This is the first post in a series inspired by my personal radio listening habits. However, you can relax. I won’t be offering up a “connoisseur’s” list of my favorite radio stations or bragging about my personal taste in music. At least, not exactly. Often I listen to radio as an explorer of sorts. and occasionally I record some of these aural ventures. In this post (and others that may follow) I’ll offer a taste of where I go and what I hear on these radio hikes, such as they are.
Other than the Internet and my occasional purchases of the New York Times, my main source of information & entertainment comes from radio. However, what makes my media intake more esoteric than most is that I exclusively listen to AM radio and shortwave broadcasts. I don’t watch television and almost never listen to the FM band. Generally, the TV content I do take in, I now gather from the Internet. And to be honest, I occasionally do hear WFMU in the car, but at home I pick up WFMU on the computer. With 128K MP3 stereo streaming, it’s far better than the reception I muster with my radios here in north Brooklyn.
I suppose if I didn’t have all these albums, CD’s and cassettes laying
around I might listen to FM more often, or even subscribe to (god forbid) satellite radio. For now, when I want music I listen to my own. When I turn on a radio I want something else. I want novelty, mystery, and
most importantly something human. Every commercial music station on FM feels like it’s
programmed by a committee of consultants. And even NPR sounds safe
and tested these days. On AM and shortwave you're more likely to hear ad libs, idiosyncrasies,
mistakes and raw conspiracy & rumor that isn’t always processed for
pure potential profit. Oh sure, there ARE agendas and ulterior motives
everywhere, probably just like where you work. Bottom line, most of U.S. FM radio is
all about mindless listening and shameless profiteering, (Oh, and there's usually a few
interesting non-profit stations at the end of the dial.) But AM and
shortwave is about power, language, and cultural & ethnic identity.
The “word,” whatever that’s worth these days still holds power on the traditional static-ridden bands that carry signals far distances. I like that.
That said, a large plurality, if not a majority, of AM radio and shortwave programming in America is pure propaganda– mostly Christian and/or pro-Republican. But like I said, it’s not just about commercials and "prayer offerings." It’s about the power of broadcasting “the word.” And even if the result is repulsive, at times it’s also fascinating. In the end, FM is “background” radio, and AM and shortwave is typically “foreground.” Either you listen, or you don’t hear it. You’re not just being entertained, you’re being engaged.
For the most part, I interact with the radio like normal people. At least when the sun is up. I tune in to specific stations and programs I like, listen, and go about my day. However, some evenings I turn on a radio to go exploring. Unlike FM (and TV for that matter), transmissions on the AM band (also known as “medium wave”) and the shortwave radio bands bounce off the upper layers of the atmosphere, and stations can be received from hundreds or even thousands of miles away. And as far as reception, the night time really is the right time.
While I’m not going to get into a lot of technobabble about things I barely understand myself (you can follow links I’m providing to learn more), I can explain the basic experience of listening to distant signals on medium and shortwave bands. For one thing, the ionosphere (the layers of the atmosphere the radio signals bounce off of) is a big strange and constantly changing thing. But it’s during the hours of darkness that the ionosphere has maximum reflectivity, and it’s the very best time to hear broadcasts from afar.
While there are a number of influences on what increases or decreases the reflectivity of radio waves on the ionosphere, the most significant factor is space weather. And the main force behind that is what’s happening on the sun, most specifically sunspots (and the 11-year sunspot cycle). Like I said, read up if you like, but the main affect a casual listener to these bands will notice is that the propagation of the broadcast stations varies quite a bit. In other words, on any given night you may find a station you’ve never heard before at that frequency, or you may not be able to find one you’ve found there before. It’s kind of a sport that way.
In fact, this “sport” has a name. It’s called DXing– the art of seeking and receiving far off broadcasts. While it’s not as popular as it once was, those who DX seriously spend A LOT of time and money on equipment to bag those distant transmissions. I’m way out of their league. I just play with a few portables when I get a chance and see what comes my way. If you want to get an idea of how serious DXing can really get, check out this guy’s log of AM stations he’s picked up over the years from San Diego.
The DXing hobby can get as exotic or quixotic as you can imagine. However anybody with a fairly sensitive AM radio can hear a fair number of “clear channel” AM stations broadcasting across the country. Traditionally, the FCC let these stations broadcast their full 50,000 (the maximum in the U.S. & Canada) of medium wave carrier on one frequency all to themselves. In the 80's, the FCC opened the rules up a bit and most clear channel stations now share their allotted frequency. Other stations at their point on the dial either use directional (and often lower power) broadcasting at night, or they're just far enough away to not interfere with the the multi-state coverage of the original clear channel outlet. There’s a list of these clear channel AM stations here and here. New York City, the nation’s largest radio market, also has more of these high power AM stations than any other city in the country (WFAN, WOR, WABC, WCBS, WBBR and WQEW).
While you can hear a lot of stations on the AM dial on any given night in New York City, it is NOT an ideal locale for DXing. For one, there’s too many locals, especially those six clear channel stations which splatter into adjoining frequencies. For example, WCBS blasting at 880 Khtz makes it nearly impossible to hear WLS at 890 (another clear channel station in Chicago), or to be able to pull in another powerful station on the other side of the frequency (WWL New Orleans, LA at 870 AM).
I live so close to clear channel WQEW (now “Radio Disney”) that their inane programming occasionally comes in over the phone line. And if I have a bad cord coming out of my mixer goddamn Radio Disney weasels its garbage programming right into my sound system. Tuning across the AM & shortwave dial, “images” of mouse-eared WQEW show up all over the place. In general, it's torture.
Also, there's RF everywhere. What does that mean? Anywhere human beings setup camp, especially a city, there’s all sorts of infrastructure and gadgets broadcasting noise at various frequences, all the time. Ever notice that “FCC” sticker on your electronic toys? It's because on some level the thing broadcasts. Even wiring in general can make noise on your radio. And dimmer switches blast crackles and pops every which way. And your monitor, computer, printer and power supplies all emit static, buzzes and whines into the airwaves. You get the idea. And your neighbors have the same kind of stuff running too. It's radio spectrum pollution.
So if you’re going to try your luck with AM reception in the city, get away from your gadgets. Near a window is a good idea, and outside is even better. Often car radios have very good AM reception. Boomboxes often have sensitive radios, and most receivers with shortwave bands have decent AM reception too. In general (but not always), the older and bigger the radio the better. An don't forget that old tube radios can sound MUCH much better on the AM band. And unless you have a fancy digital radio, stay away from digital tuning. They're often less sensitive, and not nearly as much fun to tune. But a lot of radios can surprise you with their reception. Just try spinning slowly through the AM dial in the mid to late evening, and if you hear a number of faint stations in between the clear ones, and if you find spots where you hear 2 or 3 stations fading in on top of each other, you’ve got a sensitive receiver in your hands.
Oh, and one other important factor in tuning in distant AM and shortwave stations is the antenna itself. Just like tuning in FM, focusing in on problematic shortwave signals requires adjusting the antenna by pulling up the attached aerial and moving it around until the signal comes in the best. But AM is different. The antenna for that band is actually a ferrite bar inside the radio itself, usually right underneath the top of the unit. Adjusting the antenna for AM reception is accomplished by physically turning the radio around. Some DXing geeks actually utilize a lazy susan for this purpose. Now and then you can get a readable signal on two or even three stations at one frequency by moving the radio gradually around in a circle.
As far as serious listening, it’s when I’m able to get out of the city that I really spend some time sampling the medium and short wave spectrum. I’ve specifically taken some camping vacations in the north woods under dark skies where the radio reception is clear and I get a sky full of stars as a bonus. It’s really a big change when I tune to a shortwave band and there’s near dead silence between stations. In the city, I usually have to hope the signal will overcome the inherent noise floor. Many of the weaker stations don’t make it over that hump.
During the Thanksgiving holiday I spent a couple of days in the Hudson Valley with relatives, and on Friday night I turned on the radio and noticed the reception on AM seemed pretty good. I picked up WWL in New Orleans more easily than usual. So later, after everyone was in bed I plugged in my headphones, hooked up a cassette deck and slowly scanned the AM dial to hear what was out there.
More suburban than rural, the area I was in is about halfway between Albany and New York City. The RF noise was tolerable. I brought one of my favorite radios, a small early 80's Sony 9 band analog portable (ICF-7600A). By the end of the 80's most of the better portable receivers went to digital tuning, which has many advantages, but when it comes to scanning the dial nothing beats the ability to finely tune signals with an analog knob. They don’t make analog portables like this anymore. This radio is a little heavy and feels like a finely tuned instrument in your hands, and can be found with some regularity on ebay for 25 to 70 bucks, depending on condition.
I started listening around midnight. But this recording is not completely in real time, as I stopped the tape a couple of times, and made a few edits. But the MP3 segment I’m posting here is a recording of the beginning of a journey through the AM dial that night, starting at the bottom at 530 kilohertz and working my way to 750 kilohertz. If I stay longer on a station I’m either trying to tune it in better or just identify it. Or maybe I found the broadcast interesting, or was grabbing a cold beer.
So, I’m not going to link the audio to every frequency, but if you download this MP3 of this segment, and follow along, it should all be pretty self-explanatory.
530 - Radio Vision Cristiana, Turks & Caicos (W.Indies)
I hear this all the time in the city, and I didn’t think it was from so far away until I looked it up. The signal itself may be coming from the Carribean, but the content is from the Bronx. It’s Jesus-type broadcasting, in Spanish. Sometimes the preaching on this station gets a bit hysterical and interesting. I suppose I might find it less intriguing if I actually understood Spanish.
540 - The News... from somewhere
I’m not sure what station this is, but some more distant sounding Spanish station is eating at it. I’d guess it might be WLIE out on Long Island, but they run directionally toward the ocean at very low power at night. A better guess might be KNOE in Monroe, Louisiana. I think I heard some reference to the Louisiana capitol, Baton Rouge, right before I turned the station.
550 - (Nothing Intelligible)
560 - (Nothing Intelligible)
570 - WMCA, NYC
A Christian call-in show, probably a rerun from daytime programming. It’s coming in poorly with a bad whine with some operatic singing from another station bleeding in. This used to be one of the biggest top 40 stations in the city years ago. Now it’s the home of Jesus and brokered programming. It’s now owned by the super conservative "family" style corporation, Salem Communications, who also bought up WWDJ 970 AM in Hackensack, NJ.
580 - (Nothing Intelligible)
590 - WARM Scranton, PA
CBS News– A fatal ice skating accident in Wisconsin. Faint, but readable. Nice call-letters.
600 - (Probably) CICQ Montreal, QC
Some inspired classical music. Usually when you hear jazz, classical or something out of the pop music mainstream on AM radio at night, it’s probably coming from Canada.
610 - Spanish Music
Sounds like 60's Spanish music, possibly Cuban. Don’t know where this is coming from. It could be WEXS in Puerto Rico, but I have no idea.
620 - WSNR, Jersey City, NJ
Yankees information. Barely coming in. Whatever.
630 - (Nothing Clear)
There’s something in English with old Spanish music on top of it. It might be the same song as on 610. Some Cuban stations broadcast the same network at nearby frequency intervals.
640 - WHLO Akron, OH
It’s CBS News and a story about a Cleveland area Sunni cleric who’s being deported because he’s suspected of terrorist ties. Broadcasting at only 500 watts from Ohio, as far as DXing goes this is a decent catch. The Kinks song is probably a bumper music lead-in to a talk show.
650 - WSM Nashville, TN
It’s heartening to hear George Jones on an AM station these days. Classic country used to be a mainstay of the band. Not anymore. WSM still broadcasts the Grand Old Opry every Saturday night, and it’s one of the last (if not the last) clear channel AM station that plays real country music. Four years ago they ALMOST switched to an all-sports format. It’s a legendary station that has so far kept their music heritage and bucked the trend turn over their 50,000 watts to knuckleheads talking about running backs or cheerleading Republican talking points. It’s a minor miracle.
660 - WFAN, NYC
Sounds like a Nets game.
670 - Radio Rebelde, Cuba
Cuban music coming in loud and clear from the Carribean. Unlike the states, Cuba doesn’t restrict their AM stations to 50,000 watts of power. Most likely there’s a lot more oomph blasting the salsa here. I remember when I worked at a small station in Louisiana and there was a Cuban station killing our signal when we went to low power at night. One day the FCC had us briefly shut down our transmitter so they could attempt to measure the power of the Cuban station. They estimated there were booming a half-million watts our way.
680 - (Probably) CFTR Toronto, ON
Weak signal with other stations bleeding in. An American is talking to somebody (w-British accent) about how the U.S. needs to establish a leadership role in stopping worldwide epidemics and poverty. Jeez. Freedom is on the march. You’d think that would be enough.
690 - CINF Montreal, QC
French language talk radio. And is “okay” the only word that is the same in every language?
This is a correction as well. Online, a number of online sources still list this station as CBF. When it was a CBC outlet, those call letters stood for "Canadian Broadcasting French."
700 - WLW Cincinnati, OH
It’s “America’s Trucking Network, with Steve Sommers.” Trucker shows have been a staple of late night AM radio since the 70's, but they used to play old country music, and give lots of traffic and trucker info. Now you have something like this, a HACK talk host in the tradition of Matt Drudge– chattering about hot-button non-issues which typically make fun of the underprivileged and underpowered. Here ol’ Steve is on his “soapbox” ridiculing “black Friday” shoppers who get up early to snag a sale item on the biggest shopping day of the year, and then ultimately stampede over kids and grannies to get thier booty. In his wisdom, he postulates that these shopping-crazed masses go through this absurd dance simply because they're just too lazy to get up early and get a real job. Oh. Now I understand.
While the "Black Friday" shoppers are kinda stupid, it’s a bit presuming to think they went shopping that morning BECAUSE they didn't have a good job. I had turned in to him before this and he was pointing out the (ever popular) evils of liberalism. Not only is this guy a wimp, but he’s obviously a radio amateur with a thin grating voice. This time slot on WLW used to be occupied by a guy who called himself the “Truckin’ Bozo.’ I think he was a bit of redneck too, but at least he was a professional who had more to say about truck driving than reading talking points about the evils of liberalism. He’s gone to XM, one of those satellite networks. Speaking of that, apparently Dave Nemo’s gone to XM as well. He did a wonderful trucking show for years that you could hear across the country on the AM band, featuring old country music and homespun humor. It's kinda sad. Now truckers without a satellite hookup are subject to blabbering hacks, like Steve Sommers.
710 - WOR, NYC
It’s Lionel, again taking on the bumper-sticker-playbook right wing morons, as he does so well. Notice the old Spanish music heavily intruding on this relatively nearby clear channel station. It’s probably the same “Radio Rebelde” I picked up at 670, with PLENTY of power. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get WOR to come in clearly.
720 - (Probably WGN Chicago, IL)
This usually comes in pretty good out this way. But tonight it was a muddle, with what seemed to be WGN easily overcome by at least two other stations.
730 - CKAC Montreal, QC
It’s a French talk show. Faint reception. I know. Where are my language skills?
740 - CHWO Toronto, ON
Also known as “AM 740.” It’s Dusty Springfield I believe, coming in HORRIBLY. I try valiantly to pull the signal together, but no go. I listen to this station a lot in the city, and it usually comes in quite strong. Since CHWO took over this legacy frequency from the CBC a few years ago, their format has been slowly morphing from a general big band/standards sound to more of a “music of your life”-middle-of-the-road oldies format. In the car, it’s a good stop on the dial, reminds me of what music on AM used to sound like, especially from the back seat of my parents car. They’ve got a fat strong signal that covers a huge swath of the U.S. & Canada. However, the propagation of AM varies quite a bit. And as you hear, sometimes the ionosphere doesn’t do the job and the trying to listen from a few hundred miles away just yields a static-ridden mess.
750 - WSB Atlanta, GA
Apparently snuffed out this night by a far off Spanish station. Like CHWO, WSB usually comes in easily after dark in New York City. In fact, WSB usually comes in strong up in the Hudson Valley too. But not every night...
Okay, that’s about a quarter of the AM dial. I’ll offer you up another chunk of this episode of broadcast listening next week, starting with WJR in Detroit.
The following posts in this blog series can be found here.
Thanks for listening.