Tokyo Tsushin Kogyo" to something easier to remember– "Sony."

Zenith_royal_500_1Like the TR-1, many of the early transistor radios were expensive. Paralleling the "wow" factor of automotive design of the era, most of these late 50’s and early 60’s models scream STYLE. Take a look at this Hitachi TH-669, or the Zenith Royal 500, which listed for 79 bucks in 1955. And here’s a few attractive vintage Sonys–  the TR-6, the TR-725, and the extremely popular TR-610.

And let’s be honest, in comparison the designs of MP3 players are NOT nearly as charismatic or attractive. Sure, the much heralded iPod may have a "clean" modern design, and they are very easy to operate, but as artifacts there’s not a lot of glamour there. Grundig_solo_boy_3I’m sorry, but that tidy white iPod is really more reminiscent of an American Standard Urinal or a white Ford Taurus. And the "iPod Shuffle"? A white stick. Really really boring. I’ve yet to see any MP3 player that gets my gadget lust up like a classic hot transistor radio.

However, into the 1960’s the transistor radio became a common appliance, and much of the quality and glamour was lost. The big U.S. and Japanese manufactures were undercut by Hong Kong factories churning out millions of cheap little radios for the world market. But that’s when transistor radios began to really influence our music and culture, when almost anyone could afford one- – ESPECIALLY kids and teenagers.

Lots of folks have already linked the synchronous mid-50’s rise of rock & roll and the creation of the transistor radio. But more significantly, when small inexpensive radios became a ubiquitous element of childhood, the record companies and radio programmers took full advantage of a burgeoning new youth audience. Teens were carrying their radios off to locales far from parent’s sensitive and prying ears–  the bedroom, the playground, and the backyard. Loud guitars and rebellion dominated the top 40, and ads for sugary sodas and pimple products congested the airwaves.

First_walkman The next big change in transistorized music happens in the late 1970’s. Gradually the stereo hi-fi marvel of FM radio made it the broadcast band of choice for music, AND the cassette cartridge tape system and become a stable and vital method of high fidelity audio storage. (Remember how "home taping" killed music?) Unlike AM radio (beginning its decline) the FM band & cassettes called for STEREO portables, and the innovations went in two directions–  small and REALLY personal (the Walkman) and big and often VERY public (the boombox).

Walkman_box With the advent of the walkman, the human head became a self-contained stereo listening chamber. People could listen to ANY music they could put to tape, and listen to it discretely almost anywhere, at almost any volume. But like the fanny pack,  the cassette walkman (and the "discman" cd players that soon followed) have generally had very functional and dull designs best covered by an untucked shirt.

Jvc_rc838c_3However, like the original transistor radios the boombox was meant to be loud and proud–  a toy to show off. Instead of coming at the dawn of rock & roll, the boombox broke into the mainstream at the emergence of rap and hip-hop fashion. And it was a golden age of hifi as well, and early boomboxes had a lot of high-tech style knobs, switches, and extra features often beyond the needs of the average listener. But they looked cool, and you felt powerful with one of these monsters atop your shoulder. With clean angular lines, VU meters and lots of shiny metal, many of the early boomboxes were loud and luxurious and often boasted a fat price tag.

Sure "ghetto blasters" are still popular and practical in their own right, but over the years the designs have grown increasingly tedious and utilitarian, and a lot less large. Through the 90’s the boombox designs gradually morphed into that swollen plastic "steroid" look reminiscent of contemporary SUV’s and tennis shoes, with boring bulges and cheap sci-fi trimmings. Yuk.

Hi_delity If you’re a little bit like me, and all this talk of vintage electronics has worked up some lingering gadget lust (or just a little electronics nostalgia), there’s plenty of titillating websites out there where you can exercise your clicking finger into a voyeuristic frenzy. For starters, you could get lost in shiny dials and speaker grilles at this site: "The M31 Galaxy of Transistor Radios." I had no idea how many different types of these radios were made before I looked at this site. Incredible.

Another site I’d recommend, is "Sarah’s Transistor Radios," which features a huge collection of photos of her prodigious collection of transistor radios (with a few walkie-talkies and radio-type gadgets thrown in for fun.) And, there are plenty of other places to satiate your need for vintage-tech porn like here, here, right here, and here.

And for part two of the transistor radio era, the rise of the boombox and walkman, you can get an eyeful at this site dedicated to "the generation of electronics with a soul." It’s the official website of "The Pocket Calculator Show" on shortwave giant WBCQ. Their show is dedicated to tech toys of the late 20th century, and Panasonic_rx70001_1they have extensive online galleries of grand boomboxes and the more practical walkman. And if you’re really into this kind of thing, I recommend you check out their message board: stereo2go. You have to register to search and navigate the messages, but it’s free and easy. Sure, it’s geeky, but the enthusiasm the people who post there have for their audio toys is fascinating and infectious.

But the REAL gallery, the one where you can ogle at lots of old transistor radios that you can ACTUALLY get your hands on, would be ebay. It’s really the best place to find an assortment of classic electronics in the world. Sure, there are plenty of bargains at yard sales and junk stores, IF you have a lot of time and patience, but the only place where there’s always a wide variety of stuff to look at and purchase is ebay.

Itt_628 Old radios are one of the hottest items on ebay, and the classic transistors popular during those baby boomers "wonder" years are especially desirable. But what keeps the market for these old radios interesting is that they made so many of them. And there’s so many manufacturers and variations. In general, they’re really cheap to ship, and to start a start a small collection you’re probably not going to have to rent a storage area. However, if you’ve got a jones for the vintage boomboxes you might want to clear out an extra bedroom, just in case…

Go ahead and type "transistor radio" (or mixing and matching search terms like "vintage," "receiver,’ "boombox,") into the ebay search window. Plenty of toys to look at. From my experience, there are always some truly rare and beautiful old transistor audio devices up for auction. But you’re not apt to get a bargain on the collector’s items, and you may have to be patient if you want to find a particular radio rarity.

Jade_j1212So, if you want to replace a favorite radio of your childhood, or if you’ve gone through some of the online radio galleries and found a couple of transistorized beauties you’d like to own, try searching ebay. If you come up dry, you can save your query as a "favorite search" (you have to have an ebay membership to do this) and ebay will send you an email with a direct link when your vintage
gadget of choice comes up for auction. If you’re serious, you also might want to search" completed auctions", to see if the radio you desire has recently been on ebay and discover the final price (or the failed minimum bid the seller demanded). Oh, and if you want to find out more about a particular old boombox or walkman you’ve come across on ebay, I recommend you try a search (using the make and model number) at the stereo2go message board. I’ve found plenty of boombox enlightenment at that site.

And if you’ve got an MP3 player you might want to look into purchasing one of those old boomboxes. Many have a line-in feature which makes them a perfect Boombox_linein_2 companion for your digital device– a loud portable set of speakers with a lot more class than those antiseptic white and silver iPod-type speaker sets that are going for a lot of dough these days. And you get a radio in the deal!

I’d put in a favorite search on ebay for the little blue transistor radio I received for my birthday in 1968. Four months later I got an email, the identical radio was up for bid and I ended up "winning" the auction. It was a "Jade," a late 60’s Hong Kong cheapie, but it still made me happy to see it again. Total cost, including shipping– ten bucks. And it works great!

Even if you’re beyond collecting (or fawning over) the snazzy transistor radios of yesteryear, you probably remember some time in your adolescence when the a handy little receiver was an integral part of your social and cultural life. It was the appliance that brought music to your playground, your treehouse, your tent, or perhaps under your pillow in the dark. It’s how your heard your favorite song.

Of course, what’s changed over the years is radio itself. It’s not only difficult to find music you like on an AM radio these days, it’s almost impossible to find much music at all. The band has long been dominated by talk, news and sports. However, in many cities (not New York) you can still find an "old man" station playing big band, standards and pop pap like the Carpenters on the AM band, as well as an occasional oldies station. And when you get out into the hinterlands you can still find some great stations frozen in time, playing great old country, r&b, rock and roll, and church stompin’ gospel music.

Sony_tfm151 If you live near New York City there’s at least two places I know of where you can take your classic transistor radio out for a jaunt and let that little speaker vibrate like it was made to do. If you have FM on your old radio, take a drive out to the end of Long Island and experience WLNG. It’s truly the station that time forgot. They just NEVER STOPPED sounding like an early 60’s top 40 station. Believe it or not, they still have some air personalities who been there for two, three and four decades. It’s an oldies station now, and besides the occasional 70’s & 80’s pop fodder they toss into the rotation now and then, you’re going to hear wall to wall reverb, jingles, chimes and hooky rock and roll that’ll keep your old transistor looking and feeling young. And there’s more. They brag they have a playlist of over TEN THOUSAND songs! When you consider the typically oldies station seems to play the same top ten hits over and over again, and most have eliminated almost every hit from the 1950’s from their format, WLNG bucks all these trends.

Of course, it used to be an AM station (then AM & FM), but they can now only be heard at 92.1 FM out on the far end of Long Island (and in Connecticut). If you just want to hear WLNG’s anachronistic glory from the speakers in your computer, stream ‘em from this page. It’s worth checking out.

Speaking of your computer, I should mention The Reel Top 40 Radio Repository. It’s a helluva of a site where you can hear (via streaming) oodles of top 40 airchecks. Unfortunately, it’s all in crappy realaudio. But in the last few years they’ve upped the encode rate for new additions, and more and more of the airchecks they offer are unscoped (meaning they’re complete without the music edited out). If you weren’t around during the 50’s and 60’s it’s a great way to get a taste of what used to blast out of those old transistor radios. (Note: Sadly, the Radio Repository now charges a yearly $15 fee to listen to their archives.) Also, you might wanna check out WPON, a station in suburban Detroit that specializes in rare old hits too. And they stream in the mp3 format.

WhvwThere’s another radio station in New York (state) that broadcasts some old fashioned classics that will sound awful nice coming out of an old transistor radio. A couple hours drive up the Hudson Valley from the city you’ll find a small AM station that comes in crystal clear in the Hyde Park-Poughkeepsie area. It’s WHVW at 950 kHz on your AM dial. They have live weekday drive time DJ’s, and some great weekend shows, but much of the schedule is automated. BUT don’t let that discourage you. WHVW is a tasty amalgamation of old American roots music–  old r&b, western swing, blues, rockabilly, and country, accompanied by perky little jingles.

Sure, the iPod is a lotta fun, but it’s really just another logical step from the revolution that began a half a century ago with the transistor radio. And isn’t that how we really consider ourselves futuristic, by all the mass marketed electronic toys and appliances we use everyday–  cell phones, computers, mp3 players, digital cameras, and those dopey little gaming gadgets. All of these wonders have been made possible by tiny transistors and their more complex and super-small progeny, the IC chip. Where would we be without all that stuff? The way we live our lives has been forever changed by all this gadgetry created by human ingenuity…

… or at least by SOME KIND of ingenuity.

Alien_radio_tower_3You see, some people don’t think that the transistor or the integrated chip came about by purely HUMAN invention. Perhaps you heard about that alleged UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico back in July of 1947. The invention of the transistor happened just five months later. Coincidence?

Okay, it probably is. But a few people have connected the dots– like the late U.S. Army Colonel & Intelligence Officer Philip Corso. In his book, "The Day After Roswell," Corso says Bell Labs had some UFO wreckage from the crash site to play with, and after reverse engineering some of the guts inside and come up with the transistor pretty quickly. He claims that a fake research history covering years was created to hide the stolen alien technology. Others with lesser credentials have claimed the same thing. And if you think about it, you’d hope that a craft built to cross light years or dimensions of reality to get to another galaxy would have some kind of fancy in-dash sound system.

But whether transistorized audio came from outer space or Bell Telephone Laboratories, it definitely injected some variety and attitude into popular music. The ability to easily commune with your favorite songs, or conversely to blast them in public as a personal statement, provided an The_first_transistor_1opportunity for artists to gain commercial success with music that communicated directly to the individual instead of the masses. Nonconformists and kids gained power in the media marketplace. Listening to my little blue transistor radio as a youngster I heard eccentric songs like "I Am The Walrus," "Time Has Come Today," and "MacArthur Park." It’s hard to imagine that they could have become mainstays of my childhood if the only radio in the house was a big monolith planted in the living room and shared by the whole family.

While home stereos (and now home computers), are swell machines for filling our domiciles with song, there’s an incomparable comfort in bringing your music with you as a companion, or as just as something you wear. MP3 players are popular because they enrich and rejuvenate this same desire to have an intimate relationship with music. And it all started with the transistor radio.

1968_transistor_girl_6Over the years, artists and their songs have become our escorts and confidants. They speak for us and with us. Our portable audio devices give us soundtrack and company. The next time you’re out and about listening to some esoteric radio or audio, or just a song that speaks to you on a personal level, that moment (and probably the very song you’re hearing), might have never happened without the miracle of miniaturized electronics. And whether we have some far flung aliens to thank, or just a bunch of pocket-protector types in plastic-framed glasses, either way some funny lookin’ dudes unwittingly gave us the freedom to rock on, and to do it without some agitated grown-up screaming "TURN THAT DAMN THING DOWN!"

Go ahead and turn it up! You rebel.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog)