Thursday, June 20, 2013

Learning the Dial

Everyone who spends any amount of time tuning one particular stretch of RF spectrum eventually gets to know it pretty well. One can almost recognize a station by how it sounds, the type of programming, how strong it is and the general frequency. Some stations just naturally become well known enough to become mileposts or beacons, providing a reference point for that part of the band even without good dial calibration or digital readout.

Very early on, I began to learn my way around the radio dial tuning my parents' Silvertone console radio. It was a late forties model with a six tube superhet receiver with RF stage and a turntable in a roll out drawer. There were a few mileposts developed with this receiver that grdually became familiar not only on that radio, but on any other.

These first mileposts came to be known by tuning the radio to find what I wanted to hear. Even in the first grade, I knew where to find the two Waco stations: KWTX-1230 and WACO-1460 ( Note:W-A-C-O was one of only two stations in the country whose call letters spelled their cities of license, the other one being WARE in Ware, Massachusetts—the call letters still belong to 99.9 FM in Waco, but the 1460 frequency has been moved to Burleson, near Ft Worth, Texas)

Those two were soon followed by a marker smack in the middle of the band: KMLW-1010 in Marlin. This station was known to carry dramatizations of children's stories ( this was in the early fifties) This station was a 250 watt daytimer licensed to Marlin then. Today it carries the call letters of KBBW with 10 kw day and 2.5 kw night with two different directional patterns and even two separate transmitters sites for day and night.

Between my folks and my grandfather, I soon “acquired” several more “beacon” stations as I learned about stations in the area that carried their Czech and German polka programs-KBUS 1590 in Mexia ( then a 500 watt daytimer, today moved to Waco with 2.5 kw day and 65 watts night with a four tower directional array) KHBR 1560-Hillsboro ( still a 250 watt daytimer) KTEM 1400 in Temple still 1 kw, and KMIL 1330 in Cameron ( 500 watt daytimer then, now with a construction permit for 2 kw day and 250 watts night). This one was a bit confusing early on. In the mornings it sounded like a Cameron station, but in the afternoon it sounded like it was in Rockdale. Years later, I learned that in the afternoons it operated out of a remote studio set up in a car dealership in Rockdale with Rockdale community news and ads.

As time went on I learned about three more that would actually became targets for my first crystal receiver later: KRLD 1080 in Dallas and WFAA and WBAP on 570 and 820, in Dallas and Fort Worth respectively.

An aside is required here for the last two. WFAA and WBAP had a rather unusual frequency sharing arrangement for their two frequencies up into the early 1970's. WFAA was originally licensed to Wichita Falls and shared a frequency with a third station in Dallas. WFAA moved to Dallas and continued that sharing arrangement. That station eventually went dark, and somehow WFAA and WBAP entered into the sharing agreement that had them switching back and forth between the 570 frequency with 5 kw and the 820 frequency with 50 kw. I remember hearing the distinctive cowbell ring when WBAP came up on a given frequency. A final agreement in the seventies had WFAA permanently landing the 570 spot and WBAP permanently landing the 820 spot. The 570 frequency is occupied by KLIF today.

One other milepost station from the early fifties for me was one of my grandfather's favorites: KSKY on 660. It broadcast from a studio in a hotel in Dallas and often had live music. It was a 10 kw daytimer in those days and gradually became a full time religious station. It now carries the Salem network talk programming and runs 20 kw day and 500 watts night.

While I learned the dial positions of these stations on the big Silvertone console, it was not difficult to find them on any other radio, even without digital readout or even very accurate analog dial calibrations. Their relative position, strength, sound of the audio and programming formats made them very distinctive and by tuning across a few of them in sequence, it was possible to interpolate approximate frequencies in between them. Even with the uncalibrated dial of my one tube regenerative Knightkit receiver I could find these stations by tuning across them and have a good idea of where I was in the band by noting the apparent separation and position of them.

Two distant stations that became the first real night time mileposts before any thought of DX-ing entered my mind were WSM 650 from Nashville and KWKH 1130 from Shreveport, Louisiana, These came about from the family listening to the Grand Ol' Oprey on WSM and The Louisiana Hayride program on KWKH.

As I began to develop an interest in pop music, four stations became known from peers listening for the newest hit songs and provided new beacons or mileposts: KLIF 1190 from Dallas-a truly classic early Top-40 station ( as mentioned before, now with those call letters on 570 with KFXR being the holder of the 50 kw--though highly directional--signal on 1190) KBOX 1480 Tiger Radio from Dallas ( this frequency has had several call letters since then along with several formats, most recently religious with 50 kw directional) and the other highly popular out of town station for kids in Central Texas in those days was KTSA-550 from San Antonio. Also on the "must " list was KFJZ-1270 from Fort Worth.

Before long, night time signals from KOMA 1520 Oklahoma City and WLS 890 from Chicago found their place in the pre teen and teen listening menu. Once again, music rather than a desire for DX lead to the knowledge that stations from great distances could be heard on the regular AM dial. However, by then, the crystal set and regenerative receiver adventures had strongly whetted the appetite to “ find out what's out there”

Up to this point, I had had no real guide to finding or identifying stations. That began to change in 1957 or 58 with my discovery of a magazine called “ Radio-TV Experimenter”. Though the magazine was essentially a collection of construction articles, in the back of each issue was published a segment of “ White's Radio Log”. This was a listing of radio and tv stations across the country and in Canada and Mexico. The magazine came out quarterly and it took three issues to get a complete set of The Log. In one issue, AM stations would be listed by call letters, in the next by location, and in the third, by frequency. There were also occasional articles by CM Stansbury about Broadcast Band DX-ing that finally cemented my dedication to a new hobby.

Something else helped about that time, too. My dad was building us a new house. While that was going on, we were renting a small house nearby. One afternoon after coming home from the grocery store I was tuning the AM radio in our 1954 Chevy Bel Air. With warnings “ not to run the battery down” my mom let me continue with became what was probably my first “formal” band scan a couple hours before sunset.This would have been in 1958. With “White's Radio Log” in hand, I started at 540 and started working my way up. I did not write anything down, but remember a few. I heard a weak Spanish language station on 540 which I am sure had to have been XEWA...There was the easily recognized KTSA and WFAA on 550 and 570, what was then KTBC ( now KLBJ) 590 from Austin. KILT 610 from Houston, old friend KSKY on 660, KENS 680 from San Antonio (later to become KBAT and now KKYX) KTRH 740 from Houston, WBAP, KCLW 900 from Hamilton, and KPRC 950 from Houston. By then supper was ready and my first bandscan came to a halt.

When the new house was finished, I had my own room and, better yet, a great place to permanently set up a radio just for serious DX-ing. My dad had constructed a built in desk in the room with electrical outlets on top. He also strung a thirty foot length of wire under the overhang of the house and ran a lead into the room. It fed the regenerative receiver and what soon became my “main” DX machine: my grandfather's old five-tube Watterson in a real wooden cabinet.

The Watterson was not finely calibrated and was a bit unstable below 600 kc, but with the milepost or beacon stations I had gotten to know, it was possible to get a pretty good idea of the frequency to which it was tuned. Since the American band plan had stations on 10 kilocycle (“hertz” wasn't yet used then) centers, it was possible to start at one of the beacon stations and just count carrier bumps until you got to the station you wanted to identify. Then it was a matter of pulling out the White's Radio Log and look at the “ possibles” based on distance and power listed and listen for clues from the programming.

It was then that I started keeping a rudimentary log. I was still not logging time and date was just a basic list of “stations heard”. But, it was a start. There was no digital readout and it was a bit of work making the identifications, but it could be done.

And it can still be done today by anyone taking the time. If you find yourself DX-ing “with what you have”, and the “what “ happens to be a radio with an analog dial, you can use these same techniques to identify your stations. Initially, its still a matter of finding a few “beacon” stations across the dial that you are certain of, and counting carrier humps to figure out roughly what the target station's frequency is. There are much better sources of station information than the old 'White's” that are more frequently updated on the internet, with information on directional patterns that can more easily narrow down what you might be hearing. There are web sites to check for the “possibles” to see if the program you are hearing matches what the “possible” is supposed to be carrying ( though some station websites are not necessarily up to date!)

Those days were full of adventure and discovery as are the first days (even today!) for someone just getting into the DX game. It was the beginning of “ The Watterson Period” of my DX career, the opening of the door to my first international DX and my first QSL's!

1 comment:

  1. Great idea for a blog Roland- will mention it in my Radio websites column in August's (UK) RadioUser magazine. ;-)