When WLW was the one and only “Super Station”

WLW's diamond-shaped Blaw-Knox radio tower at night (Original photo by RP Piper via Creative Commons)

WLW’s diamond-shaped Blaw-Knox radio tower at night (Original photo by RP Piper via Creative Commons 2.0)

(Source: National Endowment for the Humanities)

For a Brief Time in the 1930s, Radio Station WLW in Ohio Became America’s One and Only “Super Station”

by Katy June-Friesen

When President Franklin Roosevelt, sitting in the White House, pushed a ceremonial button on his desk in May 1934, a five hundred thousand-watt (500 kW) behemoth stirred in a field outside Cincinnati. Rows of five-foot glass tubes warmed. Water flowed around them at more than six hundred gallons per minute. Dozens of engineers lit filaments and flipped switches, and, within the hour, enough power to supply a town of one hundred thousand coursed through an 831-foot tower.

Thus began WLW’s five-year, twenty-four-hour-a-day experiment: a radio station that used more power and transmitted more miles than any station in the United States had or would. The so-called super station—licensed by the new Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on a temporary basis—amped up the debate among broadcasters, government regulators, and listeners about how radio should be delivered to serve the “public interest,” a mandate laid out in the Radio Act of 1927, and influenced legal, programming, and technical decisions that shape the broadcast system we know today.

Since radio’s beginnings in the early 1920s, industry and government leaders promoted it as the great homogenizer, a cultural uplift project that could, among other things, help modernize and acculturate rural areas. The challenge was how to reach these areas, many of which received few or no radio signals in the mid-1930s. One solution was high-powered, clear-channel stations that could blanket large swaths of the country with a strong signal. These stations operated on “cleared” frequencies that the government assigned to only one station to prevent interference.

WLW had operated on one of forty designated clear channels since 1928. The station’s creator and owner, an entrepreneur, inventor, and manufacturer named Powel Crosley Jr. frequently increased the station’s wattage as technology and regulation allowed. In 1934, when WLW increased its power from 50 kW to 500 kW, all other clear-channel stations were operating at 50 kW or less. Now, WLW had the ability to reach most of the country, especially at night, when AM radio waves interact differently with the earth’s ionosphere and become “skywaves.” People living near the transmitter site often got better reception than they wanted; some lights would not turn off until WLW engineers helped rewire houses. Gutters rattled loose from buildings. A neon hotel sign near the transmitter never went dark. Farmers reported hearing WLW through their barbed-wire fences.

Continue reading…

Bayrischer Rundfunk to shut down four MW transmitters end of September 2015

Bayerischer-Rundfunk-Logo

Many thanks to SWLing Post reader, Alexander (DL4NO), who writes:

“Today I found a message that Bayrischer Rundfunk will shut down its four MW transmitters at the end of September:

http://www.br.de/unternehmen/inhalt/technik/mittelwelle-abschaltung-radio-100.html

The two higher-powered transmitters (Munich 100 kW, Nürnberg 20 kW) are on 801 kHz. The two smaller transmitters (Würzburg and Hof, both in the northern part of Bavaria) are on 729 kHz. The message also says that the BR is intensively updating its DAB+ transmitter net.

Personally I see positive and negative aspects: the 100 kW transmitter is about 15 km from here. Ist field strength tests the large-signal capabilities of my active receiving antenna. The negative aspects should be obvious.”

This is a very good point Alexander. When I listen to clear channel MW stations here in the evenings, I often wonder what it must be like for radio listeners nd amateur radio operators living in close proximity.

Many thanks for relaying the message about  Bayrischer Rundfunk.

Tinkering with the Credit Card Crystal Radio

Credit-Card-Crystal-Radio-2

A few weeks ago, we published a short post about a credit card crystal radio from an eBay seller in the UK.

I purchased a kit–at $17-18 US shipped, it’s quite a modest investment for what might be a fun little project.

Credit-Card-Crystal-Radio

The crystal radio arrived while I was traveling during Easter break, but my free time has been so (extremely) limited lately, I was only able to unpack and try out this new arrival yesterday.

Credit-Card-Crystal-Radio-1

The biggest surprise for me was the fact that this isn’t really a kit–the board is fully populated and requires no soldering whatsoever. The board feels of very good quality.

All that is required is connecting the high-impedance earphone, earth/ground and aerial/antenna to the board. Since all of these components can be connected with the supplied alligator clip cables, getting it on the air took all of 20 seconds. I simply hooked up the ground and connected the aerial to my sky loop wire antenna.

I instantly heard a signal and station ID which confirmed it was our closest local broadcaster on 1010 kHz.  This station isn’t of the blowtorch variety, but is the strongest one I receive on the MW band simply due to its proximity. Audio was quite faint through the earpiece, but I believe if I tinkered with antenna length and the two variable capacitors, I could improve reception.

SWLing Post reader, Richard Langley, received his crystal radio and had a very similar experience with reception.

Credit-Card-Crystal-Radio-4

With any crystal radio (especially one this small), performance is directly correlated with antenna length, availability of a good ground connection and, of course, strong broadcasters in your vicinity.

I plan to spend an evening tinkering with this little receiver and see if I can pick up some of the night time powerhouse AM stations on the east coast.

I can say this: if you’re looking for a simple, uber-compact emergency receiver for your go-bag, bug out bag or emergency kit, this one will certainly fit the bill. This crystal receiver and all of its components weight no more than a few ounces and could easily fit in compact pouch or sleeve.

Have any other readers have enjoyed tinkering with this little emergency crystal radio?

If you would like to purchase one, try searching eBay with one of the links below. The product will only appear in the search results if currently available.

Jay’s mega medium wave review

SX-99-Dial

Many thanks to SWLing Post reader, Ron, who points out this mega medium wave radio shoot out Jay Allen has published.  Indeed, “mega” may be an understatement as Jay included and ranked several dozen current and classic radios. Amazing.

Click here to read Jay’s mega medium wave radio shoot out.

Medium Wave DXer, Johnny Bråtveit, interviewed by Oregon Public Broadcasting

SX-99-DialCheck out this excellent in-depth interview with medium wave DXer, Johnny Bråtveit, via Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPD):

“About a month ago, our station received a fascinating email. It came from a Norwegian man named Tore Johnny Braatveit. He wrote: “I am one of those people who still really enjoys hunting for long-distance radio signals on the AM band. I am glad to tell you that I was able to pick up the AM signals of KOAC in arctic Norway.”

Braatveit sent us a recording of what he heard, and there’s no mistaking our litany of OPB stations beamed more than four thousand miles away.

Braatveit, who said we can call him TJ, says the serendipity of the search is what makes collecting radio signals appealing. “It’s the same as for a hunter or a fisher,” said Braatveit, “They know what they want, but they don’t know what they will get.”

Braatveit has been DXing – a hobby to receive, record and identify faraway broadcasts – since the early 1980’s. DX-ers use receivers along with computer software to collect the signals before reaching out to the stations with “reception reports” to verify what they picked up, hence the email he sent us.”

Listen to the full interview via OPB’s SoundCloud:

Tore Johnny Bråtveit also maintains a blog where you can listen to many of his medium wave audio samples. Click here to visit his site.

A review of the Tecsun PL-680 with reader survey results

Tecsun-PL-680When I heard early reports about the new Tecsun PL-680, I was already wondering how it would stack up alongside other Tecsun portables. An early photo of the Tecsun PL-680 revealed how very similar it is, indeed, to the Tecsun PL-600, which has been on the market for many years. Moreover, the features of PL-680, which I heard about only a few weeks ago, sounded to me like a carbon copy of the venerable PL-660.  I investigated further, and spoke with Anna at Anon-Co; she was given to understand that the Tecsun PL-680 was essentially a re-packaged PL-660 with improved sensitivity. I was curious enough about the PL-680 that I ordered one from Anna as soon as they were available, even paying for expedited shipping in order to have it in hand a bit sooner.

The Tecsun PL-660 has been on the market for several years now; it’s one of the most popular shortwave portables on the market.  And for good reason: the PL-660 is relatively inexpensive, simple to use, packs all of the most vital and desirable functions/modes, and is available from a variety of retailers that ship worldwide. I have reviewed it numerous times and often used it as the basis for comparison with other shortwave portables. It’s China-based manufacturer, Tecsun, has emerged over the past few years as the dominant manufacturer of shortwave radios.

First impressions

I posted a few unboxing photos the day I received the PL-680.

Tecsun-PL-680-6

The Tecsun PL-680 looks like the Tecsun PL-600 body, with the Tecsun PL-660 features and layout. Indeed, the full complement of buttons, switches and dials are identically positioned to those of the PL-660.

Let’s cut to the chase…

Question: So, does the PL-680 have more functions than the PL-660?

Answer: No. It appears to be, and likely is, identical in every (functional) respect to the Tecsun PL-660. No surprises here, unless there are hidden features I haven’t discovered…!

Check out the following comparison photos–the PL-600 on the right, PL-660 in the middle, PL-680 on the right (click to enlarge):

DSC_0187

RightSide LeftSide

The similarity is so striking, in fact, that I believe the PL-680 is the first radio I’ve ever turned on for the first time, only to find I immediately knew every function. I’m so familiar with the PL-660 that I could even use the PL-680 in the dark the first night I used it.

It also helps, of course, that the PL-680 is nearly identical to the PL-600, too, which I’ve owned for many years.

PL-600

Here’s how I see the PL-680 product development equation:

PL-600-PL-660-PL-680

In truth, I was quite disappointed that Tecsun did not add a line-out jack to the PL-680.

The PL-660, alas, lacks line-out, and though my Tecsun PL-880 has a line-out, its default shortwave volume is simply too high to be used by most digital recorders. I had hoped that the PL-680 might have a proper line-out jack, potentially making it a replacement for my trusty Sony ICF-SW7600GR.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.

But other than missing a line-out jack, I really have few complaints. I’ve always been a fan of simple radio design and I believe Tecsun has done a good thing by keeping the user experience so similar in their PL-6XX line of portable shortwave radios. Apparently, a good thing is a good thing.

But here’s what everyone wants to know…

Question: Does the PL-680 have any performance advantages over the PL-660?

Short Answer: Yes! (But keep your PL-660.)

I should add here that I’m about to get rather technical and radio-geeky, so if you’re only interested in a summary, please skip to the bottom of the page.

Otherwise, help yourself to a cup of coffee, and let’s talk radio…

Shortwave performance

Since I spend 95% of my listening time on shortwave, I’ll begin with shortwave performance. Again, we’ll compare the PL-680’s performance with that of the PL-660.

Reader survey results

Having had such great results from radio comparison shoot-outs in the past (check out our shoot-out between top portables and ultra-compact radios), I decided it would make sense to invite our informed readership to evaluate the PL-680’s performance in a series of blind, informal tests. (For information about these surveys, please read through the first of the three surveys.)

Shortwave AM broadcast listening

In most circumstances, you’ll find that the PL-680 has better sensitivity than the PL-660. It’s a marginal improvement, but one I certainly notice on the shortwave bands–and so did the majority of readers who participated in the shortwave AM reception survey.

The survey had recordings from a total of three broadcasters: Radio Prague, WWV, and Radio France International.

The PL-680 was “Radio A,” and the PL-660 was “Radio B.”

The Radio Prague recording was quite strong and was the only broadcast in our survey in which the PL-660 and PL-680 ran neck-and-neck.

Radio Prague on the PL-680

Radio Prague on the PL-660

In truth, I believe strong signal reception on both these radios is excellent and nearly indistinguishable from each other.

Survey results from the WWV and Radio France International recordings showed a strong preference for the Tecsun PL-680. Again, here are the original recordings:

PL-680 – 1st WWV recording

PL-660 – 1st WWV recording

PL-680 – 2nd WWV recording

PL-660 – 2nd WWV recording

Based on comments from those who participated, the PL-680 came out ahead of the PL-660 in two respects: better sensitivity, and more stable AGC. In both sets of recordings, the signal was weaker than the Radio Prague recording, and QSB (fading) more pronounced. Herein lies a well-known weakness of the PL-660: soft muting and a sometimes over-active AGC equates to more listening fatigue.

Here is a chart with the full survey results based on 194 listener reports. The number of responses are represented on the vertical axis.

AM-SW-Shootout-PL680-PL660

Obviously, the engineers at Tecun addressed the soft muting/AGC problem of the PL-660. In all of my time with the PL-680 on the air, I haven’t noticed any soft muting; the audio has been smooth and the AGC copes with fading much better than the PL-660. No doubt, these two improvements alone make the PL-680 a worthy portable for shortwave radio listening.

There is a downside to the improved sensitivity, however: the PL-680 has a slightly higher noise floor than the PL-660. This is mostly noticeable during weak-signal listening. Though I haven’t compared it yet, I’m willing to bet that the noise floor is comparable to that of the Sony ICF-SW7600GR. Personally, if increased sensitivity and stability means a slightly higher noise floor, I’m okay with that. I find that I listen better when the signal is stable and not fluttering/muting with every QSB trough.

Synchronous detection 

PL-680-Sync-Detector

The second survey focused on synchronous detection, which is a very useful receiver tool that mitigates adjacent signal interference and improves a signal’s stability. Perhaps it was my good fortune that the same day I tested synchronous detection, fading on even strong stations was pronounced at times. Perfect!

The first recording set was from Radio Australia, a relatively strong signal here in North America. Still, QSB was pronounced–making for an unstable signal–and there was hetrodyne interference in the upper sideband of the broadcast. When I switched the radios into lower sideband sync, halfway through, it effectively mitigated the hetrodyne in all of the recordings.

PL-680 – 1st recording Radio Australia

PL-660 – 1st recording Radio Australia

PL-680 – 2nd recording Radio Australia

PL-660 – 2nd recording Radio Australia

The second set of recordings were of Radio Riyadh–a much weaker station–also affected by QSB:

PL-680 – 1st recording Radio Riyadh (wide band filter)

PL-660 – 1st recording Radio Riyadh (wide band filter)

PL-680 – 2nd recording Radio Riyadh (narrow band filter)

PL-660 – 2nd recording Radio Riyadh (narrow band filter)

While I have always considered the PL-660 to sport one of the stronger sync locks in current production portables, it did truly struggle to maintain a lock in both the Radio Australia and Radio Riyadh recordings. Indeed, I was so surprised by how comparatively feeble the sync lock was on Radio Australia, that I disconnected the PL-660 from the recorder and moved to a different location to verify that something nearby wasn’t causing the sync lock instability. It was not; it was solely due to unstable band conditions.

It came as no surprise that survey respondents took note of the PL-680’s stronger sync lock: the PL-680 beat the PL-660 by a wide margin in both sample recordings. I chart the results, below, from a total of 85 responses:

Syn-Lock-Shootout-PL660-PL680

Very good, PL-680!  Someday I’d like to compare the PL-680 with the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, which I’ve always considered to have, among current portables, the strongest sync lock.

Single Sideband

I wasn’t able to provide an audio survey of SSB performance since the PL-680 picked up too much noise from my digital recorder to make for a fair contest.

Meanwhile, I’ve spent time listening to both radios in SSB mode and comparing the models. To my ear, both are very close in SSB performance, but again the PL-680 does have a slight edge on the PL-660 in terms of sensitivity and AGC performance.

SSB audio fidelity is very similar in both radios.

FM Performance

While I haven’t spent more than, let’s say, an hour with the PL-680 on the FM band, I have concluded that it is very sensitive–able to receive all of my benchmark local and regional FM stations.

An informal comparison between thePL-680 and the PL-660 also leads me to believe that they are both excellent FM performers and seemed to compare favorably. I would certainly welcome FM DXers to comment with their own evaluations of the PL-680.

Medium Wave Performance

Tecsun-PL-680-MW

I’ve also posted a medium-wave listener survey since many of you asked that I provide an evaluation of the medium-wave band.

In short, here is where the PL-680 loses to the PL-660: whereas, on the shortwave bands, the PL-680 is more sensitive,  it lacks the same sensitivity on the medium-wave bands.

Though I believe the PL-680 does a marginally better job than the PL-660 of handling the choppy conditions of nighttime MW DX, the PL-660 still pulled voices and music out of the static and made them noticeably more intelligible.

The survey result swung very hard in favor of the PL-660, which has long been one of the more notable medium-wave performers among shortwave portables.

I provided a total of four sample broadcast recordings for comparison. Below, I have embedded one of them–a recording of 940 AM in Macon, Georgia, for your reference.

PL-680 – 940 AM

PL-660 – 940 AM

You can listen to all four recordings in the original survey (again, note that Radio A is the PL-680, B is the PL-660).

Survey results were definitive, with a total of 116 responses:

MW-Shootout-Results

 

In all but the strong station sample (750 AM – WBS Atlanta), the PL-660 was preferred by a wide margin.

Summary

Invariably, all radios have strengths and weaknesses; here is a list of my notes from the moment I put the Tecsun PL-680 on the air:

Pros: 

  • Excellent sensitivity and selectivity on the shortwave bands
  • Improved weak signal stability over the PL-660
  • Stable sync lock
  • Proven PL-600 form factor with good overall ergonomics
  • Great internal speaker–an improvement over the PL-660 (but not as good as the PL-880 or Sangean ATS-909X)
  • Other than medium-wave performance (see con), a worthy replacement for the PL-660
  • Excellent audio from the PL-680 internal speaker (improved over the PL-660, but not matching the fidelity of the PL-880)

Cons:

  • Medium-wave performance for is a step backwards from the PL-680’s predecessor, the PL-660. Okay on strong and moderate-signal reception, somewhat poor for weak signals
  • Marginal noise floor increase on the shortwave bands
  • Like the PL-660, lacks a line-out jack (Please note this, Tecsun!)
  • SSB frequency display on my unit is + 1 kHz, slight BFO adjustment is needed (details in this update)

Conclusion

Tecsun-PL-680-MWIf you’re a shortwave radio listener, you’ll be pleased with the Tecsun PL-680. In all of my comparison tests between the Tecun PL-660 and Tecsun PL-680, the PL-680 tends to edge out the PL-660, performance-wise. This coincides with the user surveys, too.

If you’re a medium-wave DXer, you might skip over the PL-680. That is, unless Tecsun makes a good iterative design improvement. If you’re a casual medium-wave listener, on the other hand, you’ll probably be pleased with the PL-680.

All in all, I like the Tecsun PL-680 and I see myself using it more than the PL-660 when I’m on the go. If you’re primarily a shortwave radio listener, the PL-680 may very well be worth the upgrade. At $95 US plus shipping, it is certainly a good value. Note that Anon-Co plans to post the Tecsun PL-680 for sale on eBay in March 2015.

Click here to find the Pl-680 on eBay.

Video: 1940s-era holiday treat from Tommy Dorsey (c/o a vintage rig)

Tommy_dorsey_playing_trombone

Below you’ll find a short video of my 1945 Scott Marine Radio Model SLR-M playing Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra’s  jazz-infused version of “March of the Toys” from Victor Herbert’s holiday classic “Babes in Toyland.”

It’s a little holiday time-travel I cooked up for you on this great vintage rig. I’m actually playing the song via an SStran Model AMT3000 AM transmitter I built from a kit (more on that in a future post). The transmitter has been set to 1410 kHz, to which the SLR-M is tuned.

Though the microphone on my Flip Video camera makes the sound in this little recording tinny (you’ll have to trust me that, live, it’s remarkably warm and rich), it does feel a bit like radio time-travel to hear a 1940s-era song played on a 1940s era-radio. This is just how WWII servicemen might have heard this music.

For your holiday enjoyment: “March of the Toys” by Tommy Dorsey and his Orchestra: