Well, my Degen radio finally arrived from China this week. And I do like it. At the bottom of this post you'll find a few samples of shortwave reception I snagged with it on Sunday, but first I’ll offer a few first impressions of the radio itself.
As I mentioned in the last post in this series, I’ve long been eyeing this shortwave portable on the internet for over a year, and finally decided to go ahead and order one. A recent invention, the Degen 1103 is the same basic radio as the Kaito 1103 that’s marketed here in the states. After paying shipping and insurance from China via ebay, the Degen is still twenty bucks cheaper than the Kaito version. And I’m all for that.
After coming across so many fawning reviews online, I was already convinced that this radio was probably going to be a good performer. It is. That much I could tell from the moment I turned it on. Not only is it sensitive, but the digital tuning is as graceful as you’re going to find on a radio at this price. Of course, scanning the band isn’t quite as organic as using an analog tuner, but it’s damn close.
After pulling it out of the box in the early afternoon I tuned to medium wave and found a couple of fringe AM stations I hadn’t noticed before. And although I have picked up WPHT at 1210 in Philadelphia here in New York during the day before, the Degen also picked up WBZ in Boston at 1030 just past one in the afternoon. Impressive. Then later in the early evening, I found Kuwait and Ukraine coming in clean and strong on shortwave, along with plenty of other stations I didn’t bother to log.
Because propagation on AM and SW varies so much, if you’re going to dig into a section of the radio band to explore what’s out there, it’s good to be able to sample some bands first to find out where the action is. Unlike playing with an analog set, you can’t whip through the dial and pick out signals quite as quickly with the 1103. But even when I speed though the numbers at top speed I do get a sense that I’m hearing a viable sample of each 1 kHz stop along the way. Which is unlike my other digital portable (a Sangean ATS-505) where it takes a fraction of a second for each step to reveal itself. Zooming through a band at a rapid pace yields a bunch of useless silence. As reader Ralph noted on a earlier post, high end digital receivers have a much greater resolution (smaller “steps") and scanning is practically the same as using an analog rig. But for eighty (to a hundred) bucks this radio gets the job done.
The pseudo analog tuning display isn’t necessary, but it does give you a helpful visual roadmap of where you’re at. I do wish the numerical readout was a little larger. This is where the BCL-2000 is better in low-light or in the dark. The display is brighter and numbers are larger. Also the “jog dial” which you use to tune the DE1103 also serves a number of functions, most notably the volume control. It takes a minute to get used to, but I didn’t find it nearly as annoying as other reviewers did. As far as actual scanning, going through the dial can yield a mild chirp between steps if you’re passing a number of active frequencies. In general, scanning slowly solves this digital annoyance, but not completely.
I also should note that it seems the same basic radio with a big fat numerical readout instead of an extensive analog dial simulation is now available. It’s the Eton E5 (which was supposed to be released as the Degen 1106, but they sold the design to Eton). From what I've read, it's the same basic receiver as the Degen 1103 with a more traditional shortwave radio layout and has more presets available. However, the E5 lists for around $150 and to me those features aren’t worth an extra seventy bucks.
As I’ve noted before, I live very close to a booming clear channel AM station, WQEW at 1560 kHz. On other radios I have here (especially the BCL-2000), nearby frequencies are wiped out by WQEW. With the 1103 I can now hear WWKB at 1520 in Buffalo and WCKY at 1530 in Cincinnati. Also the image of WQEW blasts in on 650 kHz on the BCL. With the Degen I haven’t been able to pull in WSM in Nashville there yet, but WQEW’s Radio Disney bullshit doesn’t haunt that frequency on the Degen. I also heard a listenable read of WLS at 890 in Chicago at night, which is a real feat considering the wide swath of bandwidth WCBS (at 880) grabs here in the city.
So, I look forward to taking this little unit away from the city and hearing what I can DX under better conditions. My apartment is an RF nightmare. I tried plugging in an external antenna (the radio comes with a LONG one) and was totally frustrated by how the just pulled in MORE noise. That night I also found out that the little battery charger for my digital camera blasts a nasty pulse on the 41 meter band.
Bottom line, I’m already recommending the Degen (or Kaito) 1103 to readers of this series who might be thinking about purchasing a relatively inexpensive shortwave radio. From what I can tell, before now you couldn’t purchase a new radio with this kind of overall performance for near this price. The BCL radios are nice, and I do recommend them as well, but I have to admit that while I like some features (notably analog tuning with an easy to see digital display and an RF gain control) A LOT, I’m more enchanted by what the BCL radios could or should do rather than the actual experience of how it performs in real conditions. Let’s hope later models are an improvement.
While I picked up a some interesting stuff playing around with the Degen this weekend, I wasn’t able to record a dial scan I’d want to present here. Reception wasn't what it was a day or two before and the weather here in the northeast has been really lousy. There was plenty of lightning out over the horizon playing havoc with the AM and shortwave bands. On Sunday night (Mother’s Day) there was no rain here, so a little after eight in the evening I sat on my front stoop flipping through the 41 meter band and caught a few broadcasts I thought I’d share. For the first time I picked up a couple of shortwave pirate broadcasters, which was almost exciting. At least for me.
Hopefully over the next couple weeks I’ll be able to offer a dial scan or two more representative of what the 1103 can really do. But for now, this post offers four radio samples which represent the DIY side of shortwave. Some (or all) of this programming probably originates from the homes of the broadcasters themselves. While much of the shortwave you’ll pick up in the states is major international stations and Christian U.S. goofballs, there is more to be heard.
Here’s the audio...
This is an SSB (or sideband, broadcast). Again, I don’t want to get into too much technical radio talk, but sideband is different than typical amplitude modulation, or AM broadcasting. From what I understand, the signal lacks a “carrier” and is more “efficient in its use of electrical power and bandwidth” than AM. In other words, you get more bang for your buck on the transmitter end, with the signal having a greater reach with less power. It’s a favorite method of broadcasting for hams and radio pirates. And this is most certainly pirate programming.
While any shortwave can receive an SSB signal, but to be able to make any sense of it you need to have a radio with an SSB or BFO feature. When you tune one of those muffled and/or buzzy voices, switch on the SSB capability and “clarify” the station with a tuning knob until the voice starts to sound human. The Degen 1103 and my Panasonic RF-2200 both have this feature, the BCL radios do not. Without it you do miss some of what's available on the dial.
Although I’ve heard a number of recordings of shortwave pirates this is the first one I’ve come across that I recognized was one (Of course, often I wasn't able to access an SSB signal). Every shortwave pirate recording I’ve heard always sounds like crap as far as signal quality, and this one was no exception. It starts out with that “bound and gagged” sound of untreated SSB, then when I push the SSB button and tweak the wheel it quickly clears up.
It starts out with a juvenile Opie and Anthony phone prank, which I gather involves calls to (auto parts?) stores and repeating the word “buttplug” over and over again with a variety of intonations. This confuses and frustrates the store clerks on other end of the line, and well.. hilarity ensues. Oh, your sides will ache...
Anyway, then a male voices announces that he is “The Voice of Mike Gaukin” as well as “a gay faggot.” (Which is I gather must be the opposite of a straight faggot.) The there are references to “Kracker Radio” and another pirate group (I guess?) “The Bowling League.” And to add to the fun, the announcer has electronically mutated his voice, and this could fool you into thinking you haven't correctly tuned into the sideband. I guess there’s all sorts of ways to have fun.
I don’t get capture much of this “program.” Just over a minute here. At 8:23 EDT (0023 UTC) it’s all over and the static takes over. So, who is Mike Gaukin and why is he investing his time and electricity to tell the world about his gay faggotry? Well, some internet searches bring up a number of references to the “Voice of Mike Gaukin” pirate broadcast. And from the time I’ve spent browsing around, it seems that Michael Gaukin is a real guy and “Kracker” of Kracker Radio doesn’t like him very much, and has an ongoing slander campaign going online and on the radio. Here’s an alleged rap sheet on Gaukin from Kracker’s site.
Or maybe there’s something totally different going on. I have no idea. It’s all a bit too teenage boy for my taste. But if you want to dig deeper into the Mike Gaukin mystery, you can start here or here.
Then a few quick nudges of the knob and I’ve found Mr. Kracker himself. This pirate broadcast is straight ahead AM and not sideband. Electric guitar with an effects pedal. Then an electronically tweaked voice which sounds suspiciously identical to the Voice of Mike Gaukin. Although it’s not easy to sort out the collage-ish interlude between songs, references to penises and marijuana are evident. Then it’s King Missile and “Detachable Penis,” which I cut off here when the storm static was eating up the signal.
I’ve read that this little piece of property on the 41 meter band is quite popular with shortwave pirates. Weekends (and perhaps holidays) are supposedly good times to look for them. I’m not totally sure if these two broadcasts are from the same person, or just related persons, but the content is the same junior-high wiener wagging fun.
But, isn’t it something? Young guys with some radio equipment more or less have access to the world airwaves and it’s all about their little dangling dachshunds and their favorite sphincter muscle. Sheesh. I thought the Christians were like broken records.
I’d guess both of these pirate broadcasts originate from somewhere in Ohio.
7240 - Southern Ham Operator (download MP3 here)
Again, this is SSB and you can clearly hear the process of tuning in a sideband signal. Ham (or amateur) radio is a great broadcasting tradition-- usually guys in their gadget rooms filled with legal radio equipment (and licenses) who chat among themselves on specific frequencies, sometimes talking to fellow hams around the globe. Not all use sideband, but most do. The conversations are often a bit boring and from what I've heard there's a lot of discussion about the trivial details and functions of their radio equipment, or just small talk about what’s going on around the house that day.
That said, hams also provide an important free-standing network of communication around the country and the world. It's not all fooling around.
This clip is awful short. Just a good-bye really. And the accent? I think either Tennessee or the Carolinas. Of course, he could be broadcasting from anywhere, probably in the eastern U.S.
It’s WBCQ again, the most creatively programmed shortwave station in America. Yes, there are some scary jesusmongers and right-wing freaks on WBCQ too, but there’s also some entertaining talk and music programming for a change, especially on their 7415 kHz signal.
This is Johnny Lightning’s “Radio NewYork International,” a Sunday Night talk and comedy show originating live from Brooklyn. I don’t know how he gets the audio up to the transmitter in Maine, but I imagine it’s via a phone line. Johnny takes calls and chats and rants and generally seems to have a great time every Sunday night.
The name of the show comes from the original Radio NewYork International, an offshore pirate station in the late 80's (run by WBCQ head honcho Allan Weiner, Mr. Lightning and others) located on a ship off Long Island which the FCC shut down in 1988.
RNI is a solid four hours of homegrown radio, with lots of bits and jingles and some serious issues occasionally broached amid all the silliness. It's a New York City radio broadcast to the world and it's too bad more people in the city don't even know it exists. Fans of WFMU’s Seven Second Delay, Aerial View and Professor Dum Dum’s Lab may find a lot to like in this four hour weekly program. It’s a freewheeling (and frequently manic) onslaught of opinion, stories and bad jokes, and like some of the best shows on WBCQ it’s as human and entertaining as American shortwave radio gets these days. In this sample you get almost twenty minutes.
Other posts in this series can be found here.
Thanks for listening.