Analogue listening
January 20, 2014 4:38 AM   Subscribe

As a child, I used to love what I later found out to be called MW DXing - tuning a medium-wave radio carefully to find unusual and far away broadcasts. Has digital radio, and the ability to hear broadcasts from anywhere - both 'official' stations and amateur-run - killed this off? Is there such a thing as digital DXing?

I've had a digital radio since 2003, and we have an internet radio as well, so all the stations of the world are available to us. However, I used to find seeking out stations on the dial really fascinating (I could pick up Irish radio, Radio Sweden, pirate reggae stations, morse code stations and on one occasion the cordless phone conversations of my next-door neighbour from my basic MW receiver in NW England), and didn't even know there was a name for what I was doing until a couple of years ago. I used to write down the names of stations I found, or send off for leaflets, but I couldn't always identify everything as they were not always in English.

I acquired a second-hand ICF-SW7600GR a couple of years ago (though I need to find a mains adaptor that won't affect the signal) and I kind of miss the crackle of analogue static. However, with some analogue signals now being turned off, is it still possible to find something interesting out there? I've had a look online, but many of the sites I've come across seem aimed at ham radio people, which isn't what I'm interested in. I'm intrigued that this wee pastime I used to enjoy has a name, and I'm interested to know whether people are still doing it - rather like digging in crates is less exciting now you can buy a record in minutes online should you have the cash spare, I'm wondering whether, with technology making the world feel smaller and more accessible, it's still being done. I had a book listing all the frequencies for worldwide stations, which sadly got lost when I moved house - are things like this still being published somewhere?
posted by mippy to Technology (5 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Your radio should do great at this. To avoid the mains adapter interference, I find it best to just run it on batteries. I don't know about Europe, but the MW band is as active as ever here in the US, and loonier than ever. The international shortwave bands are still active as well and fun to scan through. You may want to check out the WRTH (World Radio TV Handbook) to find frequencies to try.
posted by DarkForest at 5:12 AM on January 20, 2014

I can't find it again now, but I remember a couple of years ago stumbling into a web site where enthusiasts were logging in to record the most distant AM station they could tune in each night. So it is still a thing.
posted by COD at 5:35 AM on January 20, 2014

Medium-wave isn't dead, although it's getting there. I, too, miss the sounds of the likes of Radio Sweden, Radio Netherlands, Deutsche Welle and other foreign broadcasters drifting across the North Sea by night. I can't pretend to understand the economics, but the financial problems faced by European countries over the past few years have helped speed up the demise of international-facing broadcasting, particularly on MW - the old, unfashionable analogue frequencies and programmes targeting foreign audiences are low-hanging fruit when you're looking to make cuts at a state broadcaster. Even the BBC isn't immune to the trend.

Domestically in the UK, while speech radio is holding up relatively well on MW (with 5 Live and talkSPORT remaining quite popular), music radio is fast disappearing. 76% of Absolute Radio's audience now listens on digital instead of MW. Several local commercial MW stations have closed in recent years. Ofcom are looking to repurpose disused parts of the MW band for non-profit community radio stations, as the FM frequency spectrum is now full in most areas.

Your radio should work well - it's a good one. London won't help - you're surrounded by all sorts of electrical interference, increasing all the time as we get more and more shiny gadgets and connectivity. Broadband in particular is a big contributor to noisy conditions, as well as the execrable power-line networking technology. I live in a rural area and things are a lot quieter radio-wise. If you can get a piece of wire out of the window, you'll hear a lot more than if you just keep your radio indoors.

There's still a lot to hear. An excellent website called the Euro-African Medium Wave Guide lists in eye-watering detail all the known medium- and long-wave transmitters in Europe and Africa. Not all of these can be heard everywhere, of course - but if you can identify the language, it's a great way of finding out "what's that station?". The World Radio TV Handbook is a similar thorough look at shortwave, AM, FM and even TV transmitters worldwide. FMScan lets you enter in any location in the world and get a list of the local FM, AM and TV stations.

DXing on DAB digital radio is definitely a thing, but it's far more hit-and-miss than with medium-wave and even with FM due to the high frequencies in use. It mainly rests around very specific atmospheric conditions (tropospheric ducting and the mysterious Sporadic E) or living in a coastal area within line-of-sight of the Continent. DX on FM is a very similar beast - here in Yorkshire, I occasionally get Dutch radio on FM in the car. Medium-wave is special in that every night you'll reliably hear distant stations as signals bounce off the ionosphere.

Is it still special? Not in the sense that you can now turn on the computer and hear almost any station in the world. 20 years ago, it would have been physically impossible to hear an FM station from New York, no matter what the conditions. Now, live audio from WFMU is a click away, which is no bad thing in the nation of Heart, Magic and *shudder* Capital FM. But the serendipity and romance will never be replaced by an internet stream, the feeling that nothing is between you and the radio station - the signal is drifting across a vast distance to reach you and may never do so again. I hope we never return to the days when listening under the bedcovers to Radio Luxembourg is the only way to hear music - but I also hope we don't ever lose this intimate connection between station and listener. Gatekeepers between us and the people providing our media are never a good thing.
posted by winterhill at 5:36 AM on January 20, 2014 [6 favorites]

Thanks for answers so far (and digging your name, winterhill). FM radio is often unusable in London due to the amount of pirate stations - unless, of course, you want to listen to grime or happy hardcore, which you won't often find on regular networks. I'm surprised pirate broadcasting is still happening given the legal risks and the (possibly) cheaper and easier internet broadcasting methods available now. The Irish stations I used to pick up on MW were RTE 1 and 2FM, which I don't believe even broadcast on MW then.

I live on top of one of the few hills in London, next to a massive transmitter - when we moved in, I thought this would have been perfect if I were still 14 and had a CB radio. I struggled to get any useful signal on MW on our shower radio though. When I was away at Christmas and scanning on an analogue radio for the first time in years, in a rural area of Scotland where I was picking up French language stations at night, it got me thinking about this again.

REALLY intrigued by the DAB DXing - I have a small portable for my iPod which allows for fine tuning.
posted by mippy at 6:13 AM on January 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

A lot of London's pirate stations are "actually" internet radio stations these days. You'll find no mention of an FM frequency on their websites. Some hardcore fan must be re-broadcasting them on FM - the stations themselves obviously have no idea who'd possibly do such a nefarious thing, honest, etc. :)

RTÉ R1 and 2FM both disappeared off medium-wave a few years ago - the former is still available across most of the UK on 252 long-wave, the frequency once occupied by the late Atlantic 252. Long-wave has Radio 4 and a few French and German stations on now, but little else that's audible in the UK. Russia recently turned off its long-wave transmitters.

DAB DXing isn't as exciting, really - the signals aren't quite as robust as FM or AM, which degrade into noise gradually. You can hear a weak FM station even if there's hiss and interference. With DAB, you either get perfect audio or no audio at all as the signal becomes weaker and the threshold is pretty high. It is possible, though, under certain conditions. If you want to know more, MeMail me! (Radio is my professional area.)
posted by winterhill at 6:51 AM on January 20, 2014

« Older How can someone stay on the grid but minimize...   |   Help me save my bf's birthday dinner! Recipe ideas... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.