...The radios we'll always remember

DX-ing the AM Broadcast Band - Then and Now

by Harry N9CQX


N9CQX Chicago Radio Memories 0 Comments 06/10/2022  

Posted By: Robert Nickels (W9RAN)
Post Date: 06/10/2022

DXING THE AM BROADCAST BAND THEN AND NOW

by HARRY, N9CQX

 

 

My earliest recollection of hearing a radio actually goes back to when I was 5 or 6 years old. It was 1950-51 when I remember my mother playing the radio while doing housework. I distinctly remember hearing and enjoying some pop tunes at that time, such as, Abba Dabba, Buttons & Bows and Rag-Mop. When I was a couple of years older I became interested in comedy and adventure programs such as Sgt. Preston, Charlie McCarthy and Gangbusters. My listening to those programs occurred during the final years of what is now called: The Golden Age of Radio. They were the final years because television was rapidly becoming the new source of family entertainment. My next radio listening memory was around the mid-1950s when I was a pre-teen, growing up in Chicago. It seems odd to me today that I enjoyed “Hillbilly Music”. A favorite program of mine was listening to Randy Blake on WJJD “Supper Time Frolics” on our plastic Philco radio.

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I always felt that I was born and lived my life during the best of times. I feel that my era is situated between the hard times my parents had to endure and the current crazy times. How much better could I have had it than to become a teenager during the beginning of the rock and roll era? (I guess the credit for good timing should really go to Dad and Mom-HI).

I was hooked on rock and roll and I commandeered the family radio when I could. At night I listened on a germanium diode radio using my bed springs as an antenna. During the day I 'hung out' with a buddy who had a tube type portable radio. It was probably made in the 1940s and was the size of a small suit case. Good thing he had an income from a paper route because he needed to make periodic visits to the TV-Radio repair shop to buy a replacement set of expensive batteries. The B battery cost more than $2. (That was more than the price of a meal back then)

 

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During the 1950s sub-miniature tubes provided for smaller sized portables and continuing into the late 50's transistors made possible even smaller, pocket sized radios. Initially those were very expensive until the imports arrived and all the prices dropped. My radio participation at this time was listening for the latest record releases on the top 40 stations. The DJs were constantly devising on-the-air gimmicks for gaining the largest share of the listening audience. Sock-hops and dances were what I lived for. One of my biggest fears was that I would wake up, on a dance morning, with a brand new zit right on the end of my nose!

 

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In April 1959, when I was 15 yrs old, while tuning across the dial, I heard weaker signals from stations that were located outside of the Chicago area. I heard WLIP in Wisconsin and also WHFB in Michigan. This was the beginning of my Dxing the Broadcast Band.

 

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Around this time, I built a couple Knight Kits from Allied Radio. A wireless broadcaster that I built allowed me to be my own disk jockey as well as a pseudo ham. With call letters we made from our initials I communicated with a buddy who lived across the alley.

My other Knight Kit was a Space Spanner. My antenna system was just a wire tossed out of my 2nd floor, apartment window. I soon discovered that thanks to the night time propagation on the broadcast band, I could actually receive stations many miles away, in other states. I was amazed and I became involved in this new adventure, although tuning that dinky dial on the Space Spanner was not adequate.

Dad found me a used Hallicrafters S-40A receiver. I fondly remember the thrill that day when we picked it up and brought it home on the city bus.

I spent many hours and sleepless nights tuning around on that receiver. My antenna grew when I snuck up onto the roof with more wire.

 

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I listened to stations all across the United States, Canada and Mexico, from WBZ, Boston to KFI, Los Angeles. Many local (daytime) stations went off the air at sundown thus providing more opportunity to hear more DX. WJJD used to sign off as early as 6pm and sometimes as late as 10pm depending on the season. Sunday night was especially great for BCB-DX. It was the prime time to hunt for elusive “catches” because often a number of stations would sign off the air at 12 midnight for maintenance. Depending on what time zone the stations were located in I would hear the National Anthem being played at various times across the dial.

 

Let me take you back to 1959. Visualize, if you will, that I am not unlike a sport fisherman going after a prized fish. Silent, but excited and filled with anticipation, I am trolling very slowly, tuning across the AM band. I am wearing an old metal banded headset that hurts my head after a short while. I am armed with a flashlight, a pencil and my log book. The analog dial affords me a rough idea of my frequency. When the glow-in-the-dark radium dial on my Baby Ben indicates that the current time is approaching the top of the hour I hope to soon hear the call of a station that I have not logged before. Some nights are better than others when conditions allow for weak stations to be heard. But more often than not, a wavering signal will just happen to drop out when the call letters are being announced. That's kind of like reeling in a beaut and losing it before getting it into the boat. Sometimes though even when there are two stations on one frequency I might get lucky and catch both of their call letters. That's a real thrill. In those pre-digital read-out days it was sometimes difficult to try and figure exactly what frequency I was tuned into.

 

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One day while perusing the magazine rack at my local drug store I discovered and purchased a very handy accessory for my late night hobby: White's Radio Log, was included as a regular feature of the Radio-TV Experimenter Magazine. White's Log published all the current North American stations by call letters and frequency. The log was a great help to determine what call letters I thought that I heard versus what was really announced. We hams use phonetics all the time to make ourselves clear. Many times those Bs, Es, Ds and Cs were just not discernible. A quick check of the White's Log confirmed the calls I heard or straightened out any hearing error. The log also ended my guessing of the actual frequency of the station I was hearing.

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I recorded the calls of the stations that I heard into a log book. I wrote to those stations telling them what I heard at the time I tuned in, I gave a signal report and asked for verification. Most stations sent me letters or cards, which I still have today. Many times the person who responded, and made me feel that they were actually happy to hear that I received their station from as far away as Chicago. Sometimes it was a station engineer.

 

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One night in 1962 I heard what I consider to be one of my rarest receptions. I was tuned on 1570 Kcs and I was listening to a couple of weak stations fighting it out for the frequency. All of a sudden a dead carrier came on and then I heard the station engineer testing as he announced the station’s ID. It was a 250-watt day-timer in Kendallville, IN.

I would never have been able to hear that station during its regular daytime operation. I was just lucky to be on that frequency when the engineer made his brief test. I wrote to WAWK and received a nice letter from the engineer thanking me because he never received a DX report before. WAWK has since moved to 1140 Kcs.

 

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KFI in Los Angeles sent me an EKKO-type stamp. EKKO stamps were popular with BCB Dxers beginning in 1924. There was even an EKKO album for mounting the stamps in. Chuck Stinger, W8GFA (SK) who worked for Crosley station, WLW and the VOA, had an EKKO album. He showed me his rare album with the stamp collection. The stamps were nicely engraved with the station call letters and the message “verified reception.” The EKKO Company went out of business sometime before WWII.

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In 2011 I picked up a Grundig G8 portable radio. It is a small inexpensive transistor radio. I decided to listen in on the AM broadcast band during the wee hours. I was curious to learn if many of the stations, that I previously logged, 50 years earlier were still in operation, I was also curious as to what kind of programming was being offered. This was done while I resided in Willowbrook, a suburb of Chicago, IL.

 

That Grundig did extremely well. It has superior sensitivity-even with just the internal loop stick antenna. The loop-stick antenna, of course, is also directional and when I heard multiple stations on the same frequency, I could sometimes separate them by adjusting the radio’s orientation. It also has very excellent selectivity. The only adjacent channel interference that I encountered was from the very strong or close locals. I logged as many stations as I could. The results of all my BCB Dxing is listed later.

 

I currently reside in Saint Joseph, Michigan. The distance by air from my first Dxing location is only 60 miles. I spent a number of nights tuning across the BCB in April and May of 2022. I used a Tecsun PL 880 portable radio also at ground level. No special or extra antennas were used with the portables.

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Programming then and now

In the daytime, back during my initial Dxing days, some stations had their own programs. Others, that were network affiliates, might have broadcasted national network fed daytime programs. Some long running ones were the Breakfast Club, House Party and Arthur Godfrey. Tuning the band over night you might have heard music or talk with a late night host that was employed by the individual stations.

 

Now days (I should say now-nights) as you tune across the AM band it is not unusual to hear the very same program on a number of different stations. Many stations subscribe to satellite downloads such as Coast to Coast Radio, Red Eye Radio or Relevant Radio. Currently, tuning around, you might hear on multiple stations, the UFO or out of body experience group or Rollye James the oldies expert, or maybe Jim-Bo the political discussion expert, who is quick on the cut-off-the-caller button.

 

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Total list of stations received for the three time periods

The total list for all three logging periods follows and is presented in order of frequency. If a frequency is not indicated it means that I could not positively identify any station on that missing frequency. The X's indicate when I heard the listed station. A station that changed call letters is entered like this: WMAQ/WSCR. If it moved to a new frequency it is listed again on that frequency. If more than one station is heard on the same frequency, then a new line is assigned for that logging.

 

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Logging notations

Most all my listening was conducted during over night hours. Sometimes I picked up a new station after sunrise and indicated that as a notation. A key to other abbreviated notations, of what I heard, follows.

 

AA= African American programming

BNN= Bloomberg Business News

CC= Coast to Coast Radio

CM= Country Music

FR= French language

IHM= I heart media or I heart radio

NPR= National Public Radio

RE= Red Eye (usually featuring Gary McNamara and Eric Harley)

REL= Religious

RR= Relevant Radio (a Catholic religion network)

SP= Spanish language

UFO= Out-of-body, UFO sightings, alien contact, etc

 

Frequency allocation growth

The AM Broadcast Band has experienced band size expansion many times throughout its history. Originally, in the early 1920s, the Commerce Commission assigned all the broadcasting stations to one frequency, 360 meters (833 Kcs). Another frequency of 485 meters (690 Kcs) was to be used for farm and weather reports.

In 1922 another frequency was added: 400 meters (750 Kcs).

By 1923 the great number of new station applications prompted the Commerce Dept to set out a band of frequencies from 550 to 1350 Kcs. The frequencies assigned to the stations were 10 Kcs apart. When the Federal Radio Commission came along in 1927 the band expanded to 1500 Kcs, later to 1600 and finally in 1988 the ITU approved expansion to 1700 Kcs. Many more regulations have been issued during all those years of expansions that specify restrictions such as class of operation, power, antenna configuration and hours of operation.

Since the most recent band expansion did not exist during my initial logging, I also hadn't included that in my second logging.

Here, in this article, I have included my most recent loggings with those ten newest frequencies.

 

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The AM Broadcast band is still very much alive with DX stations during the overnight hours. Many of the stations I recently heard are the same ones I heard over 60 years ago. Some stations have been sold (and resold) and now are heard with new call letters. Some are gone. Some are still out there but unreadable for me today for various logistical reasons.

It was a comfort to hear some familiar stations. I was glad to hear KDKA, now famous for being acknowledged as the first commercial broadcast station. This distinction is being debated even today as the claims are based on certain definitions.

Of course, WLW is known for the high-powered transmission experiment. Permission was granted for WLW to transmit at 500,000 watts, experimentally, in 1934.

Programming has changed and the satellite down-links have contributed to a sea of audio sameness across the band. One outstanding exception is CFZM, “Zoomer Radio” in Toronto. Zoomer plays old time radio programs such as “Fibber McGee and Molly”. Over night they play rock & roll oldies with hardly any commercials.

A few years ago there seemed to be a lot of adjacent channel noise on the AM band from High Def broadcasting. I certainly don't miss hearing any of that.

I missed hearing WOW, the station Johnnie Carson started his career on.

 

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Also not heard recently was WHA, Madison. That station started out as 9XM with spark gap transmissions and was issued their WHA call in 1922.

 

Amazingly, WKMH/WDTW had 10 call letter changes through out its existence since 1946.

 

My old favorite, WJJD became WSCR in 1997, WXRT in 2000 and today they are WYLL.

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Whopping wattage

I have to mention the “Border Blasters” as one of them was used by famed disc jockey, Wolfman Jack. He was on XERF a Mexican licensed station across the border from Del Rio, Texas. At that time XERF was skating the US restriction that limits our stations to a maximum of 50KW power; their transmitter was broadcasting from across the border with 250,000 Watts! Today they broadcast at a mere 100 KW.

 

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Puney power

At the opposite end of the power scale are FCC mandated night time power restrictions. I was amazed at being able to receive some of the very low powered night time stations in 2011. They were, WCLB 950 Kcs at 11 watts, KLTF 960 Kcs at 38 watts and WTTN 1580 Kcs at 4 watts. Just like speed limit non-adherence on our highways, I was told by a station engineer that sometimes power restricting at night is not always properly maintained.

Time changes things

Station call letters often stand for catch phrases. For example, WLS was originally owned by Sears Roebuck and the call letters represented: “World's Largest Store”.

Sixty years ago I heard Jackson, MS station WRBC on 1300 proclaim that they were the Rebel Broadcasting Company. They were a top 40 station back then but today an African American gospel station occupies 1300.

 

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Broadcasting befuddlement

Sometimes stations changing calls and/or locations can be a bit confusing. Things happen because station owners may petition the FCC for an action or because they are ordered by the FCC to do some shuffling. Here are two very involved and confusing examples.

 

WVON does the shuffle

WHFC had been operating on 1310, 1420 and 1450.

In 1963 WHFC became WVON.

(The “Voice of the Negro” proclaimed new owner Chess Records famous recording studio for Chuck Berry and others)

Various dates are listed, but sometime before 1975 WVON changed frequency to 1390.

In 1983/4 WVON became WGCI and moved to 1690......

WXOL on 1450 then became WVON.......

and in 2003 DJ's Larry Lujack and Little Tommy (Edwards) hit the airwaves with rock and roll revival station WRLL on 1690.

After three years 1690 became WVON,

(this time using the tag of “Voice of the Black Nation”.)

 

Krazy KYW story

In 1921, the first broadcasting license in Chicago was issued to Westinghouse radio station KYW on the wavelength of 345 meters

(870 Kcs).

I have a station guide dated 1924 that lists KYW on 536 meters (560 Kcs).

In 1928 the FRC ordered Westinghouse to consolidate three of their stations, WEBH, KYW and KFKX. Westinghouse then applied for and amazingly was granted a dual call for their 'new' station of “KYW-KFKX”. The FRC reconsidered granting that call and later ordered Westinghouse to drop one of the dual call letters. The station once again became KYW.

According to my Radio News Magazine that featured Broadcast Radio Calls, the FRC assigned KYW to 1020 sometime between 1926 and 1931. The frequency of 1020 came to be designated as a Region 2 clear channel. KYW being in Chicago was located in Region 4. So KYW became involved in a legal battle. Westinghouse wanted to retain the clear channel status for KYW in Chicago. In 1932 Westinghouse acquiesced and agreed to move KYW to Philadelphia. The move was completed in 1934 and for you trivia fans, the move made KYW the eastern-most “K” station in the country. In 1934 the FRC was succeeded by the FCC. During the great frequency shuffle of 1941, the FCC re-allocated KDKA from 980 to clear channel 1020 and then bumped KYW from 1020 to clear channel 1060.

In 1955 Westinghouse and NBC did some wheeling and dealing. Part of the whole agreement was that KYW and WPTZ got traded to NBC. Radio station WTAM in Cleveland then went to Westinghouse. KYW became WRCV on 1060 in Philly in 1956. In Cleveland, WTAM became KYW on 1100. Sometime later, KYW complained to the FCC that it was coerced into the swap. So, in 1962 after a legal battle, the Justice Dept ordered that WRCV be divested and also ordered that the 1955 swap be reversed. So WTAM went back to Cleveland on 1100 and KYW went back in Philly on 1060.

 

Another “K” call station with an unique story: KTGG, Okemos, MI was licensed in 1980 and thus should have received a “W” call. The story goes that someone in Washington thought that MI was the ZIP code for Mississippi or Minnesota.

 

Not having heard our National Anthem played on the radio for a long time, I was very pleased to hear station KXEL playing it at 5am recently. I sent them a thank-you card.

 

 

References

Various radio station websites

Various out of publication Magazines

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

https://radio-locator.com/


   

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