The Ship That Came In (On Four Radio Bands)

Tuesday, July 21st, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen to that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extravaganzo On The Hudson

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hip Spot On Your Dial

Monday, December 10th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHVW – Curt Roberts 11-22-07  29:55

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

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

WHVW – Darwin Lee 11-25-07  62:08

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

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

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

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

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

Adventures In Amplitude Modulation – Part 2

Monday, December 12th, 2005

It was heartening and reassuring to get so many favorable comments (and emails) after my last post. The topic at hand is the avocation of DXing– taking advantage of the extended range of AM & shortwave broadcasts at night and listening to discover what can be heard over the radio  from your location. For better or worse, it’s one of those habits most people dabble in when they’re alone at night. And most of us who participate in this habit have close friends and/or partners who would probably be bored to tears or just openly annoyed if subjected to the challenging listen of trying to read a far off radio signal.

Once in my room I was sitting with a friend having a beer and just for the hell of it I switched on my old Trans-Oceanic and quickly zoomed into a faint English broadcast from Albania. For some reason I thought he would be half as curious about the discovery as I was, and for a couple of minutes I was hanging on to every word trying to hear the news from the Balkans over the noise floor in my apartment. Then I saw the pain in his face, and shut it down and put the music back on. He thanked me.

Albanian_qsl_card While there’s no shame in it, scanning the AM and shortwave dial for sport and recreation is an acquired taste. You have to be willing to put up lots of static, whistles, buzzes and some really stupid and boring radio. But it’s an offbeat way to sample some free (and sometimes fringe) media from around the country and around the world. And when you power up that receiver you never really know exactly who, what or WHERE you’re going to hear.

Winter is better in general for DXing the broadcast bands, and lately I’ve been getting better than usual reception. Since I recorded this scan of the NY upstate AM dial in late November, I’ve gotten strong readable broadcasts in New York City from several stations that eluded me that evening. But the reality is that every night is different That’s part of what makes it interesting.

Radio_locator_clock_1By the way, if you’re interested in playing along at home, let me pass along a few links. Years ago, you would have to invest in a few books or magazines to have the information to track down unknown and identified radio stations. Nowadays the internet offers up plenty of handy data.

Probably the most important site for tracking down AM & FM stations is the “Radio Locator.” You can search stations by city, frequency or call letters. The advanced search gives you more options. It’s damn thorough. Through this site you can access links to the station, webstreams and even look at coverage maps. Another good site for mediium wave is A.M. Logbook.com. While it’s a bit counter-intuitive. and the Canadian and American stations have separate sections on the site, it is helpful to get a quick look at the wattage of each station when you’re trying to figure out where a signal might be coming from.

Don’t forget that computers give off plenty of RF that interferes with radio reception. If you’re looking for information in real time you might be better off taping your reception and looking it up later, or at least keeping your radio across the room when you’re browsing on the net for information.

As I did last week, I’m going to go through the dial in text and offer an MP3 of the recording. Last week covered the beginning of the AM dial at 530 and ended at 750 KHz. It was recorded in the November 26, in the Hudson Valley just after midnight. I was using a 1980′s Sony analog portable, the ICF-7600A. This week I’ll start where I left off and work my way to 950 KHz.

Speaking of that, I should emphasize that I am not an expert or authority as far as DXing or the science of radio. I just fool around with a few relatively inexpensive radios now and then (and occasionally archive the results). Some of you who commented on the previous post are obviously a bit more serious about this stuff, and I really appreciate your feedback. And more importantly I appreciate that you’ve taken the time to read these posts.

TransoceanicThings like picking up AM stations in Europe and Africa from North America has so far eluded me, but it sounds like fun. And I should add that like any hobby, having the right tools can make all the difference. There are many more advanced receivers (and antennas) that I fantasize about playing with one day (from big old “boat anchor” tube equiped table top receivers to contemporary  computer based radios). But what I’d like to emphasize is that listening to the radio as an explorer doesn’t require a lot of fancy equipment, money or expertise. All it takes is an interest, some curiosity and a sensitive receiver.

As I said last week, I recommend an analog receiver for deeply sampling the AM and shortwave bands, at least for those on an entry level. Ebay is a great place to look for used radios, just because there aren’t many powerful radios with analog tuning being made these days. Well, actually I know of one pretty good one that has a digital display AND analog tuning, but in general all but the cheapest shortwave radios are all digital these days.

Why analog? Physically turning a knob ever so slightly allows you to precisely tune in on a station with your fingers and doing so quickly tells you whether an area of a band is active by listening as you zip through it. The “scan” function on digital tuners is typically unreliable for digging out hard to grab broadcasts and physically turning a knob and getting immediate results is more intuitive than waiting at every “step” to hear each digitally rendered spot on the dial.

Bad_cc_radio_displayThat said, there are plenty of high-tech digital receivers that offer features unimaginable on analog radios. They’re just generally more expensive and aimed toward more experienced listeners. Speaking of that, there’s a digital radio out there that is constantly marketed on AM radio specifically for serious AM listeners. It’s the CC Radio from C. Crane, and goes for over a hundred and fifty bucks. I have one. While it’s a sensitive radio, it is a bit overpriced. And then there was an issue with the LED display eventually crapping out. For people who owned this radio for a couple years or more this was a very common problem. It happened to mine, and eventually I couldn’t tell what station I was listening to. However, they’ve since remedied the problem, and they even fixed mine for next to nothin’.

In going through the dial scan I’m posting this week, it’s made me think about what really makes good radio happen. And I think the most important element is “service.” When radio faithfully serves a region, a group, or even perhaps an ideology, it’s about MORE than just money. AndBbc_logo unlike television, a calling to service has always been an integral element of the medium. Maybe that’s why they the BBC doesn’t call their shortwave arm the BBC World “Network.”

And although DXing is fun, its not the best way to hear many of the stations out there that still carry on a tradition of service. While driving around in the great fly-over spans of North America, don’t forget to turn on your radio now and then. There are hundreds of low-power (and often low-profit) radio stations that continue to carry on a useful relationship with their listenership. Really local media is hard to find these days, and now and then you’ll find radio stations that are still dedicated to working with and for the communities within reach of their broadcasts.

I’d like to add that feedback and email is welcome. If you’ve been (or will be) scanning the medium or shortwave bands and have MP3 archives I might be interested in hearing and/or posting your audio adventures. Drop me an email.

Meanwhile, here is the continuation of my casual scan of the AM dial starting at 760 KHz, going up to 950. It’s not spectacular, but it did happen.

Segment 2 – Hudson Valley AM Radio 11-25-05 (760 to 950 AM)  17:45

(download)

760 – WJR Detroit, MI

This station has a helluva signal. Even though it’s snug up against WABC here in New York at 770, it’s still quite readable in the city. Growing up near Detroit decades ago, WJR seemed like Michigan’s official station in a very local and sophisticated way that’s hard to imagine today. It’s the station every grownup seemed to listen to. As a kid (with a rock and roll infected mind at the time) WJR seemed a little stodgy back then. But in retrospect it was really quite a radio station.

They called it "The Great Voice of The Great Lakes," and WJR really had an impressive air roster years ago– articulate gentlemen like J.P McCarthy and Karl Haas, sophisticated music and legendary announcer Ernie Harwell announcing the Tigers play by play. It was friendly, informative and adult radio on a commercial AM station. I guess people go to public radio (which is usually on FM) for this kind of Wjr_at_the_fisher_buildingformat now, but it’s not quite the same. The combination of professionalism, authority, warmth and entertainment that the great full-service AM stations of the past offered their listeners is rare enough anywhere on the dial these days, but a station offering almost all locally produced content and serving an entire region (instead of just promoting that it is) is almost completely a thing of the past. (A vintage video promoting WJR in its heyday is available for download here.)

(If you happen to have any interesting old recordings of WJR, especially Jay Robert’s “Night Flight 760,” I’d might like to swap airchecks with you. Drop me an email.)

Drlaura_2Today, WJR is just another Disney owned right wing news/talk station, like WABC or WLS (Once great stations as well.) And on this night I’ve run across Dr. Laura on WJR. Either she’s your “stay at home doctor,” or the most humorless bitch on the radio, either way Dr. Laura Schlessinger is ultimately a sadistic egomaniac who has no business offering help to strangers on the radio. Notice that even when she’s offering good advice for a change (telling a mother to ease up on disciplining her toddler into a swimming career) she still needs to berate the mother for bad parenting.

770 – WABC NYC

I’m not sure what this is, but they’re talking about George Best, an incredible soccer player who was done in by some bad habits. I didn’t stick around long enough to find out what they were selling. Commercials are offensive enough, infomericials are the ultimate in media prostitution. In a sense, it’s even worse than the Republican propaganda they broadcast all day long. Especially when you’re talking about a legacy station and frequency like WABC. But that’s exactly how WABC squanders their Friday overnight hours, with useless PAID programming. It’s bad enough when a low profit and desperate radio outlet plays informercials to survive, but when a Disney/ABC’s flagship station that covers eastern North America yields to this kind of whoredom is irresponsible and sad.

780 – Should be WBBM in Chicago, but not tonight

790 – Nothing Intelligible

Thebig8cklw800 – CKLW Windsor, ON

Although it’s in Canada, CKLW is the other major clear channel AM station in the Detroit market. Once a legendary North American rock/top 40 station, CKLW is now a talk station, specializing in advice, health and local issues. It’s soft around the edges, but refreshing compared to a conservative Disney propaganda outlet.The topic in this clip: Gall Bladders. Hey, they’re important!

810 – WGY Schenectady, NY

it’s the Albany area’s only clear channel AM station (also owned by Clear Channel Communications). And this is a bit from “The Phil Hendrie Show.” Although Hendrie isn’t on the air in New York City, he’s a national host with a unique approach to talk radio (WFMU featured his work on “Aircheck,” which you can hear with this link). Actually he has one real trick, and he does it well. Hendrie regularly has obnoxious guests who say outrageous things, and then he gets people to call up and argue with the guests. What makes it unique, is that Hendrie is the host and also pretends to be guest at the same time (deftly switching between the big radio microphone as himself and then to telephone and affecting a voice as he assumes the role of the “guest.”) Pretty funny, right?

I thought so too. Over the years it’s been a routine that’s provided lots of laughs to his many listeners “in the know.” And he admits his ploy on a regular basis on this show, but continues to generate callers who haven’t caught on to his puppet show yet. It’s a con game that almost gets some people to make fools of themselves arguing with a fictional character. However, it might be funnier if he wasn’t such an ass.

Hendrie_coulterHendrie’s concept of a radio show as a non-stop prank is a routine all his own, but lately he’s turning into a one trick pony. Like Lassiter, without his inherent humanity, Hendrie offers little or no good will on his program. What’s worse, Hendrie’s not a political talk host, but he just LOVES the Iraq War. I guess it all fits in with his radio M.O.– the big guy deceives and bullies the little guys, and everybody gets a good laugh.

While there’s always been a crude, misogynistic and even racist edge to many of Hendrie’s characters who serve as mock guests on this show, it was easy to assume it was all satire meant to make light of his “character’s” ignorance. However, these days it seems clear that his corral of fake guests are just permutations on Hendrie’s id. He gets to play the balanced and mediating host AND the rude and monstrous guest on the phone. Sometimes you wonder which one is really Hendrie.

Flood_street_1Like in this small edit caught in this dial scan. The “guest” Hendrie pretends to be alleges that his home has suffered some natural disaster and he making a big stink about how he’s not eligible for the same level of benefits as a Katrina victim. He even gets a joke in about people having to defecate in public in the Superdome. Funny stuff. And notice how his “guest” keeps referring to the New Orleans levees as dikes. I doubt Hendrie even knows the difference. His program is a showcase for ignorance masquerading as satire.

820 – (Not sure)

Don’t think it’s WBAP in Ft. Worth, but that’s a common catch in the Midwest. It’s the Police I think, some pop song. Sounds like it might be bumper music for a talk show, maybe a pre-show repeat of “Coast To Coast.” It ain’t WNYC.

830 – (A muddle of stations)

Might be WCCO in Minneapolis in this mess, but nothing ineligible.

840 – WHAS Louisville, KY

Another clear channel station readable across a huge chunk of North America. A news broadcast – An Iraqi cleric is upset about civilian casualties from a suicide bombing, ninety million girls around the world are excluded from primary school, and Japan is in the outer space business.

850 – WEEI Boston, MA

Sports talk. Maybe you like sports talk. I don’t get it. I think I’d rather hear a little more about Gall Bladders.

860 – (Nothing intelligible)

Another standard catch alludes me. CJBC, a French CBC station has been at this frequency as long as I remember. While I don’t speak French, I’ve heard a lot of intriguing and good music here over the years, and lots of French talkin’. But tonight, CJBC isn’t bouncin’ in like usual.

870 – WWL New Orleans, LA

Not coming in strong, but readable. The news– the Audubon Zoo opened that day, and apparently the animals missed the human visitors. The whole city must be missing human visitors. One of the most important cities in Americas will never be the same, and the human tragedy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrna is still a huge wound. Somebody might wanna tell Phil Hendrie that it’s still not very funny.

WwlFor over two months after the hurricane, WWL was the flagship station of "The United Broaders of New Orleans." It was a cobbled together disaster network– a joint effort of Clear Channel Communications and Entercom Communications that offered an on-air sounding board for the community and up to the minute information on how to survive and deal with the tragedy. In all the horror it was encouraging to briefly hear radio stations super-serving thier community in a time of need. It’s something AM radio can still do very well.

Before settling in New York, I lived in Michigan and the deep south and WWL was a dependable stop on the AM dial. And as I mentioned in the last post, I was a big fan of the overnight trucker’s show, the “Road Gang,” Originally hosted by Charlie Douglas, in the early 80′s the Dave Nemo took over the Road Gang. Never a provocative host, Nemo just provided a nightly radio home for trucker’s on the highway, and a bunch of great old country and western for everybody. Overnight, the Road Gang covered the whole route of I-75, from the Ontario border all the way down to Miami, and a huge portion of the country’s mid-section.

KenworthThis station blasts up into the midwest, and was the perfect home for a national radio show. Eventually the Road Gang was syndicated to other stations, and then Nemo moved his new network to Nashville.  That’s all over. Nemo has left the broadcast band for XM, but his WWL program really turned me on to a lot of old country music over the years.

880 – WCBS, NYC

Shopping on “Black Friday” is apparently an addiction, or so says a Connecticut shopper. It has nothing to do with the products. It’s the “process.” Has there ever been a more cynically devised pseudo-event than Black Friday?

890 – WLS Chicago, IL

Once a huge Midwestern rock station, clear channel WLS is just another conservative talk station on the AM dial. It’s just more powerful than most. As it of its time as one of the last big AM top 40 stations and before it became a right wing talk outlet, there was a period of seat-of-pants tomfoolery that made for entertaining listening. In the mid-80′s John “Records” Landecker would open up the phones at night in between rock and roll records and you never know what would happen. These days, those same hours on WLS are a bit more predictable and a lot less funny. You get time-delayed Sean Hannity and another local Chicago program which also follows the day’s Republican talking points to the letter.

Wls_1That local show is “The Deborah Rowe Program.” And on this night Teri O’Brien is sitting in. She’s lined up “incriminating” clips from a C-Span of interview of author Bill Press for the hour’s entertainment. His crime? He’s a LIBERAL! And what’s worse, she says he brags about being rich AND he doesn’t like the Bush tax cuts. I’m surprised he’s not in prison.

It’s third tier Republican smear radio, and during the day the AM dial is jammed with these clowns in between superstar propagandists like Limbaugh and Hannity. However, there is usually some relief from the Republican blather on late night radio. Usually after midnight, the only neocon blabbermouths you hear are a few stations that rerun some from the day schedule. I suppose most Republicans are in bed. But it’s not yet midnight in Chicago, and the Disney’s 50,000 watt propaganda machine is still getting a few kicks in before the national paranormal chatterfest called “Coast to Coast AM” gets underway at 12.

Notice the signal is being chewed around the edges by a Spanish station. I believe Galaxyrocketit’s “Radio Progresso” from Cuba.

900 – CHML Hamilton, ON

Like CKLW, CHML is a lifestyle talk station, focusing on health, finances, relationships and local issues. But every night for a few hours around midnight they use their huge clear channel signal to rebroadcast old time radio shows. It’s a great idea that takes you back to the days when people used to sit around and watch the radio. As you hear, I’ve caught the very beginning of an episode of the 50′s sci-fi series “X-Minus One.”

In case you’re into this sort of thing, or you just want to find out what a “Moklin” is and what it means to be one, have a listen to this whole and intact episode of the show.

X Minus One – If You Was A Moklin (originally broadcast 06-12-56)  23:22

(download)

Meanwhile, back to the bandscan…

910 – (Nothing Intelligible)

930 – CKNS Espanola, ON

It’s 10,000 watts on the north shore of Lake Huron broadcasting into the great white north, but there doesn’t seem to be much information available about this station on the web. Sounds like contemporary country of some kind.

930 – (Sports)

No idea what or where this is.

940 – CINW Montreal, QC

It’s the pre-feed rerun of Coast to Coast AM. The show starts at one a.m. but some stations can’t get enough so they repeat some of a previous show until the fun begins. The topic: The Hollow Earth theory. They say there’s a sun inside the Earth and people and all sorts of stuff.
Although Art Bell is the original host and creator of Coast to Coast, lately he’s only been on once a week, and many of those are reruns too.

950 – WHVW Hyde Park, NY

Pirate_joe_1It’s an old rockabilly rave up broadcast just down the river from where I was making this recording. WHVW’s slogan boasts that they’re “The last independent, locally owned radio station in the Hudson Valley.” And they are. They’re also a complete anomaly. Run by former radio pirate and record collector “Pirate Joe,” WHVW reflects his musical vision– a format of old fashioned American roots: blues, jazz, country and all the stuff that would eventually evolved into rock and roll. It’s all run on a shoestring, but WHVW serves a bunch of upstate music fans with tunes they won’t hear anywhere else on the dial. I don’t know how they pay the electric bill for the transmitter with the scarcity of commercials on the station, but it’s been up and running this way for a few years now. It’s rare enough to hear AM stations feature music, but it’s extra special to hear such a spirited mix of raucous jukebox joy on one frequency. It’s a bit of blessing if you ask me.

Next week, I’ll either keep going on this dial scan, or I’ll dip into some samples of shortwave broadcasts. I haven’t decided yet.

Thanks for listening.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog)

The Intimate Audio Gadget

Thursday, October 27th, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… or at least by SOME KIND of ingenuity.

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

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

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

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

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

Go ahead and turn it up! You rebel.

(This post originally appeared in Beware of the Blog)