Social DXing: Looking back at one very radio-active year

One year ago, I posted an article about making the most of social distancing as the world started locking down due to the rapid spread of Covid-19. Here in March 2021, the news is looking much better: vaccines are being distributed at a record pace across the globe and number of cases and deaths are mostly on the decline.

Looking back

As I look back at the Social DX Bucket List I made last year, I’m happy to see that I actually accomplished about 64% of the goals I listed. I knew some of those goals would take well over a year to achieve (the QRP EME one especially).

In particular, I’m chuffed that I braved up and started doing Parks On the Air (POTA) and Summits On The Air (SOTA) activations in CW (Morse Code). That was a huge step for me and I’ll freely admit: I was nervous about it. But in July 2020, I managed to do my first CW activation and since then it has become my choice mode of operating in the field. CW is such a simple mode and so efficient–plus it gives me a sense of connection with the roots of radio communications.

I also accomplished a few things I never set out to do:

Not a typical radio year for me

In a “normal” year, I do way more SWLing than I do ham radio activity.

Last year, I started doing caregiving for my parents in my hometown–I’m typically there 2-3 days a week. While I’ve done shortwave listening and even a little MW DXing in my hometown, I typically don’t have a lot of time, especially in the evening hours. I just want to hit the sack early. QRM is also debilitating there and while I’d like to install a permanent Loop On Ground antenna to mitigate the noise (you heard that right, Andrea!) I’m not entirely sure I’d even have the dedicated listening time to justify it. When I’m there, I like to spend quality time with my folks.

In general, I’ve had much less free time. Indeed, if you’ve written to me via email, you’ll know this based on how long it’s taken me to reply. It can take several weeks especially if the reply requires a detailed response (which many do).

En route to, and on the way back from my hometown, I’ve found that doing park and summit activations has been very rewarding. Last year, I believe I completed a total of 82 park activations.

POTA has given me an excuse to explore public lands I’ve never visited before. Plus, I love nothing more than taking radios to the field–both receivers and transceivers.

Hamming and SWLing

At the end of the day, I’m an SWL and a ham radio operator. I find the two activities complimentary.

Side note: As I mentioned in my Winter SWL Fest presentation this year, it saddens me when I receive angry emails from readers after I post items that are ham radio related. We’ve upwards of 7,000-10,000 daily readers on the SWLing Post and the number of complaints are a teeny, tiny fraction of our readership. I only receive messages like this about once a month and they typically say something akin to “I don’t like the ham radio stuff, so if you don’t stop posting it, I’m leaving!” (FYI: That’s a real quote taken from the last one I received in January). I can only assume that at some point in the past, a ham radio operator has been a jerk to this and other radio enthusiasts. It’s a shame, too. I hate seeing the negative impact of one loud troll compared with the encouragement and support of much better people. All of my ham radio friends are not only supportive of SWLing, but almost all got their start in radio via the shortwaves. I’m certainly a case in point.

I love all things radio and I believe the SWLing Post is a reflection of that. If it offends you, then it might make sense to surf somewhere else.

Now where was I? Oh yeah…

POTA and SOTA outings have helped to satisfy some of my travel cravings as well. I miss going to radio conventions, hamfests, and especially traveling internationally with my family. We are a family who love national parks, forests, and other wildlife areas. Having an excuse to explore public lands we haven’t visited before has been amazing fun.

After POTA activations, I’ll often do a little SWLing since I already have an external antenna up and it’s typically connected to a good general coverage transceiver in a spot with zero RFI or QRM. I’ve especially enjoyed my DXing sessions with the superb Icom IC-705.

Listening habits

One indicator that I did less radio listening last year was the low number of recordings I made. I checked my audio folder recently and saw that I only made a couple dozen recordings–most were staple broadcasters, not rare or special DX.

At the end of the day, I realize that when I do SWLing sessions I like to have dedicated time–at least an hour or two–with headphones on, losing myself on the radio dial.  I simply haven’t had many opportunities this past year to make that a reality.

That’s okay, though. The great thing about the shortwaves is that they’re always there, patiently waiting for us to dive back in!

Looking forward

I’m really not sure what’s in store for me this year, but I know it’ll involve a lot of radio time and that pleases me to no end. I’ve made a few fun goals, but my hope is that, by the end of the year, I may even be able to do some proper travel–maybe even take a flight!

I do know this: I have an even more profound appreciation for my radio enthusiasm as I realize it’s the perfect space to travel and explore the world no matter how “locked down” things are. Based on feedback from readers and contributors to this site, I know I’m not the only one who feels this way.

How about you?

Did your radio activity change or pivot this past year? Did you have more or less time to hit the airwaves? Please comment!

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17 thoughts on “Social DXing: Looking back at one very radio-active year

  1. Andrew (grayhat)

    well, 1:1 SWR is pretty easy, a dummy load will be perfect ! Pity that SWR has nothing to do with how well a given antenna radiates, and pity that reciprocity doesn’t work for antennas, a good TX antenna is not automatically a good RX one 😀

    Reply
  2. Matt Todd

    I’ve been laid off since last March so it has freed up a lot of time for radio activities, and I went at it pretty hard. Over the last year I went really deep on Parks on the Air. I’m high risk and have been avoiding people and indoor places so I was a great way to get out of the house to do something fun. I’ve done more than thirty activation in the last year. I also came back to swl quite a bit and thanks to you blog went really deep with spectrum and audio recordings as well as posting them to Archive.org. We have a camper and went out with that numerous times which was great. That is a good way to travel in pandemic since we’re self sufficient. This gave many additional opportunities to do POTA and SWL/recording in many different locations.

    Reply
  3. 13dka

    I can understand very well how those poor people feel: I’m absolutely not interested in sports so having to read through the sports section in the newspaper to get to the crossword puzzle on the last page was totally annoying,. When there were still mail order shop catalogs, it took me hours to browse 400 boring pages with furniture, tablecloths and lawnmowers each time until I finally reached the pages I was interested in – lingerie and radios! Consistent as I am, I stopped reading both and we all know how newspapers and mail order businesses ceased to exist thereafter. Don’t get me started on phone books!

    Regarding the past year in the wireless world – not having much opportunity for eating out saved me a lot of money and I invested that in 2 of the most lovely radios I’ve ever owned. Radio and TV became quite important anyway, and ham radio ragchewing channels are unvoluntarily my finger on the pulse of the common people while staying at home and thinking about trading my new radios for one that doesn’t have 80m. Spending more time playing and studying radio I was able to connect a few more theoretical/technical dots, received US stations on AM for the first time and rekindled my interest in broadcast listening and CW. I learned that there are still great jazz programs on AM!

    Having lonely, nerdy hobbies like “all things wireless” is invaluable in times like this, they keey you busy and make the situation feel less severe or unusual. Radio has a great record of brightening up things, some radios where even explicitly built for morale boosting and for me personally it sure was a good friend all my life. Part of it is that it’s an incredibly complex hobby with a vast spectum of interesting niches and applications to discover. To my knowledge, the SWLing Post is the only media outlet to cover them all and that’s a good thing for so many reasons.

    Reply
  4. Andrew (grayhat)

    Hi there, Thomas !

    Well, putting together a LoG would be a good idea, also since if you’ll need it it will be there 🙂

    As for yours, I know what it means, last year before this COVID pandemic started I lost both my parents, so stay with them as much as you can, radio can wait, and yes, I know what you mean when you write about “just willing to hit the sack”, all I can suggest is, if you want, to record some IQ and then play it back when time permits are you’re in the right mood

    As for the “Ham vs SWL” thing (assuming we can call it this way), seems that some Hams (luckily just a few) feel like SWLing is “a waste of time” and “Hams knows radio better”; my suggestion is … ignore such people, also since in general those are folks which believe that throwing a bunch of money is what make their station better, and often the same which invest $$$$ in TeraWatt amplifier and then pump all those onto a screwdriver 😀

    Reply
    1. Andrew (grayhat)

      Forgot, while the LoG doesn’t usually need a preamp (the RX one will suffice), at times or in some cases, one may want to try a preamp with it, if that’s the case, then I heartly suggest to try this one

      https://www.okdxf.eu/files/preamp_r60.pdf

      just replace the original 2N5109 with an NTE278 and you’ll have it, connect the preamp after the LoG transformer, and if possible add a small relay so that, cutting off the power (over Bias-T) you’ll unpower both the preamp and the relay and the latter will bypass the preamp, this way it will be possible to use the LoG with or without the preamp as need arises

      Reply
  5. Peter L

    Some radio hobbyists are weird. Most of the really weird ones have qualified for licenses under Part 97 of the FCC’s rules. And I say that has someone who first qualified for a license under Part 97 of the FCC’s rules 30 years ago. 🙂

    I don’t know what it is about ham snobbery/weirdness towards other facets of the radio hobby. They’re missing out, IMHO. You should see the looks I get (on Zoom, these days) when I tell people I have been chasing NDBs.

    Know what I’d like to see? Some articles on the state of the CB radio market in the USA. I have been watching G0OJF’s YouTube channel where he does nothing but service UK “27/81” CBs (none of that CEPT SSB rubbish!). In the UK and EU markets there are a lot of nice transceivers available. Doesn’t seem like all of them have FCC-compliant counterparts here. The Uniden “Bearcat” 980SSB looks really neat but what else is out there?

    G0OJF’s “UK FM CB radio servicing” https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC6w677p4ucVOw2VxqZk-UlA/about

    de N5UWY

    Reply
    1. Peter L

      I didn’t answer your question! “Did your radio activity change or pivot this past year? Did you have more or less time to hit the airwaves?”

      Yes. I spent a LOT more time on MWDX than previously, though it had ramped up before the Deadly Global Pandemic thanks to IRCA’s annual contest. The rules vary by year, which keeps it interesting and this year, *so far* I am leading thanks to the bonus points I earned by logging CA, MA, and SK for the first time.

      And then last fall, I sent a message to Kevin C of LWCA asking for a sample issue after enjoying his TSM column and, like magic, I now edit the “DX Downstairs” column in LWCA’s newsletter, The Lowdown. I now spend much more time below ~500 kHz than I ever did before!

      My radio room is now my work place, so I spend much more time with my radios, even if it is mostly scanning local stuff.

      Reply
  6. Ron F

    On the side note: There’s no doubt that the ratio of ham-related posts here has increased over the years. It’s your blog, though, so you do you – though I’m occasionally dismayed at the dwindling amount of SWL-related content here, I can’t say I have a problem with that. I just don’t read or comment on those or other posts that don’t interest me, and quickly move on to other sites/places that do.

    On that general subject, though, there’s definitely a sizeable (or maybe just outspoken, or evangelical, or something…) subset of hams who seem to think SWLs are simply ‘people who haven’t *yet* got their ham licence’. That type can’t grasp the concept that somebody interested in SWL *wouldn’t* be interested in becoming a ham, and take every opportunity to big up the ham hobby & recruit. It doesn’t happen here on this blog – but it does very occasionally rear its head in the comments.

    As somebody who used to repair the gear most of them couldn’t, that’s annoying – especially when they rely on the increasingly-mythological ‘*all* hams understand electronics’ trope to push their barrow. But, again, most of the time when I see that I just shake my head, make a mental note, and walk away…

    Reply
    1. Peter L

      SWL = Still Without License? 🙂

      In the US, the qualification exams are nothing like they used to be so while there are hams who truly do understand how the sound coming out of your mouth is made into sound coming out of the other station’s speaker, that’s a pretty small percentage. Most, though, are far too busy trying to get to the nirvana of 1.0:1 SWR. The snobbery is unearned, IMHO.

      Reply
  7. John Golub

    As of late, I have been identifying with the phrase “radio hobbyist.” Basically, it doesn’t pigeonhole myself into any specific aspect of radio. MWDX, Shortwave, Ham, CB, GMRS, FRS, MURS, RC, Police – Utility Scanning, etc? Sure, any and all of the above! Why pick one when you can do any and all (within legal reason, of course). Don’t let the naysayers get you down, it’s ultimately YOUR blog.

    Have Fun!

    Reply
    1. Joe Domaleski

      I really like your term “radio hobbyist” and that’s a good description of me. Radio of all kinds (shortwave, scanner, CB, ham, GMRS, AM, etc.) is fun. Sometimes I like to talk on the radio and use those radio services, but more often I like to just listen. There’s no right or wrong way to be a radio hobbyist.

      Thanks – Joe

      Reply
    2. Peter L

      Radio Hobbyist FTW! My own path was MWDX (not knowing it was really a thing!), then CB in the late 70s, then scanners (lots of scanners), then an amateur license when telegraphy was deleted from the US Technician class in 1991 (lots and lots of ham radio), and more recently back to MWDX and now NDBs and other things below ~500 kHz. Except for CB, I still do all the other stuff. And I’m toying with the idea of a Uniden 980SSB to remedy the latter …

      Truth be told, I’ve never been much of a pure SWL. That crappy garage-sale RCA Victor “AM/FM/SW” portable I acquired spent more time on 980 kHz in Montreal than it did on the SW part of the dial. In fact, I really only remember discovering WWV on it. 🙂

      Reply
      1. Tim Myers N4TCM

        I’ve got a 980 SSB. Not that happy with it. Alot of hash that model. I hooked it up to an Antron 99 and it was pretty noisy. But it may be picking up my wi-fi which is in the floor next to my desk. Had a similar problem with a Yaesu 840. When I turned off the wif, the noise went away. You may have better luck with it. Just giving you a heads up if you get a surprise. I have an older PC 68 in the car that sound better but I wanted the 980 for sideband when the band is open. Good luck 73 N4TCM

        Reply
  8. Bob

    I love all things radio. Perfect. There is so much to this hobby. Grabbing uV out of the air never fails to astonish me. -Bob W8RMV

    Reply
  9. Timothy Myers

    A ham myself since 1992 and an occasional SWL since the late 70’s. Some SWLs might not realize that how some hams got started. By listening to shortwave or the ham bands on sideband or AM. Some are just jerks. Not everybody’s happy. Been thinking about getting a new receiver someday. But also a new or used hf rig too. Last one died a horrible death and I’m not Bill Gates. I have a Grundig 350DL. Its ok but I could do better. Been catching Radio Romania International some months now. Anyone want to hear some good oldies tunes. Radio Mi Amigo International, the classic pirate ship station of the 60’s is on both shortwave and streaming on the net. TuneIn app has it in HD stereo. 73’s N4TCM

    Reply
  10. John Brandt

    Keep up with the Ham stuff. Love it. Partly because I’ve only returned to this hobby recently after a nearly 50 year hiatus and I’m trying to catch up!

    Regarding SWL activities…definitely increased significantly in the past year. Not sure if it is COVID related or the fact that I got a magnetic loop antenna, plus sun spots, and I can now hear stuff!

    Keep up the good work!

    Reply

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