An Evening With the Drake SPR-4

IMG_20180508_192729Outdoor listening sessions are nothing new for me. My Facebook feed has several shots of the Drake R8, HQ-145, and even a Racal 6790 sitting on the deck of my old house, an adult beverage nearby, and a strand of speaker wire for an antenna. These listening sessions never provided any exotic DX catches, but they were a lot of fun.

Now that winter has finally surrendered its grip on Central Iowa, my radios have again found themselves outside on the patio for an enjoyable evening of listening under the night time sky. It gives me a chance to get away from my beloved Perseus and my trusty fleet of portables, and get re-acquainted with some old favorites.

Last night, I dug out an old war horse that hadn’t been fired up in a few years: the Drake SPR-4. Now for those who are not familiar with this radio, all I can really say about its operation is that it is a dial turner’s dream come true. Not only is the HF spectrum broken up into crystal controlled segments, there is also a preselector that needs to be adjusted with every turn of the tuning dial. In case you’re still not clear on how it all works, here’s a demo video someone put up on YouTube to give you a better idea.

Don’t let these ‘quirks’ fool you though, this is a real gem of a radio. Drake understood both the benefits and limitations of late 60s solid state technology, and designed a radio to maximize those strengths while minimizing the downsides. The result is a radio that is well regarded in DXing circles to this day. From my experience, I’d say it hears about as well as anything in the shack, and it has that beautiful blue dial to boot.

The beautiful blue dial of the SPR-4.
The beautiful blue dial of the SPR-4.

IMG_20180508_192745This particular SPR-4 had a couple of aftermarket modifications performed on it by the original vendor, which give it a couple of nice features that never made it into the stock versions. One of these is a gain control switch that allows it to be turned off when needed. That’s usually not a big deal, but it can mean the difference between hearing a weak signal and never pulling it out of the mud.  The other mod present on this radio is a  BFO injector, which basically allows you to use the USB and LSB settings as a secondary bandwidth filter without the noise of a squealing heterodyne.  Handy indeed!

The frequency counter on top, with the VFO below it.
The frequency counter on top, with the VFO below it.

This radio also came with another super handy accessory: a frequency counter. While I wouldn’t say it’s completely necessary, it can be very helpful, especially if it’s the first time you’ve turned the rig on in over a year. It certainly answered my immediate question of  ‘where in the world am I on the dial?‘ All I had to do was flip it on, take a look, and I was good to go. The display does generate a little bit of noise on the dial though. Normally it’s 100% inaudible, but since my Quantum Loop antenna was sitting right next to it, I never left it on for very long. I have bought an aftermarket VFO for this rig, but I prefer using the crystals.

Because the SPR-4 didn't have enough dials already... The Hi-Q Quantum Loop made for a great MW antenna.
Because the SPR-4 didn’t have enough dials already… The Hi-Q Quantum Loop made for a great MW antenna.

This radio is especially well regarded among mediumwave DXers, and it doesn’t take long to realize why this radio has the reputation that it does. The first thing I picked up was a station with Washington Nationals baseball, WRVA 1140 out of Richmond, VA. Not exactly a difficult catch here, but still a very nice signal. I then moved down the dial to the Cardinals on KMOX St Louis, and managed to just about null them out with the Quantum Loop. I then headed further down the dial to 1030, just on the outskirts of my local clear channel flamethrower WHO Des Moines. Some adjustments to the loop helped to reduce the interference, but it was still pretty “crunchy”. A quick switch over to the lower sideband setting and a little fiddling of the notch filter though quickly revealed WCTS, the 1 kW religious station out of Maplewood, MN. Not the WBZ I was hoping for, but still a good test.

I continued my cruise down the dial, thoroughly enjoying everything about the night. One of the beauties about the AM broadcast band is that no two listening sessions are ever the same. What is coming in like gangbusters tonight may be gone without a trace tomorrow, and vice versa. Tonight was no exception, as I nulled out my beloved Chicago Cubs on 670 and listened as KGHZ and Cuba battled for supremacy on the frequency. Later, I watched a shooting star shoot across the sky as WSM played Honky Tonk Stardust Cowboy by the great Lefty Frizzell.

How freaking cool is that, people?

I ended up the night by playing detective on 620 AM. Milwaukee was dominant, but KEXB out of Plano, TX was mixing with a couple of others. WRJZ out of Knoxville, TN was one (they were nice enough to come up just as they gave an ID, something that usually never happens), but I could also hear the hockey game between the Winnipeg Jets and the Nashville Predators. After eliminating a couple of possibilities through internet live streams, I figured out from a commercial mentioning Florida  that it was sports station WDAE out of Tampa. With the mystery solved, it was time to wrap up another great “Propagation on the Patio” session and go to bed.

There are a lot of worse ways to spend an evening than spinning the dials on the Drake SPR-4. While it may not win any beauty contests, or awards for ergonomics, this radio has it where it counts. When I said this radio could hear as well as anything in the shack, I really do mean anything. It’s as good as the R-388, the Perseus, the Elad… you name it. When you can take a quality radio like this outside though, and enjoy it under the night time sky, that’s something very special.  If you get the opportunity, take advantage of these cool late spring nights and do a little listening outside.  It’s well worth the effort.

In fact, I may have another date with the Drake set for tonight.

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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.

 

Howard

Back when I was a poor college student, my roommate and I went into a local DC liquor store to do some competitive price checking. While we didn’t find the prices to be all that good, I was shocked to find something else: radios. One of the guys who ran the store, a ham by the name of Howard, fixed up and sold old radios out of the back, so the shelves were full of wine, liquor, and shortwave sets. I quickly became friends with Howard, and ended up buying a couple of radios from him before I graduated, including an old Delmonico and a Hallicrafters S-77.

Fast forward to the spring of 93, when I am now a poor college grad working at a shitty job in Baltimore. I didn’t have a lot of money, but I couldn’t resist making the trip down to DC to see Howard and his radios. What I found there on that Saturday was the most amazing radio I’d ever seen: a Hallicrafters SX-73. The mother of an Ex would describe it later as a ‘big, ugly box’ (and believe me, this woman knew all about being big and ugly), but it was beyond beautiful to my eyes. I didn’t know much about it, but I knew it would be going home with me if I could afford it. When Howard told me he wanted $75 for it, we made the deal and I started the process of lugging it back home. I got some funny looks on the train that day, but I didn’t care. I was a very happy man.

My SX-73 in my basement apartment. The HQ-140XA was also acquired from Howard as well.
My SX-73 in my basement apartment. The HQ-140XA was also acquired from Howard as well.

Of course, that radio became my go to receiver, and I made a lot of catches with that beast, including my first pirate on 7415 (WKIK). One thing I didn’t expect though was the reaction I got from people when I told them I had an SX-73 at home. Dealers at hamfests or on the phone would fall all over themselves trying to get me to sell or trade it to them. I never took them up on their offer, but it made me start to wonder just what I had here. This was in the days before the internet (yes, there was a time when the internet didn’t exist), so I just kept politely declining their offers, and I kept listening to the bands on my “Big Hal”.

It wasn’t until a few years later that I found out the back story to this radio, and why everyone was so interested in it. After making a post to a news group about the rig, a man replied and filled me in. It turns out these radios were only made between 1952 and 1954, and cost a whopping $975 bucks new. Needless to say they didn’t make a lot of them, and were considered to be the second most rare of all the Hallicrafters. He ad vised me that, if I were to sell it, I could probably walk out of the deal with about $750.

Wow, that’s a lot of money for a broke 25 year old. That could buy a lot of computer parts, ore even a new radio. But the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that Howard knew very well that radio was worth a lot more than $75. Rather than getting full value for it though, he was willing to practically give it away to a kid who loved radio, and who would put it to good use. Yeah, I could sell it and make a handsome profit, but it just didn’t feel right. Now I know that this is what Elmers do, they hook up those just getting into the hobby, and give them a way in.

Today, that liquor store is a Domino’s pizza place, and I’ve long since lost touch with Howard, but I still have that old SX-73, and she still works. She doesn’t get used much anymore, but it’s still one of my prized possessions.

So here’s to you, Howard. Thanks for giving the 23 year old me a break.

History Lesson: Superpower KUSW

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In honor of Global 24’s recent sign on, we bring you a piece on another commercial shortwave broadcaster from 25 years ago: Superpower KUSW, I happened to be rummaging through my storage unit a while ago when I found this QSL card, an artifact from what is still my all time favorite shortwave station. They’re long gone now, but I still remember them fondly.

Join the KUSW premium club for only $20!
Join the KUSW premium club for only $20!

It’s hard to explain what these guys meant to a 17 year old kid from Central Iowa. While their playlist wasn’t nearly as daring as I seem to remember, they sounded almost revolutionary to these teenage ears. Their format was mostly AOR with an adult contemporary spin to it, but they also played bands like Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians and the Replacements. They were also my first exposure to Bonnie Raitt and John Prine as well, not to mention the first place I’d ever heard the Band’s Up On Cripple Creek. Like I said, they probably weren’t all that different from a lot of major market stations at the time, but they were a huge departure from anything else I could hear. I embraced them with open arms and became a loyal listener.

I soon got to know the on air personalities of John Florence and Faith Martin, who had the sexiest radio voice I’d ever heard. Later on, I got to know Cheryl Schaffer, “Skinny” Johnny Mitchell, and even Utah Jazz Basketball. I listened in while they broadcast listener requests, mine and others, as well as the time their broadcast was blasted by the U.S. Army to drive Manuel Noriega out of the Vatican embassy in Panama. Fun times!

Unfortunately the economic realities of shortwave broadcasting quickly caught up with KUSW. No matter how good the programming was, and it was very good, there just weren’t enough advertisers interested in shortwave to make a go of it. Over time, more and more paid religious broadcasting found its way onto the station, until one day in the fall of 1990, they through in the towel and became just another international Christian broadcaster. Their run may have been brief, but it was a glorious one nonetheless.

The station's information sheet and frequency schedule
The station’s information sheet and frequency schedule

This particular card is dated January 15, 1988, but I remember my report dating back to a few weeks earlier. I had just received my first “real” shortwave radio, a Realistic DX-360, for Christmas of 1987, and discovered KUSW a day or two later. To this day, they’re the only international broadcaster I’ve ever QSLed.

Along with the card, I found a form I was supposed to fill out and return (which I obviously did not), and another for the Superpower KUSW Premium Club. $20 was a lot of money for a 17 year old kid back then, so I didn’t join up. I wonder what you got for your money?

While I was digging around on the net for KUSW-related material, I found this sound check from one of their early broadcasts. I’m not even sure where I found this or who made the recording, but if they ever stumble across this page, let me know and I’ll give you full credit for your efforts.

From the West, to the World. This is Superpower KUSW.