Tuesday 2 April 2024

Listening without Prejudice

Whilst this blog predominantly focuses on my memories of free radio from the 1990s, I would never have come to know of the existence of 'pirate' shortwave operators if it had not have been for first listening to 'legit' broadcasters from overseas. 

It would be around March 1989, as a 12-year old, when I started tuning around on a National Panasonic receiver brought back from the Middle East. The distant but accessible voices of, for example, HCJB Ecuador, Radio Australia, WCSN, Radio Pyongyang, BRT (Belgium) and many, many others soon became an essential part of my everyday, even at such a young age. Indeed, when I began writing to all of the above and countless others, I would rarely be disappointed with what would arrive in the mail, at a time when shortwave broadcasters used the medium as a way to publicise their respective countries, and to some extent promulgate differing political and religious ideologies. 

It was therefore only through my regular 'tuning around' that I chanced upon Radio 48, Ozone Radio International, and Live Wire Radio one Sunday morning in October 1990, something which ended up changing my listening habits for good. 

There was always something fascinating about hearing professional sounding radio that wasn't financially underpinned by a national government or religious denomination, where many kilowatts and broadcast towers were replaced by low power operations using rudimentary antennas, often from spare bedrooms or out in the field. This strand of shortwave listening firmly put the word 'hobby' and achieving technical mastery at the forefront of operators' minds, and was therefore very different to what I previously enjoyed from the likes of BRT's listener and DX programme, as well as Tom Meyer and Jonathan Marks on Radio Netherlands. Although it wasn't, all of a sudden conventional shortwave broadcasting seemed staid and rigid, compared to freestyling and unfettered pirate operators. 

Another pre-pirate favourite was Arnie Coro's DXers Unlimited programme on Radio Havana; I also bagged a QSL for Radio Berlin International's final broadcast prior to German reunification. This is an excellent, if somewhat bijou depository of International Radio Station Memories

So, I hear you ask, why was it not possible to enjoy both sides of the shortwave coin? There was nothing to say that I couldn't, but by this time as an impressionable youth barely into his teenage years, there was always going to be something more trendy and rebellious about hearing, and corresponding with, those technically breaking the law. As someone who is now in his late 40s, it is not easy to remember exactly why my attentions dramatically shifted, but free radio operators became to feel like familiar friends, to a point where their absence on the bands would be keenly felt. 

Nowadays, when it is pointed out to me that to stop listening to shortwave altogether is irrational, I would say that it very much depends on what floats your boat. As my passion for free radio died when life away from radio became more interesting, it also coincided with many of my favourite stations calling it a day. This blog has publicly stated that I have all but given up listening to a free radio scene which has inevitably become a shadow of its former self, although I will still tune in when I know that certain operators will be active, for example the Xenon Transmitting Company(XTC). This does not amount to throwing my toys out of the pram, but an acknowledgment of what previously 'did it for me' no longer existing. 

It was unfortunate that XTC was wiped out yesterday by a very powerful transmitter just 10 KHz away, despite the band being otherwise empty. Check before you switch on maybe, at least if you have any respect for others. That of course is by no means a given. It is with no little irony that as soon as XTC moved 5 KHz down the band, that the rogue operator switched off from the offending channel...

Those with long memories will have fond recollections of April Fools Days from times past on shortwave. Be it the Voice of the Leek, or merciless ribbing of fellow operators of the time, such vignettes of humour are fondly remembered. Nevertheless, here's one for wee guy Jack:

Saturday 30 March 2024

Bank Holiday free radio; enduring musical influences

The first UK bank holiday of 2024, a rather early Easter, is upon us, which inevitably, to me at least, brings memories flooding back of free radio of yesteryear, of times now very distant past. 

Indeed, a programme called How We Used to Live, a staple of Friday mornings at primary school, watched when my alma mater's only  'big telly' was wheeled into the classroom, rather tenuously springs to mind, quite simply because 'how we used to live' when 1990s free radio was in full bloom is extremely different to the age in which we now reside, despite thirty years representing a mere grain of sand in the grand scheme of things.

I've touched upon it before in this blog, but bank holidays could often be a let down for the casual or dedicated free radio listener. Whether it was poor listening (and transmitting) conditions, or that free radio operators had shock horror other things to do with their time, the daytime offering on 48 and 41 metres would frequently be ordinary at best, bordering on the non-existent. 

The daytime hours, primarily the morning, would be when I would without fail somehow miss out on the broadcasts of Total Control Radio, later renamed The Nitrozone, despite continually scanning the bands whilst their broadcasts took place. I only subsequently found out about their activity after the event, usually through reading logs in the BDXC (British DX Club) magazine or Pirate Chat news sheet. The station remained probably the only 1990s UK-based operator that I failed to hear. Any recording of TCR would be appreciated!

The evenings would be a different kettle of fish. Post-pub broadcasts by the likes of Live Wire Radio and Weekend Music Radio were common, with live broadcasts which included interesting, if albeit sometimes inebriated chat, listeners calling in, along with varied music content that kept this correspondent awake until sometimes 4am. Throw in Subterranean Sounds, WMS, and Radio Armadillo into the mix, and it made for a great scene of different but highly listenable characters, although signal and propagation would vary from the 'big beasts' such as Live Wire and WMR, to those who could not push as many watts through their rigs. 

Fast forward to today, and whilst yesterday represented my first 'listen' of the year, the Good Friday bank holiday did if anything revert to 'back in the day' type. The Xenon Transmitting Company, previously known as Radio Mutiny during my teenage years, continues to entertain and provide a level of nostalgia for the 1990s scene whilst still remaining relevant, and most welcome, in the modern age. Furthermore, the signal strength XTC was putting out yesterday, at time S9 +10-20 dB via the Weston super Mare SDR, is by far and away the best the station has ever produced in my memory. Indeed, during Matt Roberts' time as Radio Mutiny, and later when broadcasting under the XTC moniker, I would often struggle to receive a listenable signal either due to my poor receiving equipment, it being at the time a very low power operation, or both, but yesterday was akin to listening to a clean and strong signal a la Live Wire, or Radio Fax. 

As someone who generally prefers 80s electronica and synth, and very early 90s dance music, my recent musical listening has stimulated memories of just how influential UK-based free radio has been on some of my musical tastes, sometimes through tracks I was too young to appreciate/remember when first released, or where releases would bear many of the hallmarks of or had obviously been influenced by the early to mid 80s. Such examples of these would be:

  • Blancmange - Living on the Ceiling
  • All Seeing I - First Man in Space
  • Future Sound of London - Papua New Guinea (having since become a darling of compilation albums)
  • Air's Moon Safari album, including tracks Kelly Watch the Stars, All I Need, and Femme d'argent.
  • Dubstar - I Will be Your Girlfriend, Stars, Not so Manic Now.
  • Drum 'n' Bass/Jungle - something I first heard on Subterranean Sounds, to whom I indicated what eventually became an ephemeral liking of!
Indeed, there are many tracks that became and remain earworms due to their airing by free radio stations in the 1990s, along with broader interests of for example Metallica due to Live Wire Radio, and The Eagles because of Weekend Music Radio. 

If though I had to choose one station whose output prompted me to purchase the most tracks, it would be Subterranean Sounds. Coupled with operator Steve Midnight's interest in Ufology, something that has fascinated my for over 35 years, there was certainly a tremendous synergy between the station and this listener, which unfortunately would be often tempered by a poor signal, especially during the days of Subterranean Sounds' forerunner, Radio Confusion. 

The reinvigorated Weekend Music Radio, albeit via the facilities of A N Other presumably located over the Irish Sea, has once more become a staple of 6 MHz. The lack of a requirement to facilitate the technical, as in broadcasting side of operating a free radio station, has obviously freed up Jack to 'transmit' on a weekly basis, something he would manage for a time when using owned transmitters, but ultimately became difficult to impossible to maintain, especially when relying on a mobile site. Will any other titans from the 1990s follow suit? It seems unlikely, although it should be remembered that golden oldies Radio Pamela and Radio Pandora continue to rage against the dying of the light, as does Matt Roberts - albeit a comparative stripling! 

UK-based shortwave free radio continues to inexorably and inevitably decline, but life today is not as we used to know it, specifically how we create and consume entertainment are chalk and cheese compared to three decades ago. It is also an inconvenient truism that free 'pirate' radio was already in decline during the 1990s after its 1960-80s heyday. That does though open up the bands to more Russian-based buzzers and numbers stations, so every cloud, etc, etc!

Sunday 28 January 2024

In conclusion - was 1990's UK free radio 'all that'?

Urban Dictionary defines something that is 'all that' to be a cut above, superior, even an entity or individual who is at the top of their respective game. How then, can I justifiably saddle the 1990's UK free radio scene on shortwave with such a burdensome epithet when at the time of listening, I didn't have another era/decade to compare it to? We again find ourselves in a world according to subjectivity.

The answer comes from how the memory of free radio from 30+ years ago has stood the test of time, including how those recollections hold their own when confronted with the few recordings available of stations broadcasting during the 1990's. 

It goes without saying that the 1990's, although not really that long ago were comparatively far more innocent times, lacking the technical sophistication of our contemporary era. In an age where we have many ways in which to communicate with each other, the oxymoron in the room is that humans now struggle to verbally communicate in a coherent manner, with technology replacing the need for many to even think for themselves. Furthermore, some source their guiding principals from the often unsubstantiated and frequently scurrilous utterances of those who post whatever pops into their heads onto what seems to be an unregulated free for all known as Social Media.

Therefore, whilst music is a huge part of my everyday life - 1991 remains my favourite year for music, but the 80's is my life's defining soundtrack - and it should never be forgotten that many if not most of the UK-based free radio stations operating on shortwave played tracks which remain with me to this day, it was always the levels of communication which set apart the 1990's 'pirate' scene from those I've dipped into and out of since.

Not only did the likes of Live Wire and Weekend Music Radio(WMR) have powerhouse signals and diverse playlists, they involved listeners with the programmes, including through live interaction and interesting chat, which meant that the audience was never far from an interesting nugget about the presenter's life, chat about conspiracy theories and UFOs - this would be a speciality of Subterranean Sounds - and sometimes the exaggeratedly lugubrious utterances of Mike Wilson/The Bogus Jobseeker  who would use the Guardian newspaper (Grauniad) as a favoured prop. It came in shapes and sizes, but charisma was writ large through all of the listenable UK-based stations. 

I have sometimes pondered that many operators were purely motivated by seeking technical mastery than becoming a DJ/presenter, but several stations managed to be on point with not only their signal and modulation, but also through a style of programming which was essential listening when the presenter was either talking, or wasn't. Imagine that in legit radio, let alone within the meagre fayre dished out by many of today's free radio denizens.

Another question I have posed is would I have got as much enjoyment from listening to 1990's free radio using my now 40-something ears, rather than those belonging to the gauche teenager I was over 30 years ago? This is where I see how the likes of the aforementioned Live Wire, WMR, Subterranean Sounds, and Radio Orion, along with Radio Armadillo, WMS, Xenon Transmitting Company, Station Sierra Sierra, Radio Blackbeard, Britain Radio International and so on have aged particularly well: the few recordings I have heard of the above have never led me to question why I used to base my weekends around listening to what was, after all, illegal radio. They all encapsulated what was good about radio, and communication in general, at a time when most of what we had was just verbal communication, but never felt impoverished because of it. 

Our current day and age appears to be concerned with churning out replicants, seemingly rolling those off a production line who are encouraged to be who they are, but in reality copy what many others are doing. Instead of an explosion of individuality, we are now seeing a world of people who dress the same, look the same, and are desperate to follow celebrities on Social Media, all the while protesting their entitlement to say what the want, and be whomever they desire to be, but have little if anything about them which sets them apart from their generational peers. If Social Media content makes the decisions of many, why should we be surprised that individual, critical thinking is increasingly conspicuous by its absence?

This inevitably leaches into free radio, originally a medium synonymous with removing the restrictive shackles of state and/or advertisement controlled broadcasting, whilst playing the music the operator wants to hear, with the added bonus that the audience are also willing adherents, but now so much of what is out there is continuous music, so much so that canned announcements or 'the next track is...' represent something of a dubious bonus, rather than what should be insult to injury.

Free radio reflected the times in which we lived. Those schooled on 1980's pirates will likely give short shrift to the output from the following decade, whilst those who have only ever known free radio from 2000 onwards may look down on the 1990's and beforehand as old-fashioned and twee, when in reality the scene had cojones, depth, and substance. When one compares such qualities to a contemporary era which includes Dutch stations changing identities with the wind, and a few UK-based stations who have the personal touch of a Cyberdyne Systems-produced cyborg, then there is absolutely no comparison!

Having not listened to shortwave during 2024, nor even checked websites where the latest loggings are uploaded, I feel now to have finally lanced the free radio boil. That isn't to say I won't on occasion search for recordings of those who I enjoyed listening to from a bygone era, but otherwise I really now can say goodbye. I enjoyed it while it lasted and yes, nostalgia really was what it used to be, but in the main living in the past is not a healthy way to blot out the many uncertainties the world currently faces, nor to fight against the dying of the light.

Listening without Prejudice

Whilst this blog predominantly focuses on my memories of free radio from the 1990s, I would never have come to know of the existence of '...