Shortwave Souvenir (part 2)

Thursday, May 7th, 2009

It was Friday night at the SWL Winterfest in Kulpsville, PA, where I was at a suburban hotel as part of the biggest annual gathering of shortwave listeners in North America (perhaps the world). At the Listening Lounge I scanned the room and noticed there were more empty seats than I’d seen at the afternoon presentations. Then again, it was an evening event and some of the older guys might have hit the hay. Then again, I didn’t see any of the pirate radio folks either. And I don’t think any of them were sleeping (although I’m sure there was some recreational sedation in the mix).

This was my first time at the Fest, and by nightfall I began to get the feeling that the Fest had fractured into a number of gatherings around the hotel. And I eventually noticed that a lot of the pirate people (and their friends at WBCQ) were missing for long stretches of time during the whole weekend. While it wasn’t what I expected, it made sense all things considered. They come to the Fest not just to talk about radio, but to broadcast. And I suppose at least a few guys were doing what they always do– sitting alone with a warm receiver and scanning the bands. (Hey, it’s the kinda thing I do in a hotel away from home…).

Meanwhile at the Listening Lounge, those who came were having a good time. David Goren was playing the hits– shortwave radio interval signals actually. When the acoustic guitar and chirpy bird from Radio RSA came on it hit home with me. When I started listening to shortwave back in the early 1970′s, this was a very familiar sound in my teenage bedroom.

And even better, Marty Peck came up to play a few of the interval signals on his flute. He’s quite good at it, and he was taking requests. And since it had worked so well last year, David decided to have the audience recreate the interval signal of Radio Botswana. One side of the room would be the chickens. The other side would be the mooing cows. “Ready!” It was silly and the cows were really lame. Kim Andrew Elliot was sitting two rows back. “It’s the sound of a hobby dying,” he jeered. It was sort of a joke. But if you’re a regular visitor to his site you know that shortwave radio is no joke to Kim Elliot.

It was a familiar theme. Earlier that day I met Sheldon Harvey, another Winterfest veteran like Elliot. Harvey had a large table at the exhibition area at the fest, selling all manner of cool and beautiful radio books as well as some radio gear and odds and ends. “These tables all used to be filled up,” he told me. “There used to be a lot more people.”

And then I looked around and I could imagine how it was, or how it could be– with table after table of people pushing radios, and splashy pamphlets promoting new programming, and the public relations crews from dozens of foreign nations wanting to meet and greet and woo all these “listeners” who have taken the time to come here and learn more about what they love. Radio.

But in March of 2009, it wasn’t like that at all. There were just a smattering of vendors around the perimeter of the room, and a raffle table in the corner. That was it. It was kind of odd. Here was a hardcore group of enlightened consumers of eclectic radio gadgetry, and not one major seller or manufacturer of radios or radio related gear thought it was worth making the effort to push their products here. Sure the economy’s bad. But most people who DX or listen to shortwave are always fantasizing about the next receiver they’d like to own. They never really stop buying radios. Outside of a few catalogs out on tables, there was no effort to seduce all the easy targets wandering around. There was however, Tracy Wood showing off some satellite television related stuff. But no Eton. No Kaito. No Ten-Tec. No C. Crane. Nothing like that.

While that seemed like a real oversight to me, I was even more surprised that not one shortwave broadcasting service or station or program host saw fit to come out to the Fest this year. Well, there was a few folks from WBCQ. But they didn’t have a vendor table or any official presence, just the live radio shows Timtron and company were sending out upstairs. But of all the countries who still broadcast to us every day in English (China, Russia, Spain, the Czech Republic, Vietnam, Cuba, Bulgaria, etc), they sent no one to commune with all of us North Americans. The hundreds of religious broadcasters on shortwave didn’t have much of presence at the Fest either. Except a table for WMLK and the friendly Mr. Ladd and his Madagascar Mission slide show that I had mentioned in the last post.

In theory, a bunch of shortwave listeners in one place would be a prime target for some commercial interest or broadcasting entity to solicit and exploit. But in a sense, we no longer exist and this conference wasn’t really happening. I found statistics online that state that less than one percent of American households have a shortwave radio. And it might be less than that these days. And then when you break it down further, into which families might listen to shortwave radio (or even consider it), then you can see how the Winterfest attendees are a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of one percent. It’s the kind of math the BBC was doing a few years ago…

Long before the newspaper industry started taking a real hit from the rise of the web, what was left of America’s shortwave audience was already devastated by the new technology. But even before the ribbon was cut on the information superhighway, shortwave radio was already on the ropes in America. The international bands had disappeared from consumer radios. The end of the cold war tamed a lot of the fun and fireworks out of overseas broadcasting. And the rise of the 24 hour cable news stations might have played a part as well. But shortwave radio has never recovered from the proliferation of worldwide multimedia networking the internet provides.

It’s a little depressing to see how something so fascinating is losing its cultural cachet so quickly. You would think that all the shortwave stations have stopped transmitting. Or that the receivers don’t work any longer. But neither is true. While the content available here in North America isn’t nearly as lively or thoughtful as it once was, the new radios have actually improved (or at least you can get a far better radio for less).

If the broadcasting of audio content over the shortwave bands were to completely disappear, the dissemination of news and information around the world will lose an element of privacy for the end user. Unlike surfing the web, there’s inherent anonymity to the old technology. When you listen to a shortwave station, it’s just you, your radio and whatever the transmitter on the other end is sending into the atmosphere. There’s nothing in between– no logs, no middle man, and no connective technology. Your tuning cannot be tracked. And it’s always free. There’s no provider to pay. I’m sure these are some of the reasons paranoids and kooky patriot types still love shortwave radio. But why should they have all the fun. Especially when there might not be much fun left.
           
Like the internet, shortwave radio has always been worldwide. In fact, it was the first real-time global technology available to ordinary end users. And once you get out of developed world, and farther away from cities and (what we like to call) civilization, shortwave radio remains a practical and common household technology. In many African countries, over ninety percent of homes have shortwave radios and over thirty percent of people regularly listen to international broadcasts on shortwave. And as long as broadcasters continue to serve these communities around the world, there will still be people here in America DXing those far-off signals.

As far as shortwave listenership, America and a place like Somalia are the two extremes. In other countries, shortwave listening is much more common than the states, but not ubiquitous as it might be in the desert or a tropical rain forest. In Sri Lanka for example, where over 85% of households still have a shortwave radio at hand. And I’ll bet Victor Goonetilleke has dozens of them around the house.

While none of the broadcasters from the other side of the world made it out to the Fest this year, a listener did. A DXer of some renown, Victor Goonetilleke had traveled from his native Sri Lanka to Kulpsville before, but I sensed that his long journey made him more of a special guest this time around (as none of the overseas broadcasters were willing to make the trip this year). And then his importance at this gathering made more sense when he gave a short inspirational talk at the banquet, recounting the joy of realizing his childhood dream– owning a “communications receiver.” It was something a lot of guys in that banquet hall could understand. (And gosh, I’d like one too…)

And it’s a safe bet that most of the attendees (and the many thousands they represent) agreed with Victor’s sentiments– that shortwave radio is “being killed by people who should know better.” And while he may have been preaching to a choir of American “hobbyists” on a weekend lark, where Goonetilleke lives, shortwave radio itself is still a visceral and vital thing. For one thing, shortwave is the best way for most people to find news and opinion from around the world. A battery powered portable shortwave would make a lot of sense in rural Sri Lanka, where over a third of homes don’t have electricity. And those that have power aren’t using it to browse the web much, as less than three percent of households in the entire country have internet access (as of 2008). Ad to that the fact that Sri Lanka has an ongoing civil war that’s raged on and off for decades, and then just four years ago was hit hard by one of the worst natural disasters in human history (the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami), and you can see why keeping informed at home with a world radio makes a hell of a lot of sense on that island nation.

Sri Lanka also holds a special spot in the history of shortwave radio as the home one of the oldest radio stations in the world– “Radio Ceylon.” A radio service that blanketed the largest continent on the globe and could be heard worldwide, Radio Ceylon was a dominant international radio voice in the middle of “the rest of the world” for decades. In 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary was the first to scale Everest, he picked up his radio and tuned in Radio Ceylon, transmitting in English from over a thousand miles away. (Meanwhile in 2009, the world’s a little smaller. It’s no big deal to utilize the internet via satellite from the highest peak on Earth. And you probably have a home office setup down at your base camp too.)

And it should be noted that although shortwave listening (and shortwave programming for that matter) is most certainly in decline, I never sensed the gathering in Kulpsville to be an overtly nostalgic or quixotic affair. To the contrary, serious radio hobbyists are generally quite a technologically ambitious bunch. Most are pretty savvy about today’s gadgets and the evolving technologies, and that was reflected in a number of the presentations I sat in on at the Fest.

What I didn’t hear during the panel discussions was a lot of sour grapes over the demise of shortwave radio. Instead I learned a lot about the current state of radio and radio listening, and heard some insightful overviews of new radio (and radio-like) technology. Digital radio, satellite radio, internet radio, and podcasting were all discussed at the Fest. Each in its own way is an intriguing vehicle for the delivery of audio programming, but none of these systems have garnered any real dominance. And no one is sure if any of these platforms are going to last long either, at least not in their present incarnation.

We live in strange times, where all the old media is in a real fix– broadcast radio, broadcast tv, newspapers and magazines are all losing market share to a myriad of digital alternatives (many of them free, or potentially free). However, in North America shortwave radio is not “in trouble." It’s mortally wounded. And not likely to ever mount a comeback. But it ain’t dead yet.

So what keeps the shortwave faithful faithful? I suppose the sport of it, and all the magical gadgetry.

Perhaps you saw this article in the New York Times a few days ago. Apparently there’s a movement afoot among a few obsessive Star Trek fans to build their own “Captain’s chair,” as in Williams Shatner’s roost on the set of the original “Star Trek” series. Kooky, right? I think so too. But then again, I do get the concept. And I’d wager that almost everyone at the Fest isn’t unfamiliar with the captain’s chair concept. However, the chair itself isn’t usually so important. It’s all those “control panels.” It’s a technological nest, otherwise known as a “shack” (AKA a “radio shack), and every radio-style human being has one around the house, even if it’s only a glowing bedside kind of thing. These days it’s usually a radio workbench merged with the home office. My better half has always called my spot my “command center.” Whatever…

But in truth, I’ve always been fascinated by nesting behavior. And this year at the Fest they had a new feature where people contributed photos of their home radio situation. You know, their command center. While the tech forums were informative and the pirate radio presentations were entertaining, the review of home shacks was a lot of fun– personal and occasionally inspiring. There’s something about setting up a personal communications outpost that evokes a spirit of empowerment and a curiosity about the world. And not only did people share pictures of their radio nests, but they also offered some detailed explanations of some technological problem solving that improved their shack. Like Mario, explaining how he managed to neatly connect forty radios to his big backyard antenna.

 

 

For the scanner people and the ham crowd, equipment almost seems to be everything, and neither habit/hobby offers the wonderful radio content you can still find on shortwave radio on a good day– like news, music, cultural features and religious brainwashing.

But for all forms of radio monitoring, DXing is the sporting side of the avocation. Bagging the elusive quarry. The science of turning sound into powerful electromagnetic radiation and receiving those particular radio waves from a distant point on Earth and converting it back into audible content is still quite a trick, and once you get the hang of it you get the bug to better your last conquest.

And the receiver and antenna can make all the difference, a personal acumen with the radio and a trained ear and good tuning fingers can sometimes make pulling in a distant station feel like playing a musical instrument. And it grows even more personal when you manipulate and tweak an antenna, or with a portable set when your body becomes an antenna annex. It can feel like a real human event when you are able to log some obscure signal from a seemingly impossible distance.

And it’s nothing like waiting for data packets to fill a buffer. Okay?

And while shortwave DXing isn’t going away anytime soon, DXing readable radio programming in English gets less common all the time. Finding an obscure little transmitter from Africa or Asia on your radio dial is certainly invigorating, but hearing the world and local news in English from a distant nation you know very little about can be a hell of an interesting listen. It’s what first hooked me to tuning in the world bands when I was a youngster. And that is what is going away.

So what does a U.S. DXer get these days? Well this ongoing solar minimum is making it difficult to pull in anything exotic. But in general, most of the frequencies you hear are not in English and you generally hear less radio than you once could in North America. There was a time, not long ago, when a North American shortwave listener could find a wealth of intelligent programing (news magazines, documentaries, variety shows…) in English from the countries like the UK, Canada, Germany, Israel, and The Netherlands. Most of that is gone. Except for the non-stop kooks and religious nuts who pollute the radio skies in this part of the world, most of the English language programming you hear on shortwave is from our old cold war adversaries– China, Cuba, Russia and a bunch of the former Soviet republics and satellite nations. Although the propaganda isn’t as quite as entertaining as it used to be.        

What’s kinda cool (and a little bittersweet) is the frozen-in-time feeling to shortwave that lingers in the production and formatics of the programming. It’s like how they keep putting 1950′s automobiles back on the road in Cuba. It’s hard to tell where production honoring the legacy sound of shortwave broadcasting ends and blindly carrying on the same way due to lack of funds begins. To my ears, some of the radio production I hear out of our own Voice of America sounds like vintage 1970′s radio news stuff. And not necessarily in a good way. And the old Soviet block countries sound antiquated as well, but have more depth and minor key elements in their presentation. There’s an abundance of C.R.I. (China Radio International) radio (which is often frighteningly happy when I tune in), it’s not sparkling or passionate radio. And like VOA, it all sounds like it’s done on the cheap.

While you’re just not going to hear a lot of money spent on talent, production or program development on shortwave in the states much any more, there is some intriguing creativity on a shoestring going on from time to time. And a few of the perpetrators are typically in attendance at the yearly gatherings in Kulspville. They kind of have their own parallel fest going on at the same time.

Of course, I’m talking about WBCQ and the pirate radio clan. Because if you’re looking for something actually new (or at least novel) on the shortwave dial in North America, that’s probably where you’ll end up. Although WBCQ is a legit operation, it’s easy to throw them in together because they’re the closest thing shortwave radio has to a “youth movement, and not surprisingly many of them are associates and friends. Of course, the owner and operators over there started out in radio as youthful pirate radio operatives. And lately, WBCQ has (via their 5100kHz transmitter) been offering a nightly programming block they call “Area 51," which mixes in original airchecks from some domestic pirate broadcasters.

If there’s a vibe to the post-radio pirate scene on shortwave, it’s a postmodern pastiche version of what was once called on “underground” radio on FM. You could call it freeform, but has more attitude than that. I actually find the term “freeform” to be kind of overused and useless these days. Think about it. It’s meaningless. There’s actually always some form or format at play, and denying it seems disingenuous. Vague.

Typically the pirate radio attitude is prankish and a little dark (with some occasional subgenius stylings, if you know what I mean) And the laughs? Ah… usually sophomoric and rather geeky. Lots of sarcasm. And it almost seems like the music in the mix could be almost anything, the programming doesn’t often seem to be steeped in music choice. And more than anything the pirate radio I’ve come across lately is incredibly self-referential, with plenty of mentions of partners in crime and the whole pirate radio scene in general. And not only do they have their own proprietary slang, but many of the programs are so filled with in jokes and insider humor that the newcomer is bound to do a little head scratching when first coming across these illicit shortwave broadcasts.

There’s actually quite a lively pirate scene. And I haven’t come close to sampling everything that’s going on. However I came across this clip at the Area 51 site the other day that’s kind of a nice little overview. It’s the infamous pirate Kracker on WBCQ, where he’s been expanding his reach by being a part of the new Area 51 programming block on 5100kHz. His guest is George Zeller, who writes a pirate radio column for Monitoring Times. And George is also a mainstay and presenter at the yearly SWL fest, and hosted his pirate radio forum this year in Kulpsville. (This clip is slightly edited.)

WBCQ (Radio Jamba International) – Kracker talks to George Zeller 6:25
(download)

I’ve run across Kracker’s creative hijinks on shortwave before, and actually got to meet him at the Fest this year (He kind of ran away when I was taking a couple random snapshots. I guess he’s shy.) Kracker’s on-air persona is often brassy and even abrasive, but here the beer was flowing and the mood is lubricated. (You can get all of the whole wild two hours of Kracker’s show here. Be careful, you could catch a hangover…)

Zeller applauds the creativity and spirit of both the pirates and WBCQ. I did notice that he says he’s been “a big supporter of what WBCQ’s been trying to do.” And that’s the thing about WBCQ, is that it’s a great idea that is occasionally realized. Despite the fact that they offer incredible rates for slots of air time and actively invite and encourage creative broadcasting on their transmitters, many hours are still taken by the typical religious garbage and conspiracy kooks. And there’s still plenty of unfilled hours if you’ve got an idea.

And speaking of that, I thought this was kinda funny.

Kracker Remix – Allan Weiner vs. The Pirates

(download)

This little edited clip comes from the beginning of Kracker’s show. It’s something Kracker (or someone) cut up from Allan Weiner’s radio show on WBCQ, where Allan (who was once one of the most well known radio pirates in the states) making fun of the shortwave “pirate slugs” who use “piece of garbage ham transmitters” to play “weird distorted crappy music” and think they’re god’s gift to free speech broadcasting.

It’s kinda funny. And kinda true. But Allan is also doing what he always does at some point on “Allan Weiner Worldwide.” Looking for another angle to lure people to buy time on WBCQ. And the truth is he wants people like the pirates to get on board, instead of adding more demonic preachers and new world order paranoia. And like George, I’m one of those supporters of what WBCQ is trying to do. No one else in this part of the world seems to be doing anything worthy of notice or merit these days on the shortwave dial (at least not legally).

Obviously, setting up your own shortwave radio station isn’t likely to make you rich. Especially if you’re trying to keep the programming a couple notches up from the LCD programming on most U.S. shortwave operations. And on his show, Weiner treads a fine line between optimism about the future of the station and letting you know that they’re often just one unpaid bill or major malfunction away from disaster. But what I hear every time Allan comes on the air is how much he really loves what he’s doing– running his own (legal) international radio station, WBCQ  (AKA “The Planet.") So far, Weiner’s radio experiment at the northeast corner of America has survived over a decade and has been the brightest glimmer of hope on the North American shortwave in a period where so much intelligent content has vanished.

And then the lack of weather on the sun has been rough on WBCQ’s propagation. I’ve found difficult to hear either of the two frequencies I check (5110 and 7415kHz). A few years ago I could often get 7415 through the night. For the last couple years it slips after dark. And I’ve been especially interested in the new Area 51 programming on 5110, but the times I’ve checked I’ve found a whole lot of nothing at that frequency for the last couple weeks. And from what I understand, the programming on that frequency is all being handled by Cosmik Debris of the Lumpy Gravy radio show on WBCQ. And as I mentioned, he’s got a great site for “Area 51" you can find here or anytime in my sidebar (and thanks for the clips!). And his blog there has become quite an archive of pirate radio lately, and I advise anybody interested in what the hellions with garbage transmitters across the countryside might wanna pay that site a visit. Tons of downloads available, and more eclectic radio audio added all the time.

And if you want to delve deeper into the pirate radio panorama, I’d advise you check out Ragnar Daneskjold’s Pirate Week website and podcast. His weekly show is an easy listen and you get all the latest news from this oddball incestuous radio universe, including audio clips and gossip. There really is a “hall of mirrors” feel to the shortwave pirate radio scene and Daneskjold can be your guide to help you sort out who’s who, and how you might hear whoever at frequencies like 6925 or 6955kHz next weekend. You can subscribe to his podcast at his site, or you can go for the jumbo fun pack podcast at Ragnar’s "HF Programs" site where you can not only get his program delivered to your hard drive, but other fine SW related shows like Allan Weiner Worldwide, The Shortwave Report, a couple of DX programs and more! Nice package.

Speaking of pirates, I did bring some recordings home from Kulpsville.

Here’s “Radio Azteca.” From the stale nature of some of the humor in this aircheck, I’d say this is an archive or two from the 1990′s. Your host is “Bram Stoker,” and his style is non-stop puns and goofy jokes with a sardonic delivery. It’s silly. It’s deep geek comedy. Very cassette as well.

Radio Azteca  44:52
(download)

From what I understand, Commander Bunny is one of the more prolific pirates out there these days. And this aircheck certainly speaks to his industrious nature. To my ear, the aesthetic of the Commander is somewhere between Ren & Stimpy and Doctor Demento. Lots of goofy comedy and plenty of original collage elements. It’s frenetic and ridiculous radio.

Like the Azteca aircheck, this seems to be at least a couple separate shows, all played back to back, probably unattended, on one of the handful of transmitters running all during the Fest.

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

WBNY – Commander Bunny 61:48
(download)

As I already mentioned, pirate radio is very self-referential. And each show seems to send shout outs to other pirates and all the radio heads they know who listen, and the folks like Ragnar and George who cover them in the radio press (such as it is). And in all the mentions of friends and associates, there’s plenty of jibes and jokes and making fun. And it can get kinda harsh. And I don’t mean just calling people “monkeys.”

A few of the people who are regular attendees at the Fest (who aren’t part of the pirate radio “crowd”) have found themselves as targets for the shortwave pirate joke machine, and the resulting attacks and satire starts to turn into some mean spirited weirdness that surprised me when I first heard some of it. There’s almost a “Lord of the Flies” element– where some of these folks seem to almost get a little feral as they circle around and gang up on people like wolves or something. Especially when it comes to “Bozo.”

And I’m not talking about Larry Harmon, or the TV kiddie show franchise he created, but a fellah I’ve never met. All I really know about Jay comes from the constant torrent of insults and gags and jokes that I run into when I hear some pirate radio shows, or come across some of the stuff they’ve posted on the web.

Although he didn’t attend this year (he’s was in the hospital with congestive heart failure), Jay usually always shows up in Kulpsville. From the photos, it’s not hard to see that he’s overweight and has funny hair. And I’ve heard he’s gay as well. Maybe he has an offbeat walk too. I don’t know and I suppose I don’t care. But he loves radio and shortwave radio, and the pirates love to make fun of him. They seem to live for it. It’s strange.

If you remember the pirate radio clip from last week, of WBZO? There was a bit in the middle of it with some Jay jokes. Of course, the name WBZO is another poke at n Jay. I think I read that WBZO (and KBZO and CBZO) are all Kracker creations. (But as I’m on the outside of the pirate scene, I’m not sure who’s secretly who, and all that jazz.)

But even if Jay is as annoying or peculiar as the pirates make him out to be, when I hear some of the heavy-handed Bozo parody stuff it seems kind of sad. I mean, these pirate transmissions on the HF bands potentially cover a wide swath of this hemisphere, and the touchstone of their content and the very handshake they offer from their culture, is a bunch of less than empathetic parodies revolving around a harmless chubby geek from upstate New York? Is that the “message” of pirate radio in 2009? Really?

Okay, not all the pirates are having taking potshots at Jay, but within a certain subset of these illicit broadcasters creating mean-spirited mayhem with Jay’s voice (and image) is incredibly pervasive. And I don’t get it. At one point during the Fest I stepped out to run out to a store, and tuned to one of the temporary Fest pirate stations, WBZO in fact. And there was Kracker, calling up Jay "on the air"– in the hospital I assume. It sounded live. And Kracker took the conversation to male masturbation within a minute or two.

I didn’t have a recorder with me to catch that particular magic moment, but here’s an acidic spell of Jay bashing from WBZO that I happened to record during the Fest.

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

You know when it comes to satire and making fun of people’s flaws, I think that celebrities and the rich and famous and political figures are all fair game. And you get extra points if you play off of some meaningful hypocrisy. But riffing off the imperfections of some oddball dude ad infinitum seems like overkill to me. I do admire the ambition and anarchic creativity I hear on shortwave pirate radio. And some vulgarity and twisted humor seems par for the course. But why so mean?

Another reason it’s easy for me to lump the pirates and WBCQ together, is that they are actively broadcasting some English language content on shortwave that doesn’t try to convince you into worshiping a supernatural being or buy into a conspiracy theory. Which is nice. In the end, I suppose all of it beats Family Radio for pure entertainment hands down. Even the dick jokes.

Like many people who delve deep into niche behavior, the shortwave pirate scene seems to be quite networked through the internet– with a number of sites, message boards, as well as Usenet and a bit of IRC action. When ever I’ve heard any pirates on shortwave I’ve usually been able to find more than I needed to know just though a Google excursion or two. It’s all out there if you’re interested. However, if you want to know all you really need to know about the shortwave pirate scene, you can always check out the Pirates Cove, the Area 51 site (or Zeller’s column in the Monitoring Times).

Speaking of Zeller. On Saturday night, after everyone’s had their chosen chicken, beef, or vegetarian meal at the banquet, the yearly Grande Raffle began with Mr. Zeller presiding. Now I’d never been to the Fest before, and started out feeling pretty good about the twenty bucks or I decided to invest (okay… gamble) in the raffle. However, the raffle table was getting a lot of traffic on the banquet night, and the hopper was really packed with tickets. I decided to up it another ten bucks. What the heck.

After the Fest I heard that some of those guys were into that raffle for over a hundred bucks. I wouldn’t be surprised if some were into the raffle much deeper than that. Hell, it was a lot better deal than all those damn lottery tickets folks piss their incomes away on. The odds are infinitely better AND the money goes to charity. And there were SO many cool shortwave radios that you might actually get to take home. A few real dream receivers, as well as some damn nice radios, as well as some wi-fi gadgets and a few fancy PC receivers. For a radio guy like me, approaching the Grande Raffle prize table was enough to up the heart rate just a little.

And it was fun to get to see the little bit of pomp and ceremony that Mr. Zeller adds to the proceedings, including some unique headgear. Avuncular and silly, George is a non-stop cut up, and a perfect MC for all the excitement. And just to give you a flavor fo the proceedings, here he is. Giving away a CC Radio SW and a wi-fi clock radio.

Zeller’s two “lovely assistants” are none other than the guys who have kept the SWL Fest up and running the last decade or so– Richard Cuff and John Figolizzi (Richard is the one with more hair…). A couple of really nice guys. And over the course of the weekend I began to notice that the whole Fest is not only a smooth operation, but the whole event was a relaxed affair, with almost no drama and not a lotta attitude either. That kind of vibe is set from the top down, and Richard and John obviously realize how important it is that everyone have a good time. I know I did.

And no, I did not win. At least nothing from the raffle. Not this year. But it sure was fun hoping.

After the dinner and the drawing, they closed up the Fest officially and lots of people went their separate ways. But some of us convened to the Hospitality Room to await the actual final event of the Fest, when Pancho Villa comes on the air at twelve o’clock sharp. (Eh? I’ll explain in a minute…)

The hospitality room is a little meeting space that the Fest keeps stocked with beer, soda and snack food from Thursday night until late on Saturday. It ain’t fancy, and there’s not even close to enough room for everyone to hang out in there, but there was more than enough room on Saturday night for those who weren’t ready to go bed or didn’t have a pirate radio station to operate. I guess you could have called it a party. I actually got to meet some interesting guys that night, swapping radio stories and talking about our lives, changes in technology and the demise of shortwave radio .

As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, Marty Peck can pick up a melody by ear and can play plenty of shortwave interval signals (from memory) on his flute. And Saturday night in the hospitality room he was talked into a repeat performance.

Now about the Pancho Villa thing. From what I understand, the very first SWL Fest was held in the pink and purple Pancho Villa Room of the Fiesta Motor Inn in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. The motor inn is gone, but Pancho remains in spirit in the form of a yearly midnight broadcast at the SWL Fest, called the Voice of Pancho Villa. It’s a kooky pre-recorded bit of “contemporary” satire, that I believe was broadcast by just about every pirate radio station at the hotel.

You can download the whole glorious “Voice of Pancho Villa” from this post on the Area 51 blog. And if you want more, you can go here and collect up almost all the Pancho Villa broadcasts. And who puts this thing together every year? Good question. I think I might recognize a voice or two, but in the pirate universe everything and everybody is sorta secret.

In closing my two part epic on the Winterfest, I feel the urge to say something meaningful about what I learned there or to ruminate on the meaning of shortwave radio or something. But I suppose I’ve been trying to do that for a few thousand words now. I guess the overwhelming impression I was left with by the end of the Fest, was how incredibly normal it was to be there.

Part of the reason I started blogging about DXing was that I was going through a resurgence with a hobby I’d fooled around with off and on for decades. But more importantly, it was because I was kind of sick of being so damn interested in something all by myself. I mean, it only makes sense to spend quality time tuning on your own, but not being able to talk about what I heard or what I was doing in any intelligent way just seemed weird. And then there’s the way the in-laws and the neighbors may be baffled or alarmed at how you park yourself at a table or out on the porch for hours on end intently listening to the radio (possibly with headphones or strange antennas connected to your receiver).

But in Kulpsville, for one weekend a year you’re just another person who knows how to work a receiver– someone with a passion for sorting far off signals out of the wild atmosphere, and what you can learn about the world by doing so. And perhaps we are a dying breed, or perhaps shortwave listeners are evolving with the culture and the technology and turning into something else. I don’t know. And this is a topic of interest at the Fest. It’s strange to contemplate the impending extinction of something you love.

Yet, the Fest is a positive affair. A celebration. And if you have an abiding interest in shortwave or pirate radio or scanning or amateur radio you might just have a lot of fun at the Winterfest. Hot thrills and wild chicks, not so much. But if some radio fellowship sounds like it might be fun, then you’d probably feel right at home.

Brenda Ueland, a writer born just a few years before the dawn of radio has an oft noted quote that I’d apply to the HF band explorers I met in Pennsylvania. She said– "Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force." And I believe that’s what separates those of us who DX and listen to these (now) obscure radio bands from most people who usually tune to a local station and leave it there. We go on radio excursions, seeking out the exotic broadcast, the novel station, the distant signal, the foreign voice. Radio as craft. A technological expression of self. And if I had to describe the people I met at the Fest, I’d day most were working class intellectuals. Smart people. A breed of bandscanning autodidacts who have made themselves more worldly by anticipating the bounce of distant radio waves. 

What else is there to say? Just thanks I guess. It was an honor to attend NASWA’s annual SWL Winterfest. And as long as it remains such a class act, it oughtta continue, and thrive in its own way. It’s there once a year for all of us who still listen to our shortwave radios.

And I do hope to see you next year.

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

Shortwave Souvenir (part 1)

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounded good to me. My kind of weekend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures In Amplitude Modulation – Part 13

Monday, March 27th, 2006

2010_1 This episode of this series continues from my evening of scanning the shortwave bands March 1, 2006. This time it’s the next hour and the next band. This is the 41 meter band (7100 to 7350 kHz), another popular chunk of the shortwave frequencies. Again, this recording is an unedited slow motion frolic through the signals using my BCL-2000, sitting at my kitchen table in Brooklyn.

And I want to again thank reader Ralph who contributed some edifying comments in last week’s post. Now I have a better grasp on tracking down “images” of stronger signals which pop up on nearby erroneous spots on the dial. This is perhaps the greatest fault of the BCL radios, and an inherent problem in single-conversion radios in general. Dual conversion sets effectively filter most images and are generally a bit more expensive.

A couple years ago, when I was shopping around for a higher end old portable I was scouting ebay and I had pretty much decided I was going to hunt down one of two classic receivers– the Panasonic RF-2200 or the Sony ICF-2010. Both are discontinued, and in good shape they generally go for about the same price on ebay– about two-hundred bucks (although a mint 2010 in its box could go for a hundred or two more). My analog instincts led to me to go after the RF-2200 and I don’t regret it. It’s a hell of a rig and it pulls the weak signals out of the ether, and is a great radio to DX the AM band. It’s also dual-conversion. However, after the 2010 was mentioned once or twice in the comments section here, it’s gotten me to take a second look at it. The 2010 is not as nearly as handsome the 2200 and doesn’t have that golden glow of frequencies, but I’ve come to realize that the 2010 is just one amazing device. And now my gadget lust has launched a little feedback loop in my radio heart. I want one. I really want one. However, I really don’t have the cash handy right now. But I’m looking at ‘em on ebay… Someday. You can read some reviews of this mighty little digital gadget here, here and here. It’s 1984 technology that Sony happened to really get right (It was manufactured for almost 20 years!). However, If you’ve got some cash on your hands and you want something new, many think the new Eton E1 improves on this radio’s legacy.

Clandestine_gear_1 Before I go on to the band scan for this week, I wanted to mention a few (free) podcasts that may interest readers of this blog series. Clandestine Radio.com offers “Global Crisis Watch” (XML feed here), a program reporting on (and promoting) democracy movements around the world. It’s a rather urgent show featuring interviews of journalists, broadcasters and activists involved in fighting oppression around the world. And of course, there’s some good information on shortwave and other radio broadcasts from time to time. It’s an interesting half hour delivered to your hard drive every week. The Global Crisis Watch is a cutting edge international news put together by a couple of guys instead of a government or corporation.

Although not many are aware of it, there’s quite a bit of pirate radio activity on shortwave and the podcast “Pirates Week” (XML feed here) offers a weekly overview of that scene. This podcast varies in length and is a much more loose and light affair than Global Crisis Watch. It’s an amalgam of many related diversions– discussions of assorted radio gear and computers, details of the realities of seat-of-the-pants broadcasting, as well as clips of shortwave pirates at play and tips on where and when to find ‘em on your radio. Also the Mediageek has a well-kept and extensive blog and podcast (RSS feed here) where he explores all sorts of media products, broadcasting trends, and the inherent toys that make it all possilbe. And his most recent podcast features an interview with Ragnar Daneskjold, the host of “Pirate’s Week." According to Ragnar, a nice warm illegal transmitter running 40 watts on shortwave can give you coverage of most of the U.S. on a good night. Hmmm…

Glenn_hauser Also, the ultimate source of all things shortwave is Glenn Hauser. The guy is dedicated. His “World of Radio” program, which broadcasts on quite a number of shortwave stations, is also a podcast (XML feed here). While not high in entertainment value, it’s a helluva dose of up-to-date shortwave news, views and frequency listings. On his World of Radio site, as well as his weekly “DX Listening Digest” Mr. Hauser puts out some great web resources which provide valuable information for mega-geeks and weak-kneed newbies alike. And it’s all listener and reader supported!

Okay, on to this recording of reception on the 41 meter band . Actually, this scan begins just before the that band and then traverses up the numbers. The frequencies are in kilohertz. It’s Wednesday night, March 1st and Bush is over in Asia eating Indian mangoes I think. It’s early evening here, one of the best times to catch foreign broadcasters offering up English language programming for the Americas (and Spanish ones too for that matter). And more importantly, at this hour the band isn’t a kooky Christian radio ghetto yet. Closer to midnight and beyond the shortwave bands are flooded with hallelujah bullshit and not much else, at least not in English. But at 0100 UTC (all shortwave schedules basically follow the time in London, and in a 24 hour manner), which is 8 pm Eastern Standard Time, the biblical blather is only part of the mix, not the dominant force.

Actually, this begins right before eight, a fine time to start a band scan. Let’s begin.

Segment 1-41 Meter Band (6875 to 7300 kHz) 03-01-06

(download)

6875 EWTN Global Catholic Radio Network

It’s right before the top of the hour, 8 p.m. here, 0100 hours UTC. Most international shortwave stations play something called an “interval signal” in between programs, an identifying snippet of music that may include other sounds or the official ID of the station. Listening to shortwave you begin to get familiar with the these little ditties because they usually repeat for a couple minutes right before a new program ensues, and can help listeners ID a station as well as find a particular program on the dial before it begins. Interval signals almost always come at right before the top of the hour, and occasionally precede the 30 minute point as well.

Pope_internet_i_2 So, this clip begins with the EWTN’s official and soothing interval music and then their ID. This site has a huge archive of interval signals past and present. They all stream in real media. Pretty cool. I was slightly thrilled to find this one, the interval signal of Radio RSA from the 1970′s– a chirpy bird with folky guitar. This took me back to my where my interest in shortwave really began. Christmas 1971. Santa was kind enough to set me up with a cheesy eight-track tape player-AM/FM stereo. But the shoddy Hong Kong technology inside offered me a really surprising gift– stray images of shortwave stations on the AM dial! And the two stations I recall getting quite well on this little woodgrain wonder were Radio Habana Cuba and Radio RSA. I became quite familiar with that chirpy bird and the plucky guitar, and after sending them a letter I was embarrassed for years when a glossy program guide from a faraway racist regime would show up in my mailbox every few months. Then a Christmas or two later I scored a flip-cover multi-band box that introduced me to the wondrous world of cold war shortwave propaganda.

Anyway, after the interval and the ID, it’s non-stop excitement on EWTN– a Catholic with a computer. Sounds like he’s giving a presentation in front of a bunch of well dressed white folks. Anyway, the guy has a laptop, maybe running a PowerPoint presentation or something and it’s all about catechismclass.com, a web site about guess what? Yawn.

6890 – WWRB USA – The Overcomer Ministry

Bro_scare Last week I carried on about old Gene Scott, which was easy because he’s such a rich character. But in truth, there was hardly any Gene Scott to hear in that clip. I should have waited until I had some substantial Scott audio to play before I spent so much time talking about the guy. Same deal here. Brother Stair’s presence on shortwave trumps Scott’s around the clock radio preachin’, and there isn’t much of him on this scan. But if you’re new to shortwave, Brother Stair’s raspy staccato delivery may be the first voice you really become familiar with because he’s ALL over the bands. And he’s ALMOST as interesting as Gene Scott, but hardly as endearing. However, he is still alive.

Since there’s not much of the Brother Stair in this band scan, I’ll wait to say much more until I find a more representative clip. But in the world of radio evangelism, Stair is pretty unique– kind of a combination of Elmer Gantry, Rumpelstiltskin and Jim Jones. Otherwise known as “Brother Scare,” this old goat somehow manages to enslave babes with his wild-eyed shortwave harangues. I knew there must be some more earthly reasons why so many holy shysters spend all that time yammering on shortwave.

The signal’s weak and there’s some phasing going on, but Stair is in the middle of one of his usual unflagging rants. Some important information here about the Antichrist perhaps. Occasionally I find him mildly entertaining, but not this time. His “Overcomer Ministry” rents this international transmitter from WWRB 24/7, but he broadcasts on plenty of others too. Now you know why some people in other countries might think we’re strange. Read more about the sordid details regarding this twisted geezer here and here.

7125 – Voice of Russia

In Russian. Sounds like the news. Nice sounders. Something about Bosnia…

7160 – WRMI Radio Miami International (Radio Republica)

Wrmi Wow, it’s almost unbelievable, another U.S. shortwave station NOT run by Christian crazies. It seems incredible, but I looked around their website and saw absolutely nothing about lambs, blood or that horrible lake of fire. Maybe they’re just coy Christians. Either way, they do allow the Bible people to rent time on their transmitters. There’s just not a long line of normal people out there willing to put up the dough to broadcast on shortwave. So like WBCQ, WRMI needs to take the cash where they can find it.

This particular broadcast is put on by an organization known as “Radio Republica.” They’re for non-violent change in Cuba, human rights, that kind of stuff. As far as I can tell they’re not related to Radio Marti and any propaganda arm of the U.S. government.  But they’re not making Fidel happy either.

Of course, this broadcast is in Spanish. This short clip features a smokey voiced woman who might be talking about a “political prisoner.” They’re signal is often jammed by Cuba, and I’ve read that Radio Republica just started using this frequency.

7180 – Voice of Russia

In Spanish. I believe this is news.

7250 – (Unknown in Spanish)

It’s strange, but this one’s out of order. I might have backed up to find Radio Slovakia after this OR I wrote down the wrong frequency. Nonetheless, it’s VERY clear and most likely originating from North America. Could be Christians doing their dirty work, but I have no idea. If anybody can translate this (or knows of a Spanish broadcast on 7250 at this hour) and can make sense of this reception, I’d appreciate it. There is some urgency in this program.

Slovakia_qsl_2 7230 – Radio Slovakia International

This is a typical English international broadcast from overseas that you might stumble across on shortwave. It’s around ten after the hour and we probably just missed some headlines. And now it’s time for some features on local doings in Slovakia. And at 150 Kilowatts of power from well over 4000 miles away, it’s coming in quite nicely.

Apparently there’s a bunch of illegal weapons stockpiled in closets and attics across the Slovak Republic, and the government’s trying to get people to voluntarily hand them over. Previously loose gun laws have tightened up quite a bit since the end of the cold war. While thousands of Czechs gave up their guns in a similar program, the Slovaks are a bit more wary about letting go of their weaponry so far.

The next story– all about a Slovak high school course on how to prepare a business plan. (And please, when producing radio and the subject of money comes up, don’t even THINK about playing that damn Pink Floyd song again.) Jeez. Enough already.

However, this is still one of the small joys of shortwave radio– hearing small regional stories from thousands of miles away that would never garner coverage in American media.

Egypt_qsl 7270 – Radio Cairo

Spanish talk, female speakers, Middle-Eastern pop bumper music. Plenty of countries beaming Spanish language programming to the Americas. After all, probably a higher percentage of Spanish speakers on this side of the world know how to operate a shortwave radio.

7285 – Hrvatska Radio (Croatia)

Unknown language, broadcast from a relay in Germany.

7300 – Voice of Turkey

As far as music on shortwave radio, this is one of my favorite stops lately. It’s a program of haunting, beautiful and catchy Turkish music. One of these songs has lodged itself in my brain, and it keeps playing there– a comforting exotic loop in the background when I’m lost in thought, and that’s fine with me for now. A couple weeks ago I was haunted by “Saturday In The Park” by Chicago. WHY I ask? What did I do to deserve this?

Votsticker I have an old Zenith Transoceanic in my room, and throbbing modulated music like this from afar played through that warm old tube radio could make you cry. Or, at least it could make me cry. You might laugh. The music plays on in this clip for almost 15 minutes. A female announcer talks between tracks.

That’s it for this week. And as if there’s any enlightenment you can offer– mistakes I’ve made in this post, or translate any of the foreign languages in this band scan– either may assist me in amending or correcting this post in the future. Please post a comment or send me an email here. Other articles in this blog series can be found here.

Thanks for listening.

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