My First Transatlantic Mediumwave Catch

I first heard of long distance mediumwave DX from the pages of Monitoring Times in the mid 90s, when they mentioned a fellow in the Pacific Northwest who, equipped with his Drake R8 and a Beverage antenna, was hearing mediumwave stations out of India and Japan. I had no idea this was even possible until this point, and was immediately fascinated by the idea.

A few years later, I discovered Werner Funkenhauser’s WHAMLOG, as well as Mark Connelly’s Your First 50 Trans-Atlantic Countries, which was like pouring gasoline on a fire. From that point on, I was bound and determined to hear a mediumwave station from overseas, but it never happened. My noisy QTH of Baltimore City and a lack of serious antennas did me no favors, plus I was rarely available during evening grayline, the best TA hunting hours. I figured when I moved to Iowa, my chances of hearing anything would be slim to none. TA signals rapidly drop in strength as you move inland from the coast, and figured I’d have to go on some sort of DXpedition to a quiet coastal location in order to hear anything at all.

Enter Tim Tromp, and his YouTube channel Kilokat7. In my opinion, Tim has become one of the best DXers in North America, and his YouTube channel backs that up. His short Beverage and D-Kaz antennas produce nothing short of amazing results, including mediumwave catches from the South Pacific and Australia. His knowledge of the bands are second to none. Most importantly though, he’s a land-locked Midwesterner just like me, DXing from the state of Michigan. So it was possible after all!

Last night, I found myself in front of the radios, trying to avoid the debate ant the Cubs game. The shortwave conditions were terrible, so I decided to go and play around on the broadcast band for a while. It didn’t take long for me to notice a couple of odd blips on the spectrum in between the North American 10 kHz spacing, but i didn’t think too much of it. My location is prone to false images (there’s a large metal machine shed about 100′ from my antenna), but I don’t usually see them at night. these were also lining up perfectly with the 9 kHz split frequencies used outside of North America. I settled on one that seemed to be relatively in the clear on 1053 and started playing with the filters. Lo and behold, I got this:

Of course I immediately message Tim, who tells me that what I’m hearing it Libya. Yes, THAT Libya! After years of trying, I’d finally bagged my first TA catch from about 6000 miles away. Score!

What is really interesting about this is that neither Libya or Central Iowa was in the grayline at that time, as you can see from the DX Toolbox map I pulled up. I can’t think of any propagation mechanism that would get a signal this far inland at that time, but that’s the beauty of radio, isn’t it? You just never really know what you’re going to hear, do you?

In addition to Libya on 1053, I got some fragments of audio from something on 747 kHz, but I’ll have to hear that one again to see if there’s anything really there.

An Evening With a Couple of Broadcast Band Heavyweights

 

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Over the past couple of weeks, my humble patio has also become my radio room, giving me a chance to spend my evenings outside under the stars with a portable radio or two. I’ve really enjoyed these sessions, but last night was memorable in that I brought along two of the most highly regarded portables out there: the C. Crane CCRadio 2E and the venerable Panasonic rf-2200. Jay Allen rates both of these radios as the upper end of the five star scale, while Gerry Thomas over at Radio Plus Electronics lists them both in the top three of the best portables for MW DX.

With that in mind, I decided to take them out and see how they compared during a night of listening. Now please remember that this isn’t a true head to head review, but more like a few observations from a single night of listening. A head to head review would take a lot longer, and probably wouldn’t be all that revealing in the end anyway. Think of this as more of a friendly jam session between to equally competent musicians. They’re both very good at what they do, but they both do it with their own sense of style.

The CCRadio 2E

IMG_20160705_200409168C Crane’s CCRadio 2E reminds me a lot of the old Realistic DX-390, and for good reason. Like that old Radio Shack offering from the early 90s, the CCRadio is made by Sangean, which might explain the similar feel these radios share. The size, control placement, and sound are all similar to the old DX-390. Unfortunately, the CCRadio 2E (aka CCR2E) also tunes like that old radio, with the same muted audio and “chugging” sound whenever you change frequencies. I would think they could’ve done something about this over the last twenty plus years, but I would be wrong.

Aside from this quirk though, the radio is laid out in an easy to use arrangement, with the tuning knob and volume control on the side, and the presets, power, and band selection on top. The front panel features a separate bass and treble control, up and down tuning buttons (10 kHz at a time on AM), and a variety of clock and alarm controls I will probably never use. Unlike most of my other portables, the CCR2E  features a digital frequency display, with an optional backlight. While it isn’t a requirement, a digital readout can certainly make your life a lot easier. Last night, for example, I turned the CCrane to 610 to compare it to what I was hearing on the old Panasonic only to find I was really listening to 590 kHz. Oops!

While I realize that the audio of this radio was designed for human speech and not music, it still sounds kind of narrow and compressed to my ears. Even with the separate bass and treble controls, it still doesn’t seem to have the full sound one would expect from a radio of this size (another trait it shares with its DX-390 ancestor). It does work as advertised though, with speech being clear and quite understandable from even distant stations.

And it is in hunting out distant radio stations where this radio shines. I could hear everything on the CCrane that I could hear on the Panasonic and vice versa. In fact, in sheer sensitivity, I couldn’t really tell them apart. The CCrane also impressed me with its selectivity as well, passing my “1030 test” with flying colors. It was a little harder to get a good null on WHO with the CCR2E than it was the rf-2200 and its rotating antenna, but it is still doable.

Don’t put any stock into the fact that there’s no audio on 1030 during this test video. It’s AM radio you know, and things come and go. It just so happens that, when I had the video running, there was nothing to receive. What is important is that you’re not hearing WHO.

A rotating cake decorating plate from WalMart or Amazon will make finding nulls a lot easier, but a real signal strength meter would be even better. When you’re trying to find that perfect sweet spot that will give you the maximum null, a real signal meter is a huge help. The uncalibrated signal meter along the right side of the CCrane display is too slow to respond to be of any use with this. Its probably more a factor of the radio’s automatic gain control than it is the meter, but there’s no user controlled AGC setting. What you have is what you have.

IMG_20160705_205148324Unlike the Panasonic, the CCrane allows you to use a tuned loop, like a Select-a-Tenna or Q-Stick, to further enhance your listening. I took advantage of this to couple my Quantum Loop antenna to the radio using nothing but magnetic coupling. I had to ride the gain control pretty hard on the antenna to keep the radio’s AGC from overloading, but it made a big difference in what I could hear. I found i could get deeper nulls much easier with the loop than I could with the radio alone, which shouldn’t be a surprise.

Expect more about this antenna in a future post.

The rf-2200

IMG_20160705_200356370You don’t have to sit in front of this radio for long before you can see why its still the gold standard in broadcast band portables. Even after 40 years, this radio is still a very hot performer.

As you may know, I have spent a lot of time this summer listening in with the Sony EX5 MkII, which is a very nice portable in its own right. When I tune that radio to 1030 AM, engage in some careful nulling of nearby WHO on 1040 and activate the lower sideband synch detector, I can squeeze out some signal, but not without some adjacent channel splatter. When I performed this test on the rf-2200, I made WHO radio disappear entirely, and found WBZ Boston in the clear. While i could tell it was Dan Rey’s Nightside show with the Sony, the Panasonic let me listen to the show, and follow the discussion about whether or not callers would attend the Olympics in Brazil. That’s very impressive to say the least.

This isn’t my best video, but you get the idea. By the way, that weak station that’s barely audible in the video is WCTS out of Maplewood, MN.

A lot of that impressive performance comes from the rotating antenna mounted on top of the radio. The ball bearing action gives you smooth, precise control of the nulls without having to rotate the actual radio. That means your eyes never have to leave the signal meter, and lets you get the deepest null possible.

Unfortunately, that rotating antenna is also part of the reason why I cannot use Q-Stick or Select-a-Tenna with this radio. According to Gerry Thomas, there’s something in the circuitry of this radio and other Panasonics that won’t allow you to magnetically couple. Both it and the CCrane do have external antenna terminals though, so can still connect directly to the Quantum Loop or any other antenna.

Unlike the CCrane, the rf-2200 has a big, full audio that’s common to a lot of radios in the Panasonic line. Even with the narrow bandwidth selected, the audio still has a nice, rich sound to it. I don’t feel as though that richness gets in the way of intelligibility either. In spite of the rf-2200 not having audio tailored to human speech like the CCR2E, I found each radio to have equally intelligible audio.

While it’s hard to tell with the less than stellar audio pickup of a cell phone camera, you can definitely hear a difference in the audio of the two radios. Notice that both are set to neutral tone, with the bass and treble controls all pointing straight up.

Unlike the CCrane, with its different controls spread out across the front, side, and top of the radio, all of the Panasonic’s controls are on the front. In other words, you’re going to need a flashlight to make your way around all of those controls in the dark, especially if you decide to switch over to shortwave. I’m sure in time you’ll figure it out in time, but a flashlight will make things a lot easier.  The good news is that the radio has a dial light, something that’s painfully missing from the Sony EX5. Unfortunately its nestled in between two identical switches that control the BFO and the power. If you’re in the dark, and your radio begins to squeal or goes silent when you’re reaching for the dial light, you hit the wrong switch.

As I mentioned earlier, the rf-2200 does have shortwave capabilities, and it seems to be a fairly decent performer. I checked for New Zealand, Australia, and Brazil a couple of times this last week and found them all. I even listened to the pirate station X-FM the other night as well. No SDR, SAL loop, or DSP needed either. Just me, the rf-2200, and a couple of tiki torches. Life is good, people. Life is good!

So Which One is Better?

I will be the first to admit that I have a crush on the Panasonic rf-2200.  It’s not small or light, but it hears things that other portables don’t. Not only does it hear them, it hears them well. Its a big beast of a radio that is sensitive, selective, and capable of deep, precise nulls with its rotatable antenna. Simply put, the rf-2200 kicks the doors off of just about every other portable I’ve ever had the pleasure of using.

But it doesn’t kick the doors off of the CCR2E.

In fact, I couldn’t find any real difference in their ability to hear things at all. I certainly like the audio on the Panasonic better than I do the CCrane, and the rotatable antenna on the rf-2200 is fantastic, but I can use the Q-Stick or other magnetically coupled antennas with the CCrane too. It also has the advantage of a digital readout, so I don’t have to guess where I am on the dial.

I really wanted this “showdown” to be a slam dunk for the Panasonic, but it is not. If the Panasonic could hear a station, the CCrane could hear it too. In fact, no matter what I threw at both of these radios, their performance was virtually neck and neck. It’s even a wash when you look to other features each radio has. The Panasonic is a decent performer (for a portable) on shortwave, but the CCrane can pick up the 2M band and the NOAA weather radio frequencies. It can can even alert you to when there’s a storm warning issued. It also has a built in clock with alarm. Not a feature I’d use, but it is there nonetheless.

In the end, I’ll probably stick to the Panasonic, but I won’t be putting the CCrane up for sale anytime soon either. Both are outstanding radios, and well worth having in your collection.

 

 

Summer Nights and My Radio

r-donaldLike a lot of people from my generation, my first exposure to radio came through the AM broadcast band. In fact, my first radio was a Donald Duck AM only radio that I got from Disneyland. At night, I would fall asleep listening to far off cities like Chicago, or Cincinnati. Later, I found an old transistor radio (a Viscount 12 transistor model) that viscountI used to carry around with me in my coat pocket. I taped a piece of paper to the back of it, and would write down what station I heard and where it was on that tiny dial.

Lately, I’ve been taking advantage of the cool, late spring evenings to get out of the radio room and away from all its technology (‘Take the night off, SAL. We’re good’), and get back to the basics; just a flashlight, radio, the AM Radio Log from the National Radio Club, and myself hanging out, and seeing what I can hear.

One of the nice things about the AM broadcast band is that you don’t need a lot of advanced technology to hear a surprising number of stations from all across the country. Of course that technology helps mind you, but its not critical. All you really need is a decent AM radio (see Jay Allen’s awesome blog for a great shootout review of AM portables, both past and present. and a quiet location to hear stations from all over the country. Atlanta, St. Louis, and Denver pop up here just about every night, but you never know what will pop up. While Atlanta may be the usual station on 750 kHz, sometimes Radio Caracas out of Venezuela will be there instead. Other times, all it takes is a turn of the radio to bring in a completely different station. here at my location, 1430 is usually dominated by KASI out of Ames. If I turn the radio so that it faces to the Southeast though, I hear the oldies station KZQZ out of St. Louis.

IMG_20160524_105644361 (1)My radio of choice for these adventures has been my new toy, the Sony ICF-EX5MkII. It’s been a lot of fun getting to know this little marvel of technology, and so far I’ve been very impressed. Its been more difficult than I imagined getting used to an analog dial again, let alone one that is linear like the one on the EX5, but I’m starting to get the hang of it.  Expect a review somewhere down the road. For now though, I’m just happy to enjoy the weather, the stars, and whatever happens to make its way to Central Iowa on the Am dial.

Summertime, and the living is easy.

 

The Mystery Signal on 720 kHz

On January 8th this year (already January 9th UTC),  I found myself on the road between my home QTH and the small town of Story City, Iowa. My Mom was convalescing there after some surgery, and I decided I would drive up there and say hello at least, even if it was getting on the road after 8 PM local (0200 UTC). On the way up, I turn on the trusty Yaesu FT-857D I have in the truck and try to tune in 720 AM. The Chicago Blackhawks are getting ready to play, and I figure I’ll be able to catch most of the first period during my drive, but what I heard was definitely not the hockey game.

While WGN was in there some of the time, they were never very strong, and occasionally not there at all. What I did hear though was rock music. Instead of the familiar voices of John Wiedeman and Troy Murray, I heard a hard rock cover of Bob Seeger’s Turn the Page, probably by Metallica. Later on, as I was driving into Story City, I heard the Scorpion’s No One Like You before I arrived at my destination. I never heard any station ID, and I had other family business to deal with on the trip home, but this should be easy to identify. Hey, it can only be one of so many stations, right?

The Likely Suspects

A night time pattern map of stations on 720 kHz.
A night time pattern map of stations on 720 kHz.

Thanks to the excellent Radio Time Traveller blog, I managed to track down this night time pattern map for 720 kHz. Let’s take a look at each of these stations and what we know about them:

WGN, Chicago. This is the station I was trying to listen to, and I can vouch for the fact that they were carrying the Blackhawks game that night.
KSAH, San Antonio. I have heard this station before, usually underneath the more dominant WGN, but occasionally even stronger. They have a Spanish sports talk format though, so I think they can be ruled out.
WRZN, Hernando, FL. Their news-talk format doesn’t fit the profile of the station I’m looking for.
KDWN, Las Vegas. Another station that doesn’t fit the format I’m looking for. In this case, they’re a news, traffic, and weather station.
KFIR, Sweet Home, OR. A news-talk station licensed to broadcast with 184 watts at night.

This leaves us with a handful of other possibilities, namely KUAI out of Hawaii, which is a classic country station, and another long shot shot: KOTZ.

The gray line map for January 10th, 0220 UTC.
The gray line map for January 10th, 0220 UTC.

KOTZ 720 is a small public radio station, broadcasting with 10 kw of power out of Kotzebue, Alaska. Unlike our other stations, its format is simply listed as “variety” on Wikipedia, which certainly doesn’t rule it out as a candidate. What’s also interesting about this possibility is the sunrise map, which puts the gray line squarely over the coast of Alaska at 0220 UTC, which coincides perfectly with when I heard this station. Was it KOTZ I heard that night? Well, maybe. It is a longshot at best, but it’s my best hope without having to leave North America.

I have contacted KOTZ about this, but I haven’t received a reply yet. I will keep you posted. Until then, I’d be happy to hear some feedback from other mediumwave DXers out there about any other possibilities I’m overlooking.