Saturday, 8 January 2022

There'll always be an England...

In what has been a busy day on the 48 metre band several UK-based stations - well if I may be so bold thanks to some inside knowledge and personal intuition to say that they all actually call England home - have hoisted the union flag high over what has increasingly become a band seen as the preserve of operators from the Netherlands, as well as those mysterious broadcasters who hail from where, who knows where. 

As regular reader might know my bĂȘte noire is the playing of continuous music, accompanied by only canned announcements or often none at all. Growing up as a member of the British DX Club (BDXC) - other similar organisations may well be available - and indeed an at times prolific contributor to its Alternative Airwaves section devoted to free radio, the puzzling UNID loggings were always more interesting than perhaps they should have been. Today there are perhaps less stations in operation who are completely unidentifiable, but a lack of interaction from some operators who instead prefer to let automated announcements 'do the talking' detracts from the individuality of free radio, and the characters behind it.

I digress slightly but there is one Dutch-based station who frequents 3 and 6 MHz, and also at times the 41 metre band. The operator seems content to come on air announcing 'a test' and then vanish again after a few records, only to pop up on another channel and maybe several others during a given day, again with a few pieces of music and announcements of a test before once more vanishing. Yes, the station name is plainly announced but what is the point in such short broadcasts and interminable 'tests'? The operator obviously benefits from owning a VFO (Variable Frequency Oscillator)-type transmitter instead of a more limited crystal-controlled rig, but seems content to restlessly journey up and down the bands yes with verbal identification and a limited amount of music, but by protesting about a lack of a human element to some free radio broadcasts it is clear that I should be careful what I wish for.

It does though sound counterintuitive of me to pass positive comment about a UK-based station I heard today that again occasionally punctuated its policy of continuous music with off-the-shelf announcements. I do though question my own standpoint when a station is playing almost uninterrupted tracks that actually appeal to my musical taste. Image Radio, on 6323 KHz was doing just that, with some interesting dance music including Philip George's Wish You Were Mine. Perhaps I can overlook a lack of a human touch to some broadcasts if the music hits the spot? This is entirely subjective, with us all having different tastes in what we prefer to listen to. As someone who likes anything from early 1990s Acid House to the angst-ridden refrains of Courtney Love, I am in all likelihood too difficult to please.

On what was a statistically pleasing day for UK-based operators Radio Jennifer, Radio Parade, and a new station to me but one with previous on the 48 metre band, Valley Wave Radio, suggested that rumours of the scene's demise have again been somewhat exaggerated. Radio Pamela, Pandora, Nova, Clash, and the Xenon Transmitting Company have also been heard in recent weeks. 

It seems that Valley Wave Radio is the station responsible for broadcasting old call signs of for example Radio Prague from the era prior to the Iron Curtain's demise, and before Czechoslovakia peacefully split to become the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Today's broadcast seemed to carry an old episode of Radio Netherlands' Media Network show, hosted by the inimitable Jonathan Marks. Whilst this might sound like a strange way to pad outs one's broadcasts, anyone with an established interest in shortwave radio legal or otherwise will at one time or another have listened to Media Network, and perhaps been impressed with Marks' authoritative style and knowledge. 

Valley Wave is a station I believe was first on shortwave around the early to mid years of the 'noughties' and one I missed out on receiving during a hiatus from listening to free radio that ran from around 2002 for approximately fifteen years. Whilst new entrants to UK-based free radio on shortwave are as welcome as they are now a rarity, it it nevertheless pleasing to know that some of those who have already been there and own the t-shirt are willing to return at a later date. 

When the white smoke rises from the Vatican to in effect announce the appointment of a new Pope, the new incumbent is never a young man. It would also seem that free radio is not the preserve of a youthful generation, with many operators arriving later in life to broadcasting. There have been times when looking back at the comparatively stellar UK scene of the 1990s that I thought free radio had become an anachronism in our overtly digital and generic age, and that it would slowly fade away when stations of a certain vintage finally call it a day. 

I now think there is still sufficient interest out there to keep hobby shortwave broadcasting on the air and whilst it might not always if barely ever be to my taste, it is unrealistic to expect free radio to stay trapped in a different era, even one that in many ways was preferable to today's.

Tuesday, 28 December 2021

Enjoy the silence?

Dead carriers. Continuous music with or without intermittent canned IDs. Incessant broadcasting of call signs from yesteryear - for example that of Radio Prague International. The relaying of internet stations on to shortwave, and even for example an FM station based in the Canary Islands. 

To all of the above I say: what is the point? 

Compared to maybe the first seven years of the 1990s when listening during the Christmas period arguably took on more importance than the festivities themselves, this year it has barely registered amongst the generic obligations attendant with the season. What I have though noticed is a continuation of what seems to be an inexorably growing trend towards many station operators broadcasting for reasons other than a desire to actually communicate and resonate with their audience. This could indicate that free radio is in the main the preserve of those who regard the thrill of being on air and being in possession of the requisite technical knowhow to make it happen as being sufficient and indeed the only motivation.

OK, I am not a free radio operator, nor have I ever been or intend to be one. It is from a comfortable position of not putting myself at risk nor financing the component parts of such an undertaking that I position my soapbox. Can I put myself in the shoes of many of those who broadcast but do not speak, who play pre-recorded and even off-the-shelf IDs, or whose eloquence doesn't extend beyond stating the 'that was... and the next record is by...' obvious? Of course I cannot.

I do though have to question why so many operators make the considerable effort to get on air but then effectively might as well not be. Is it through concern of being raided from broadcasting in what is now quite an overcrowded and densely built up UK, something that can result in bleed through into neighbouring electronic and telecommunications devices? I am not so sure. The UK free radio scene is not synonymous with raids by OFCOM, with relatively recent apprehensions by the authorities of the Bogusman and Radio Merlin likely being motivated by broadcasting too close to international distress frequencies, or in the case of the latter a ubiquity on 48 metres which perhaps cocked too big a snook at the authorities. 

Is the reluctance to interact with a known, perceived, or likely audience a symptom of our time where a vast choice of communication devices and ways to articulate ourselves has coincided with an oxymoron represented by declining standards, an acceptance of the bare minimum and mediocrity, and an absence of self-awareness and forethought for the needs of others? Has the ubiquity of digital communication rendered traditional verbiage and articulacy to be a dying art, or is the obvious selfishness of the modern age expressed through the playing of one's own favourite music over the airwaves to the operator's satisfaction, but without any need for interaction and validation from the listening public?

It is too much of a coincidence to say free radio and its content are cyclical, and that the likes of Subterranean Sounds, Weekend Music Radio, Radio Armadillo, Live Wire, and Radio Fax amongst others all just happened to be on the scene at the same time. No, I believe that an interest in the listener, even if it was feigned, and to some degree the imparting of a closely edited precis of the operators' lives underpinned good radio as much as the musical content particular to each of the aforementioned examples from the 1990s. There is though no small irony that this self-obsessed, Narcissistic, me-me-me Social Media age has in fact precipitated a generation of people with little or nothing of substance to say. Maybe I therefore wish for and/or expect too much from free radio when national syndicated legal broadcasting snooze fests such as Capital, Smooth, Greatest Hits, and Heart say a lot without saying anything at all.

Perhaps the last bastion of off the cuff and I hope he doesn't mind me saying unpolished programming of substance is Matt Roberts' Xenon Transmitting Company - XTC. It is 30 years since I first heard Matt on 48 metres under his previous Radio Mutiny iteration, and whilst the world (and free radio) changes and moves on, XTC has stayed true to its core values of an excellent music policy through its unpredictability, and chat that isn't laboured, forced, or going through the motions. Heck, in a recent broadcast Matt even asked his listeners to impart to him what their lives during 2021 had consisted of! Heresy, indeed! I am at a loss to think of another station who so obviously isn't in it for itself, but takes a truly worldview of what free radio perhaps should represent.

I still admit with justification from its appellation alone that free radio comes with few if any rules attached, and for me to attempt to implement a standardised approach would be counterintuitive to the ideals attached to hobby broadcasting. However, it should not be beyond the wit of other operators to consider their listenership, or at least hide the fact a little better that they are only rocking for themselves, rather than for anyone else. I remember well and with hindsight that some listeners can become borderline nuisances to those stations that they are particularly fond of, but radio is surely a two-way concept of entertainment and to some degree at least, listener participation. 

Even when the only rule of free radio is that there are actually none, is there really no room in this era for an operator's longevity and viability to be measured by the response received? There was a time when stations would pull up the drawbridge if listener response was disappointing but now, any factors deciding the fate and future of a free radio broadcaster are unlikely to include the level of listenership, and its opinions. 

As an idealist still guilty of rosy retrospection and living in the past, it is unrealistic to not expect free radio to reflect the changing societal landscape of the past three decades. There is though an absence of individuality and a conspicuous desire to go beyond what is predictable, and dare I say the highly tedious. Every operator has his own reasons for why they do what they do, but unless listeners come from a certain persuasion who slavishly 'collect' stations heard without being too bothered about the output, what are the other redeeming features from free radio's current vintage? 

Perhaps it is time to walk away and not use hobby radio as an example that mirrors negative societal changes. It would though seem that the antithesis it once was to identikit legal radio has morphed into trying to ape its above board counterpart. That is surely not the point of pirate broadcasting, and never was.

Saturday, 25 December 2021

Seasonal Felicitations

Compliments of the season to all UK operators past and present.

Here's hoping that 2022 brings favourable listening and broadcasting conditions, and good health for one and all.

Charlie.

There'll always be an England...

In what has been a busy day on the 48 metre band several UK-based stations - well if I may be so bold thanks to some inside knowledge and pe...