It was heartening and reassuring to get so many favorable comments (and emails) after my last post (which was part one of this series and can be found here). 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.
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.
By 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.
Things 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.
That 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’s also a seriously problematic gadget. And a VERY overpriced one at that. What’s worse is that the CC Radio has an inherent defect that has plagued the radio since it first came out. After a couple years the LED display starts to crap out. The folks at C. Crane charge fifty bucks plus postage to fix the problem. Considering that the CC Radio is their highest profile product, you’d think C. Crane would offer a recall and fix the problem. I’ll probably eventually send my radio in and eat the fee. But it still pisses me off. Buyer beware.
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. And 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’m considering expanding this series into shortwave and further medium wave (AM) scans. 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. Here's the MP3.
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 format 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.)
Today, 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
800 - 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’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.
Like 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.
For 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.
This station blasts up into the midwest, and was the perfect home for a national radio show. Eventually Nemo’s program was broadcast to other stations, then he moved his new network to Nashville. That’s all over. Nemo has left the broadcast band for XM. However, if you like you can relive the glory of his WWL show by downloading these files– Here are MP3's (part one and part two) of Nemo’s Roadgang program from August 4, 1989. I have to admit that this show really turned me on to a lot of old country music over the years. Check out Nemo’s recitation of “I am the American Trucker” at the middle of part one of these archives (or just grab this edit). It’s beautiful.
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.
That 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 it'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.”
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
It’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. There’s a handful of live DJ’s every day, but for the majority of the day WHVW is an automated mix of Pirate Joe’s favorite pre-oldies. It’s rare enough to hear AM stations feature music at all, let alone offer air time to the more raucous and rockin’ sounds that made AM radio great in the 40's and 50's. Thanks Pirate Joe!
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.