14 January 2016

a thought on portable radio ergonomics


I use exclusively portable radios. Recently, I wanted to revisit my Degen DE321 to see how it tuned strong local signals and what kind of tuning refinements were possible. So I put a couple alkaline batteries in it and tuned to my usual local news radio station, KCBS AM 740.

At some point, I was ready to switch it off and do something else. I picked up the radio and thoughtlessly moved my thumb along the right side. I heard a click sound and thought "okay, it's off." But then I took another look at it, and saw the Tune light was still lit. Then I remembered that there was a power switch on the left, and what I did was probably lower the volume.

If the volume dial didn't end with a hard stop, I would've noticed my error right away. There's something that portable radios could adapt from smart phone user interfaces: an indication that the end has been reached. When scrolling to the edge of a page, there's a sort of rubber banding effect that lets the user continue to move the content but smartly indicates that the edge was reached. What if volume knobs and tuning knobs continued to travel a bit at the edges, and produced a quick vibrate?

01 January 2016

finding stations in a new city

My family had recently moved due to my father changing jobs. My parents found a well-maintained brick house with a spacious backyard for their growing children. The kitchen had a nice layout, the living room had an incredible view of the backyard, and the spacious family room would be great for parties and gatherings. All of the schools were within walking distance, and our grandparents were just a few miles away. The only problem was that we only had three bedrooms for five people. The parents got a room, our older sister got her own room, and my brother and I shared one. Thankfully, my older brother Mark and I got along well and we were young, so sharing a room wouldn't be a problem.

"Hey Eric," my brother told me, "there's a lot more stations now."

He was tuning the General Electric clock radio in our room. The larger city we previously lived in had numerous AM and FM stations, but my brother was discouraged by what little he found on the radio in our new city during the day. I was just reaching the age where I paid attention to the radio and I even had some favorite songs. We mostly listened to pop and classic rock stations; a highlight for me each week was Casey Kasem's American Top 40.



"All the new ones are on AM." I acknowledged what my brother said, but wasn't actively participating. It was around bedtime, and I was flipping through a comic book while sitting on my bed.

In my adult years, I would delve deep into the wonders and mysteries of radio, learning about shortwave, amateur radio, and ionospheric propagation. But as a grade-schooler, I only understood a few concepts: on/off, volume, and tuning. I had a vague awareness of AM and FM. My grandfather had a car radio that picked up only AM, but all of it seemed to be talk, not music. As the youngest one in the family, I was rarely ever controlling the tuning dial.

"I think she said Cincinnati!" my brother exclaimed, referring to a station he had been listening to for a couple minutes. I finally put my comic book aside and we discussed what that meant. Was it news? Was that female announcer actually in Cincinnati? Cincinnati was hundreds of miles away from us, so how was this possible? Then we heard a call sign. WLW. We didn't recognize it, and found it strange as we thought all radio call signs had four letters.



He moved the tuning dial around some more and we heard music, strange voices, commercials, and some stations that sounded very faint. Mark demonstrated his fine-tuning method to me, using his pointer finger instead of his thumb so he could move the tuning dial very slowly.

"This station is pretty cool. I'll leave the radio on this one and I'll turn it off when the song ends." It was a station playing one of his favorite songs. Our parents had also signaled that it was time for lights out.

"Cool," I replied. I was impressed but also relieved that the radio and the lights would soon be off so I could sleep.

The next morning, my brother grabbed the radio excitedly and switched it on, but he heard nothing but faint static. The stations that we were listening to the night before had vanished.

That's how I was introduced to the phenomenon known as medium wave DXing.

(Images from Wikipedia and Apple Maps. Thanks to Jerry and Stephen for their input into this post.)

22 December 2015

about a radio call-in contest

The year was 1999. I was driving around the Oakland/Berkeley area, locally referred to as the East Bay, and some FM radio station I was listening to was giving away concert tickets. I listened for the phone number, and rushed to pull over so I could use my wireless phone safely.

I was the correct caller, and the DJ who answered the phone did the standard thing of asking questions and recording the call to play back on the air. At the end of the call, she asked me my favorite radio station.

Uh.

I wasn't a regular FM radio listener anymore. I certainly didn't have any loyalty to the stations in my area. But it was a nice distraction in the absence of other things to listen to. Digital audio players apparently existed for a year by that point, but I didn't own one yet.

So I had maybe two seconds, tops, to remember and say the name of this station, who were so generously giving me two tickets to an upcoming concert.

Let's see, what frequency am I on? 101-something. I don't have that car anymore, so I don't remember what the radio tuner looked like. But it was definitely factory, so I did an image search and see that the radio had a digital frequency display. So I was likely looking at 101.3 on the tuner display. And it's not one of the callsigns I know. Embarrassingly enough, I knew the callsign of the local smooth jazz station, KKSF (since changed to KOSF, and with a different format now). And there was the ubiquitous KOIT, the easy listening station that you might hear in a dentist's office. As for this frequency? The station's identity hadn't been stored in my brain yet.

I had a good guess, and decided to go with it rather than admit I didn't know what station I was calling. I mumbled through the branding for the station, which was correct, and heard it played back a few minutes later on the broadcast.

Thank you, KIOI aka K-101, for those concert tickets!

30 November 2015

the state of my hobby

The date is 28 September 2015. I'm standing on the roof of a parking garage, which was my first regular outdoor shortwave listening location in July 2005. A beautiful sunset took place tonight, and orange remnants are still visible on the horizon. It's always pleasurable to climb the stairs of this structure to view the sky and surrounding area.

There's an airplane approach overhead, for jets coming from the Pacific towards SFO's 28 L/R runways. So a continuous line of carefully-spaced airplanes is often visible. Occasionally, a widebody jet approaching from the north flies to this location and does a U-turn for the approach. (In fact, that's exactly what happened when I finished composing that paragraph.)

As the sky gets darker, a nightly opportunity opens up with the removal of the D-layer of the ionosphere. Sure, daytime skywave propagation occurs under different characteristics, but I'm primarily a nighttime listener. And I'm comforted by my hobby of outdated technology of analog radio broadcasting, despite my daily usage of the Internet. I remember Radio Havana Cuba, in particular, coming through my Kaito 1102 portable. Naturally, when I went home that evening, I wrote my reception log on a computer.

When I began this hobby over 10 years ago, it was already declining. Shortwave transmission sites are being decommissioned and disappearing, and international news organizations prefer Internet distribution. RF noise levels are problematic due to the complicated infrastructure in the average modern home, making cheaper indoor shortwave receivers and their antennas seemingly perform poorly. Shortwave is a niche and a hobby in my country. Smartphones and portable music players tend to focus on digital audio files and Internet streaming. And if a radio tuner is included, it's FM only.

An argument in favor of Internet broadcasting is that the content matters more than the medium. The Internet can deliver better quality further and more reliably than analog radio broadcasting, which is subject to atmospheric conditions and geographic limitations. And shortwave broadcast equipment is expensive to operate.

But these are not reasons to abandon a hobby or a passion. They are limitations and realities to be taken into account so that one may adapt. Rather than complain about what has changed, it's possible to enjoy what's still available. And that's what I plan to do.

22 November 2015

now equipped with wx radio

I recently acquired a small portable radio, a Kaito KA210, which receives AM (520-1710 kHz), FM (88-108 MHz), and the weather band (162.400-162.550 MHz). El NiƱo is coming, and I thought this would be a good time to explore a previously-ignored radio service. Not every form of local preparedness has to involve my computer, smart phone, or a local all-news AM/FM station, right?

At my home in San Francisco, I've received broadcasts on four of the seven available frequencies, and heard callsigns for all four of these stations.

Received:
  • 162.400: KHB49 "San Francisco all hazards" (IDed 22 Nov 2015 0223 UTC)
  • 162.475: WZ2504 (Sonoma County) (IDed 22 Nov 2015 0923 UTC)
  • 162.500: KDX54 "Big Rock Ridge all hazards" (IDed 22 Nov 2015 0923 UTC)
  • 162.550: KEC49 "Monterey all hazards" (IDed 22 Nov 2015 0952 UTC)

There are additional NOAA stations in my area that I haven't yet received:


19 November 2015

bbc shortwave, 26 sep 2015

During 1025-1050 UTC on 26 Sep 2015, I tuned to 9740 kHz on my Eton E5 with a ceiling-mounted random wire antenna connected. I heard a faint and fading English broadcast which sounded quite like BBC due to the accents. Short-wave.info lists three BBC broadcasts for this time and frequency, originating in Thailand and Singapore.

Within a few minutes, I positively identified the broadcast from the phrases "BBC World Service" and "BBC News". BBC's current frequency guide for Southeast Asia matches the data on short-wave.info, confirming broadcasts originating in both Thailand and Singapore on 9740 kHz. I'm assuming that I'm receiving the stronger of the two signals (which is from Thailand). In this case, Nahkon Sawan, Thailand to San Francisco, California represents a reception distance of approximately 7900 mi / 12700 km.

Links relevant to BBC's Thailand relay:


11 November 2015

kaito ka11 on shortwave

I powered up my diminutive Kaito KA11 with two like-new alkaline batteries, raised the miniscule whip antenna, and listened to the tiny speaker. It was shortwave I intended to scan. The time was about 0415 UTC, nighttime in my location, on Sun 18 Oct 2015.

At first, I heard nothing, even on 10000 (enter + 1 + 0 + enter), where I expected either WWV or WWVH to come through. Then while adjusting the telescopic antenna, the signal suddenly became loud as if the antenna had been loose in some way. I wanted to try 5000, but the shortwave frequency range on this receiver is 5800 to 18100 kHz. Although, amusingly, the radio accepts input of 18199 kHz. So with only 10000 and 15000 available on this radio for checking WWV and WWVH, it's difficult to do my initial propagation test.

Having to deal with strong local interference from adjacent apartments, I wandered my apartment in search of a combination of strong signal and low interference, with little success. Rather than consulting published schedule info, I tried to identify broadcasts the hard way.

5935: Female, English, religious, probably University Network
6090: music
7455: Male, English, religious
9790: Female, Asian language, the best signal by far from these receptions
10000: WWVH

In general, I experienced harsh audio with high-pitched static, heavy fading (nothing resembling gain control or sync detection here), and a poor overall listening experience. I've always enjoyed this radio's appearance, with its compact size, modest weight, and pleasant orange backlight for the LED display. The buttons have a satisfying feel when pressed, so operation of the radio is fine but the results are not. And most of my portables take AA batteries. This one takes two. I'm especially happy when a radio takes an even number of AA batteries.

The next afternoon, around 2100 UTC on the same day, I checked the available daytime bands. Again, I could only check WWV/WWVH on 10000 and 15000, and only 15000 registered a very weak tone from these time stations. I didn't even hear the voice identification to help me differentiate which station it was. Quick stepping through the 25m, 22m, 19m, and 16m bands didn't turn up any signals worth mentioning. I may have chosen a bad time for this band scan, and admittedly didn't use a more powerful reference radio to see what kinds of receptions might be possible.

In summary, this radio offers a lot in terms of look and feel, but couldn't receive much shortwave from inside my home.

30 October 2015

firedrake logs, oct 2015

Firedrake has interested me for a while, but I didn't log it at all in 2014. Recently I've been enjoying the UTwente WebSDR thanks to mentions from LondonShortwave on Twitter and my friend Dan. So I thought that would be a useful resource to look for Firedrake again. I found that it's still very active and can be found on a number of daytime and nighttime frequencies.

During 21-24 Oct 2015, Firedrake was located on these frequencies (kHz):

5890 (1800, 2000, 2100 UTC)
5970 (2000 UTC)
7435 (2100 UTC)
7505 (2200 UTC)
9355 (1800, 1900, 2000 UTC)
9370 (2200 UTC)
9685 (2100 UTC)
9745 (1800, 1900, 2000 UTC)
11560 (1800 UTC)
11945 (0100 UTC)
13830 (1100 UTC)
17625 (0500 UTC)
17810 (0600 UTC)

This is a consolidated version of my logs arranged by frequency. Times shown are simply the hour during which the transmission was identified; some receptions were only a minute long.

The target of all of these jamming transmissions, by my recollection, was Radio Free Asia. I saw at least two mentions on Twitter of Radio Free Asia receptions. One was a description of music, the other was a YouTube video. Radio Free Asia is a news broadcast, and the jammer is loud orchestral music. When identifying a station, it's important to ensure that the format is a match, as well as the date, time, frequency, and region (taking things like propagation and greyline location into account).

However, Radio Free Asia itself is not a source of broadcast frequencies for its Cantonese broadcasts. On their broadcasting schedule page, recently updated for the B15 period, the Cantonese schedule is indicated with Frequency Not Promoted.