Some Surprising Summertime Catches

Summer has never been known as DXing season. While the upper frequencies spring to life, just about everything lower than 8 MHz disappears beneath a cacophony of hiss, pops, and static crashes. Once in a while though, as the loggings from this last week prove, those bands will surprise you.

VL8K (Northern Territories service in Australia), 2485 kHz, July 2nd, 0945 UTC. Wait a minute, VL8K in July? It didn’t make sense to me either, but there they were in the wee hours of July 2nd. Not a great signal by any means, but audible with rock music and a female announcer. I’ve never logged them in July before, let alone less than two weeks after the solstice.

Radio Sonder Grense (South Africa), July 5th, 0520 UTC. RSG is a new one for me, with pop music and commercials in English as well as Afrikaans, including Blue Suede’s Hooked On a Feeling and Rod Stewart’s You’re In My Soul.
Here’s a recording I made with the Elad FDM-SW2.

Radio Uganda, 7195 kHz, July 6th, 2330 UTC. While you can usually hear Uganda (well, at least you can try to hear them) on 4976, they decided to fire up on their former frequency of 7195 kHz on July 6th. Thanks to the tip posted to Glenn Hauser’s DXLD discussion group, I managed to snag this brief recording with the Perseus.

Not a bad log book for July huh? How about you, what have you put in your log book recently? Comment and let me know what you’re hearing.

Tales of the Iowa QSO Party

Last year, I entered my first radio contest and participated in the Iowa QSO Party. I worked a lot of stations, had a few good non-contest conversations along the way, and had a pretty good time. I submitted my scores the next day, and found out several months later that I actually won the darn thing!

ImageWho knew right?

Fast forward to this last weekend, when it came time for me to defend my title. Like a prize fighter entering the ring, I sat down in front of my radio Saturday morning ready to defend my status as defending champion. OK, it was a lot less serious than that, but at 9 AM I began repeating my “CQ Iowa QSO Party” mantra, and didn’t let up for about 9 hours.

The way the iowa QSO Party is scored is fairly simple. You basically work every station you can, multiply that by the number of different states and Iowa counties you worked, and add on bonus points for working the WA0DX club station and all the different Boy Scout Jamboree of the Air stations you can (maximum of five).  Jump through these mathematical hoops and you come up with a final score.

Like last year though, I took a rather light hearted approach. Yes i wanted a good score, maybe even a back to back win, but the journey is sometimes more important than the destination. I got to talk to a mobile station in Texas just as he crossed over the border into New Mexico, giving me my first contact with either of those states. A little later, i talked to a mobile station in TN, followed immediately by another mobile in the same state seconds later. It turns out that the driver had handed the mic over to his wife, giving me an additional contact from the same rig. Nice!

As I mentioned earlier, I got bonus points for making contact with ‘Jamboree of the Air” (JOTA) stations, which are stations set up to get Scouts interested in amateur radio. Several times through out the contest, I was asked by these station operators if I would mind talking to a few scouts, and I always welcomed the opportunity. I talked to kids from California, New York, and a couple of other places as well, even after I’d reached my 5 JOTA station limit. Hey, winning the contest is cool, but getting kids interested in radio has a much bigger payoff in my mind.

I worked a few QRP stations, a couple of guys who needed Iowa for their Worked All States award, and even some DX out of Europe on 10 and 15. Two of my more memorable contacts came later on in the day, when I worked an American Airlines air mobile 36,000 feet over Bristol, VA. About an hour later, I worked another DX station, but this one wasn’t out of Europe, it was North Africa, Morocco to be precise. Somehow or another, my crappy longwire and 100 watts managed to get my first ever contact with Morocco during the Iowa QSo party. Go figure.

For the record, I ended up scoring 6855 points, about 1200 less than i did last year. That score is good for third place right now, but stations still have about a month to turn in their loggings. Win lose or draw though, I had a pretty good time. I’m pretty sure I’ll do it all again next year too.

See you on the bands.

Pirate Chasing

ImagePirates. What’s the big deal?

I mean, when I’m in the car, I usually change the station when they start playing hair metal or Fleetwood Mac. Why in the world would I spend so much time and money to try and hear the same stuff in the super low fidelity of a pirate broadcast in upper sideband? I have asked myself that question an awful lot over the last 20 (!!!) years, when I caught my first pirate on an old Hallicrafters SX-73, but it hasn’t stopped me from spending a lot of time in front of my radios trying to squeeze out that last microvolt of signal to get that faint, static plagued station ID.

I guess it comes back to the fact that the forbidden fruit is usually the most delicious. While they may often be playing the same run of the mill classic rock that I can hear anywhere on the FM dial, these people are putting an awful lot on the line to make this broadcast possible. Fines for shortwave pirates can go as high as $20,000, and usually involve a forefiture of any broadcasting equipment. In many cases, that means anything that looks like a radio or a computer. There’s a lot of horror stories of stations having all of their gear trashed by the FCC after getting ‘the knock’. In spite of the possible consequences though, these people still fire up their transmitters on or around 6925 to bring their listeners whatever their hearts desire. And if that means classic rock then so be it.

ImageOf course, there are exceptions. Wolverine Radio is almost always loud throughout North America, and often plays an eccentric mix of music surrounding a theme with top notch fidelity. Dr. Benway, on the other hand, plays stories about his experiences with everything  from extra terrestrials on Undercover Radio. On some nights, if you’re lucky, someone will fire up the transmitter and relay some of the classic horror stories of Alan Maxwell and the Voice of the Illuminati.

Maybe that variety is the real appeal of the pirate band. When almost every song you can think of is available on demand through multiple online services, and commercial radio follows a strict corporate sanctioned play list, pirate radio always keeps you guessing. When it comes right down to it,  you never know what you’ll hear next on the pirate band. Or if you’ll hear anything at all.

Some Getting Started Tips

ImageFor those new to the world of shortwave pirates, start by setting your radio to 6925 upper sideband around 2300 UTC. Pirates can be heard anywhere from about 6920 up to around 6970, but 6925 is a good place to start. There are a few other places where they might pop up, but I’d say 90% of Norrh American activity is centered on those 50 kilohertz of spectrum. I’m not exactly sure why most pirates use upper sideband (I’ve only heard one that used the lower side), but my guess is it has something to do with old surplus military transmitters. These units were upper sideband only, so when they were modified for pirate use, that convention came over to the band as well.  Its the same with ‘pedestrian mobile’ hams. since a lot of their pack radios are milsurp in origin, they use the upper sideband regardless of what band they’re using.

Remember, pirates usually limit their output to around 100 watts, so a good receiver and antenna will be very helpful, but not mandatory. I remember listening to Radio Azteca and Radio Zanax on my Radio Shack portable from a basement apartment, so it can be done. The two most important pieces of gear you’ll need are information and patience. For information, I’d keep a close eye on a couple of the pirate radio websites, namely the HF Underground and the Free Radio Cafe, to see what others are hearing. Thanks to these sites, you can avoid hours upon hours of listening to static filled nothing, which makes then very valuable resources indeed.  HF Underground probably sees more traffic, but both are great resources and well worth supporting. Remember to post your logs to both.

ImageEven with the best of information though, there will be times when you’ll fire up your radio, tune it to the frequency where Ann Hofer Radio is supposed to be and hear… nothing. This is where patience part comes in. Remember, propagation is a funny thing. What isn’t there now may pop up for a few minutes later. Just keep the radio tuned in, wait a little bit, and see what happens. You’d be amazed what a difference a few minutes can make, especially when the location of your receiver or their transmitter is approaching sunset or sunrise. Remember, patience grasshopper. Patience!

While you’re listening, be sure to take notes of what you hear so you can get a QSL card. Back in the stone age, aka the 90s, most pirates used mail drops to receive verification reports. You’d write up a report, drop it off in the mail with a few stamps and a self addressed stamped envelope, and hope and pray you got back a reply in a few weeks. Fortunately things have changed though. Nowadays, most pirates receive verification reports via email, which means you can now write up a report, send it off to the given email address… and still wait three weeks for a reply. Actually, the usual turn around time is a few days, but there have been cases where a verification will show up in my email months after the fact. This instant communication also means that you’ll occasionally get an on air shout out from the broadcaster, which is always very cool. Sometimes they even take requests.

So yeah, chasing pirates is kind of a big deal. From the antics of Spike on board the Red Mercury (Feel free to send us a six pack of that Octoberfest next time you’re in dock by the way) to the musical tribute shows of Rave On Radio, they provide a fun and challenging DX target while sticking it to “The Man” at the same time. May you all sail the seas a few leagues ahead of the FCC for many years to come.

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A slow scan tv capture from Radio Totse, a station reportedly broadcasting from New Zealand.

 

My Favorite Things

It’s been kind of quiet around here the last few weeks. Well, everything except the HF bands, which have been full of static crashes and more hiss than a snake farm. As Ray Wylie Hubbard would say, it just sounds nasty! 

The good news though is that the bands are starting to sound a little bit like fall. The Australian domestic stations are starting to pop up here around sunrise, along with other stations out of Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific in general. In other words, shortwave listening is going to get a whole lot better. Yes, we will lose Radio Kuwait in the afternoon and New Zealand in the evenings, but we’ll be gaining a lot in return. 

This will be my 1st DX season with a few new tools at my disposal, radios, antennas, and other gear that I’ve come to depend on for their performance under adverse conditions. Some are new, others are old to ancient. Whatever their vintage, they’ve become important parts of my DX arsenal, and I’m looking forward to putting them through their paces.

Here’s a rundown of what I’ll be using this fall:

The r390a. One of a couple cold warriors here in the shack, I had this r390a sent off to Rick Mish in Ohio who turned it into an amazingly sensitive radio. For AM broadcasts, this one is hard to beat. About my only complaint with this radio is the lack of a 6 kHz bandwidth. I find 4 to be too narrow, and 8 too wide, so a 6 kHz option would have been nice. 

Sherwood SE-3 Synchronous Detector. I took the plunge and bought one of these a few years back, and it’s been well worth the price. It not only improves the fidelity of stronger, distant stations (like Radio Kuwait, which I am listening to as I write this), it also helps with much weaker stations as well. Its often been the difference between barely audible jumble and extracting intelligible audio.  Its currently hooked up to the r390a, but I should have it switched up so I can use it with one of several radios on demand shortly. 

The Perseus SDR. I am including this one with a little hesitation, but I guess it’s worthy. A lot of seasoned DXers will tell you that the Perseus is the best radio they’ve ever used. I think it needs a little more time in the shack before I’m willing to second that claim, but it is certainly a capable receiver. I use it mostly as a recorder for when I can’t be in front of the radio, and as a sort of pan-adapter. I will often see something pop up on its display and then use one of the other radios to zero in on the signal. 

Palstar r30cc. My current bedside radio. It’s simple, spartan controls can leave me wanting for more sometimes, but it’s got it where it counts. This relatively small radio hears remarkably well, and has enough audio oomph to power an old three way Pioneer speaker. I have a lot of my favorite stations programmed into memory, as well as several DX frequencies, which makes it easy for lazy DXers to check for interesting propagation without having to get out of bed. If I had a second synch detector, this is the radio it would be hooked up to.

Alpha-Delta 4 way switches. I picked up a couple of these in May, and they’ve been a great addition to the shack. Thanks to the two of these units I can now run one of any four radios through one of four antennas without having to unhook a thing. VERY convenient. 

So there you have it, some of my favorite tools in my DX toolbox. There are others, but these are the ones I use the most right now. Keep in mind that this list is subject to change, but these are my ‘go to’ rigs for now. What about you? What are you using? Drop me a line and let me know. Until then, 73s and good DX to you all.    

Just the WeFax, Ma’am…

It’s kind of interesting how entries for this blog will sometimes just jump out at you out of nowhere. Weather faxes are a great example of this.

Weather fax, also known as wefax, is one of those interesting technologies that’s been around forever on the shortwave bands. Back before satellites and the internet, this could’ve been the only way for a ship at sea to get any kind of weather forecast maps. It’s also something that’s never worked for me.

I have been trying to decode weather faxes on and off now since 1993. It’s not like I’ve tried for 20 years straight either, but every time I have given it a whirl I’ve failed. Chalk it up to crappy software, a poor interface, misconfigured computers, or just plain old operator error (my bet is on the latter), but I’ve never been able to pull it off.

Now, armed with a Perseus SDR and a program called SeaTTY, I decided to give it another whirl. Much to my amazement, I ended up with the following on my screen:

944188_10151692911131928_2124624087_n

Holy crap, it’s working!

I think the key to getting it to work this time is a combination of the SeaTTY software and the Perseus SDR. The SeaTTY software is nice in that it has a built in automatic frequency control (AFC), which makes tuning the signal a relatively simple procedure. Just get the station in the pass band, switch the program over to WEFAX mode, and off you go. The Perseus also takes some of the guess work out of the process by letting you see the signal as well as hear it. Being an SDR, it’s also a lot easier to get the signal from the radio into the computer. With the Perseus, it’s just a matter of configuring the virtual audio cable software once and you’re good to go for just about every digital mode, whether it be PSK31, slow scan TV (SSTV), or weather faxes.

Obviously the image quality isn’t all that great. All in all, it looks just like what it is: a fax. You’ll also see that there’s some work that needs to be done on some of these images after you’ve grabbed them. Sometimes the ‘skew’ can be off, and the image will need to be adjusted. You can see a litle of that in the image above, but this one wasn’t too bad. Others have required some TLC in Photoshop, but it didn’t take too long to put them back in to a coherent image. here’s a couple that went through some time in Photoshop:

933889_10151698751091928_437235563_n
That blob of clouds off the Northern coast of South America is a baby picture of tropical storm Chantal, which could be affecting the US sometime later this week.

1004463_10151698859621928_708999721_n

All of these weather faxes originate from here in the US, but there are other applications out there. Supposedly there is a Japanese station that’s broadcasting newspapers in both English and Japan. I haven’t found that one yet, but I’ll keep you posted. Until then, here’s a list of weather fax stations around the world, courtesy of NOAA, in pdf form.

Top Ten Songs About Radio

So here we are in the middle of the summer radio dulldrums. All the bands are full of the usual summertime hiss, pops, and static crashes that push us out of the radio room and into this strange dimension some refer to as “real life”. To ease this transition, and to help limit your radio withrdawl, I’ve compiled a list of 10 radio songs to listen to while the latest batch of thunderstorms roll through. With a little luck, you’ll be able to reconnect those antennas in no time.

Honorable mentios: On the Radio, Donna Summer. Ah, disco. I remember you well. Not fondly mind you, but I will admit to having a bit of a soft spot for Donna Summer. her amazing voice brings a level of heart-felt sincerity to the story of a lost love found, thanks to the radio. Rest in peace, Ms. Summer. You are missed.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p_Go0dSad9U

Radio Free Europe, REM. Back when I was a teenager, I couldn’t understand a word that Michael Stipe was singing, but I was POSITIVE it was nothing short of brilliant. Now, thanks to the internet, I can read the lyrics to this song and know that I have no idea what in the world he is trying to say. This song could reallty be about pure bred show cats for all I can tell, but it doesn’t matter. I still love this song.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ac0oaXhz1u8

10. This Is Radio Clash, The Clash. It may not be my favorite Clash song, but it’s certainly worthy of inclusion on this list. In a way, its opening lines are the blueprint for the modern day pirate radio movement:

This is radio clash from pirate satellite    Orbiting your living room, cashing in the bill of rights

Interrupting all programmes indeed!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77EAvs4dq0k

9. Turn Your Radio On, Rose Maddox. When you think about it, this song really expresses just what a revolution radio broadcasting must have been in the early part of the last century. This song, which is almost as old as radio itself, shows the power of mass media for a world that had never experienced anything like this before.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2-wM6CkzN28

8. Pirate Radio, John Hiatt. After years of writing brilliant songs for others but never receiving the acclaim he deserves, I suppose John Hiatt has a right to be disillusioned with mainstream radio. If you’ve ever heard a pirate play your favorite song, you can certainly identify with this one.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2K2_1G-6XaQ

7. Radio Waves, Roger Waters. Ok, so the premise of a quadraplegic who hears radio waves in his head and starts World War III is a little out there. So what? Even with its somewhat dated sounding production, it’s stil la great song. Besides, it’s Roger Waters. He can do whatever he wants.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1yU4qw-UFE

6. Radio GaGa, Queen. A great, nostalgic look back at how influential radio could be on us when we were young, and a foretelling of the corporate mergers that would rob the broadcast bands of individuality. Let’s hope they’re right when they say we’ve have yet to see radio’s finest hour.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t63_HRwdAgk

5. The Spirit of Radio, Rush. Disillusionment with commercial radio seems to be a recurring theme in this list, and Rush’s Spirit of Radio is no exception. While rush never struck me as a band that ever sold out to commercial whims, the pressure to do so from labels and others had to be immense. Thanks for sticking to your guns, guys, and for bringing us a gem like this.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Juv5Ifs2fFY

4. Transmission, Joy Division. Leave it to joy Division to find the dark side of things. While other songs in this list show how radio can make our lives better, Joy Division shows how it can leave us alone and alienated. Maybe this real life thing isn’t so overrated after all?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYaN2w6rcgk

3. Radio, Radio. Elvis Costello. Elvis Costello’s indictment of state controlled radio in Britain may seem rather tame by today’s standards, but it was blisteringly scathing when it came out in 77. It might have had a shot at placing higher than this, but he destroys a perfectly good radio in the video. Points deducted!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_h2YLWNzJ6U

2. Left of the Dial, The Replacements. Ah, my mis-spent youth. I grew up on the very outer edge of the local college radio station’s coverage area, and spent many evenings as a teenager straining to hear their low powered transmitter play music that I couldn’t hear anywhere else. No other song captures the spirit of the college radio heyday like the Replacements and Left of the Dial.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SpyIopsguA

1. Rock n Roll, the Velvet Underground. Just a brilliantly simple story here really. Janie meets radio, discovers rock n roll, and has her life changed forever. You could insert just about anyone’s name into this song, mine included, and it would still apply.

Despite all the computations, you know you could just dance to the rock n roll station, and it was all right.

No Lou, it was more than all right, it was perfect.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkbpmFOuKrc

Sarah Jane and the Hallicrafters

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While the summertime weather heats up, the band conditions are definitely cooling down. Aside from a few notable exceptions listed in our summertime listening guide, not much is happening on the HF bands. Solar activity has left 15, 12, and 10 quiet, while 17 and 20 sound like they’re broken. Meanwhile whatever is broadcasting on the tropical bands is buried under a layer of hiss and static crashes.

Here at HF Radio Review though, we have a plan to help heat up the ionosphere with vintage tube gear and the lovely Miss Sarah Jane. I don’t think it will help propagation any, but it should help take your mind off of things.

ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

First Impressions: Pixel Pro-1B Magnetic Loop Antenna

rotate-loopIt’s been a pretty busy week or two at the QTH. Between the big photo shoot (more pics to come, I promise!), post-production work, a class reunion, and Stanley Cup hockey, I haven’t had nearly as much time in front of the radios as I would have liked. That changed a little yesterday though when the FedEx man dropped off my new antenna: a Pro-1B magnetic loop antenna from Pixel Technologies.

If you’re unfamiliar with magnetic loops and how they work, check out this video from Pixel technologies on how they work, and why you might want one if you live in a noisy urban environment. I am fortunate though in that I live in a small town, and don’t have a lot of noise sources to contend with. For me, the big attraction is directionality. With a cheap TV antenna rotor, I have a rotatable, bi-directional antenna that requires very little in the way of a footprint or or support. In my case, this antenna is basically mounted to the corner of a chain link fence about 10 feet off of the ground. No guy wires needed, just some pipe clamps and a few cable ties.

I’ve only had a chance to play with this antenna for a couple of hours, but so far I am very impressed, and somewhat surprised by the results. I was not expecting the signals to be as strong as they are using this loop. in fact, the signal level is almost identical when compared to my long wire. I was also somewhat concerned by the antenna’s proximity to the chain link fence, and whether or not it would adversely affect the directional performance of the loop. I’m happy to report that is not the case at all. While I suppose performance could be even better if it was in a more isolated location, this antenna is capable of reducing the signal of WHO, my local 50 KW flame thrower,  by about 30 dB. Other experiments, which I tried to commit to video, show how this antenna can be used to null out a local ‘graveyard’ station KASI on 1430, reduce the signal of Radio Nacional da Amazonia on 11780, or separate Cuba from Radio Australia on 6150.

All in all, I’d say this antenna has made a heck of a first impression. It not only holds its own on signal strength with my long wire, it gives me an element of directionality I didn’t have before. All in all, I’m looking forward to having this antenna in my DXing arsenal.

 

 

Recovering from Dayton

A couple of the goodies that "followed me home" from Dayton. So I’ve been home from Dayton for a few days now, and i am only now starting to feel like I’m returning to normal. I guess three days of long drives, eating like crap, hiking through the tailgate multiple times, and sleeping on a couch will take its toll on you.

Of course, I would do it all again tomorrow if I had the chance. It was great to hang out with some old friends, not to mention talk a lot of radio with all kinds of like minded people. All in all, I’d say this was  a great experience, one I’m looking forward to doing again in the future.

As you can see, I didn’t leave Dayton empty handed. (Hey, who does?) The good folks over at  Universal Radio had the Perseus SDR deeply discounted for the show, so I decided to take the plunge and see if it lives up to its rep. I’ve had more than one DXer tell me it’s the best receiver they’ve ever used. I will be letting you know what I think over the next few weeks.

On a completely different side of things is this beautiful Hallicrafters SX-62a. I’ve seen these radios on eBay for about $300, and they looked like they’d been drug behind a truck. This one is clean and seems to work, and it only set me back $175. It’s probably not much of a DX machine, but it will be an awful lot of fun. I can’t wait to hear Radio Nacional da Amazonia played through those tubes!

Besides these finds and a few books, I also ordered a couple of receive only antennas that will be arriving at the home listening post here in a few weeks. The first one is a Pixel Technologies RF-PRO1B magnetic loop, which should be a nice addition to my existing long wire.

The second one is worthy of its own write up, as it is new to the market from Array Solutions. They have taken the foundation laid by the K9AY Loop and come up with what they’re calling the ‘Shared Apex Loop Array’. Not exactly the catchiest of names, but it could be a beast of a receive antenna. It’s four loops can be steered to one of eight directions, as well as omni and bi-directional as well. It also fits into a circle with an 18′ radius, meaning it will fit in a pretty modest back yard. I have been in lust with the K9AY for about 15 years now, so it didn’t take much arm twisting to get me to pick up their latest and greatest. Expect a full write up about this antenna after it arrives sometime early this summer.

So there you have it, my trip to Dayton in a nutshell. If you’ve never made the trip, you really owe it to yourself to make the effort. Your bank book may never be the same, but your radio room will thank you.