Blog Archive

Monday, March 1, 2021

Hobby radio during these tough times

Miss me and my blog? Somehow I managed to skip the entirety of 2020, but it had more to do with personal ambition (or lack thereof) than the Covid pandemic. (Plus, it took forever to clean out the garage.)

To put things in perspective, no one heard of Coronavirus when I last posted in December 2019, and no one foresaw the disruptions that were in store for our lives. 

But the radio hobby is resilient and strong. With many people quarantined at home, ham radio reestablished itself as a way to make friends and maintain human contact during isolation. This was especially the case in the U.K., as highlighted in this BBC article, "How amateur radio is connecting people during lockdown."

Another growing trend is the marriage of the internet and ham radio, where apps allow radio contacts through a computer or Android device - no radio or antenna needed.

The Peanut as shown on my laptop.
My favorite is The Peanut, an oddly named but easy to use app created by a ham operator in the Netherlands. The Peanut gives users a radio dashboard and access to D-Star and DMR servers, plus other digital modes.  There's an S-meter, drop-down boxes to select talk-groups and even six channel scanning on the PC version.

You will need to e-mail proof of a ham radio license to the administrator, and will then receive a return e-mail with an access key. The Peanut also includes chat rooms that are not linked to radio repeaters, so you can meet up with other hams around the world.

Another hot hobby trend is SDR, software defined radio. SDR displays radio spectrum on a computer, with signals showing up as waterfall traces across a section of bandwidth. You only need to mouse-click on the signals you want to decode or listen to, then select the correct mode. Tuning an SDR correctly takes a bit of practice so that voices don't sound off-frequency - either like Donald Duck or Tubby Tuba.

Screenshot of my SDR.

Setting up your own SDR receiver can be done on the cheap. The hardware can be as simple as a plug-in dongle, running on free software. I have been successfully running SDR Console V3 software powered by my NESDR Smart RTL dongle. Hours of fun can be mine and it’s pretty to look at.

If you don’t want to set up your own SDR receiver, you can use others that stream online at no cost. My go-to online SDR is found at in Milford, PA. This system may be the most widely used online receiver in the world, with more than 2,000 hits a day.

I have also become addicted to Zello, the push-to-talk cellphone app that has blossomed into a worldwide radio-over-internet system. With massive growth over about 12 years, Zello now has 150 million users and is home to thousands of channels, all created by users themselves. 

Some channels link directly to ham radio and GMRS repeaters, while others stream fire, aviation and police audio. I use Zello for all of these purposes, and it makes a great scanner as well.

Zello offers commercial dispatch software for business and emergency services, which includes GPS tracking and emergency buttons for each user. Unlike Zello for individuals, Zello for businesses isn't free.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Decaying radio station has historic background

Sometimes an eyesore has an interesting story to tell, and just needs someone to tell it. One such case is an abandoned radio station in Prospect, Connecticut, where WIOF-FM (W-104) operated for 20 years before being sold and moved to a new location. During its life in Prospect, W-104 played country music, then soft rock (Magic 104), followed by Top 40 (Star 104) and finally alt rock.

Logo for WIOF in its country era.
The vacant WIOF building as it
appeared in 2009. Note that the STL
tower is still in place.
The simple 70s-style brick studio was built in 1973, as the successor to WWCO-FM, which was the first FM in Connecticut to broadcast a country music format. At the time, WWCO AM and FM were owned by entertainer and business mogul Merv Griffin. In 1973, after selling WWCO, Griffin's radio group purchased another AM station, soon-to-be all-news WPOP in Hartford.

The FM station was given new call letters (WIOF was chosen because the letters resembled the numbers in W-104) and was moved to a brick building on a steep hill in Prospect. Merv Griffin himself attended the dedication and ribbon cutting and a carved wooden sign with gold lettering was placed on the hillside proclaiming "Upcountry Stereo W-104."

Industry ad for Schafer automation.
W-104 found success with a live morning show (Rick Shea handled the morning slot for 11 years, back to 1967) and automated country music filled the rest of the schedule. The automation was provided by Schafer Corporation, a leader in the burgeoning FM radio automation market. The machinery switched between four reel-to-reel tape decks playing "Great American Country" by Drake Chenault.
The WIOF building as it appeared in
2019. Note the weeds and overgrowth.

The tapes were sequenced in a meticulous manner and even included an announcer - nationally known personality Bob Kingsley, who passed away in October after a long career as one of the nation's top country music disc jockeys.

Commercials and jingles on cartridges were loaded into huge, revolving carousels, then played at the correct (or sometimes incorrect) times. There were even time-announce cartridges that segued back to the music after commercial sets.

I had the opportunity to work weekends at W-104 from fall of 1977 to spring of 1978, after which country music was replaced by easy listening Magic 104 - where the announcers were soft spoken and the music was supposedly suitable for office environments.
Cell tower at the site of the
former WIOF antenna

Door to the former back office
covered in graffiti and pried
As an 19 year old college kid, I couldn't believe my good fortune to be hired there. My shift, as awful as it might seem, ran from Saturdays at 7 p.m until Sunday at 8 a.m. When the job ended, I came away with new friends, a lot of knowledge about the radio business, general contempt for station owners, and a slight fascination with country music.

Around 1993, SFX/Clear Channel (later iHeart Media) acquired WIOF and WPOP, and studios were moved to Newington and later to downtown Hartford. Since then, the Prospect building has been allowed to decay, become overgrown and vandalized. It turns out the real value of the property is behind and just north of the radio building, on four acres of land next to a large banquet facility.

Old electric meters on the
side of the building.
SFX held onto the site until 2005, when the money-making potential of cellular phones was realized. Cellular antennas for T-Mobile and AT&T were placed on the unused 197-foot radio tower. In 2010, in a mammoth feat of engineering, the tower was replaced by a 150-foot monopole which remains today.

The next land sale was in 2013, when Richland Towers Management paid $666,400 for the property, which was transferred to American Tower Corporation of Watertown, Mass. five years later.

Sadly, the story ends here. My repeated attempts to contact American Tower have been unsuccessful. I want to ask why the studio building hasn't been torn down or spruced up after 25 years of being empty, especially in light of its interesting history as a major FM radio station. The situation reminds me of a Steven King novel, in which a building's past can suddenly come alive when you least expect it.  Remember The Shining?

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Friday, May 10, 2019

Another shot of redemption for AM radio?

Will the static be gone? The subject of saving AM radio is before the FCC once again. The feds have been taking comments on allowing digital-only broadcasts for any stations that wish to drop their AM component.
Currently, stations that broadcast in digital mode (HD Radio) use a hybrid of digital and analog that occupy the same signal in a process known as “In Band On Channel (IBOC).”
There's a lot to like about this new idea. The digital signal would be encoded in MA3 format, a more robust version of the currently used MA1, with better receiver-lock and fewer drop outs. MA3 would eliminate one of HD radio's biggest demons - splatter and interference to adjacent stations, especially at night. according to the petitioners, Bryan Broadcasting of Texas
iHeart Radio's WELI in HD.
Since the glory days of AM radio in the 1950s and ‘60s, the band has become overcrowded and riddled with electrical noise and interference. Nighttime signals fade in and out, and many stations are forced to reduce power or shut down at sunset. 
“No modern audience will accept the low audio quality that can be observed by anyone who tunes into the senior band; the noise floor problem represents an existential threat to AM radio,” states the Bryan petition.
“All digital systems represent the future of AM radio; they will provide the listener with a pristine audio product free of the aforementioned audience-eroding interferences,” it continued.
The downward spiral began more than 30 years ago. 
The tipping point came around 1978, when FM surpassed AM in listenership and FM radios began appearing in cars, including those drifty after-market converters that were all the rage in the late '70s. (Mine was an Audiovox and it barely picked up a thing.)
Digital-only AM is being tried on a test basis by commercial station WWFD (The Gamut) in Frederick, Maryland. Last summer, WWFD received permission to turn off its AM signal, and transmit only MA3 on its frequency of 820 kHz. 
Power level is 4300 watts daytime, and 430 watts at night. WWFD is a great station for medium wave hobbyists, since its digital MA3 signal has much broader coverage than its former AM signal. 
Audiovox FM converter from the 1970s.
Called “The Gamut,” the format is music-based and free form. It covers the Greater Washington D.C. area.
Just before the close of the FCC comment period on May 11, about 50 people had submitted official opinions. Most were in favor, but those against the MA3 idea said the digital signals would be too wide and would interfere with traditional AM radio and to low-power TIS (Traffic Information Service) broadcasts.
Other efforts to fix AM broadcasting have occurred in the past. Perhaps one of the most promising took place in the early 1980s, when AM stereo was introduced – and might have caught on had there not been several competing systems vying for attention, allowing the idea to die on the vine. 
The FCC eventually endorsed the Motorola system, which is still used by a sprinkling of stations in the U.S. and Canada.
In 2015, after an expansive two-year review of what’s wrong with AM, the FCC released its findings on revitalizationFM translators were made available to AM stations to address nighttime power reductions and coverage loss. Application windows were staggered, with the smallest and least powerful AM stations getting first dibs. 
While the FM-for-AM approach does solve some coverage issues, it also crowds the FM band with low power stations. In the heavily populated northeast, open FM frequencies are very hard to come by.
What’s next? I expect that if the MA3 proposal is enacted, most existing mom-and-pop stations can’t or won’t drop conventional AM modulation, due to the high cost and technical demands. 
For those of us with the proper receivers, MA3 might make for some exciting listening, but’s too little too late for many AMs already struggling.

Added note:

For the past few nights, I've been trying to decode WWFD directly off the air with my Sony HD receiver. The problem is that 820 KHz is also home to WNYC, a public radio station in the Big Apple. At night, WNYC reduces power and I can null it out with my homemade loop antenna. So far, I have found an HD signal that "locks" the receiver - presumably from WWFD - but there is no audio or text. If I succeed in capturing and decoding, I'll post a video.

Monday, December 17, 2018

VHF low band is a blast from the past

The 1980s - a simpler time before social media, smartphones and most things digital. The world was still, by and large, analog.

In the '80s we became familiar with Presidents Reagan and Bush, CNN and MTV. (Did video actually kill the radio star?) There was big hair, glam rock, Michael Jackson and George Michael, and the launch of Madonna's long, controversial career. (Remember "Borderline?" Simple but catchy.)

Radio communications were simpler too.VHF low band, the segment between 30 and 50 MHz, was still home to police, state patrols and fire departments. It was cost effective and covered a wide geographic area without the need for repeaters. Best of all for hobbyists, the signals could sometimes be heard hundreds or thousands of miles away.

These signals, especially during the summer, tend to reflect off the ionosphere and land half a continent away - great for scanner listeners but a real nuisance for radio users who had to put up with the interference. "You need to repeat. You were covered by skip," said many frustrated dispatchers over the years.

For some of us, this was fascinating stuff. In the summer of 1985, I began tape recording audio from a Bearcat scanner connected to an outside antenna. Recently, I found one those tapes, filled with transmissions from the 39 and 42 MHz bands. Considering the age of the tape, the sound held up pretty well.

I converted the audio to MP3, and in order to share it here and on YouTube, I had to create a slideshow. (YouTube doesn't support audio only.) This is 19 minutes of exciting sound. There are sirens and southern accents and dispatchers frustrated by lost transmissions. About nine minutes in, there is a casual chat between two ham operators in Missouri, followed by transmissions from the Connecticut State Police, which operated on 42 MHz at the time.

If anyone can decipher where these police departments were located, please let me know. Sorry for the sketchy slideshow. I never really mastered the Movavi Video software, but it's not bad for a first attempt.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Legendary time and frequency stations may close

"At the tone, 18 hours 37 minutes, coordinated universal time...BEEP, tick, tick, tick, tick...."

American shortwave stations WWV and WWVH could go dark next year, due to budget cuts by their parent agency, the National Institute of Standards. Needless to say, this is bad news for anyone who uses shortwave radio or has dabbled in the radio hobby over the past 50 years or more.
WWV and WWVH transmit the exact time of day and solar flux information from sites in Fort Collins, Colorado and Kauai, Hawaii (WWVH). They are excellent propagation beacons because of their frequencies: 2.5, 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25 MHz (this last one from WWV only). Each is a harmonic or sub-harmonic of the original 5 MHz broadcast that began in the 1930s while WWV was located in Beltsville, Maryland.
My QSL card from WWV in Colorado.
 In its budget that would begin next July, NIST wants to reduce spending by about $49 million, including savings of $6.3 million by phasing out the shortwave stations and focusing on other work in physics and science.
What is equally bad - or worse - this would also eliminate WWVB, NIST’s 60 KHz low frequency station that synchronizes radio-controlled (so-called “atomic”) clocks from a 70 KW transmitter also in Colorado. On the air since 1963, WWVB uses an embedded binary code that has nationwide coverage during hours of darkness, when longwave radio reaches the farthest.
A whole industry of self-setting watches, clocks and consumer devices has grown up around WWVB. I own several portable clocks that use the WWVB signal and receive it without a problem each night in Connecticut - 1650 miles from Fort Collins.
In 2009, NIST released a guidebook on WWVB time-synced devices, which contains maps and technical details of the system and the amazing coverage of VLF radio.
While WWV and WWVB spent their first decades in Maryland, they moved to Colorado in the 1960s, when the U.S. government sprang for a 390 acre antenna site near the Boulder scientific laboratories, which later became the National Institute of Standards.
WWVH went on the air in 1948, while Hawaii was still a U.S territory. Voice announcements were added in 1964, on the same frequencies as the mainland stations. Due to weather and beach erosion, WWVH moved to its present location in 1971.
WWVB antenna field.
Photo courtesy of
How can listeners tell which station they are receiving since the frequencies are identical? WWV has a male announcer, while WWVH has a female. I find there are times of the day and year when both stations come in at the same time on the same frequency. Neat thing is, the announcers don’t overlap – the WWVH female announcement is slightly ahead the male on WWV.
The ham radio community has launched a petition drive to preserve WWV, WWVH and WWVB, and it has the full endorsement of the ARRL.

Few people may realize that WWV went on the air in its testing stages in May, 1920 - a full six months before American's first broadcast station, KDKA in Pittsburgh. WWV is a proud part of our American heritage and a useful radio utility, so let's fight to keep it alive.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Summer 2018 and the short skip is rockin'

For hams who enjoy summer band openings on 10 meters and above, 2018 is shaping up to be a banner year. Here in the northeastern U.S., sporadic E short skip started in early May, and was still going strong on 10 and six meters as June came to a close.

If you're obsessed with digital  FT-8 and 10 meters (like me), it's been the best of both worlds - keyboard contacts have been possible almost every day on 28.074 MHz, the FT-8 frequency. Most of the signals coming into Connecticut are from the south and and midwest, notably the Carolinas, Florida, Illinois and Michigan, all showing up on the software's colorful waterfall display. During the month of June, I logged about 140 digital contacts, two thirds of them on 10 meters.
Screen capture of FT-8 on 10 meters,
June 30, 2018.

Ten meter sideband has been hot as well. A quick listen centered around 28.400 MHz finds lots of operators with regional accents, fading in and out in typical sporadic E fashion. Occasionally, European stations have cropped up on 10 meter FT-8, creating quite an American operator pileup.

It's become a summer tradition for me to monitor 28.425 MHz, home frequency of the quirky KC4TVZ in Atlanta. Todd, the operator, calls CQ on a recorded voice loop that seems to repeat endlessly. Operating style aside, he provides a dependable beacon for band openings into the southeast.

My YouTube recording of him is here: The 10 meter voice of Atlanta, Todd Burnett

Moving to a higher frequencies, I still hear distant police agencies that use VHF low band, long since abandoned in most of the United States.  Missouri Highway Patrol crops up in the 42 MHz range, and this month (June) I started hearing the Smyth County, Virginia Sheriff's Department on 37.04 MHz. Several evenings in a row, I heard the same female dispatcher assigning calls in her light southern accent ("Can y'all head on over to...").

Smyth County is rugged and rural, and low band provides more than adequate coverage for the topography. Follow my link here: Smyth County VA Sheriff's Department.

Finally, there is FM broadcast radio, where catching E-skip is a happy accident. You have to be listening in the right place at exactly the right time, and luck is as important as skill.

During a big sporadic E opening in late June, I came across KKLR-FM ("Best New Country") in Poplar Bluff Missouri - a distance of 1164 miles from my location. Ordinarily, 94.5 FM is home to a low power translator station in Danbury, CT, but not that evening. I listened to the KKLR announcer promote a restaurant and then talk about thunderstorms moving through the Poplar Bluff area, before playing a PSA about preventing opioid abuse.
Photo of KKLR reception on my car radio.
Click the YouTube link in the text to hear the audio.

I'm still keeping an ear on two frequencies - 87.9 and 87.7 FM, both below the authorized broadcast band but popular channels for pirate broadcasters. On 87.7 there is sometimes audio from a licensed LPTV station in New York City, which broadcasts in Korean. This is apparently legal, as the owners are only interested in the audio portion of the LPTV broadcast, which is used as a Korean radio station covering the Big Apple.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

'China syndrome' continues for ham radio

Six years ago, I wrote an article for a news and features website about the popularity of Chinese import radios among ham operators. Then, the trend was just a few years old and labels like Baofeng, Wouxun and TYT were shaking up the established big three: Kenwood, ICOM and Yaesu, which to that point had controlled the portable and mobile market.

Now in 2018, the Chinese import business is bigger than ever, with a dozen or more brands available through eBay, Amazon and ham radio retailers, some of whom are authorized import resellers.

An original VX-8DR
Chinese knock off bearing
a Zastone label
On the downside, there are problems with counterfeit radios bearing big-brand names. ICOM has been plagued by fake IC-V8 transceivers that hit the internet market a few years ago and are still proliferating. 

Another Chinese company is marketing the “Vaesu UV-8DR,” a blatant rip-off of the popular Yaesu VX-8DR, a durable, waterproof quad-bander that sells for more than $300. The knockoff costs about $60.

Sketchy practices aside, the import trend isn't going away,  Keep in mind amateur radio is a hobby, lives are not at stake (because ham radio isn’t public safety) and cheap radios are wallet-friendly. I know there are purists out there who hate Chinese radios. Sorry. Write your own blog.

In April, I made my third Chinese radio purchase since 2012. (My first was the Baofeng UV-3R mini dual bander, and my second was the TYT TH-9800 mobile radio bought in 2016 and still going strong. See my Squelchtale post from August, 2016.)

My WLN KD-C1 with pro-
gramming cable attached.
This time, I invested $19 in a WLN KD-C1, a no-frills 16-channel UHF radio with no channel display and a short, fixed antenna. This radio is sold under several different labels, including the Radioditty R-1, the Zastone ZT-X6 and the Radtel RT-10. I suspect they are all made in the same mega-factory in Fujian Province, China - home of Baofeng and its affiliates.

I ordered the radio through eBay April 7 and it arrived nearly three weeks later, April 25, having been shipped from China. I also bought the $6 programming cable.

Before I ordered, I downloaded and installed the software, hoping I wouldn’t be stuck with a $19 paperweight. I used the R-1 download from the Radioditty website because of its comprehensive list of software and drivers.

My only sweaty palm moment occurred when I plugged the radio into the computer and activated the software, only to get a "device not recognized" message. Eventually, I figured out how to select the proper COM port (COM port#3) and the radio started talking to the software.

Prior to installing my frequencies, I uploaded what was already in the radio and was surprised to see frequencies in the 453 and 460 MHz range, which are mostly allocated to business and public safety in the U.S. That makes the KD-C1 illegal to use as shipped, but I bet lots of people buy these radios in pairs to talk to each other, not worrying about what frequency they're on.
Channel template for the KD-C1.

For my 16 channels, I installed four local ham repeaters, four 70-cm simplex channels, six GMRS/FRS frequencies and two fire departments that use UHF. My intention is to use the KD-C1 with my cross band TYT 9800 and link into 10 meter FM (29 MHz) now that summer season is here and 10 meters will be active.

The radio is minimalist in design. There's an on-off /volume knob and up-down buttons on the left side of the unit. A voice announcement (English with a Chinese accent) tells you what channel you are on, and "scan" is accomplished by holding the channel-down button. Charging is done through a mini-USB port, or with the included cradle charger. The KD-C1 uses a proprietary 3.7 volt 1500mAh battery that is slightly larger than a camera battery and spares are available online.

I love this radio, but if I had a concern, it would be that the squelch seems a bit too tight and there is no way to adjust it. Receive audio is loud and undistorted, and the radio transmits at two watts - more than enough for my needs. I've been getting more than 16 hours of receive time on a single charge - but that's without transmitting.