Virtual radio challenge: one year, one radio, one (very) remote island

SWL Travel Gear - Timbuk2 Wingman

Pack your bags! We’re going on a trip!

Shortwave listeners are interesting, creative people who do interesting, creative work: they’re scientists, veterans, corporate employees, students, retirees, volunteers, politicians, musicians, inventors, entrepreneurs, engineers, humanitarians, reporters, artists, researchers, sailors, pilots, pirates…and most seem to be travelers. But to say the least, they’re very diverse. The joy of the SWLing Post, for me, is the fascinating readers here and the great variety of questions and comments I receive from you.

On this blog, I often write about selecting the “right” radio for home, boating, preparednessoff-grid living, and of course travel–but sometimes I like to go through the mental exercise of imagining a scenario a little more extreme.

Indeed, I occasionally receive such “extreme” questions from our readers, questions that push the limits of the hobby, demanding highly specific needs in a radio. And, I readily admit, I thoroughly enjoy these questions!  They give me a chance–and good excuse, really–to be imaginative and innovative, to push beyond mere practical or monetary constraints to consider unique environments, weather conditions, durability needs, power requirements, and/or resource availability…great fun.

If you enjoy this kind of brain game, too, check out our virtual challenge that follows:

Should you agree to take it on, you’ll need to complete it within two weeks. Why the time constraint? Let’s imagine that your flight leaves May 15th, and you’ll need to make sure you’ve received, tested, and packed all of your supplies by that date.

[By the way, this scenario is based on an actual reader question.]

Here’s your challenge…

TristanDaCuna-001

Location: Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, Tristan Da Cunha, South Atlantic Ocean

Tristan da Cunha on 6 February 2013, as seen from the International Space Station (Source: Wikipedia)

Tristan da Cunha on 6 February 2013, as seen from the International Space Station (Source: Wikipedia)

Accommodation: A rented room in a native Tristanian family home

Electricity: Mains power via the grid, but you’ll have to expect extended power outages if there is a generator failure

Internet: The island has (slow speed) public Internet, but you will not have access at your accommodation

Your budget: $200 US–which must cover all of your radio requirements (radio, antenna, batteries, and all accessories)

Scenario: You’re on an assignment, being sent to one of the world’s most remote inhabited islands–Tristan Da Cunha, in the South Atlantic (see this overview of the island from Wikipedia)–to undertake research for one year. You’ll fly into South Africa, where you’ll board a cargo vessel for the one-week journey to the island. The maximum amount of luggage allowed by your airline is one carry-on and two check-in bags, both of no more than 60 kg (132 lbs), total.

Once on the island, you will not leave until a ship picks you up 365 days later.

Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, Tristan da Cunha, South Atlantic Ocean (Source: michael clarke stuff)

Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, Tristan da Cunha, South Atlantic Ocean (Source: michael clarke stuff)

Tristan Da Cunha has less than 300 total inhabitants, so while there are basic shops and accommodations, these are very limited. Once there, ordering a new radio or accessories will not be an option. Getting your rig fixed by an island electronics repair shop will be possible, to some extent (we’ll assume you don’t possess those repair skills yourself). Batteries are locally available, but very expensive…

You’ll be staying in a small, thick-walled stone cottage with a family and will have your own room, with a window.  The family will allow you to string a wire antenna outside, but there are no trees, only heath and shrubs. Additionally, winds are strong and rainfall substantial; sunshine can be quite limited.

We’ll assume you’re starting from scratch, that you have neither radio nor any accessories. You’re allowing yourself a maximum of $200 US for all of your radio gear.  Your goal is to have the best shortwave listening set-up possible for your budget and for this situation. Since your radio must be packed in your luggage, you can’t afford the space nor the weight of a large tabletop radio.

Obviously, the more you understand the island and its limitations, the better choices you’ll make for your gear.

Limitations:

  1. You’re limited to a (virtual) budget of $200 US to procure your supplies; ideally, this includes shipping costs
  2. You can select used gear, but must base your choices on reality (i.e., actually find item(s) online and document the price and time of availability). If you “shop” eBay, make sure you’re using the final price, not the current or opening bid. If you do locate something used on eBayQTH.com, QRZ.com or at Universal Radio, for example, include the link! (Just to add to the fun.)
  3. Your main objective is to listen to international broadcasters, and do a little DXing, of course. FM sensitivity will not be a factor (of course, I’m joking here!) Whether or not the radio has SSB mode is up to you.
  4. We’ll assume that you’re bringing a laptop computer with you.
  5. Remember, you’ll be stuck with this radio for one full year! So choose something you’ll love to operate, and don’t forget your vital accessories.

Note: The limitations of this exercise are simply to level the playing field for everyone as well as to make the challenge a little tougher (and thus more fun!). Of course, they’re open to interpretation, but do try to honor the spirit of the game.

Up to the challenge? You’ve got two weeks–!

GrundigG3To participate, just comment on this post with your suggested set-up, any links, and a brief explanation for your choices.

You’re also welcome to email me directly with your response.

We’ll select some of the most interesting and relevant responses and post them in two weeks, on Friday, May 9, 2014.

Have fun!  We can’t wait to read the responses…!

20 thoughts on “Virtual radio challenge: one year, one radio, one (very) remote island

  1. Frank Holden

    Some thoughts from a hotel bedroom at 03dark…… my flight leaves in 3 hours…

    Radio…..Based on both my own experience and recent swling.com research I would choose a Tecsun 660 ex Anon-co http://www.ebay.com.au/itm/TECSUN-PL660-PLL-AIR-Band-AM-FM-Shortwave-Radio-Dual-Conversion-BFO-/151275647245?pt=AU_Radios&hash=item2338bb310d&_uhb=1 ( making sure I got one with a UK type 240v charger and plug ) $120
    USB charging cable for radio http://www.ebay.com.au/itm/TECSUN-U-600-USB-Charger-for-PL-600-PL-660-/151275647182?pt=AU_Electronics_Batteries_Chargers&hash=item2338bb30ce&_uhb=1 $6
    One set Sanyo Eneloop AA batts http://www.dicksmith.com.au/batteries/eneloop-xx-aa-rechargeable-batteries-2500mah-4pk-dsau-s4469 …. Chuck the original Tecsun ones. $27
    Duct tape ( for securing joints on squidpole and taping top of ant to top of squidpole). $2
    20 metres Wire for ant with fitted plug. $10
    7 metre squidpole and stake … http://www.haverford.com.au/telescopic-poles.html $42
    Cable ties for securing squidpole to stake. $1
    Coil 3mm diam polyester line for stays… $10
    One dozen big tent pegs. $12
    Big hammer.

    $210 Australian so you will get change out of $200 US
    Some notes…..
    Feed ant up inside the squidpole and tape at the top…. The rubber ‘bobble’ is removeable.
    Maybe run a short length of coax from radio to base of squidpole.
    Make sure the squidpole is well stayed. My experience in VP8land and Tierra del Fuego is that the constant flexing in high winds will lead to squid pole failure . Mine were secured to the taffrail on my boat… ie at the base and 50cm up from base…. Failed at the 50 cm point. I have also had a 5 metre high quality ( marine grade) alloy whip fail in the same manner.
    Utilise rest of baggae allowance with warm clothes, rum, etc.
    Cheers, Frank

    Reply
  2. Charlie

    Thomas

    sounds a great challenge! This needs some serious thought!
    Hopefully I shall be able to come up with an interesting set of gear.

    Kind regards

    Charlie

    Reply
      1. Thomas Post author

        Ha Ha!!! I should have added that you could chose to bring your significant other, or not!

        BTW, Been getting some great responses to the challenge already via email.

        Reply
  3. princehifi

    If a laptop was coming along, I would have to use an SDR. I would get the Afedri SDR USB-only model for $159 (board only, I’d have to mount it in a sardine can 🙂 ). I would then use the remaining $41 for a cheap used antenna tuner and a random wire for an antenna. I think this kit would make for an excellent listening post.

    Backup power would be a concern with the outages, so I am contemplating a 6-volt battery backup power system to power my Phillips 4-port USB hub (6 volt DC in requirement). From there the USB-hub will power/charge a Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet (the laptop), the Afedri SDR and maybe a USB-powered speaker?. Would have to test out this backup power scheme before boarding the boat 🙂

    I think I could do all of the above for $250 including the backup power system. Although it would likely push $300 when wires, cables etc are all in (does not include the tablet/laptop).

    Reply
  4. Tudor

    Here are my choices:
    – A 50-100m wire to be used as an antenna for SW and MW. I imagine I’ll be able to catch a few MW stations from South America or Africa. As for chosing a radio…
    – I’ll need a good radio which allows using an external antenna not only for SW (all of them do) but also for MW (few of them do). I think there is only one radio which fits this requirement within the budget: the Sony ICF-SW7600GR, available on Amazon.com at prices around $140. My other choice would be a Sangean ATS-909X which works very well with external antennas, but it’s more expensive.
    – I’ll also need two packs of 4 AA rechargeable batteries and a charger.

    I think that’s it. 🙂

    Reply
  5. ab3ru

    I propose using my current setup, since a laptop is a freebie here. I use the following in my setup:

    1) RTL-SDR dongle for the laptop ($15)
    2) Ham it up upconverter ($40)
    3) AlphaDelta SWL sloper, MFJ 1020B (eBay, got ’em for $102)

    That’s $157. That leaves $43 for a 25′ length of coax and two MCX adapters. Coax run is $15 (at $0.39/ft for RG-8X.) I forgot how much the adapters were, but less than the $28 left over after buying the coax run.

    Downside? I have no pole to support this, and houses on the island are only one story structures. I’ll have to attach the high end of the sloper to the peak of the home where I’m staying, and I’m sure that height is less than the 25′ recommended by AlphaDelta. In addition, I’ll have to plant a stake at the lower end of the sloper to keep that end the recommended 8′ above ground. I also made no provision for extra power if a power outage exceeded the amount of juice in my laptop battery.

    If push came to shove, I would drop the MFJ 1020B for an extra $50 to buy supports or an extra battery.

    Reply
  6. Rob

    Here’s my list. Where can’t get it locally and I don’t have a firm shipping cost, I’ve estimated it as an additional 20%. Stuff I can get locally (Radio Shack, etc.) I haven’t added any shipping or sales tax.
    – Tecsun PL660 (eBay/Anon Co): $85 + $16 shipping = $101
    – 100′ roll of 22 gauge stranded copper wire (Amazon): $9.41 + 20% = $11
    (good long random wire)
    – 25′ RG58 (Universal Radio price $0.25/ft): $6 + 20% = $7
    (use the coax to get wire antenna out and away from the house; wrap it on an old jar (free!) to make an ugly balun to keep household noise from creeping up the outside of the shield)
    – 1/8″ phono plugs for antenna port (Radio Shack): $3.50
    – Koss Earbuds (Radio Shack): $5
    (these really cut down on battery drain and make for a better house guest)
    – Eneloop charger & 4xAA batt combo (Batt Junction): $16 + 20% = $19.20
    (the 660 comes with one set of AA’s, this gives another and an away-from-radio charger to cut down on noise)

    OK, that totals to $147 for the basics. Now I want to add two more things:
    – Tecsun AN200 MW loop antenna (eBay/Anon Co): $16 + $10 shipping = $26
    (MW DX out in the middle of the Atlantic? I’d like to try!)
    – Degen 321 AM/FM/SW radio (eBay/Anon Co): $12 + $7 shipping = $19
    (That’s right, a spare radio. Because middle of nowhere.)

    Grand total: $192

    Now if I’m allowed to scrounge in the parts bin for stuff like 22 gauge antenna wire, RG58, and earbuds, there might be enough left over for a SECOND spare radio and 4 more Eneloops.

    Reply
    1. Thomas Post author

      Eric, it could be you!!! 🙂

      I’d love to go there sometime. A few months would probably suffice. Would also like to go to Ascension and St. Helena.

      -Thomas

      Reply
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  8. Michael C. Fortner

    Radio: Tecsun PL-600 (I have one and am comfortable with it’s operation) – $43.35
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/offer-listing/B004H912FC/ref=dp_olp_new?ie=UTF8&condition=new

    Antenna: 500′ spool red 18 gauge wire (you can’t have too much wire in case of wind damage, animals, people, etc.) – $29.07
    http://www.amazon.com/Install-Bay-PWRD18500-Primary-Gauge/dp/B000GAYNA2/ref=sr_1_19?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1399329596&sr=1-19&keywords=18+gauge+wire

    2 two packs of 1/8 mono phone jacks (again, backups are good) – $4.49 x 2 = $8.98
    http://www.radioshack.com/product/index.jsp?productId=2104061&retainProdsInSession=1

    Batteries: 16 AA NiMH batteries – $25.86
    http://www.amazon.com/AmazonBasics-NiMH-Precharged-Rechargeable-Batteries/dp/B007B9NV8Q/ref=sr_1_1?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1399329858&sr=1-1&keywords=rechargable+aa+batteries

    Charger: Solar battery charger (backup to mains power that charges batteries in radio): $19.99
    http://www.amazon.com/AAA-Solar-Battery-Charger-Batteries/dp/B0042Z14FO/ref=sr_1_2?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1399330051&sr=1-2&keywords=solar+battery+charger+aa+-quick

    Headphones: Koss KSC-75 headphones x2 (good dynamic range for the price and I have two pair that I use): $14.82 x 2 = $29.64
    http://www.amazon.com/Koss-KSC75-Portable-Stereophone-Headphones/dp/B0006B486K/ref=sr_1_1?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1399330207&sr=1-1&keywords=koss+ksc-75

    I’d guess I would save the rest for repair costs in case the radio acts up. Of course, I’d take the one I already have as a spare. When in remote locations, backups are essential so I probably bought more than most people think I need. And as far as the battery charger, rapid chargers are bad for most NiMH batteries so I went with a slower charger. And don’t forget that the Tecsun can charge the batteries in the radio when not in use.

    Reply
    1. Michael C. Fortner

      And all my Amazon purchases qualify for free shipping so I didn’t include that. Taxes might be extra but the buffer in my spending covers that.

      Reply
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  10. Richard Hayden

    I find the SONY brand much more reliable than any other, so I would prefer those. One ICF-SW7600GR would be the most capable radio in the price range. I have both the ‘7600G and GR models and they are very good at digging out weak and distant stations but the speaker audio is not that good for SW listening. I’d rather have two or three radios though. The SONY ICF-704S is a very sensitive and reasonably selective analog runing on 4 AA cells. The audio is good even across a room. It tunes SW in one band from 49-16 meters, so you have to tunes slowly. The ICF-F11S uses 2 D cells for an advertised battery life of 220 hours and it has a twin with different SW coverage. 120-41m or about 49-16m. The ICF-SW11 for around $70 runs on 2 AA cells drawing very little power.

    Reply
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