Yes, DO Touch That Dial!

Becoming a “BCB listener” or “BCL” is one of the world’s easiest-to-begin hobbies. Just switch on your AM radio and start turning its dial.

A broadcast-band (BCB) listener seldom leaves his or her AM radio locked onto one favorite, local radio station. Instead, the goal is to tune to other frequencies and hear “local” stations in distant cities, states, and even other countries. The AM broadcast band has hundreds of “local” radio stations transmitting news, weather, sports, music and other matter to their regional listening markets on “medium wave” frequencies between 530 to 1700 kHz. These stations generally use amplitude modulation (AM) to help convey voices, music and other sounds to radio receivers built to receive AM signals.

AM radio has been around for about 100 years, and its popularity has waned after the creation of higher-quality FM (frequency-modulated) radio and then television, computers and the Internet. Still, many stations remain on the air, broadcasting from cities of all sizes and from rural areas, as well.

What is DX?

During daylight hours, medium-wave signals typically travel a few hunded miles at most. During the night, atmospheric conditions generally improve, and an AM broadcast station’s signal may traverse thousands of miles.

Dedicated BCB listeners keep simple logbooks of the distant (“DX”) stations they hear, with goals such as receiving stations located in as many U.S. states or Canadian provinces as possible or distant stations in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, and beyond.

They also may post and share their latest DX reports or get useful information from websites such as DX World (http://dxworld.com/bcblog.html), the Facebook group “I Love AM Radio, ” which recently had nearly 7,700 members, or the National Radio Club (http://nationalradioclub.org/the-nrc/about-us/), among others.

A Long-Enduring Avocation

The broadcast-band listening hobby got its start about 100 years ago during the very earliest days of radio. In the 1920s, as more and more households purchased radios, distance listening (a.k.a. DX’ing) became something of a national mania.

Jerome S. Berg noted this trend in his book On the Short Waves, 1923-1945: Broadcast Listening in the Pioneer Days of Radio (https://amzn.to/2XbaIGT).

“Until the creation of networks and the ability to receive the same program in different parts of the country,” Berg wrote, “many ordinary people spent a lot of time tuning the standard broadcast band, seeing how far their receivers would pick up. The 1920s probably boasted the highest percentage of long-distance radio enthusiasts.”

Do You QSL?

For many years, chief engineers and others at AM broadcast stations valued getting reception reports mailed to them from faraway listeners. They, too, were fascinated by how far their “local” radio signals could travel during good atmospheric condtions. Indeed, they often would respond by sending out “verification” letters or station “QSL” (verfication) postcards that BCB listeners collected and liked to show off to friends and relatives.

Today, some AM broadcast stations still respond to listener reports (https://swling.com/blog/2015/08/obtaining-qsls-from-am-broadcast-stations/ ). But email and budget cuts have dried up many sources of collectible QSL cards and letters.

But a personal log can be kept and shared with others, using a simple notebook or an Internet blog site. You can list date, time, frequency, station call sign, location, quality of the received signal and other information, such as how you identified the station.

Two Reception Problems

At least two problems can stymie potential broadcast-band listener hobbyists. In some locations, spurious radio signals generated by nearby computers, televisions and other electronics devices can interfere with the reception of weak AM radio signals from distant places. You may only be able to hear very strong local stations, unless you can find a listening location with a lot less radio spectrum pollution (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_spectrum_pollution).

Also, much of today’s AM standard broadcast band has been taken over by politically conservative “talk radio” and religious broadcasters seeking money to support their ministries.

Fortunately, you can time your listening efforts to the top few minutes of any hour, when U.S. radio broadcast stations are required to identify themselves with their “call signs” issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Other hints to a station’s location often can be gleaned from local news breaks, weather forecasts, traffic reports, sports broadcasts, and advertisements. And this information, along with your radio’s dial setting (such as 670 kiloHertz or 1200 kiloHertz, etc.), can be compared with online lists of radio stations, such as this one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lists_of_radio_stations_in_the_United_States .

How I Got Started

In my Vietnam War memoir, Dark Signals: A Navy Radio Operator in the Tonkin Gulf and South China Sea, 1964-1965 (https://amzn.to/2IrWSwm), I describe how my interest in listening for distant radio signals began at age 10:

My parents put a small table-model AM receiver in my bedroom so I could hear baseball games, music and dramas such as “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.” But soon, I was turning the dial and discovering that I could hear stations far beyond Little Rock, as well.

One night, clear as a bell, an announcer said: “This is radio station KOA, Denver, Colorado. Soon, I heard another announcer say: “This is WBBM, Chicago.” I was hooked.

For another view of the BCB hobby, check out this blog post titled “How to Get Started as a Radio Hobbyist without Really Trying” (https://www.qsl.net/kc2fng/amdx.html).

— Si Dunn is an Austin, TX, novelist, screenwriter and nonfiction writer. For more information, visit http://www.sagecreekproductions.com.

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