Saturday, January 15, 2011

Hickory QSL

On my bedside table there is a Roberts R-861 shortwave radio. It was once just about the best portable receiver on the market, and I see it's still being sold. It had Phase Lock Loop, digital tuning, a synthesized receiver, Radio Data System which brought the name of the station up on the screen, hundreds of  memories and continuous scanning across the spectrum, none of that jumping only between authorised frequencies within authorised bands. A joy to use. I bought it in the mid-nineties, back before the internet, as the best way to hear authentic voices from around the world. Most people, then and perhaps even now, got their impressions of the rest of the world from the narrative fantasies of Hollywood films and from foreign correspondents of the Guardian and the BBC saying 'funny foreign bloke who talks funny foreign language does funny foreign thing for some funny foreign reason which it would be beneath me, as an Englishman, to try to understand.' Shortwave radio gave you the chance to hear what those people were really doing, what was happening to them, what they were interested in and what they thought about it all, unmediated by someone with a story to sell and his own prejudices to satisfy.

The R-861 wasn't the first such radio I owned, but it was the best, and it's the one I was still using when the web made it all unnecessary, so it's been relegated to playing a bit of background music while I have a siesta. Needless to say, it performs this task perfectly.

I call it a shortwave radio, but in fact it covered FM and AM medium and long wave too, which was important because, although FM doesn't travel more than a very few miles,  AM can travel hundreds of miles along the surface of the Earth in the right conditions, and some frequencies will propagate thousands of miles, allowing Radio 4 to be heard in parts of Africa, and vice versa (SW bounces around the ionosphere randomly with only a low power transmitter which is why it was used so widely and is why it can be so frustrating to listen to).

I was never a very serious DX-er, not like the chap I knew who took his holidays in Hawaii because it's the best place in the world for picking up AM stations from just about anywhere. His suitcase contained a toothbrush (sometimes), a tabletop receiver that cost more than his car and several hundred yards of wire, which always caused comment at customs. He didn't actually listen to the stations, he just collected information about the signals. And since you ask, no, he wasn't married.

I wasn't like that; my interest was in the places I could reach and the people I could listen to, but I did buy, every year, the World Radio and TV Handbook, a sort of Radio Times for trainspotters, with details of all the world's radio stations, times of broadcast and the frequencies they used. Conditions vary depending on the position of the sun (I think it causes the effect of the solar wind on the ionosphere to vary, or something similar), and so a single station will change frequencies regularly throughout the day, and often stations will share frequencies if they have different target areas or broadcast times. (Rather dull, I know, but it's why it isn't enough just to jot down the name of the station and its frequency or put in the memory.)

I caught Radio Pyongyang the day Kim Il-Sung died. If you've ever heard Radio Caracol when Colombia have just lost a vital World Cup qualifier to Bolivia you will have just the faintest inkling of an idea of the kind of hysterical grief that was pouring out of the ether. I listened to Radio Slovakia regularly and learned more than anyone needs to know about the economic and social problems of the wine growers in the East. I listened to Radio Australia, always fascinating, and never missed Lucky Oceans, and American country/folk/blues/southern rock DJ who rarely played a song you knew but never played one that wasn't worth hearing.

At times I caught football from South America, interviews with people shopping at markets in obscure parts of Africa, the Jordanian view of events in Japan, thoughts from a Thai lawyer on incipient democracy in Chile, a Bangladeshi historian explaining the history of a small temple in a village almost swallowed by the jungle, Beef Stew, Notho Myrmecia, God's will that I pop a tenner in an envelope and send it to a man in Alabama, dead people who no one else cared about, caught by accidents, wild animals, floods, earthquakes, political violence or crime too small  for anyone outside their own country to even notice, and literally thousands of other moments, some regular, most chanced upon by a happy spinning of the dial at just the right time. I heard ten thousand people who didn't know I was listening tell me things I had never realized I wanted to know, and the best were always those who spoke unselfconsciously of the world they lived in, a world completely different from mine and which I could not have known anything about but for the radio.

An important part of DX-ing, for the really serious, was the reception report. When you picked up a new, rare, very distant or otherwise unusual station you would write down the name, time, frequency, signal strength and quality, and a brief summary of the content to prove you really were listening, and send it off, by post, to the station. They would send you back a QSL card, confirming receipt, which you would proudly add to your collection. These were traditionally idiosyncratic, collectible, and some were highly prized. There is a story I heard told by an American presenter (of a programme about DX-ing; a surprising number of programmes on shortwave radio stations are about listening to shortwave radio) where he claims to have stumbled upon a clandestine station in Cuba just when it was raided by the Committee for the Defence of the Revolution, not a body known for its sense of humour. But he sent a reception report to the CDR headquarters in Havana, and he says they sent him back a QSL card, which he treasures.

There is a point to all this reminiscing (not that there needs to be, but there is), so it is pobably time to be drifting towards it. I have decided to reinvent the QSL card for the internet age. I propose, therefore, to design a Hickory Wind QSL card and, when I'm happy with it, I shall send it to any commenter who leaves a contact link to a blog, website, email address or some such. Given that this is a quiet little blog, frequented only by a few, highly discerning denizens of the higher reaches of the blogosphere (Claridges at Tuesday teatime rather than the Nag's Head on a Friday night) it shouldn't take up too much time.

That, then, is my proposal for this weekend- to produce a QSL card worthy of my commenters, and perhaps to start a trend, who knows. I should really be working, but some things are more important...


Vincent said...

yes please you have my address!

The Englishman said...

Great to read.

CIngram said...

Thank you gentlemen. Your QSL cards are on their way.