What’s Cooking Here?

AM radio towerThis blog is dedicated to broadcasting the old fashioned way– AM radio (or medium wave as it’s known in most of the world) and shortwave radio. While this technology doesn’t offer the audio fidelity potential of FM radio or today’s digital audio transmissions, it remains the original wireless miracle of early twentieth century. Not that more modern technology won’t be discussed here, but the main focus will be on the archaic bands where “amplitude modulation” still rules the airwaves.

Without going into the whole history of radio, and dominance of FM since the 70’s (and all the advances since then), I’ll just briefly explain what brings me to take on a radio blog dedicated to the broadcast technology developed over a hundred years ago.

Like many radio listeners, I made the switch from the AM band to the FM band of my transistor radio in the early 70’s. However, by the mid-70’s rock radio was getting predicable and sad and I started flittering all over the FM and AM band looking for something interesting. And more often then not I’d end up listening to talk radio and stations playing music for old people, and then I started to entertain myself searching for faraway stations in the middle of the night. And by the mid-80’s I was practically weaned off of the FM dial, except for occasional episodes of NPR listening and sampling college radio. And as I occasionally sample FM radio over the years, and the thick rich tones of Whitney Houston, Garth Brooks and the baritone smarm of morning zoo yucksters all made me flick the switch back to the comforting lo-fi voices and crackle-buzz music of the grandpa bands

To me the decline in vigor of FM programming in the twenty years since has been criminal. The big FM stations are money machines that merely pander for profit using tired music formats carefully tweaked via research to maintain a highly proitable load of advertising. Nothing more. Yes, there are a handful of non-commercial stations (Some good and bad) on the dial in most markets. And sadly, many of them have to get on the air and beg their listeners for money. But the lack of imagination and sameness found on the FM band across North America is more than boring. It’s a calculated and cynical abuse of public airwaves. A roll through the FM dial in most any town is about the same as cruising the local highway adorned with the ubiquitous franchise food outlets, strip malls and box stores. The uniformity and repition of today’s music formats lend themselves well as a passive foreground product, with the variety and stimulus of the advertising is showcased well as actual novel content– causing more excitemeint than the painfully familar songs that frame each stopset. Maybe someday it will get better.

The Panasonic RF-2200 To stretch the metaphor for a moment, if spinning the FM dial is like observing franchise signs and parking lots through a windshield, then sorting through the AM & SW bands is often a more pedestrian affair, wandering on foot through a noisy convention floor, an ethnic festival, or just taking a seat at a freak show booth or in a church pew. It’s usually a more foreground experience. You’re being engaged by voices talking directly to you, for your enlightenment or entertainment (or worse).

Sure, there’s some overt capitalism at play, specifically with AM (mostly talk) stations in the larger markets of North America. But the vast majority AM stations operate at a far lower level of profitability than FM outlets. And a majority of shortwave broadcasting is subsidized by national governments and religious interests. Unlike the raw capitalist FM radio mindset, on the older bands much of the programming proclaims instead of pandering. And the profit motive may be secondary to the delivery of the message (or worldview) presented. As a parallel in the print medium, think of the fact that Rupert Murdoch has owned and operated the New York Post and the National Review for years without turning a profit. It’s about having the venue and spreading the message, where profits and power are accrued by of media manipulation rather than by pure demographic mathematics.

Of course, the great exception to the divide I’ve delineated between frequency modulation and amplitude modulation, is North American public radio, which in most markets inhabits the FM band. In the last few years the biggest player in US public radio, NPR, has seen many of their outlets shifting more of their schedules toward a news, talk and information. However, NPR (and public radio in general) is rather a hybrid between contemporary AM and FM radio content. Like AM and shortwave radio religous stations, NPR franchises ask for donations from listeners, and they receive federal money which ultimately influences content (not unlike government sponsored shortwave broadcasting). But like FM, NPR stations are heavily dependent on advertising these days (brief and polite advertising spots they call "corporate underwriting.") And they also do a lot of research working to appeal to members of demographic groups who will fortify a strong donor base. And they’re not just on FM, with a number of outlets on the AM band, like WNYC-AM here in New York.

All this said, I didn’t start this blog to deride the FM band or to prove that AM and shortwave broadcasting is better or more significant than other forms of audio content you can tap into nowadays. It’s not. As a legacy medium, AM and SW broadcasting can sound a bit outdated and doesn’t often have the animation and hustle desired by the contemporary short attention span. Frankly, there’s plenty of dreck on all the broadcast bands. To top it off, there’s a somewhat accurate premise making the rounds that listenership for all terrestrial broadcast radio is in decline, and that AM radio (and especially shortwave) is practically a dead medium. Speaking for myself, such pronouncements probably make listening to endangered broadcasting even more attractive.

And yes, there is indeed music programming on AM and shortwave. However most of what you’ll hear is either old, ethinc or religious in some way. Franky, most of the music I like fits one or more of those categories anyway. And growing up with AM top 40 I’ve developed an ear for the compression and limited audio range you get with music transmitted with the old AM technology. I’m not the first person to appreciate the odd audio artifacts that accompany both music and talk, especially on shortwave. To the acclimated ear, there is a certain music to the noise inherent in this type of broadcasting.

a listening outpost Ultimately, this blog is the reflections and musings of a curious scavenger of fringe media. And besides offering my own opinions, I’ll be providing relevant audio content so you can play along at home. Because that’s half the fun, approaching AM and SW a skeptical ear and your truth sniffer engaged and trying to sort out the motivations behind the presentations. The typical content you find on AM and shortwave (political talk hosts, proselytizing preachers and nationally sponsored news broadcasts) are often finely crafted propaganda delivery systems. It’s kind of like advertising, only they want you to buy into their side of the story and not necessarily a particular product. Then again, there’s those pesky informercials, which invert the scenario I’ve just described and pretend to offer news and talk content but the only intent IS to sell a product.

And there’s “sport” in listening to this kind of radio. There’s the decoding and interpreting of content I’ve just described, but there’s also something much more random and intangible that’s also part of the game– propagation.

Aside from listening to local AM radio and regional shortwave stations, there’s another side to listening to these bands. It’s called DXing. The term "DX" comes from the days of telegraph transmissions, as an abbreviation for "distance unknown." By night, signals on these bands have a far broader range. After dark you can often receive AM stations from across the country and shortwave stations from around the world. However, the it’s based on some cosmic variables not many of us think about– the weather in the upper atmosphere and in outer space. It’s all rather scientific, and an inexact science even for some experts. Suffice to say, it also makes listening interesting and frustration. Some nights you find faraway stations you’ve never heard before, and other nights you can’t find much more than strong local stations. And international shortwave reception is often possible in daylight hours since it’s always nighttime on half the planet.

old international receiver And I am a casual DXer. I’m also a night owl, and when I turn on a radio after dark I often search the dial looking for distant broadcasts. And if I have the time (especialy when I’m away from the radio interference of urban living) I also record these excursions. Much of the content here comes from these recordings, often in the form of “bandscans” where I roll through a band pause for a moment at each broadcast I find. If the reception is bearable and content interests me, I stick around and listen for a while. 

Another important fact to consider about shortwave listening is that it may be an uncommon hobby here in North America, but around the world lots of folks tune in shortwave sets for news, music and information every day. A much higher percentage of Europeans own shortwave radios, and in the third world a majority of people have one in their home. And thanks to good propagation, you can listen in to signals intended for people where shortwave radio may be their best or only way to find out what’s happening around the rest of the world. And many of these stations in far flung countries do provide English language broadcasts, making shortwave listening one of the best way to get news, opinions and information from around the world. And the majority of SW content is not available on the web.

In technical terms, the audio content you’ll come across on The Radio Kitchen blog will be airchecks and bandscan recordings. What you’ll hear is programming I listen to with intent, as well as broadcasts I come across while strolling through the dial. And without having to purchase a shortwave radio or stay up at night, you can hear real the sound of raw radio from afar.

As you may have already figured out, I listen to a lot of radio and I have plenty of opinions– specifically about radio, current events and the media in general. And I invite comments and feedback. However, I’m not interested in making this a place for petty arguments or abusive language. If you find something here so abhorrent, it might be best to get your own blog and talk about it there.

Thanks for coming by the Radio Kitchen.

The Professor