This post resumes where the last one left off, scanning the AM broadcast band in northern Michigan late at night August 23, 2001. I recorded this dial scan at a campsite located on a peninsula jutting into Lake Michigan. Far from urban and residential radio interference and situated in the midst of a giant body of uninhabited water, it was a promising location for receiving distant stations.
For those who are interested in such things, my equipment was an adequate workman-like setup, using a Radio Shack ripoff of the GE SuperRadio and the Terk AM loop antenna. I’m not a fan of Radio Shack by the way. However, for many years their stores WERE practical dealers of relatively inexpensive radio gear-- especially if you had the patience to wait until certain items went on sale. But as I mentioned in the last post, this has changed.
Located just 740 miles shy of the exact center of the continent, my picnic table was a good location geographically to scan AM broadcasts at night. And the time placement was significant too. This session of radio monitoring occurred at the late end of the summer news lull preceding the onslaught of the endless media storm of fear and terror that we still can't get enough of.
On the hot seat that evening-- Gary Condit. The spooky centrist Democrat from California suspected of murder had just faced the television scrutiny of Connie Chung that evening on ABC. You may recall, there was no issue more worthy of our attention at that time. You heard some of the talk radio discussion of that TV incident in the audio presented with the last post.
But before I get into this radio reception of that evening, I wanted to say something about the practice and appeal of DXing itself, and perhaps about the art of it as well.
In writing this series of blog posts (with audio) concerning a relatively obscure hobby, like DXing, I guess I’m hoping these will primarily be read by people who would never do such a thing, but are still interested in lo-fi old fashioned mass media. But I'm trying to make sure I have an idea of what I'm talking about because these will also be read by folks who also search out distant radio stations (Many who probably know about DXing than I do). As I stated in my first post, I’m a casual DXer at best and it’s my amateur enthusiasm for the avocation that I hope to pass on to readers here, more than any claim of expertise or knowledge. And in writing about a little known and possibly dying craft, I’d hope that a few readers might expand their radio diet, and that others might renew their interest in fooling around this way.
Although I hinted about in an earlier post, I might as well be straight-out honest-- DXing is an intimate act. It’s you and the radio. While it’s hard to imagine there aren’t people who DX “together,” I have yet to experience a significant journey through the frequencies with another engaged human being.
While there was a time when people sat around together transfixed to the radio listening to news, dramas and variety shows, but for decades radio has been reduced to a background application in social situations. If you want to accomplish some significant DXing you’re probably going to need to reserve some personal time to do any significant listening. Maybe you have friends who are very patient or are intrigued by a session of tuner adjustment and antenna manipulation AND all the strange noises that goes along with testing the limits of a receiver. But I don’t. And unless I happen to sign up for an outing with a DX club sometime soon, I don’t envision sharing this hobby in the future other than writing about it. That’s just the way it is. You may have noticed that the listening experiences I've posted here all generally begin after 11 p.m. In practice, I generally don't get a chance to get to huddle around a receiver until after my better half and the little one hit the hay.
In the end, what I’m saying that even if you have an interest in DXing,
or have gone out and purchased yourself a respectable AM radio or
shortwave set, unless you’re able to reserve some time to yourself in
the evening to play with the radio (hopefully somewhat isolated from RF
racket) you’re probably not going to have much luck with searching out
distant radio stations. If you happen to be a loner without a TV, DXing might be a viable alternative to more traditional activities, like reading.
Also, like most geeky avocations, DXing is a decidedly male habit. Sure there’s exceptions. Some women read sci-fi and design software too. But you know what I mean. I saw a good illustration of this the other day. I was looking at radios on ebay, and saw an auction for a particular digital shortwave receiver I covet from time to time. According to the text, the guy had purchased this rather fancy portable for his wife, but she wasn’t crazy about having to "tune around" for the Shortwave stations. So now the radio is for sale, and the wife is much happier with her new subscription to satellite radio. Me? I prefer to tune around. There's no real adventure in punching up satellite stations.
That said, there are many ways to DX. On shortwave, you can look at a schedule of broadcasts and specifically tune to the frequencies (many stations have multiple simultaneous transmissions), which is better suited to digital tuners. Or with AM you can hunt out distant stations you think you might be able to hear. Although I’ve had a some success DXing this way, unless you have a hot receiver and/or a great location you’re probably going to run into a lot of disappointment.
Or you can "tune around," and search out busy sections of the dial. I find analog tuning best for radio exploration of this kind. And obviously I like to record what happens. I consider every dial scan I glean this way to be a unique media archive, and strange as it may seem I listen to most of them a number of times. Like the slave of any bad habit, I've grown to appreciate the side-effects, the musicality of distant radio reception and the poetics of capturing swatches of broadcasting. Each recording is unique and an artifact of its time and place.
And speaking of the glory of DXing, I was honored to see that these posts referred by some DXers to Glenn Hauser (of World of Radio) and mentioned in his “DX Listening Digest.” Nice to know that a few serious DXer’s are actually reading these. However, Mr. Hauser bemoans that I made a couple mistakes on the log of my first AM DX post. Of course, he was right, and I made the corrections. However, there is quite a bit of outdated information on radio stations on the web, and it’s not hard to make a mistake when coming across an unfamiliar station. Although Radio Locator is easier to use, I believe that this site has more accurate listings.
In that spirit, I’d like to say I’m open to corrections, tips, comments and suggestions via email here. As I’ll continue to say in this series, I’m no expert but if you have direct questions regarding my DXing experience or what I do know about radios, you can email those as well. But relevant remarks that could add to the post or might be better shared should be left in the comment section at the bottom of these pages. I really do appreciate the positive feedback I’ve gotten for putting together this series. Thanks.
I’ll get back to shortwave listening (or SWL as practitioners like to say) in future posts, but for now I’m going to reconvene where I left off-- back to the Michigan picnic table somewhere around midnight in August 2001. It was pre-Patriot Act America, and the headlines were full of Gary Condit. The last station heard in the previous post was clear channel WSB at 750 KHz in Atlanta.
Segment 2 - Northern Michigan Radio 08-23-01 (760 to 900 AM) download MP3 here) This dial scan begins at the tail end of my reception of WSB, but quickly segues into...
760 - WJR Detroit, MI
Trucker show, country music. No ID, but I'm pretty sure about this one. Then things get more difficult...
770 to 830 - (Hmmmm...)
Like I said, I’m fairly loose about DXing and rarely log my listening. And trying to ID the next few frequencies that I received at an unfamiliar locale is baffling to me four years later. I never thought I’d be writing about these tapes.
It's just after one o’ clock in the morning, and Coast to Coast with Art Bell is just kicking in after the news. Coast to Coast is an overnight staple on hundreds of stations, so between one and five a.m. eastern time it pops up on the AM dial all over the place.
Just turning the dial slightly from WJR, there’s a weak signal bearing Art Bell, and I believe this is WABC in New York. But then another nudge of the dial (or rotation of the loop antenna) brings in a loud clear copy of a replay of an ancient “Fibber McGee & Molly” radio show. And no amount of internet detective work has provided an obvious candidate for this signal. There is a station at 770 in Calgary (CHQR) running 50,000 watts which does run Fibber McGee and Molly at that time, but because of the two American clear channel stations at that frequency they have a directional pattern at night, and it’s AWFUL far away (like 1400 miles) and it seems unlikely that it would come in this well.
Anyway, this is where things get a little loose, because I’m moving back and forth on the dial for a minute, instead of moving in one direction. (Probably trying to get my bearings and testing out my loop antenna for the first time in a promising DX location). What you hear is some country music mixed with a LOT of Art Bell on different stations. In this section of the dial, his Coast to Coast program runs a few 50,000 watt stations in this part of the world– 770 (WABC), 800 (CKLW), 810 (WGY) and also at 840 (WHAS). I believe that I hit all of those here and eventually end up at WHAS coming in nicely. The country station is clear too, and seems to be at 830 KHz. This IS a country station at that frequency in Alberta, but...
Going either unfound or unidentified in this part of the dial, two other clear channel stations I would think would be quite readable– 780 (WBBM) in Chicago and 83 (WCCO) in Minneapolis.
Correction from 02-10-06: I think I figured out some of what was going on here. Although WBBM is an all news radio station, they do feature an hour of old time radio exactly at this time on weeknights. They call it "When Radio Was." That explains the Fibber McGee & Molly. Also, the country music in the middle of all the Art Bell is likely from CIGM in Sudbury, Ontario at 790 KHz.
840 - WHAS Louisville, KY
It’s Coast to Coast AM, with the creator of the program, Art Bell. You heard Bell’s hearty reading of his commercial load in the jumble before this. Now it’s on to the matter at hand-- a new crop circle.
If you’re not familiar with Art Bell, though the nineties his overnight talk show went from being carried by a small network in the southwest to become the biggest program in its time slot in North America. At some point on, Bell went from being a maverick right wing talk host to creating a program specializing in topics supernatural, conspiratorial and unusual. And did I mention the aliens? It’s all there.
From his compound in the Nevada desert, Bell was doing a five hour show five nights a week and a three hour weekend program by the late 90's. And then when you consider that he spends some of his off time chatting on his ham radio, the guy’s truly a compulsive broadcaster. And he’s had a erratic career in the meantime. Bell has “retired” from radio three times since 1998, and has been through a series of bad luck and tragedies over the years. The worst was the untimely death of his wife just a few weeks ago. Bell’s show is now owned by Clear Channel Communications and as the Coast to Coast franchise there’s been a number of other hosts. These days Bell just does the show on the weekends and George Noory is in charge during the week.
Here’s an extended clip that’s typical Art Bell. There’s breaking news in the paranormal world. A crop circle has appeared in England that looks like the “Face on Mars.” And the message? “Soon.” The guest is non-stop chatterbox and fringe science guru, Richard Hoagland.
850 - KOA Denver, CO
Talk radio giant in the west. I believe this still the furthest west AM band catch I’ve received in Michigan. It’s not a strong signal and there are few stations pulsing underneath, but it is 1100 miles away. I remember once I was in Alabama talking on the phone to a friend in California one night. We were both able to pick up KOA at the same time. That’s coverage.
It’s a small dramatic talk radio moment going into an ID and spot break. The topic? Mr. Condit and Ms. Levy. Talk radio was overloaded with Condit outrage that night. Unless you were following the crop circle situation.
Sounds it's being broadcast from a tower down the road, but it's coming from almost 300 miles away. I’ve heard a wide variety of music over the years on this French language CBC outlet– jazz, rock, classical, and some great ethnic stuff. Tonight it’s some lovely French pop.
870 - WWL New Orleans, LA
“The wind chill factor was probably about ninety below zero. The fuel in the fuel tank ...looked like Vaseline.”
It’s the Road Gang trucker show with Dave Nemo, which I believe was the first all night trucking radio program. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Nemo has moved on to XM satellite radio and he’s sorely missed on the AM radio dial. When Nemo was playing non-stop classic country through the night and talkin’ truckdrivin’ this was the one of the best listens when driving in the dark across the eastern half of the U.S.
On this night Nemo is taking calls from aging truckers as they share harrowing tales of sub-zero trucking. I could listen to old geezers tell tales like this all night. And not a word about Condit.
870 or 880 - (Art Bell again)
This station is another mystery to me. I believe it’s at 870 KHz in a null from WWL (picked up by turning the antenna.) Again, it’s the ubiquitous Coast to Coast program here with Bell and Hoagland continuing the update on the mysterious crop circle.
Bell mentions his website, which was an extremely popular and huge site filled with information on strange topics. Lots of pictures. However, artbell.com is long gone now. Bell took it down when Clear Channel/Premiere officially took over the show. Now they have their own site. For a while, the original webmaster was selling CD-ROM’s of Art’s website online, and I’ve even seen the whole thing posted on Usenet.
880 - WCBS New York, NY
Traffic and weather on the 8's. Construction on the LIE, Lincoln and Holland look great. 58 degrees. Top stores coming up. Something about a congressman and an intern. Tell your friends!
890 - WLS Chicago, IL
It’s ABC News, and a little Canadian news as I dip into CHML a couple of times. ABC features their sound bites from Connie Chung’s TV inquiry. And even the ABC news anchor seems angry at Condit. It’s bad enough that Bin Laden has gone missing all this time, but why hasn’t this man been brought to justice by now? Oh yeah, the other big story-- A crazy Ukranian killer on the loose.
900 - CHML Hamilton, ON
Hah! The lead headline in Hamilton? The Ontario Teachers' Federation elected Hamilton teacher Pearse Shannon as its 58th President. Gary Condit is four or five stories into this Canadian newscast. And then there's Bubba O'Neal, with sports.
Thanks for listening.