Jock explores “The Essential Listening Post”

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jock Elliott, who shares the following guest post:


The Essential Listening Post

By Jock Elliott, KB2GOM

Listening to shortwave radio (or any radio, for that matter) is just plain fun.

So what do you need to get in on the fun?

A radio. With today’s crop of portable SW radios, many of which have search and store capabilities, a newbie SWL can get started quickly without a lot fuss and bother and no extra stuff. Just hit the search and store function (it has different names on different radios), let the search function do its thing, and step through the memories to see what’s out there. If your radio doesn’t have search and store, you can just tune around to see what’s currently broadcasting or, if you have a computer or smart phone, use it to explore one of the online directories like https://shortwaveschedule.com/

What follow next are some things that I’ve found increase my enjoyment of SWLing.

A log book. I use a dirt-cheap student’s composition book. I write down the date, the time, the frequency, and what I heard, including the identity of the station and some description of the content of what I heard. Sometimes I note programs I want to listen to in the future.

A clock, set to Universal Coordinated Time (UTC, formerly Greenwich Mean Time, also known by the military as Zulu time). You want that because UTC is what all the shortwave station schedules are based on. Fortunately, many of the modern portables have a built-in clock. Just set it to UTC. You can hear the current UTC by listening to the time stations on 5, 10, 15, or 20 megaHertz. There is also a time station on 3330 kHz. (And there are other time signals out there, perhaps some of the commenters below will chime in with their frequencies.) Checking the time stations will also give you an idea which bands are offering the best propagation.

An external antenna. While an external antenna is not a necessity (many portables offer worthy performance without one), but it is nice to have one available when signals are faint; it will boost the signals you can hear. Many portables, like my Tecsun PL-880 and CCrane Skywave SSB, come with a wire accessory antenna – usually around 20 feet long or so – that can be clipped to the whip antenna or plugged into a dedicated antenna socket. If your radio didn’t come with an accessory antenna, you can quickly and cheaply create one. Start with 20 feet of insulated wire and attach an alligator clip to it. Next, clip the assembly to the whip antenna on your portable radio. That’s it. If you can, run it around near the ceiling of the room on the tops of window frames and bookcases and see how it works. If you have the ability to feed it out a window to a tree or dangle it from a balcony, great, but remember to bring it in when foul weather threatens. Never, ever, place an antenna where it could fall on a power line or a power line could fall on it.

An atlas. It gives me particular pleasure to listen to shortwave (or hams for that matter) and to consult an atlas to look at the country where the signal originates. If you have a smart phone or computer, you can use an online atlas, but I prefer a paper atlas.

The next items are definitely in the “luxury” accessory category.

If you can’t get enough of radio monitoring and want to beyond shortwave into the VHF and UHF frequencies, a scanner can do just that. I’ve had good luck with the relatively inexpensive Uniden BC125AT. It receives on analog frequencies and does a good job monitoring transportation frequencies, such as aircraft, maritime, and railroads.

Perhaps the ultimate “goodie” for radio listening is a digital signal processing (DSP) device. DSP units, in general, are expensive. Recently, I tested the BHI Compact In-Line Noise Eliminating Module and I found that it works really well for reducing noise and making listening more enjoyable.

Finally, many radio monitors sing the praises of small loop antennas for offering superb signal capture and improving the performance of their listening posts. I have no direct experience with them, (yet!) but there is a wealth of information about them here: https://wiki.radioreference.com/index.php/Loops

Now it’s your turn: what, in your opinion, is essential for your listening post? Please comment!

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24 thoughts on “Jock explores “The Essential Listening Post”

  1. Paul Capewell

    Thanks Jock, and Thomas as always, for this great post. I always love reading the comments too to get a flavour of other methods and habits.

    My kit is similar but quite basic – a Tecsun PL-360 with its ETM (auto tuning) mode, which I use with either a wire antenna (the one it came bundled with) or just the built-in telescopic aerial, which works well enough in most situations; I almost always use short-wave.info as well, glad to see someone else mention it (the map feature is really useful, though I find the method of setting your own location quite flakey on a mobile device); I sometimes use headphones – just whatever I have with me (I tried my active noise cancelling headphones but found that the ANC circuit introduces interference when plugged in!); and I have a tiny (A7?) notebook which fits inside the Tecsun’s soft case with a pen so I can quickly scribble down interesting stations.

    I also set my Tecsun clock to UTC, though as I am UK-based, this is just local time for half the year anyway. But it is a good tip for all listeners wherever they are. (Related: I love that my Tecsun has a built-in thermometer – it’s such an odd feature for a radio, but as it is designed as a small portable, I am always so glad to have it with me when traveling or staying somewhere new).

    Short-wave.info is also handy (and I assume any similar schedule app/book/website would be) when it lists the language of the broadcast – quite often I’ll hear a language or accent which doesn’t sound to my ear, say, Chinese, but that of course it turns out to be, say, the Russian-language broadcast of the ubiquitous short wave broadcaster China Radio International.

    I was interested to read about time signal stations – I assume those are US-based? I’ve not come across any in the UK but would like to hear from other readers if there are any I can try and track down.

    An atlas is a good idea! Using short-wave.info at one time I got into the habit of tapping the link through to the transmitter site which then opens the location in Google Maps and found that they were often in interesting locations (usually on a big hill in the middle of nowhere rather than the middle of the country’s capital city!).

    Thanks again for this post.

    Reply
    1. Jock Elliott

      Paul, thank you for the kind words and detailed response. Like you, I always “reading the comments too to get a flavour of other methods and habits.”

      Reply
  2. Rob L

    How about the latest WRTH, Global Radio Guide & NRC AM Radio Log? I also use a tablet computer to help ID weak signals, see latest info on station formats, networks, etc. & view maps. Oh, and a comfy chair!

    Reply
  3. Stephen

    It is very bad ,when you use up to 2-3 years, something happen, it was jumping up to the other switches, that is make me very frustrated.

    Reply
  4. Bob Colegrove

    What a surprise! I would have listed a good pair of earphones first. Back in the day, every RO had them. They are an indispensable tool of the trade. In recent years I would not be without my Sennheiser HD-428 over-the-ear headset – only way to pick out the weak stuff.

    Reply
  5. Jason VE3MAL

    As an alternative or complement to that DSP device, I wonder how many SWL-ers have tried a noise antenna and phasing device (e.g., QRM180, X-Phase, mfj noise canceller). Lots of them available as kits for 50 bucks or so and they are teeny. Gives you some knobs to twiddle and try to cancel out a local noise source before it even gets to the radio. Maybe not important in a literal field, but if you are near electrical equipment you have no control over, it gives some options.

    Reply
    1. Jock Elliott

      I have not tried a “a noise antenna and phasing device” but I would be glad to hear from folks who have.

      As I said in my original post on the BHI device, there are two ways to improve signal-to-noise: either boost the signal or reduce the noise.

      Does someone who has actually used one of these want to chime in?

      Reply
  6. Andrew (grayhat)

    Hi, add an azimuthal map to your equipment, the map may be generated here

    https://ns6t.net/azimuth/

    and, if you are using a somewhat directional antenna (say a dipole or a loop), it will allow you to quickly find the best aiming for the antenna 😀

    Reply
  7. Joe Patti KD2QBK

    Another great schedule site is Short-Wave.info (hyphen is required). Especially good for identifying something you’re currently listening to. Enter your current coordinates and it’ll show you the expected approximate signal strength of the subject as well. Great site.

    Reply
  8. Haluk Mesci

    Jock, (and Thomas)…
    May I translate your nice entry into Turkish, with all due credits clearly mentioned,
    and share it with a small group of Turkish SWL’s who cannot read English?
    Thank you for considering. I negative, I’ll understand.

    Reply
        1. Haluk Mesci

          Thank you both on behalf of those who’ll really appreciate it.
          ! I’ll quickly work and share with you too for your pleasure and archive.

          Haluk

          Reply
  9. Rob W4ZNG

    Very nice! I’m going to throw in some, if not additional items, mods to what Jock listed. Most of this applies to getting out into the field. Note: your backyard with the kids definitely counts as “out in the field”!

    – SSB capability on a radio is a real bonus. I know, it’s a cost thing, but if you can pop for it, it’s worth it. If you can’t, that’s OK, there’s still plenty of AM action on SW.

    – A line and a throwing weight to arrange the external wire antenna vertically. This can help you pull in many more stations. Here’s a short article on this: https://swling.com/blog/2021/02/rob-compares-horizontal-and-vertical-swl-random-wire-antennas/ It doesn’t have to be a full-on arborist rig, most of the time I use string tied to a pocketknife when out in the woods. Up to about 25′ this works pretty well, and that’s usually enough.

    – Second on the logbook, and add the suggestion of a moisture-resistant one like Rite in the Rain with one of their pens.

    – Some digital watches have a second time zone. On my Timex Expedition, it’s set to UTC. Nothing extra to forget or lose.

    – Earbuds are nice, either to block out external noise or to keep from disturbing other people. The one-ear C.Crane model is particularly good for this, because it blends the two stereo channels on most 3.5mm jacks, and it’s optimized for voice. But whatever came with your radio likely is very good already.

    – Finally, one real addition: some kind of computer, tablet, or smartphone with software to translate digital modes. It doesn’t even have to be wired to the radio, it just needs to be able to pick up the sound on an internal mic. PSKer works great on a smartphone for unwinding PSK-31, and similarly fldigi on a laptop gives you the full suite for nearly all ham modes.

    – Finally**2: a thermos of coffee!

    Good stuff, Jock, thanks. I do need to pick up a pocket atlas. With the crisp fall weather finally here in north FL, I may be heading to the woods later today, if I can keep other duties at bay.

    Reply
  10. James Fields

    I like to use a couple of utilities for time and frequency information. The Android app Skywave Schedules (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=swbcdx.cap.shortwavelist&hl=en_US&gl=US) is very good and updated frequently. On my PC, I use CSVUserListBrowser (https://www.df8ry.de/) in combination with the ILG Database (https://www.ilgradio.com/). Not all these things are free but they are certainly useful. CSVULB can auto-tune my SDRPlay receiver, and it also can open various internet maps to transmitter locations.

    A number of years back I purchased an installed a PAR End-Fedz shortwave antenna (https://www.vibroplex.com/contents/en-us/p3415.html). Installed outdoors and with a coax feedline, it pulls in and delivers strong, clean signals. With some of the newer Tecsun radios I can even use it for MW AM and it works wonders for those as well.

    I should probably mention I have invested a good bit in rechargeable batteries and chargers – I have quite a stock of Eneloop AAs, a half-dozen Lithium Ion 18650s and a charger for those, and several BL-5C batteries and a charger.

    Reply
  11. Thomas Post author

    I love this, Jock! It’s so funny you mention an Atlas, too. I’ve always loves pocket (and large format) atlases. I remember one I had in the back of my pocket planner. Everything in the diary part of the planner was black and white, but the atlas section was in color. In middle school, when I should have been listening to my math and literature teachers, I would open that little atlas and dream about the places I could hear on my shortwave radio and perhaps places I could travel someday.

    To this day, I still look up the countries I listen to. I feel like maps give us meaningful context.

    Thank you for the excellent post!
    Thomas

    Reply
    1. Jock Elliott

      Thanks, Thomas, for the kind words. Like you, I’ve always felt that an atlas was “a book of imagination.”

      The places I have traveled while looking at those pages and listening to distant voices . . .

      Reply

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