Back To The Old Shack

Monday, October 27th, 2008

Deep in downtown Manhattan, there used to be a street of dreams– Courtland Street. The far western end of it was known as “Radio Row.” From what I understand, it was an old-fashioned electronics paradise. If I could afford one of those high-end time machines and could simply whoosh back to 1949 or 1958, one of the first things I’d do would be to jump on the Broadway IRT down to Chambers street and wander Radio Row— ogling the glowing dials, fondling those bakelite knobs, and tracing my fingertips over the bins and racks of cables and adapters and connectors. (And then… Coney Island!)

That end of Courtland Street is long gone. Tore it all down to build a couple of hefty skyscrapers back in the mid-60’s. Strangely enough, they actually fell down seven years ago (you probably heard about it) and there’s still just a big hole there with a bunch of men doing stuff. Heard they’re gonna make a “freedom tower” (whatever that is). But you can be sure that they’re not bringing back Radio Row.” But I wish they were. Electronics stores don’t fall over so easily.

Sadly, I didn’t grow up in New York. Never saw radio row. (Never had a sandwich at an automat either.) I’m from the land where the strip mall and the tri-level home were perfected, where the lawns were manicured and grownups beat you every now and then. And if you had a passion for patch cords, police scanners or little suction cup doodads that could record your phone calls, you didn’t have a radio row. You had “Radio Shack.” And you had to love it. And they sent you full color catalogs in the mail. In fact, they used to ask for your address every time you bought something. They knew you wanted the catalog. Probably the second best type of bathroom reading a boy could get for free.

Now you may think it silly to say anything reverential about a chain store. And for many, the name “Radio Shack” was kind of a punch line for any joke about shoddy electronics. And if you were lucky to have a classy radio shop in your town, or a hot and well-equipped electronics franchise in the neighborhood, you could easily look down your nose at all the knock off goods with silly brand names like “Realistic” and “Optimus.”

But what Radio Shack did do, they did very well. They served the working stiff and the average family, providing inexpensive and (somewhat) durable electronic gadgets and gear at reasonable prices– in a small “Sears” kind of way. But more uniquely, they were the neighborhood place to find all variations of audio receiver. And if you needed some part or piece or connector for a radio or sound system, you knew you could find it at your local Radio Shack. And it probably wouldn’t cost you a fortune. The Radio Shack chain was a practical American reality. Like having a gas station nearby. And with more than six thousand stores across the country, there was usually one just a short drive away– at the mall, the shopping center, or out on the highway. And while Radio Shack was always handy for batteries, tapes and wires, I was always profoundly aware that these little stores always had cool radios in stock. Especially shortwave radios.

In retrospect, your local Radio Shack didn’t really have the very best shortwave sets on the market, they always had a few really good ones. And in the days before more sophisticated anti-pilfering technology, the pricy/fancy radios were usually behind the counter or up on a high shelf over your head. For all the hundreds of times I visited Radio Shack outlets, I doubt I ever went out the door without at least briefly casting my eyes on the store radio shrine, and all the chrome and buttons and green digital display screens.

As I’ve been speaking of Radio Shack with atypical nostalgia (and using past tense) you may be working your way through this post looking for the obituary– a story of stores closing or some transformative merger at hand. Nope. In fact, you can stop looking for any definitive news about Radio Shack at all. Because the point here is more about definition, about how a huge chain of stores slowly stumbled away from its identity so far that it’s not much more than a tiresome "Rite Aid” of electronics.

As you might imagine, the Radio Shack chain started as not much more than a supply store for radio hobbyists and professional radio operators. Then back in the early 60’s they merged with a leather goods chain run by an ambitious dude named Tandy, and his vision made Radio Shack the ubiquitous hobby/technology mart we all knew and needed, and some of us loved (even if we wouldn’t admit it). In the late 70’s they started selling their own make of computer that did very well, and the chain flourished. It’s easy to forget what computers were like so long ago. There was no public internet and very little software available. If you had a computer you could crunch numbers, write programs, and most significantly you could play games with them (which were incredibly primitive by today’s standards). The point being it all fit in with the Radio Shack vibe– providing complex toys and all the accessories, for people who were serious (and even thoughtful) about having fun.

And then there were the radios. Radio Shack always had a wide variety. And a scan of the high-tech receivers on their shelves, or thumbing through one of their catalogs, gave you that big futuristic American feeling of technology on the march. And they had their own brand of radios. And the more elite and muscular models had bizarre features far beyond the understanding of most casual listeners. Radio Shack had radios for people who loved the gadgetry of radios and for people who wanted high-performance radios that could tune in signals from the other side of the world. Like me, and maybe you.

Through the 1990’s there were changes afoot in radio-land. Beginning with the end of the cold war, which for many years had generated the scintillating content that kept people listening to shortwave radio. Then the march of technology made the need for elaborate lo-fi radios less relevant by some measure–In 1992 the world wide web was opened for business, and the next years web (streaming) radio, became a reality, followed by the creation of the graphical web browser in 1994. And then the next year an executive from Ralston/Purina took the helm of Radio Shack. While Radio Shack had become much more than a supply store for radio freaks, putting a pet food magnate in charge of a huge electronics chain with a very unique (and some might say eccentric) heritage might have been kind of a mistake.

Although there was a change in logo that came with the new guy in charge, Radio Shack didn’t change all that much at first. But as the 1990’s were grinding to a close, a lot of Radio Shack customers began to notice that a few things weren’t right at their neighborhood "shack." Like the lack of radios.

I wasn’t able to find any definitive writing on what really happened to Radio Shack, but I did find this article in a retail trade publication from 2005 all about the new and improved version of the electronics franchise, called “The Stuff Shack.” And to read this insider write-up is to see just another example of how in our era of über-capitalism (is it over yet?) a retail entity which had long provided a valuable service to particular type of consumer abandoning their base clientele to pursue massive profits predicted by people with no fundamental understanding what made the business successful in the first place. In a nutshell:

“Earlier this year, the company announced plans to accelerate the rollout of a new product mix. The concept favors the chain’s seven best categories: wireless, accessories, power, modern home, personal electronics, technical and services.”

No mention of radios. Searching the document I found no instances of the words: “shortwave”, ”cables”, “adaptors” or “antennas.” These were all the reasons I usually went to Radio Shack. I really don’t think many people begrudged Radio Shack for carrying a bunch of big ticket items and pushing cell phones like candy, but when their stores got really slack about stocking the kind of goods they were famous for, and the handy friendly geeks at the counter were replaced by slick sales sharks, it became painfully obvious that the service Radio Shack provided for thousands of communities was abandoned in the name of tawdry short-sighted greed. And the article I just quoted had one big revelatory announcement– Radio Shack had just hired a new Chief Operating Officer, a visionary woman who had spent the spent the last thirty years climbing the corporate ladder at McDonald’s. (In her defense, I guess she did help “spearhead” the launch of McDonald’s salad products and shepherded the "McRib” concept to fruition.)

The fact is the vast majority of radio related items that used to be the heart of the Radio Shack catalog have been discontinued. I’ve actually been in Radio Shack stores that had only one or two shortwave radios in stock. And forget about asking the floor hustler staff on hand any technical questions about them, or almost anything else. As you might imagine, I’m not the only one dismayed by the dawn of the super slick “Stuff Shack”. (Check out some similar gripes here, here or here) So as a remembrance from the late glory days of Radio Shack, here’s a souvenir. It’s an informative starter kit for the fledgling shortwave radio listener.
Radio Shack Tape – The Sounds of Shortwave (1992) pt 1 10:53

Welcome to the world of shortwave radio!” beckons this cassette tape after teasing with a tasty little collage of HF turning. “Listening to Shortwave” offers a respectable overview of how shortwave radio words and how to listen. Certainly not the masterpiece created by pop producer Mitch Murray (Long Live Shortwave!) that I offered in this post, but this Radio Shack production is more contemporary and discusses the more modern digital tuners we use today. Although more experienced listeners won’t learn a lot listening to this tape, it really is a fairly thorough overview of the how and why of shortwave listening.

Side two is more fun, bringing home the “world at your fingertips” thrills that radio boys (of all ages) can still find so compelling. “So what’s out there?,” the announcer ponders, and then the production “hops around” the shortwave bands offering some radio flavor from some of the big players in international radio (BBC, DW, The Voice of Russia…). The samples aren’t amazing, but they’re good. Most offer tidy reception, although the sound is authentically rich with the inherent distortion that you grow to love as a shortwave listener. Not static, but the poetic audio artifacts of the technology and the planet it traverses. 

Radio Shack Tape – The Sounds of Shortwave (1992) pt 2 11:28

One thing that’s completely left out of the mix on this tape is all the evangelical stupidity and insanity that infests North American shortwave broadcasting. Probably because it’s a touchy issue, and as this package is also sales tool to market Radio Shack’s shortwave radios they wouldn’t want prospective radio buyers to realize the scope and disturbing nature of Christian dreck clogging up the shortwave dial in the states. So although it’s understandable, ignoring this reality makes this tape and booklet less than representational of "what’s out there."

The “bandscan” offered is really a collage and not an accurate representation of the noise and faint signals you’d run across in a typical trek through the kilocycles, but with so many changes in what’s available on the shortwave bands (and what’s offered) it’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic when you hear some of these snippets of shortwave broadcasting. But then again, 1992 feels like a long time ago right now. And at the end when the announcer talks about hooking your computer up to a couple of shortwave radio bulletin board systems (BBS) to pick up “a load of information” about shortwave schedules and propagation conditions.

Speaking of information– the accompanying book that came with this tape, “Listening to Shortwave,” is a much more thorough shortwave radio primer, with plenty of charts, graphs and illustrations that would make any shortwave tenderfoot smarter, wiser, and better at small talk at any hamfest or at the annual Kulpsville gathering. And as a lagniappe for stopping by The Radio Kitchen today (and reading this through to the end), I offer you your very own copy of “Listening to Shortwave” as a PDF file. (Which you can download by clicking here.) And you’re welcome.
When this kit was created, Radio Shack had specialized in shortwave radio for decades. And I’m sure they thought this starter kit would have a shelf life of a decade or more when they put it together. But time was not on the side of radio-heads at the Tandy corporate headquarters. The web opened up to the public that same year, and many things would soon change. The BBS systems that remained would be integrated into the internet, broadcasting around the world could soon be accomplished with a modem and a net connection, and in a year or two interloper food executives would start to turn a national hobbyist’s lifeline into a mega-chain “stuff shack” for couch potatoes and teenage girls.

And I’m not even going to mention the BBC, and Deutsche Welle and now the RADIO NETHERLANDS ( !) all abandoning their English broadcasts to North America in this decade. It’s just too damn depressing…

I probably never would have admitted the importance of Radio Shack in my life until recently. It was easy to make fun of the clips and coax and scanners– and some of the people you might see there (like me!). But ever since I was a kid, it was dependable– for radios I usually couldn’t afford as well as practical patch cords and adapters I had a hard time finding anywhere else. And once I started to notice the radios missing from their shelves, and to find more and more people behind the counter at Radio Shack stores who didn’t know a shortwave radio from a continuity tester ("But would you care to take a look at this humongous flat-screen TV?.") I realized I was beginning to grieve…

However, recent visits have led me to believe that the Radio Shack enterprise may actually be getting serious about reclaiming a little bit of their heritage. As I duck into RS outlets in my travels, I’ve been seeing a few of the new shortwave models on the shelves. I don’t sense they’re rebooting their brand again, but there seems to be a corporate move afoot to put a few radios on display at their outlets (as decorations perhaps?). If I had to venture a guess, it might just be that after years of customers coming into Radio Shack looking specifically for radios they might make a little cash if they had a few on hand… just in case. (I wish some of the great shortwave services of Western Europe would see it the same way, and beam some content over this way, just in case some of us might be listening.)

Here’s how the “Sounds of Shortwave” tape ends. I admit it’s hokey, but nonetheless, I approve this message:

“Just think of it. As you sit there listening to this tape, or flipping through the pages of the book, thousands of signals are zipping by you at the speed of light– voices and sounds from all over world just waiting for you to listen. All you need is a shortwave receiver, and some electricity to power it. And you’re off on a wonderful adventure in the magical world of shortwave broadcasting.

Happy listening!”

NOTE: My friend Doug Hammond just sent me this amazing link— a whole bunch of old Radio Shack catalogs online! Browse through the glorious yesteryear of Tandy Incorporated to your heart’s content. And you can help by contributing images of catalogs they don’t have yet. Amazing. Thanks Doug!


Super Cheap, and Almost Super

Friday, November 2nd, 2007
As an urban dweller living in close quarters, I do have one luxury– my own room, or office of sorts. Maybe if you’re lucky you have one too. It’s where I write, think, browse the web and fool with audio. And being a somewhat modern guy, I do most of these things with computers. In fact there’s a few computers here, a monitor, and a bunch of external devices, power supplies and a battery charger or two. It all makes for a very noisy environment. But it’s not the kind of noise that wakes the neighbors. No, it’s the scourge of AM and shortwave listening, RF noise, that fills my room. And as someone who regularly partakes of the amplitude modulation, listening to the radio where I spend much of my time is chronically problematic.

This is why I don’t do much DXing around the house. Too frustrating. A few times I have set up a couple of radios on the other end of the apartment, but here in the big city there’s already quite a bit of RF to contend with anyway. For example, my neighbor four or five buildings down the street has some loud high pulsing noise I can hear at a certain AM frequency from my bathroom, and it’s much louder when I drive by his house. Wonder what he’s doing over there?

Anyway, I’m happy to report I’ve found a solution of sorts– a GE Superadio III. Actually it’s recently been re-branded as an RCA Superadio, but it’s bascially the same affordable workhorse that’s been around for a few decades. No shortwave, just AM and FM. While I hear the FM works pretty darn good, the Superadio really shines as an AM receiver. I have to admit that I haven’t had this radio long enough to cart it out to a good RF quiet spot (which usually means getting out of town) and actually DX with it, I can tell you that more than any other AM I own, it really stands up bravely to the RF barrage. It’s quickly become my radio of choice while I work and write here at the house.

Typical AM DX mainstays around here like AM 740 and CBC’s 860 frequency in Toronto, and WBT in Charlotte can indeed be heard here at night with the Superadio only a few feet from three computers, albeit with a thin layer of noise on top. Which is actually pretty impressive. But what it does really well for me, is bring in many local stations with clarity in the midst of a lot of RF pollution.

And it sounds good too. Has a large six inch speaker and a tweeter for the highs. It’s quite loud if you want to crank it. On the downside, it’s a bit big and not so portable. It’s made in China these days, and the "feel" of the workmanship and the response of the controls tells you that this is not a luxury item. Some people might be put off by the analog tuning, which I have little problem with on medium wave (it’s a bigger issue with shortwave tuning). Speaking of that, perhaps the most annoying issue is the AM dial calibration is WAY off. And unlike the RF-2200‘s beautiful analog tuning setup, the frequencies are increasingly closer together as you go up the dial. On mine, twenty or so AM frequencies occupy the first half of the dial, and the other ninety-some occupy the second half. Somebody’s posted a rather technical and difficult fix for this here, and I see that if you buy the radio from C. Crane they’ll fix this up for you for an extra ten bucks (on top of fifty for the radio, and the shipping).

From what I’ve read online, what accounts for the Superadio’s good behavior in a heightened RF environment also accounts for the sloppy tuning scale situation. Unlike the Superadio I and II, the third version uses something called varactor tuning diodes instead of the usual variable capacitor tuning. In retrospect, what seems to have happened was that during the process of upgrading the performance of the Superadio in the early nineties, they didn’t complete the job of perfecting the interface.

However, if you know the AM dial well and have patient tuning fingers you can work around the dial issues. What makes this radio worth having is that it’s a time-tested performer. It also sounds good. And it’s inexpensive. I found one brand new on ebay for just over thirty bucks, and only ten dollars shipping. Hell, that’s what? Two or three large pizzas? Otherwise you can find the Superadio for forty of fifty dollars in many places online, and in some stores as well I’ve never seen it in a store, but I read that some carry them. Other than J&R in downtown Manhattan I never see DX worthy radios in stores these days. (For fun, go in a Radio Shack and TRY to find the radios.)

I already knew this was a decent radio to have around, and when found it selling at such a bargain price I impulsively bought one for myself. I actually already had a Radio Shack copycat version of the Superadio, which isn’t bad either. But the real thing outshines it. If you look online, there’s quite a mythology/community surrounding the various versions of the Superadio. All three are good radios, and can be found easily on ebay. And if you’re looking for something more classic and handsome, the great granddaddy of the Superadio series, the GE P780 (from the early 1960’s) shows up on ebay now and then. From what I hear, it’s a helluva of a performer. (I’d love to snag one someday.) For a little radio history, you can pick up a little here from one of the key developers of the P780, Conrad Jutson.

Looking forward to taking this black plastic box into the hinterlands (along with my external loop AM antenna) and hearing how it performs in the wild. Speaking of that, while I don’t have any audio from the Superadio to offer here yet, I do have a video. It’s nothing I made. I just came across it on YouTube in the middle of a web search. It’s a quick daytime DX scan of the AM band (from Pennsylvania perhaps) with a Superadio II. While none of the reception is logged or identified, he does pick up nearly seventy stations in one sweep of the band.

While I’m not sure I’ve ever come across an audio archive a radio bandscan on the web (other than ones I’ve posted), not long ago I discovered that there’s actually quite a number of videos of bandscans posted on YouTube. Search under “bandscan” or “dxing” and you’ll find quite a few. However, no videos I’ve seen make a point of identifying much of the reception they come across, but it’s interesting and a little enlightening to hear (and see) what other radios in other places can access out of the ether.

And for me it’s reassuring to know other people do such things, and admit it online. That’s part of why I started this blog, to know that there’s other people who sit alone (typically at night) turning knobs and listening intently, and have a good time.

Adventures In Amplitude Modulation – Part 7

Monday, January 30th, 2006

Radio_shack_power_2 This post resumes where the last one left off, scanning the AM broadcast band in northern Michigan late at night August 23, 2001. I  recorded this at a campsite located on a peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan. Far from urban and residential radio interference and situated in the midst of a giant body of uninhabited water, it was a promising location for receiving distant stations.

For those who are interested in such things, my equipment was an adequate workman-like setup, using a Radio Shack ripoff of the GE SuperRadio and the Terk AM loop antenna. I’m not a fan of Radio Shack by the way. However, for many years their stores WERE practical dealers of relatively inexpensive radio gear– especially if you had the patience to wait until certain items went on sale. But as I mentioned in the last post, this has changed.

Located just 740 miles shy of the exact center of the continent, my picnic table was a good location geographically to scan AM broadcasts at night. And the time placement was significant too. This session of radio monitoring occurred at the late end of the summer news lull preceding the onslaught of the endless media storm of fear and terror that we still can’t get enough of.

On the hot seat that evening– Gary Condit. The spooky centrist Democrat from California suspected of murder had just faced the television scrutiny of Connie Chung that evening on ABC. You may recall, there was no issue more worthy of our attention at that time. You heard some of the talk radio discussion of that TV incident in the audio presented with the last post.

But before I get into this radio reception of that evening, I wanted to say something about the practice and appeal of DXing itself, and perhaps about the art of it as well.

Ge_superadio In writing about a relatively obscure hobby, like DXing, I guess I’m hoping these will primarily be read by people who would never do such a thing, but are still interested in lo-fi old fashioned mass media. But I’m trying to make sure I have an idea of what I’m talking about because these will also be read by folks who also search out distant radio stations (Many who probably know about DXing than I do). As I stated in my first post, I’m a casual DXer at best and it’s my amateur enthusiasm for the avocation that I hope to pass on to readers here, more than any claim of expertise or knowledge. And in writing about a little known and possibly dying craft, I’d hope that a few readers might expand their radio diet, and that others might renew their interest in fooling around this way.

A_happy_dxer Although I hinted about in an earlier post, I might as well be straight-out honest– DXing is an intimate act. It’s you and the radio. While it’s hard to imagine there aren’t people who DX “together,” I have yet to experience a significant journey through the frequencies with another engaged human being.

While there was a time when people sat around together transfixed to the radio listening to news, dramas and variety shows, but for decades radio has been reduced to a background application in social situations. If you want to accomplish some significant DXing you’re probably going to need to reserve some personal time to do any significant listening. Maybe you have friends who are very patient or are intrigued by a session of tuner adjustment and antenna manipulation AND all the strange noises that goes along with testing the limits of a receiver. But I don’t. And unless I happen to sign up for an outing with a DX club sometime soon, I don’t envision sharing this hobby in the future other than writing about it. That’s just the way it is. You may have noticed that the listening experiences I’ve posted here all generally begin after 11 p.m. In practice, I generally don’t get a chance to get to huddle around a receiver until after my better half and the little one hit the hay.

Super_909_1 In the end, what I’m saying that even if you have an interest in DXing, or have gone out and purchased yourself a respectable AM radio or shortwave set, unless you’re able to reserve some time to yourself in the evening to play with the radio (hopefully somewhat isolated from RF racket) you’re probably not going to have much luck with searching out distant radio stations. If you happen to be a loner without a TV, DXing might be a viable alternative to more traditional activities, like reading.

Also, like most geeky avocations, DXing is a decidedly male habit. Sure there’s exceptions. Some women read sci-fi and design software too. But you know what I mean. I saw a good illustration of this the other day. I was looking at radios on ebay, and saw an auction for a particular digital shortwave receiver I covet from time to time. According to the text, the guy had purchased this rather fancy portable for his wife, but she wasn’t crazy about having to "tune around" for the Shortwave stations. So now the radio is for sale, and the wife is much happier with her new subscription to satellite radio.  Me? I prefer to tune around. There’s no real adventure in punching up satellite stations.

Super_dxer_guy That said, there are many ways to DX. On shortwave, you can look at a schedule of broadcasts and specifically tune to the frequencies (many stations have multiple simultaneous transmissions), which is better suited to digital tuners. Or with AM you can hunt out distant stations you think you might be able to hear. Although I’ve had a some success DXing this way, unless you have a hot receiver and/or a great location you’re probably going to run into a lot of disappointment.

Or you can "tune around," and search out busy sections of the dial. I find analog tuning best for radio exploration of this kind. And obviously I like to record what happens. I consider every dial scan I glean this way to be a unique media archive, and strange as it may seem I listen to most of them a number of times. Like the slave of any bad habit, I’ve grown to appreciate the side-effects, the musicality of distant radio reception and the poetics of capturing swatches of broadcasting. Each recording is unique and an artifact of its time and place.

And speaking of the glory of DXing, I was honored to see that these posts referred by some DXers to Glenn Hauser (of World of Radio) and mentioned in his “DX Listening Digest.” Nice to know that a few serious DXer’s are actually reading these. However, Mr. Hauser bemoans that I made a couple mistakes on the log of my first AM DX post. Of course, he was right, and I made the corrections. However, there is quite a bit of outdated information on radio stations on the web, and it’s not hard to make a mistake when coming across an Dx_outpostunfamiliar station. Although Radio Locator is easier to use, I believe that this site has more accurate listings. In that spirit, I’m always open to corrections, tips, comments and suggestions via email. And comments are good too.

I’ll get back to shortwave listening (or SWL as practitioners like to say) in future posts, but for now I’m going to reconvene where I left off– back to the Michigan picnic table somewhere around midnight in August 2001. It was pre-Patriot Act America, and the headlines were full of Gary Condit. The last station heard in the previous post was clear channel WSB at 750 KHz in Atlanta.

Segment 2 – Northern Michigan Radio 08-23-01 (760 to 900 AM)  29:04


This dial scan begins at the tail end of my reception of WSB, but quickly segues into…

760 – WJR Detroit, MI

Trucker show, country music. No ID, but I’m pretty sure about this one. Then things get more difficult…

770 to 830 – (Hmmmm…)

Like I said, I’m fairly loose about DXing and rarely log my listening. And trying to ID the next few frequencies that I received at an unfamiliar locale is baffling to me four years later. I never thought I’d be writing about these tapes.

Young_art_bell It’s just after one o’ clock in the morning, and Coast to Coast with Art Bell is just kicking in after the news. Coast to Coast is an overnight staple on hundreds of stations, so between one and five a.m. eastern time it pops up on the AM dial all over the place.

Just turning the dial slightly from WJR, there’s a weak signal bearing Art Bell, and I believe this is WABC in New York. But then another nudge of the dial (or rotation of the loop antenna) brings in a loud clear copy of a replay of an ancient “Fibber McGee & Molly” radio show. And no amount of internet detective work has provided an obvious candidate for this signal. There is a station at 770 in Calgary (CHQR) running 50,000 watts which does run Fibber McGee and Molly at that time, but because of the two American clear channel stations at that frequency they have a directional pattern at night, and it’s AWFUL far away (like 1400 miles) and it seems unlikely that it would come in this well.

Art_bell_studio_shot_1998_1 Anyway, this is where things get a little loose, because I’m moving back and forth on the dial for a minute, instead of moving in one direction. (Probably trying to get my bearings and testing out my loop antenna for the first time in a promising DX location). What you hear is some country music mixed with a LOT of Art Bell on different stations. In this section of the dial, his Coast to Coast program runs a few 50,000 watt stations in this part of the world– 770 (WABC), 800 (CKLW), 810 (WGY) and also at 840 (WHAS). I believe that I hit all of those here and eventually end up at WHAS coming in nicely. The country station is clear too, and seems to be at 830 KHz. This IS a country station at that frequency in Alberta, but…

Going either unfound or unidentified in this part of the dial, two other clear channel stations I would think would be quite readable– 780 (WBBM) in Chicago and 83 (WCCO) in Minneapolis.

Correction from 02-10-06: I think I figured out some of what was going on here. Although WBBM is an all news radio station, they do feature an hour of old time radio exactly at this time on weeknights. They call it "When Radio Was." That explains the Fibber McGee & Molly. Also, the country music in the middle of all the Art Bell is likely from CIGM in Sudbury, Ontario at 790 KHz.

840 – WHAS Louisville, KY

It’s Coast to Coast AM, with the creator of the program, Art Bell. You heard Bell’s hearty reading of his commercial load in the jumble before this. Now it’s on to the matter at hand– a new crop circle.

Crop_circle_081901 If you’re not familiar with Art Bell, though the nineties his overnight talk show went from being carried by a small network in the southwest to become the biggest program in its time slot in North America. At some point on, Bell went from being a maverick right wing talk host to creating a program specializing in topics supernatural, conspiratorial and unusual. And did I mention the aliens? It’s all there.

From his compound in the Nevada desert, Bell was doing a five hour show five nights a week and a three hour weekend program by the late 90’s. And then when you consider that he spends some of his off time chatting on his ham radio, the guy’s truly a compulsive broadcaster. And he’s had a erratic career in the meantime. Bell has “retired” from radio three times since 1998, and has been through a series of bad luck and tragedies over the years. The worst was the untimely death of his wife just a few weeks ago. Bell’s show is now owned by Clear Channel Communications and as the Coast to Coast franchise there’s been a number of other hosts. These days Bell just does the show on the weekends and George Noory is in charge during the week.

Here’s an extended clip that’s typical Art Bell. There’s breaking news in the paranormal world. A crop circle has appeared in England that looks like the “Face on Mars.” And the message? “Soon.” The guest is non-stop chatterbox and fringe science guru, Richard Hoagland.

850 – KOA Denver, CO

Talk radio giant in the west. I believe this still the furthest west AM band catch I’ve received in Michigan. It’s not a strong signal and there are few stations pulsing underneath, but it is 1100 miles away. I remember once I was in Alabama talking on the phone to a friend in California one night. We were both able to pick up KOA at the same time. That’s coverage.

It’s a small dramatic talk radio moment going into an ID and spot break. The topic? Mr. Condit and Ms. Levy. Talk radio was overloaded with Condit outrage that night. Unless you were following the crop circle situation.

Cjbc_tower 860 – CJBC Toronto, ON

Sounds it’s being broadcast from a tower down the road, but it’s coming from almost 300 miles away. I’ve heard a wide variety of music over the years on this French language CBC outlet– jazz, rock, classical, and some great ethnic stuff. Tonight it’s some lovely French pop.

870 – WWL New Orleans, LA

“The wind chill factor was probably about ninety below zero. The fuel in the fuel tank …looked like Vaseline.”

It’s the Road Gang trucker show with Dave Nemo, which I believe was the first all night trucking radio program. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Nemo has moved on to XM satellite radio and he’s sorely missed on the AM radio dial. When Nemo was playing non-stop classic country through the night and talkin’ truckdrivin’ this was the one of the best listens when driving in the dark across the eastern half of the U.S.

On this night Nemo is taking calls from aging truckers as they share harrowing tales of sub-zero trucking. I could listen to old geezers tell tales like this all night. And not a word about Condit.

870 or 880 – (Art Bell again)

This station is another mystery to me. I believe it’s at 870 KHz in a null from WWL (picked up by turning the antenna.) Again, it’s the ubiquitous Coast to Coast program here with Bell and Hoagland continuing the update on the mysterious crop circle.

Bell mentions his website, which was an extremely popular and huge site filled with information on strange topics. Lots of pictures. However, is long gone now. Bell took it down when Clear Channel/Premiere officially took over the show. Now they have their own site. For a while, the original webmaster was selling CD-ROM’s of Art’s website online, and I’ve even seen the whole thing posted on Usenet.

880 – WCBS New York, NY

Traffic and weather on the 8’s. Construction on the LIE, Lincoln and Holland look great. 58 degrees. Top stores coming up. Something about a congressman and an intern. Tell your friends!

890 – WLS Chicago, IL

Condit_levy “Chandra and I never had a cross word.”

It’s ABC News, and a little Canadian news as I dip into CHML a couple of times. ABC features their sound bites from Connie Chung’s TV inquiry. And even the ABC news anchor seems angry at Condit. It’s bad enough that Bin Laden has gone missing all this time, but why hasn’t this man been brought to justice by now? Oh yeah, the other big story– A crazy Ukranian killer on the loose.

900 – CHML Hamilton, ON

Hah! The lead headline in Hamilton? The Ontario Teachers’ Federation elected Hamilton teacher Pearse Shannon as its 58th President. Gary Condit is four or five stories into this Canadian newscast. And then there’s Bubba O’Neal, with sports.

More of this next week.

Thanks for listening.

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

Adventures In Amplitude Modulation – Part 6

Monday, January 23rd, 2006

Milky_way If you think you’ve got a decent AM or shortwave portable, but you’re not receiving much beyond local stations and static at night, there’s one easy way to give it a chance to perform. Take it outside. Most houses are full of RF (radio noise) generating devices and signal blocking material. Big buildings are often worse.

Of course, what’s better is to get away from all the buildings and electrical devices altogether. That’s why I like to DX on summer camping trips, and that’s where the dial scan I’m featuring on this post was recorded. I was in northern Michigan at a state park located on small peninsula extending out into Lake Michigan. Call me a fool, but give me a nice campsite, a few radios, a picnic table, and a few beers on ice and I’m gonna have a good time. That evening the nearby roaring fire was a bonus, as well as the black sky full of stars overhead. The sliver of a moon didn’t rise in the sky until several hours after sunset and the Milky Way was a magnificent white smudge across the sky. I haven’t seen it that distinctly since that night.

 I was listening to my Optimus 12-603A, also known as a "Tuned RF AM-FM Extended Range Receiver." What it really is a Radio Shack ripoff of the excellent GE SuperRadio. It’s a good receiver, not quite as super as the original GE model, which can Campfirebe found easily online for around forty bucks. Both have great sound and reception, but only AM & FM. No shortwave bands.

I also had an external Radio Shack’s loop antenna (15-1853) hooked up to the radio as well. Like usual, this was a Radio Shack ripoff of another (probably better) product, but it’s a powerful device for thirty bucks. Requires no batteries. You adjust its knob to the frequency you’re tuning in, and then you rotate the antenna to get the best copy of the signal. In a good DX situation like I had that night, it’s quite possible to find two or possibly three separate readable stations at one frequency by just rotating the antenna. And remember, if you’re going to try this yourself the AM antenna is a typically ferrite bar INSIDE the radio (usually mounted lengthwise across the top), so you need to turn the radio itself to improve the reception, not the extended aerial which is for FM and shortwave.

All that said, don’t walk into a Radio Shack looking for the equipment I’m talking about here. They’ve discontinued both the antenna and the radio. While I don’t remember any public announcement, over the last decade Radio Shack stores has become a different kind of franchise. Where you could once find a plethora of shortwave radios and all the clips, cables and connectors you’d ever need, Radio Shack is now a swell place to get accessories for your cell phone and some nice video equipment. I think they keep a few radios around just in case somebody happens to notice that the word "radio" is in their logo.

Bush_2001_vacation_2 And what makes this session of radio listening more interesting than some others is the point in time of its occurrence. It was Thursday, August 23, 2001. George Bush Jr. was on the longest vacation of any sitting President, and the attacks of September 11 were just two and half weeks away. So, the radio recordings I made on that trip are audio specimen slides of our culture on the brink of a cataclysmic event, and right before the dawn of a national obsession. It was a lot like the world we live in now, except totally different.

The bandscan here features me slowly turning the knob on an analog receiver starting at 530 KHz and working my way up. Usually stopping at each point where a signal should be (in 10 KHz steps in the U.S.), and then adjusting the dial and antenna to find the best reception (if there’s something there). And the text below will be an attempt to briefly identify and perhaps describe what was received.

I believe this scan begins sometime just before 11 p.m., but I haven’t verified that yet. With a decent setup and a good location, every notch on the dial at night is filled with something, even it’s just 2 or three stations faintly throbbing on top of each other. And in a situation like this a majority of the allotted frequencies will have some station you can discern if you work at tuning it in. However some stations will come in much weaker than others, and others will have some tough Camp_table_2_2competition with a station sharing the frequency in another part of the country. But at some stops, there really is nothing there to hear but distant tiny noises.

Like usual, I didn’t keep a log   but there are so many familar stations across the dial here that it’s usually not difficult to know what frequency I’m near at most points in this recording. And it sure helps having the internet to quickly research stations as you review a listening session like this.

On now on to the show.

Segment 1 – Northern Michigan Radio 08-23-01 (530 to 750 AM)  25:28


530 – (Nothing Intelligible)

540 – (Nothing Intelligible)

550  – WKRC Cincinnati, OH 

12603a_1 It’s THE TALK STATION. Starts off with a promo for the 55KRC Morning show. Sounds kinda like a manic loud mouth talk host sounding unconvincingly outraged. This is followed by one of their pre-recorded slogans: “We have an opinion, and we give it everyday.” Just think, in less than three weeks slogans like this would be replaced by “United We Stand,” and “God Bless America.”

This is actually a pretty good catch considering that WKRC is only broadcasting with 1000 watts from 450 miles away.

560 – WEBC Duluth, MN (probably)

Some sports conversation. Apparently there was some bitterness between the Miami Dolphins and the Chicago Bears. I hope they’ve worked it out since then.

570 or 560 – (Unidentified Spanish station)

Might be something in Cuba. Sounds like there might have been some kind of ID in there. Any Spanish speakers out there able to help me ID this station?

570 – WKBN Youngstown, OH

Hendrie_phone_fakery “You’ve got a voice. Use it! Call the comment line…” It must be a talk station. Then some techno bumper music leads us into the Phil Hendrie program. Phil is calling his own show on the phone again, pretending to be “guest”– one of his stock characters, "Ted Bell." It’s another screwball Hendrie monologue where he pretends to be outrageous goofball and suck in angry callers who think he and his guest are actually two different people.

580 – (Nothing Intelligible)

Sounds like at least three different stations somwhere…

590 – WTCM Traverse City, MI

The topic of the night begins.

“I think everybody will agree that this guy is immoral…”

Chungcondit_abc Earlier that evening, Connie Chung interviewed Congressman Gary Condit on national television. The Chandra Levy missing person story (now a murder mystery no one talks about much) was the number one issue in America the month before 9-11. And as you’ll hear repeatedly through this dial scan, it was all over talk radio and the news. While I’m as likely as any of the callers you’ll hear on these recordings to suspect Condit might have had some role in Levy’s offing. But I don’t KNOW, and I really leave it to the police and courts to figure that out that sort of thing. And I don’t spend a lot of time dreaming up scenarios and motives, and invest any of my valuable anger toward a creepy California politician.

It’s funny how foul play against one attractive American white girl combined with a politician’s adultery scandal can capture an entire country’s imagination and make so many people angry, yet the death and torture of thousands of people overseas barely registers any national outrage. Gary Condit had nothing to worry about. In less than a month everybody forgot about Mr. Condit or that body that would eventually be found in Rock Creek Park.

This is “The Jim Bohannon Show.” Bohannon inherited Larry King’s late night radio gig when King gave it up in 1993. Maybe it takes somebody as uncharismatic on the radio as Bohannon to make you really miss Larry King. But he’s real pissed off about Gary Condit at this time. Call in the Ethics Committee! It has already been over two years since the Clinton impeachment and the possibility of another Democrat in a sex scandal was getting a lot people in the media all worked up. As the caller keenly points out, these politicians need to “keep their morality up in their off-time.”

590 – (Unidentified lousy rock music)

I don’t know. Could be CKRS 590 in Jonquiere, Quebec, or WJMS, 590 in AM, Ironwood, Michigan.

600 – CFCH North Bay, ON (probably)

It’s faint country pop song– “Yooooo never FOOLED around…” Kinda hokey, but I think I like it.

610 WTVN Columbus, OH

Gary_condit_1 More Condit fever. This caller’s got it all figured out, and the talk host is interviewing him as if he were an invited pundit with years of research under his belt. And he asking pointed questions about an interview the caller hadn’t even seen yet. But look at the facts. Condit has been “ducking the media on the questions,” and “lying to the authorities that were investigating it…What else CAN you assume?” Assuming is even more fun when you do it together, isn’t it?

Ducking the media? Lying to authorities? You could get into trouble… if you’re a Democrat.

620 – WTMJ Milwaukee, WI

This is coming in pretty good across Lake Michigan. Nothing blocking a radio wave flying across all that water. While the trolley to the Mexican Fiesta commercial is nothing special, the two that follow are entertaining local ads. The first is for a company that calls itself the “guardians of data,” and presupposes that customers might be “frolicking naked through candyland” when a monster storm knocks out their “service.” The next is an ad for a music warehouse joint encouraging parents to rent the musical instruments when kids take up music lessons. After all, parents need to protect themselves. It’s nice little manic collage. (Kind of reminds me of someone I know…)

630 – CFCO Chatham, ON

It’s a Canadian oldies station between Detroit and Toronto, "Classic Gold." Nothing special, except the fact that you’re hearing a music format on AM radio, which isn’t so common these days. It’s Bob Dylan, “Lay Lady Lay.” I didn’t edit it, and just included the whole song on this archive. If you can enjoy this song for what it is, from a somewhat distant station with Art Bell’s talk show eating the edges of the signal, maybe you have what it takes to DX AM radio. As far as copying a distant music station, this ain’t bad.

640 – (Nothing Intelligible)

A few stations battling it out here, at least three of them. There’s a man and woman speaking English with foreign accents and a sports station. I do wonder what all this is.

650 – WSM Nashville, TN

Wsmlogo The big clear channel station in Nashville and the home of The Grand Ole Opry. Over 650 miles away and coming in with clarity. Still playing the old country music after all these years. I wish there were more stations like this across the dial. And it’s another catchy song.

660 – WFAN New York, NY

Some deep pop psychology regarding the New York Mets. Some people spend a lot of time and energy thinking about the emotions and motivations of a few rich athletes.

It’s a whopping clear channel signal however, and used to be a big NYC top 40 station (WNBC) once. It’s almost 650 miles away

670 – WSCR Chicago, IL

More sports. Nice awkward live read (at least I HOPE it’s live) of a restaurant spot. Actually this is the best moment I’ve heard on a sports talk station in quite a while.

680 –  (Nothing Intelligible)

A muddle of signals. One of them is probably CFTR, a talk station in Toronto.

690 – CINF Montreal, QC

Info690_1 This is the same station I picked up in upstate New York heard on this post. I had said it was CBF at that time (That’s still how the Radio Locator site identifies it.) But Canadian reader David Bachner in his comment corrected me. And he’s right. Apparently official CBC stations have call letters that begin in with “CB,” and this station was sold to other interests in a national campaign that had the network giving up their AM outlets for high fidelity FM stations. Now it’s "Info690," a French language talk station.

700 – WLW Cincinnati, OH

Sports. After a year the Bengals are getting used to their new stadium. I’ve heard it takes a while to get adjusted to a stadium.

710 – (Nothing Intelligible)

Seems like I should have stuck around a little longer and worked that antenna to see if I could dig WOR in New York out of the noise.

720 – WGN Chicago, IL

Gas prices were rising in the Chicago area. I guess there was a refinery fire.

730 – (Nothing Intelligible)

740 – CHWO Toronto, ON

Frank Sinatra singing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”

Am740logo_4 Otherwise known as AM 740, this is one of my favorite stations on the AM dial here in the city at night. Although they don’t have a live DJ in the wee hours, their “jukebox” format overnight has plenty of old pop tunes to satisfy and entertain almost anybody who remembers when the AM dial was full of this stuff. It’s a shame that since clear channel WQEW has been reduced to running canned "Radio Disney" that not one station has taken up a format anything like this in New York City. And there’s not a country station here either.

750 – WWKK Petoskey, MI

The Rolling Stones – “Get Off Of My Cloud”

Code_orange_smog_1This is now “Progressive Talk KOOL-750,” but this is when it used to be an oldies station, still called KOOL-750. (Why avoid those intriguing call letters– WWKK?) The transmitter itself is very close, less than twenty miles away, but the signal is dodgy at best. Why? They’re only allowed to run 330 watts at night.

 750 – WSB Atlanta, GA

Just turn the loop antenna, and there’s another radio station. And this one is a better read, AND it’s coming from over 800 miles away. That’s the power of a 50,000 watt clear channel station.

First the weather. It’s August, it’s horrible hot in Atlanta. And there’s a “code orange” alert. However, it’s not a terrorism problem. Just smog. And some radio smog as well, in the form of a rerun of the Neal Boortz program. He’s another second tier national right wing blabbermouth host based out of Atlanta. Like O’Reilly, he occasionally disagrees with the Republican party line and acts like he’s a radical maverick. But he’s just another monkey, and not an appealing one.

Transsexual_1 Actually, he has a male/female duo filling in this evening. And tonight’s scintillating topic? Should teachers who go through a sex change come back to work at the same school or district after they’ve “crossed over?” Man, that’s got a lot of potential for a burning debate. Thanks to talk radio a lot of important issues are thoughtfully reasoned out in public forums like this.

Next week I’ll get back to this dial scan, again starting at WJR in Detroit.

Thanks for listening.

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