Category Archives: Travel

Don Moore’s Photo Album: Cuenca, Ecuador (Part One)

Cuenca Cathedral

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Don Moore–noted author, traveler, and DXer–for the latest installment of his Photo Album guest post series:


Don Moore’s Photo Album: Cuenca, Ecuador (Part One)

by Don Moore

For me travel is all about seeing new places and having new experiences. When I retired in 2017 my plan was to spend the next fifteen years visiting new countries and new places in countries I already knew. Is that a viable goal? Three years ago while crossing the border from Ecuador to Colombia I shared a taxi with Dutch man who, like me, was traveling overland by bus with just a knapsack and a suitcase. And two weeks earlier he had celebrated his eightieth birthday. I don’t remember his name but he’s my hero.

The pandemic put a pause on travel but I’m happy to be back on the road. I’m currently in Ecuador, the country where I’ve spent more time than anywhere except the United States and Honduras. After landing in Quito at the beginning of December I visited four provinces I hadn’t been to before, including spending three nights at the bohemian beach town of Montañita where I had some good DX. I like seeing new places but there is also something to be said for returning to a familiar place that holds a special meaning. For me that place is where I am now – Cuenca, Ecuador.

My ex-wife and I finished our Peace Corps service in 1984, flew home to get married, and then in January 1985 flew to Quito, Ecuador to begin a long journey that would take us overland all the way to Buenos Aires and back. On our way to Peru in late February we stopped for a few days in Cuenca and fell in love with the little city. We visited Cuenca again in July at the end of our travels. When we left I knew we would be back but I never could have imagined the circumstances that would lead to that next visit. In 1997 we returned with our seven-year-old daughter to adopt a six-year-old son. We spent almost three weeks in Cuenca doing all the required paperwork but we had no complaints as we enjoyed being there so much. I clearly remember sitting in a park one day and commenting that Cuenca would be a perfect place to retire in someday. I was only ten years ahead of my time.

La Voz del Río Tarqui

Cuenca was home to several shortwave broadcasters over the decades but La Voz del Río Tarqui was probably the best known to my generation of DXers. The station was founded in 1960 by Manuel Pulla but didn’t begin its shortwave service on 3285 kHz until 1982. My loggings of the station run from July 1982 through 1997 but I believe they were on shortwave for a few more years after that. (Don’t confuse La Voz del Río Tarqui with Radio Tarqui, a sometimes broadcaster from Quito on 4970 kHz.)

La Voz del Río Tarqui in 1985. The facilities inside were no more impressive than the outside of the building was.

La Voz del Río Tarqui takes its name from the famous Battle of the River Tarqui. After the new countries of South America gained their independence from Spain there was often disagreement over just where the boundaries were that they had inherited from Spanish rule. Ecuador was in a union with present-day Colombia and Venezuela until 1830 and during this time Peru claimed much of present-day southern Ecuador, including Cuenca and Guayaquil. In 1828 a large Peruvian army occupied Loja, to the south, and a few months later marched north to complete their conquest. In February 1829 General Antonio de Sucre, a hero of the war of independence, met the Peruvians on the banks of the Tarqui, twenty-five kilometers south of Cuenca. Both sides suffered heavy losses but Sucre’s army routed the Peruvians. Cuenca, Guayaquil, and Loja remained a part of Ecuador. Continue reading

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Don Moore’s Photo Album: Ecos del Torbes

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Don Moore–noted author, traveler, and DXer–for the following guest post series:


Don Moore’s Photo Album

by Don Moore

Introduction

When I discovered DXing over fifty years ago I also discovered the world. Through my ears I traveled to other countries and explored other cultures. But DXing has also literally taken me places. My early interest in Latin American DXing developed into a broader interest in Latin America. That led to me joining the Peace Corps after college and working three years in Honduras. That experience furthered my interest in Latin America and I have continued to travel in the region whenever possible. For me DXing and travel were always intertwined. I’m one of a handful of hobbyists who took DXing beyond just listening and went knocking on broadcasters’ doors to visit the distant stations I heard. My ex-wife dubbed this ‘door-to-door DXing.’

To date I’ve visited over 150 radio stations in thirteen countries. A few were medium-wave or FM only, but I was always most interested in visiting broadcasters that used shortwave, either at the time of my visit or a few years before. As my station visits were primarily made in the 1980s and 1990s, almost all of the stations are long-gone from the shortwave bands. However, many are still around on medium wave and FM and often also via streaming on the Internet. As much as I miss the magic of shortwave I know that these stations reach more listeners today via streaming than they ever did with their low-powered shortwave transmitters. Honestly, I sometimes enjoy tuning them in without the fading and static of shortwave. But the memories of what shortwave once was are still there.

Photos also bring back memories. I took dozens of pictures on my station visits and enjoy scrolling through them now and then. You may have seen some of them. Many of my photos were printed with articles I wrote for various DX publications and I’ve done a few slide-shows at DX get-togethers over the years.

In this series of columns I want to share my old photos once again. If you’ve been DXing as long as I have maybe they’ll bring back memories of what you once heard. And if you haven’t been around that long you will have a better understanding of the good old days we oldtimers talk about.

Ecos Del Torbes

There is no better place to start this journey than with Ecos del Torbes. Using ten kilowatts on 4980 kHz, this Venezuelan broadcaster was possibly the most consistent station in the sixty-meter band throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. If you were DXing the tropical bands during those years you surely logged them a few times. If you were lucky you may even have heard their one kilowatt signal on 9640 kHz. They were a very good verifier and for many DXers Ecos del Torbes was among the first Latin American stations QSLed.

Just after Christmas in 1994, my then-wife, four-year-old daughter, and I flew to Mérida in western Venezuela for a family vacation. For ten days we had a great time in this Andean city and then Theresa and Rebecca returned to Iowa while I stayed another week to visit radio stations. I was also getting paid by the Voice of America to research and write a study on the media scene in Andean Venezuela. The now very-out-of-date report can be read at my Patepluma Radio website (which hasn’t been changed in over twenty years and is in need of a facelift).

In that week I visited fifteen radio stations in six towns and cities and Ecos del Torbes was the highlight. I arrived at their doorstep unannounced but was immediately treated as an important guest. I was given a great tour and even got to sit in on a live newscast to see the famous Venezuelan doorbell being used live. I was there about ninety minutes and then walked a block up the street to sister station Radio Táchira. Their facilities were smaller but that’s where the technical offices were and Chief Engineer Ivan Escobar had been told to expect me. Ivan gave me a tour and invited me to visit the Ecos del Torbes transmitter site with him in the afternoon. On the way we stopped by his house where his wife had lunch waiting for us. Visiting Ecos del Torbes was not just the highlight of this trip but ranks as one of my all-time favorite station visits. These pictures bring back many good memories.

Photos

Ecos del Torbes was located in the second floor of this building in downtown San Cristóbal. The entrance was the door on the side.

The small plaque next to the door was easy to miss. I walked right by the first time.

Edgar Fabala of the news department showed me around. Here he demonstrates the mini-xylophones that Venezuelan stations used to make the distinctive ‘doorbell’ sound that separated items in the news reports.

Announcer in the studio preparing to read the news.

The adjoining control room.

Ecos del Torbes had one of the largest record libraries in Venezuela. The LPs were color-coded by type.

Julio Achila was a control room operator who had worked at the station since it opened in 1947.

This pennant was considerably larger than the ones sent to DXers.

Sister station Radio Táchira was located a block up the street on the fourth floor of this building.

The Ecos del Torbes transmitter building.

The 50 kilowatt medium wave transmitter on 780 kHz.

Chief Engineer Ivan Escobar and Don Moore next to the 31 meter transmitter. The larger transmitter was for the well-heard 4980 kHz frequency.

The antenna array used for 4980 kHz. The medium wave tower is in the background.

Dipole antenna used for 9640 kHz.

San Cristóbal once had a third broadcaster on shortwave. Radio San Sebastian used 6070 kHz in the early 1970s. (They were not affiliated with Ecos del Torbes).

That was nearly three decades ago and a lot has changed. Ecos del Torbes and Radio Táchira have been gone from shortwave for over twenty years.

In 1995 Ecos del Torbes was at the corner of Calle 9 and Carrera 8, the same address as when I first QSLed them in 1972. Sometime since my visit they moved an outer neighborhood about two kilometers to the east. To find the new offices locate San Cristóbal on Google maps and then search for “Grupo Radial Gonzalez Lovera”. The transmitter site is still where I visited it and can be seen by plugging the coordinates “7.7885, -72.2725” into Google maps and switching to satellite view. (Ignore the picture that pops up to the side. That’s not it.) Zooming in, the medium wave tower is clearly visible but there are no signs of the old shortwave antennas. I suspect they were sold for scrap years ago. I never have found out where the Radio Táchira transmitter site was.

I’d love to go back to Venezuela someday and see some of the other cities that I used to listen to, such as Barquisimeto, Valencia, El Tigre, and Sucre. Unfortunately the political and economic situation there doesn’t look good and it doesn’t look as if it will improve any time soon. But when it does, I’ll be back.


Click here to check out all of Don Moore’s Photo Album columns. Each new article will appear on the SWLing Post home page/feed and in this link.

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Julian reviews the Panasonic RF-B45 and shares comments regarding shortwave broadcasting and portable radios

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Julian S, who shares the following guest post and review:


Panasonic RF-B45 – A Comparative Review

by Julian S

18 and 19 October, 2022

I was raised on valve / tube radios. From my pre-teens in the 1960s, I enjoyed tuning through the frequencies as a form of exploration. In the 1970s I experimented with antennae to improve reception. And later, starting in the 1980s, I began to use travel radios, always looking for that perfect radio.

Today the perfect radio for us SWL’ers might need to include a time machine to take us back to the halcyon days of SW, say in the 1980s or 1990s, before so many Western broadcasters axed their Short Wave services.

Looking at the BBC World Service’s latest round of cuts, I am filled with horror. Is whoever decided those cuts deeply cynical or deeply ignorant?

Switching BBC World Service content from radio to the internet for countries that block or restrict internet access is not the way to reach people living there. In places where every person’s internet access is monitored, where access to websites and web-content is censored or blocked, BBC news internet content will not be widely available. Today and for the foreseeable future the way to reach perhaps half or more of the world’s population is radio, especially Short Wave radio broadcasts.

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and other like-minded countries, eg the DPRK (North Korea) fully understand the importance of radio, especially Short Wave and they vigorously maintain multiple Short Wave broadcast programmes as a way to project soft power and influence people.

In this context, it’s no surprise that when the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2017 suddenly, unexpectedly and against a back-drop of protests from Pacific Island Nations and rural Australians ditched its Short Wave broadcasts, the PRC’s China Radio International grabbed Australia’s SW frequencies.

I heard that in an earlier round of cuts China acquired frequencies dropped by the BBC World Service.

By the time the West wakes up again to the importance of Short Wave radio broadcasting as a means to communicate to the world, they will find the SW airwaves are full of PRC, North Korean, Vietnamese, Cuban and other broadcasters who never forgot how important SW broadcasts to the world are. I’m reminded of a line from the Sean Connery film, Rising Sun, “If you don’t want us to buy it, don’t sell it.”

Aside from the broadcasters mentioned above, there are still many others broadcasting on SW and there are plenty of Hams too. Short Wave radio listening and Ham radio are widespread and popular in Asia and Africa and are a major source of news. In some countries SW is also used as a means of business and social communication. So much so that there are home-grown radio and transceiver manufacturers in a number of African and Asian nations.

SW listening is big in China. So it’s no surprise that probably the best manufacturer of consumer grade short wave radio receivers is a China based company, Tecsun, who need no introduction. Tecsun seems to have taken over the role that was once held by Grundig, Sony, Panasonic and others. Indeed many of the later Grundig models are made by Tecsun.

If you’ve guessed that I like short wave radio, you’ve guessed right. And I suppose like many other fans, I usually have my eye open for something special.

Since hearing of the Panasonic RF B65 some years ago, I’ve been on the look-out for one at a reasonable price… this search led me to the RF B45…. But I’m a man of modest means so I need them to be priced accordingly.

Usually these two 30+ year old radios are priced on North American eBay like holy grail radios. More expensive than a 2nd hand Sony ICF 2010 / 2001D. Go figure. But the other day I found a Panasonic RF B45 for what I considered a reasonable price. It arrived yesterday, well packed, clean and in good condition. After dinner and this morning before breakfast I put it through some of its paces

What follows are some initial impressions of the Panasonic RF B45:

I’ve read a few reviews of it on eham, shortwave.ch etc. The controls are pretty easy to figure out. It has a similar form factor to the Sony ICF7600 series and is probably comparable in performance to the digital iterations of the Sony 7600 series… though the only 7600 series radio I have at present is the analogue 7601 which is comparable to the Tecsun R9700DX, except in price. New the Tecsun R9700DX is likely to be cheaper than a used Sony 7601 on eBay, and the Tecsun has a wider range of features, eg external antenna socket, comes with a long wire antenna, has better audio… but I digress…

…back to the Panasonic RF B45. This is a fine compact travel radio about the size of a paperback book or two DVD stacked boxes. Continue reading

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Jack’s “Perfect Radio Trifecta”

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jack Kratoville, for the following guest post:


My Perfect Radio Trifecta

by Jack Kratoville

Last Fall, I asked SWLing readers to assist me in my decision as to what portable radio I should take on a two-week trip to Germany. While I came up with an initial list of portables I already own, there were some excellent suggestions on what I might pack. (Sidenote to Thomas – yes, my wife and I packed everything we needed into two carry-on pieces, including my 3 radios. Your expertise continues to serve us well!) To all else, thank you again for your thoughts, suggestions and comments.

The Tecsun PL-310ET was a top choice of many, yet one I had previously never taken into the field. It seemed a logical choice for this trip. The second is the Sangean PL-210 and it just fits in any pocket. The third is a DAB receiver someone had given me, tossed in a drawer, and forgotten about until I realized Germany implemented DAB to replace the MW and LW bands. The only name I can find online is the DAB-8. Being quite small, it made the cut and I shoved it in between a couple of tee shirts.

At our destination, I quickly realized I could not have chosen a better trinity for myself. Here’s why.

Tecsun PL-310ET

If this had been the only radio I brought, I would have been more than satisfied. SW signals abound (the war just two countries away was certainly a factor.) A quick hit of the ETM feature at the top of the hour brought in 40-50 listenable signals, with only a scant few broadcasts religious in nature. Even during the day, I could capture 25 easily. With the bandwidth set at 3 kHz, sound was most impressive. While some were the same broadcast on different frequencies, my only real disappointment was the lack of English-speaking broadcasts – but that was to be expected. The PL-310ET scans relatively fast and holds on to strong signals quite nicely.

We stayed with relatives who lived high on a hill not far from Kiel, in the north of Germany. One push of the ETM feature on FM filled the dial with German voices playing mostly English pop music (the eighties apparently a favorite decade there too.) Simply put, the selectivity on this radio is phenomenal. Odd / even frequencies happily sharing adjacent homes on the dial. And with the pre-emphasis on European FM at 50, the sound from this portable was absolute perfection. As a matter of fact, my first complaint about this radio was a bit of harshness on our over-processed FM commercial stations. In Europe, the audio characteristics of classical, pop, rock and talk stations was simply sweet.

My first night on the AM band was a disappointment. One, maybe two signals that didn’t come in very well. Thankfully, I quickly remembered to flip it to 9kHz and – wow! The BBC, Spanish, Italian, and signals that sounded very much like eastern Europe came booming in. I did not expect all of this and can easily say this was the most fun I’ve had band scanning and DXing in a long, long time! Traveling domestically, I’m more apt to load a memory page, but in this situation, the ETM feature was incredibly useful.

For all DXing, I only used the whip and internal antennas. The battery indicator dropped one notch on the second to the last day we were there. The PL-310ET is an absolute true travel performer.

The Tecsun PL-310ET now sits proudly alongside my CCrane Skywave, Digitech AR1780, Eton Executive Satellit (Grundig edition) and the semi-retired Grundig G5. When we travel to London next year, there’s no question this gets packed again.

Sangean PL-210

A radio that became my constant walking companion during Covid. Hand-sized with a really nice on-board speaker for its size. The sensitivity is impressive and considering its PLL circuitry, has excellent selectivity on FM. AM was also impressive for an antenna no more than a half-inch – if that. It went with me to Hamburg, Berlin, Frankfort and Denmark; always just a quick pull from the pocket for a quick scan. To say I like this radio, well, I own three.

DAB-8

My curiosity in DAB was basically zero. One reader actually PM’d me and offered their own DAB receiver, saying I should check it out. (Thank you, Mike, for that generous offer.) This radio sounds great, but has very poor FM reception. (No MW). It does have inputs for mp3 and Bluetooth, so I figured just in case there was nothing to listen to, I could stream something on it. Its small size was the biggest factor in making the trip. Once settled, a quick daytime scan grabbed nine signals easily on DAB and they sounded great. It was the only band that featured more traditional (even country!) music. It’s back in the drawer at home, but I am very glad it made the trip.

Summary

I truly had a blast listening to the various captures on these three radios, the Tecsun being the most impressive and fun. I’m sure many newer models would be excellent choices, but not once did I wish to have something bigger or better. That doesn’t happen on trips very often, so perfection indeed.

My apologies to those looking / hoping for recordings. I stopped recording from the radio back when I opted to purchase 45rpm records rather than record them, complete with DJ patter on my father’s Webcor reel-to-reel. Once I got into the biz, I recorded enough DJ patter to last a lifetime! Again, thanks to everyone for their input.

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Travel radio decisions: Jack seeks your input!


Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jack Kratoville, for the following guest post:


Important travel decisions…

For the first time, (in a very long time), I’ll be traveling outside the country. This will be my first visit to Germany, and while I’ve already put Thomas’ packing skills to the test domestically with moderate success and confidence, I thought I would ask for assistance on what radio to bring.

The following is what I have, along with my current personal pros and cons regarding each one for this specific trip. I’m traveling with my wife, daughter & mother-in-law and staying with her family. This probably excludes a lot of alone time dedicated specifically to radio listening and DXing.

Now, from what I’ve been reading, MW and LW have been eliminated in favor of digital signals. This changes the equation a bit. Lack of SSB is NOT a deal-breaker. The amount of time I spend listening is miniscule. Here’s the receivers:

CC Skywave

The CC Skywave

This has been on every domestic trip I’ve taken since its purchase in 2015. Perfect size (even with the hard case) and excellent performance. Two quality AA batteries will last for 2 weeks easily. However, my favorite feature, WX, is useless there. Best MW reception in an ultralight, but does that matter in the land of DAB? Assuming there’s no LW to listen to either, the Skywave’s lack of it shouldn’t factor in. I like the Skywave’s super-fast scanning, but I think I’ll wish I had the ETM feature of other radios. I’ve used the Air Band, but I won’t be staying anywhere near an airport and I doubt I’ll be sitting in an airport with an extended antenna anytime soon. Non-digital audio control gives me exact control to go “unnoticed” if others are sleeping. The lack of ETM may keep this unit home.

Tecsun PL-360

Another favorite travel companion that does feature ETM, this radio is small and compact – and my unit still works like new. I can recharge the batteries with a computer cable, not that it’s ever shown high power consumption. I had thought this was a front runner, but tinny audio and that extra antenna to lose is giving me second thoughts. It’s physical build lends to more hand-held than bedside table use and that is definitely a factor worth considering. Analog audio control, but it has gotten noisy.

Digitech AR1780

The Digitech AR1780

Has it all: LW/MW/Air/FM(RDS)/SSB and fantastic audio. For positives, it checks all the boxes. It is a slow scanner – and that is a persistent downside. Further considerations, I’m committed to carry-on travel only (European dimensions!) and this receiver will command more real estate in the bag. Now if I didn’t need to pack socks for a couple of weeks… I may also be shoving a radio in my pocket for those “here’s-what-we-have-planned” moments and I don’t want to look like I’m obviously addicted to my hobby. With that non-existent charging cord, four replacement double-A’s might also be an issue if I do use it for any reasonable amount of time. I had considered this a shoe-in when we first talked Germany prior to pandemic, but it seems more unsuitable every time I weigh the pros and cons.

Tecsun PL-310ET

The PL-310ET

A radio gifted to me that was immediately assigned to basic alarm clock duty bedside – now surprisingly is part of the discussion. Not enough sizzle to replace my favorites domestically, but it may have the right combo for a few weeks in Germany. Quick scanning, ETM, multiple tuning modes, a decent speaker. Unlike the PL-360, you can’t “fast-tune” with the knob, but you can direct-input frequencies. I would miss RDS on FM, but I’ve scanned most of my life without it. Now, I’ve had a few other Tecsuns (along with the Grundig G8) and they all eventually fail with tuning and volume knobs (the PL-360 is the honorable exception). Since I haven’t used this unit much, I’m confident it’s well before its failure phase, if it ever does. I am not a fan of digital volume knobs, but this one seems to be better balanced than most. Not sure how it does on 3 AA consumption, but I’m testing rigorously. I would have never guessed, but this is the front-runner at the moment.

Eton Traveler III

The Eton Traveler III

While I’ve enjoyed RCS and the adjustable lighted dial at the beach, I’m not impressed. Sounds and looks nice, but lack of user-friendly functionality has kept this unit from any serious travel. Not to mention a battery hog with 4 AAs!

What do you think?

While I might fantasize about making room for the Eton Executive Satellit or putting batteries back in my G5, I’m limiting choices to the above! I appreciate all input and any thoughts on radio listening in Germany. Please comment!

Any SW frequencies I should direct input? We’ll be staying just outside of Kiel, which could include a day trip to Denmark.

Now it’s off to Hodinkee for GMT watch suggestions.

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Mark recalls passing the Voice of Mongolia by train

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Mark Fahey, who shared the following comment in reply to this recent post. Mark writes:

A few years ago I traveled Beijing to Helsinki – a 3 week journey via the all stops SLOWWWWW trains via Ulan Bator & Moscow. I was only carrying a backpack so I took along a Tecsun PL-380 (I think that was the model? – It’s up in my Bali home at the moment so I can’t check for sure) and it worked amazing well using the whip next to the train window.

On the journey I passed the Voice Of Mongolia SW Transmitter site – here is a link to my video of the antennas and township (Khonhor) – was a great trip! I will be doing it again next year – this time slightly longer Shanghai to Frankfurt.

That’s just brilliant, Mark! Thanks for sharing. Looking forward to a full tour of the Voice of Mongolia next time you’re passing by! 😉

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Guest Post: Why does radio reception improve on saltwater coasts?

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, 13dka, who shares the following guest post:


Gone fishing…for DX: Reception enhancement at the seaside

by 13dka

In each of my few reviews I referred to “the dike” or “my happy place”, which is a tiny stretch of the 380 miles of dike protecting Germany’s North Sea coast. This is the place where I like to go for maximum listening pleasure and of course for testing radios. Everyone knows that close proximity to an ocean is good for radio reception…but why is that? Is there a way to quantify “good”?

Of course there is, this has been documented before, there is probably lots of literature about it and old papers like this one (click here to download PDF). A complete answer to the question has at least two parts:

1. Less QRM

It may be obvious, but civilization and therefore QRM sources at such a place extend to one hemisphere only, because the other one is covered with ocean for 100s, if not 1000s of miles. There are few places on the planet that offer such a lack of civilization in such a big area, while still being accessible, habitable and in range for pizza delivery. Unless you’re in the midst of a noisy tourist trap town, QRM will be low. Still, you may have to find a good spot away from all tourist attractions and industry for absolutely minimal QRM.

My dike listening post is far enough from the next small tourist trap town (in which I live) and also sufficiently far away from the few houses of the next tiny village and it’s located in an area that doesn’t have HV power lines (important for MW and LW reception!) or industrial areas, other small villages are miles away and miles apart, the next town is 20 km/12 miles away from there. In other words, man-made noise is just not an issue there.

That alone would be making shortwave reception as good as it gets and it gives me an opportunity to check out radios on my own terms: The only way to assess a radio’s properties and qualities without or beyond test equipment is under ideal conditions, particularly for everything that has to do with sensitivity. It’s already difficult without QRM (because natural noise (QRN) can easily be higher than the receiver’s sensitivity threshold too, depending on a number of factors), and even small amounts of QRM on top make that assessment increasingly impossible. This is particularly true for portables, which often can’t be fully isolated from local noise sources for a couple of reasons.

Yes, most modern radios are all very sensitive and equal to the degree that it doesn’t make a difference in 98% of all regular reception scenarios but my experience at the dike is that there are still differences, and the difference between my least sensitive and my most sensitive portable is not at all negligible, even more because they are not only receivers but the entire receiving system including the antenna. You won’t notice that difference in the middle of a city, but you may notice it in the woods.

When the radio gets boring, I can still have fun with the swing and the slide!

2. More signal

I always had a feeling that signals actually increase at the dike and that made me curious enough to actually test this by having a receiver tuned to some station in the car, then driving away from the dike and back. Until recently it didn’t come to me to document or even quantify this difference though. When I was once again googling for simple answers to the question what the reason might be, I stumbled upon this video: Callum (M0MCX) demonstrating the true reason for this in MMANA (an antenna modeling software) on his “DX Commander” channel:

To summarize this, Callum explains how a pretty dramatic difference in ground conductivity near the sea (click here to download PDF) leads to an increase in antenna gain, or more precisely a decrease in ground return losses equaling more antenna gain. Of course I assumed that the salt water has something to do with but I had no idea how much: For example, average ground has a conductivity of 0.005 Siemens per meter, salt water is averaging at 5.0 S/m, that’s a factor of 1,000 (!) and that leads to roughly 10dB of gain. That’s right, whatever antenna you use at home in the backcountry would get a free 10dB gain increase by the sea, antennas with actual dBd or dBi gain have even more gain there.

That this has a nice impact on your transmitting signal should be obvious if you’re a ham, if not just imagine that you’d need a 10x more powerful amplifier or an array of wires or verticals or a full-size Yagi to get that kind of gain by directionality. But this is also great for reception: You may argue that 10dB is “only” little more than 1.5 S-units but 1.5 S-units at the bottom of the meter scale spans the entire range between “can’t hear a thing” and “fully copy”!

A practical test

It’s not that I don’t believe DX Commander’s assessment there but I just had to see it myself and find a way to share that with you. A difficulty was finding a station that has A) a stable signal but is B) not really local, C) on shortwave, D) always on air and E) propagation must be across water or at least along the shoreline.

The army (or navy) to the rescue! After several days of observing STANAG stations for their variation in signal on different times of the day, I picked one on 4083 kHz (thanks to whoever pays taxes to keep that thing blasting the band day and night!). I don’t know where exactly (my KiwiSDR-assisted guess is the English channel region) that station is, but it’s always in the same narrow range of levels around S9 here at home, there’s usually the same little QSB on the signal, and the signals are the same day or night.

On top of that, I had a look at geological maps of my part of the country to find out how far I should drive into the backcountry to find conditions that are really different from the coast. Where I live, former sea ground and marsh land is forming a pretty wide strip of moist, fertile soil with above average conductivity, but approximately 20km/12mi to the east the ground changes to a composition typical for the terminal moraine inland formed in the ice age. So I picked a quiet place 25km east of my QTH to measure the level of that STANAG station and also to record the BBC on 198 kHz. Some source stated that the coastal enhancement effect can be observed within 10 lambda distance to the shoreline, that would be 730m for the 4 MHz STANAG station and 15km for the BBC, so 25km should suffice to rule out any residue enhancement from the seaside.

My car stereo has no S-meter (or a proper antenna, so reception is needlessly bad but this is good in this case) so all you get is the difference in audio. The car had the same orientation (nose pointing to the east) at both places. For the 4 MHz signal though (coincidence or not), the meter shows ~10dBm (or dBµV/EMF) more signal at the dike.

3. Effect on SNR

Remember, more signal alone does not equal better reception, what we’re looking for is a better signal-to-noise ratio (SNR). Now that we’ve established that the man-made noise should be as low as possible at “my” dike, the remaining question is: Does this signal enhancement have an effect on SNR as well? Even if there is virtually no local QRM at my “happy place” – there is still natural noise (QRN) and that wouldn’t that likely gain 10dB too?

Here are some hypotheses that may be subject of debate and some calculations way over my head (physics/math fans, please comment and help someone out who always got an F in math!). Sorry for all the gross oversimplifications:

Extremely lossy antennas

We know that pure reception antennas are often a bit different in that the general reciprocity rule has comparatively little meaning, many antennas designed for optimizing reception in specific situations would be terrible transmitting antennas. One quite extreme example, not meant to optimize anything but portability is the telescopic whip on shortwaves >10m. At the dike, those gain more signal too. When the QRN drops after sunset on higher frequencies, the extremely lossy whip might be an exception because the signal coming out of it is so small that it’s much closer to the receiver noise, so this friendly signal boost could lift very faint signals above the receiver noise more than the QRN, which in turn could mean a little increase in SNR, and as we know even a little increase in SNR can go a long way.

The BBC Radio 4 longwave recording is likely another example for this – the unusually weak signal is coming from a small and badly matched rubber antenna with abysmal performance on all frequency ranges including LW. The SNR is obviously increasing at the dike because the signal gets lifted more above the base noise of the receiving system, while the atmospheric noise component is likely still far below that threshold. Many deliberately lossy antenna design, such as flag/tennant, passive small aperture loops (like e.g. the YouLoop) or loop-on-ground antennas may benefit most from losses decreasing by 10dB.

Not so lossy antennas, polarization and elevation patterns

However, there is still more than a signal strength difference between “big” antennas and the whips at the dike: Not only at the sea, directionality will have an impact on QRN levels, a bidirectional antenna may already decrease QRN and hence increase SNR further, an unidirectional antenna even more, that’s one reason why proper Beverage antennas for example work wonders particularly on noisy low frequencies at night (but this is actually a bad example because Beverage antennas are said to work best on lossy ground).

Also, directional or not, the “ideal” ground will likely change the radiation pattern, namely the elevation angles, putting the “focus” of the antenna from near to far – or vice versa: As far as my research went, antennas with horizontal polarization are not ideal in this regard as they benefit much less from the “mirror effect” and a relatively low antenna height may be more disadvantageous for DX (but maybe good for NVIS/local ragchewing) than usual. Well, that explains why I never got particularly good results with horizontal dipoles at the dike!

Using a loop-on-ground antenna at a place without QRM may sound ridiculously out of place at first, but they are bidirectional and vertically polarized antennas, so the high ground conductivity theoretically flattens the take-off angle of the lobes, on top of that they are ~10dB less lossy at the dike, making even a LoG act more like something you’d string up as high as possible elsewhere. They are incredibly convenient, particularly on beaches where natural antenna supports may be non-existent and I found them working extremely well at the dike, now I think I know why. In particular the preamplified version I tried proved to be good enough to receive 4 continents on 20m and a 5th one on 40m – over the course of 4 hours on an evening when conditions were at best slightly above average. Though the really important point is that it increased the SNR further, despite the QRN still showing up on the little Belka’s meter when I connected the whip for comparison (alas not shown in the video).

The 5th continent is missing in this video because the signals from South Africa were not great anymore that late in the evening, but a recording exists.

Here’s a video I shot last year, comparing the same LoG with the whip on my Tecsun S-8800 on 25m (Radio Marti 11930 kHz):

At the same time, I recorded the station with the next decent KiwiSDR in my area:

Of course, these directionality vs noise mechanisms are basically the same on any soil. But compensating ground losses and getting flat elevation patterns may require great efforts, like extensive radial systems, buried meshes etc. and it’s pretty hard to cover enough area around the antenna (minimum 1/2 wavelength, ideally more!) to get optimum results on disadvantaged soils, while still never reaching the beach conditions. You may have to invest a lot of labor and/or money to overcome such geological hardships, while the beach gives you all that for free.

But there may be yet another contributing factor: The gain pattern is likely not symmetrical – signals (and QRN) coming from the land side will likely not benefit the same way from the enhancement, which tapers off quickly (10 wavelengths) on the land side of the dike and regular “cross-country” conditions take place in that direction, while salt water stretching far beyond the horizon is enhancing reception to the other side.

So my preliminary answer to that question would be: “Yes, under circumstances the shoreline signal increase and ground properties can improve SNR further, that improvement can be harvested easily with vertically polarized antennas”.

Would it be worthwhile driving 1000 miles to the next ocean beach… for SWLing?

Maybe not every week–? Seriously, it depends.

Sure, an ocean shoreline will generally help turning up the very best your radios and antennas can deliver, I think the only way to top this would be adding a sensible amount of elevation, a.k.a. cliff coasts.

If you’re interested in extreme DX or just in the technical performance aspect, if you want to experience what your stuff is capable of or if you don’t want to put a lot of effort into setting up antennas, you should definitely find a quiet place at the ocean, particularly if your options to get maximum performance are rather limited (space constraints, QRM, HOA restrictions, you name it) at home.

If you’re a BCL/program listener and more interested in the “content” than the way it came to you, if you’re generally happy with reception of your favorite programs or if you simply have some very well working setup at home, there’s likely not much the beach could offer you in terms of radio. But the seaside has much more to offer than fatter shortwaves of course.

From left to right: Starry sky capture with cellphone cam, nocticlucent clouds behind the dike, car with hot coffee inside and a shortwave portable suction-cupped to the side window – nights at the dike are usually cold but sometimes just beautiful. (Click to enlarge.)

However, getting away from the QRM means everything for a better SNR and best reception. In other words, if the next ocean is really a hassle to reach, it may be a better idea to just find a very quiet place nearby and maybe putting up some more substantial antenna than driving 1000 miles. But if you happen to plan on some seaside vacation, make absolutely sure you bring two radios (because it may break your heart if your only radio fails)!

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