DXers Ride Marconi’s Wavelength

Each fall for 20 years, a group of us has met to set out lengthy arrays of wire and hunker down with the latest high-tech receivers.
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Imagine the awe and personal satisfaction Guglielmo Marconi must have felt on Dec. 12, 1901 when he announced the first transatlantic wireless reception.

Marconi and his team used a kite to raise a 500-foot antenna atop Signal Hill in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and waited for pre-arranged Morse code signals from Poldhu, Cornwall, more than 2,000 miles away. The signals he reported were extremely faint, occurred during daylight and lacked independent authentication. However, he soon achieved comparable distances under more optimal circumstances from a ship in the mid-Atlantic and, later, from Nova Scotia.

Radio proceeded to capture imaginations the world over. Even as it works to define itself in today’s digital age, some dedicated listeners continue to get the same charge Marconi did.

Diligent listeners

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Saul Chernos is shown with a Tecsun receiver at the Signal Hill National Historic Site, reception point of the first transatlantic wireless signal.

Each fall for the past 20 years, a group of us has met near the southeastern tip of the Avalon peninsula, a two-hour drive from Signal Hill, to set out lengthy arrays of wire and hunker down with the latest high-tech receivers.

Scattered around the world, sometimes in big cities where noise and interference are rampant, some of us go to considerable lengths for quiet, remote listening.

In 2007, the late John Bryant travelled to Easter Island in the South Pacific. Using portable receivers and 500-foot longwires, Bryant circumnavigated the globe, hearing Radio Farda in the United Arab Emirates in the evening over an eastern path, followed by a reception to the west of the BBC broadcasting from Oman just before dawn.

Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula, while less isolated than Easter Island, is ideal for our purposes. With modern-day conveniences such as bed-and-breakfasts and a hardware store, it’s closer to Belfast and Algiers than to Kansas City and Los Angeles, and the immediate proximity to saltwater helps tease out the distant signals.

Thinking in UTC

The weather is dry and cool as I drive south from St. John’s, with Chuck Hutton, an electronics engineer from Seattle, and Jim Renfrew, a Presbyterian minister from Rochester, N.Y.

Brightly colored wooden houses and busy windmills dot the jagged coastline, and we pass roadside restaurants advertising moose burgers and cod tongues. But sunset is a couple hours away and there’s work to do before any of us can spin the dials. We’re feeling rushed as we reminisce about DXpeditions past and present, invoking Marconi’s ghost and those of contemporaries such as Reginald Fessenden and Nikola Tesla.

Our banter ends abruptly when we greet our hosts, Ollie and Ken Perry, and proceed to install ground rods, insulated 18-gauge copper wire and assorted clamps, resistors and other longwire antenna components. It’s quite a trek through the swampy, dense brush, and tough keeping the wire straight to maximize its directionality.

Nightfall sets in around 4:30 p.m. local time, but we’re thinking in Universal Coordinated Time by the time we plug in our radios. I’m the most low-tech in our group, with a second-hand AOR 7030 Plus receiver and a handheld Tecsun PL-380 that Gary DeBock, another Washington state DXer, modified with a tiny external loop consisting of wires wound tightly around a ferrite stick.

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This map is part of display on the outdoor grounds at Signal Hill, titled ‘The Newfoundland-Centred World.’

Chuck and Jim, on the other hand, exemplify a quickly growing trend in the hobby, using Perseus receivers that capture audio and spectrum analysis from the entire AM band and feed this to their laptop computers. When they’re not actively listening, they’ve programmed their Perseus software to record at optimum times such as the top of the hour, when stations tend to identify, for review later on.

Still, the excitement is in the here-and-now, and it isn’t long before we land our first interesting catch.

Golos Rossii

Working down the dial, Jim stops on 1395 kHz when he hears a man reading international news in English and suspects Radio Seagull, which has been testing a new transmitter offshore of the Netherlands. The news ends, and a rapid “Seagull” jingle follows. The signal is good, despite a few deep fades, and during one of those fades we hear a woman say the words, “Golos Rossii.” We’ve just logged the Voice of Russia, in Armenia.

Marconi would have loved it.

Identifying stations isn’t always easy. On 1467 kHz, I hear Middle Eastern music and a language I can’t understand. I record and move on, with a view to seeking out the linguistic expertise one can find in an international community of DXers.

A few minutes later, I tune to 1593 kHz and hear an almost overpowering signal playing The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” When the music is suddenly replaced by the whooshing noise of DRM, Europe’s answer to IBOC, I conclude that a German station known to be testing digital switched momentarily to analog. However, I won’t get fooled; I’ll e-mail an audio clip to the station, hoping staff there keep a music log.

Ultimately, DXing is a game. We have obstacles, but also strategies. When signals are weak, or we can’t discern the language, we turn to station lists and directories for clues.

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Neil Kazaross sets up a longwire. Note that it hangs from the tree in rear.

Early one evening, Islamic vocal music on 1503 kHz suggests a high-powered station in Bushehr, Iran, that DXers often hear in eastern North America. It’s part of a large network, and within a half-hour we find parallels across the band. Some signals are as marginal as Marconi’s initial reception atop Signal Hill; others are dominant.

Another tactic is to keep track of operating hours. Shortly after midnight UTC, stations on the All India Radio network sign on with a 1 kilohertz tone and flute music that stands out on a crowded channel. We’re rewarded with several Indian stations, including 1143 kHz in Rohtak, which most of us had never heard before.

It also pays to follow current events.

Most programming in Spain is over large national networks, and local news and commercial breaks are infrequent and schedules are unreliable. One evening, aware that the polls had just closed in Spain, we troll some likely channels and are immediately rewarded on 621 kHz, where we hear detailed, local election results for the Canary Islands, a Spanish territory off the northwest coast of Africa.

Hello, South Africa

One reason we can hear stations from other continents is because North American stations operate at 10 kHz spacing, while most of the rest of the world spaces at 9 kHz. When we hear Croatia on 1134 kHz or Greece on 1512 kHz, and listen in upper side-band, we’re sidestepping WBBR 1130 in New York City and WWZN 1510 in Boston. It also helps that the southeast corner of Newfoundland sticks out into the Atlantic so that our south wire aims towards Brazil and Argentina, effectively bypassing the U.S. east coast.

The south wire even offers some directionality to Africa. Every year we snag stations from Angola, Botswana and Nigeria. But conditions to the south are particularly enhanced this time around, and American-accented English talk about Deuteronomy turn out to be Family Radio broadcasting from Lesotho on 1197 kHz.

Towards the end of the two-week period, Chuck and Jim return home. Neil Kazaross, an options trader from Chicago, Jean Burnell, a chemistry professor from Halifax, and John Fisher, a chemical engineer from Kingston, Ontario, settle in.

Neil hears barely audible religious music on 729 kHz. We establish a parallel on 657 kHz and suspicions of Radio Pulpit in South Africa prove correct when the stations identify in Afrikaans. These are probably my most tenuous receptions of the trip, but it’s no wonder given that they ring in at more than 7,000 miles from our northerly locale.

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Jean Burnell works his Perseus receiver.

It’s on this high note that I return to Toronto. I’ll listen to my 300 or so audio recordings soon enough, and my companions will have oodles of Perseus spectrum grabs to analyze.

Each visit is unique. In 2004, the sun belched and an aurora blanketed the entire Northern Hemisphere, leaving only Africa and Latin America audible. Two years ago, when sunspot activity was extremely low, we were surprised by early-morning receptions over the North Pole of dozens of stations from Japan, China and North and South Korea.

This time, we celebrate our 20th anniversary with a visit to the Myrick Wireless Interpretation Centre at Cape Race.

This museum includes a replica of the Marconi station that handled Titanic distress traffic in 1912, using brand-new wireless technology. Its current operator, David Myrick, tells us about events planned for April 14 and 15 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

As I look at some of the world’s oldest transmitters and receivers, I realize that anyone anywhere can now listen to the world, interference-free, over the Internet. The iPod generation seems to think of radio as something their grandparents huddled around, a fire crackling in the background.

Still, radio is not so much a dying medium as it is an evolving one. Marconi patiently chased transoceanic signals until others recognized the achievement, and his signal remains audible in Newfoundland, Easter Island and around the world, as broadcasters, listeners and communications enthusiasts adapt to new times and explore new frontiers.

Saul Chernos, a Toronto freelance journalist, is DX test coordinator for the International Radio Club of America and the National Radio Club. He welcomes questions to schernos@sympatico.ca about the hobby or if you would like to schedule a DX test.

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