What I’d Like To Do With Radio

I have previously related to a limited degree my participation in and experience with pirate radio stations I and other friends operated during my junior high and high school years.

I also actually had some legal experiences. There are things both have in common and I’d like to relate some of those things and what it is about radio that I find so intriguing.

I obtained my First Class Radiotelephone Operators License in my junior year of high school. How I came to obtain it at that time, or at least what the big motivator was, is kind of funny. In retrospect, I owe a lot to the instructors in my radio class, both helped me in their own very different ways.

We had a radio station (KNHC) at my high school (Nathan Hale), and I was actually allowed to come over and attend radio and electronics classes there while I was still in junior high school. This was possible because my junior high school (Jane Addams) was directly across the street from the high school, so it was physically workable.

I graduated from Nathan Hale in 1977, and I am happy to say that KNHC is still on the air almost thirty years later, however, I am not sure where it’s future lies as I have learned that the Seattle School District plans to shut down Nathan Hale in the near future.

There were two instructors that taught the radio and electronics class at Nathan Hale, one of them was the station licensee. I owe a lot to both because they both helped me very much but in their own very different ways.

One of the instructors was Gene Arnold, formerly in the navy, a lot of his electronics background was acquired in the navy and so his teaching methods reflected that to some degree, for example, we learned the resistor color code which is:

black 0, brown 1, red 2, orange 3, yellow 4, green 5, blue 6, violet 7, gray 8, white 9

A tool Mr. Arnold related to us to learn this color code was one used in the navy and one that probably would not have been approved by the school district but which was none the less effective was the line, “Bad boys rape our young girls but violet gives willingly.”

If you notice the first letter of each word in that sentence corresponds with the first letter of each color in the color code.

Mr. Arnold did not exemplify what I think of as military, he had a very kind gentle relaxed manner. He drove a blue 1955 T-bird that he had bought from the factory new and it was immaculate. He taught mostly through lecture and made the math and concepts involved very easy to understand.

Then there was Larry Adams, the licensee of the KNHC. The story as I heard it was that they had put together a small 1-watt or so AM transmitter at the school and operated it as a radio station. They were visited by the F.C.C. who encouraged him to pursue a legal station and thus KNHC FM came into existence, originally as a ten watt educational class FM station.

My impression of Larry Adams was that he was in many ways the complete opposite of Mr. Arnold, not at all relaxed, very wired and uptight. To be honest, at the time I thought he was a complete asshole, only after my junior year of high school did I realize what a genuinely caring person he was and how much he did for me without my realizing it.

And this brings me to the story. With Mr. Arnold, we students could get away with quite a lot without any serious repercussions. Larry, by contrast, was very much into safety, doing things the right way, and generally demanded responsible behavior. My behavior at that point in my life was anything but responsible so this did make for considerable friction between us (and many other students as well).

The school had work benches that were originally supplied with low voltage DC power via a large rectifier and battery bank network. Even though this power was fused, it was deemed unsafe because the huge fault current available had a strong potential for causing fires, etc, and so the fuses were all pulled on this power source and instead we had portable power supplies that we used.

We also got a lot of surplus junk there, including some telephone company cable which had a few thousand pair of about #24 gauge wire with a plastic insulation.

One day during lunch we were bored, so myself and a number of my friends took about three foot long pieces of this wire, wound little coils out of it, stuck it in the power plug in the benches, then stuck foil in the fuse holders to complete the circuit. This would have the effect of pretty much instantly vaporizing the wire and its insulation creating large quantities of smoke.

We all found this highly entertaining and so continued to do so until from the ceiling of the entire class room to about two feet down was solid smoke, you could not see the ceiling. There were no smoke alarms at that time.

Back at that time smoking was also popular, I didn’t smoke but most of my friends did, and it was not allowed inside the school, but it was allowed in smoking areas outside of the entrances. Many students however would not want to go outside so they would light up in the rest rooms or class rooms when no teachers were present.

Mr. Adams returned from lunch, walked into the class but did not look up at the ceiling, took a couple of sniffs of the air, and asked if someone had been smoking. Of coarse everyone denied it. Only then did he look up and realize the ceiling was not visible. At that point myself and a number of my friends were ejected from radio class, at the time we were told permanently, but we were let back in the following day.

At the time, I had only my Third Class Radiotelephone Operators License. This license gave sufficient privileges to act as an on-air personality, though I never did have a radio show there being more interested in the engineering aspects, but it did not allow actually doing engineering work. However, prior to this incident, Mr. Adams did allow me to work on equipment.

After the incident, he wouldn’t allow me to touch anything and would tell me I could not because I didn’t have my First Class Radiotelephone Operators license that was legally required to do so. Determined not to allow him to use that as an excuse to keep me away from things I picked up a copy of the First Class Radio Telephone license study manual, studied the material, and in a couple of months time went down to the F.C.C. office, took the test, and passed. Went straight from a third class to first class license bypassing the second class altogether (there was no requirement to get a second class license as an intermediary, it was just the normal path most people took).

I expected Mr. Adams would be irritated by my receiving my license, instead it was very well received, and it was only then that I realized he knew I needed some motivation and supplied it. He wasn’t being an asshole at all, he was motivating me to do what was in my best interest.

Obtaining the license though also represented a problem, it made the operation of a bootleg radio station much more dangerous for two reasons. First, I could no longer claim ignorance of the law since knowledge of the laws was a requirement for passing the test. Second, if I had been caught, there was a strong potential for my license to be revoked.

Never the less, I continued to operate my pirate station for about another year, I was just a lot more paranoid. My operation of the station as a pirate station did terminate shortly after this when my antenna broke and the transmitter final played frequency multiplier and caused interference with the 80 meter amateur radio band. This resulted in a letter from the F.C.C. field office chief engineer at the time, R.C. Dietch, informing me they had received complaints and to cease the cause of the interference immediately. Strangely, it said nothing of the illegal operation of a station without a license though there is absolutely no way they couldn’t have been aware of it. Not wanting to lose my license I stopped operating the station as a pirate station.

I did however experiment with carrier current radio, this is where an RF signal is injected in the power lines and radios plugged into the line or near it can pick up the signal. Normally, carrier current propagation does not extend past the first power transformer, however, City Light has a practice of wiring the secondaries of the transformers together allowing the signals to propagate a considerable distance.

Overall though we found this mode of operation to be unacceptable because it actually caused much more interference than open air radiation of the signal did. There were many non-linear devices on the power line such as light dimmers, off-the-line power supplies, etc, that would mix the RF signal with the 60 Hz AC power causing severe buzz in the signal at many locations. Also, these same non-linear devices would create harmonics of the fundamental frequency resulting in out of band interference.

Then I experimented with trying to get the absolute maximum range out of a part 15 legal transmitter. I did this by building a home brew transmitter with 100 mw input to the RF final stage, a very large modulation capability, and this fed into a 10 foot British joystick antenna, the transmitter being located immediately between the ground and the base of the antenna so that ground lead length did not detract from the maximum permissible antenna length. Because this type of antenna is resonant, it is much more efficient than a ten foot piece of wire would be. With this arrangement, my signal was actually receivable on a sensitive receiver up to about two miles away.

I was not satisfied with this range and so pretty much gave up at broadcasting my own signal at that point.

I did participate in a radio show at KCMU (the student station at the UW) prior to them changing formats, and then later at KBCS (the Bellevue Community College student station), which was also ended in part by a format stage but also by a wacko blind DJ there that told management that we were overmodulating the transmitter. KBCS at that point did not have limiters, the output of the board fed directly into the transmitter. There was a big red light on the board that came on if the modulation was over 100%. That and the VU meter were used to manually keep the modulation within limits. It was, however, impossible to predict spikes in music, etc, that would occasionally drive modulation over that value.

Anyway, both of these were a lot of fun. Both had a feeling of being very alive and organic. We made it a point to involve the audience heavily and this did seem to be popular with the audience but at times we’d go a bit over the edge and get management upset.

Later, a friend of mine who I shared those shows with, landed a job as general manager of a small AM station and hired me to do engineering and program director work, an odd combination. We put together a format that was very much like the “New Wave” stations that came later on FM, but with very heavy audience participation. When he was hired, the station was losing money, within two months we had turned it around and made it profitable, but in spite of now being able to make payments the bank foreclosed and the station was sold and our involvement in it ended.

Never the less, it was enough of a run to find that this very organic approach of heavily involving the audience and having a strong human element in the programming was very workable. Another element of the format is that we went to great lengths to never have dead air, always have music, and to have a very high audio density. If it could be made to work on a 500 watt AM station, it could have worked much better on a larger station. Unfortunately, we never got the opportunity to do that.

This is something I would like to do. It’s my feeling that this would work even better today because so many stations have gone to automation or corporate faceless networks that such a station would really stand out and be welcomed by the audience. Back then we had to do things very much by hand, interviews were edited by cutting and splicing tape, etc. Todays technology would make this much easier.

I would like to relate a couple of subjective experiences. Having had experience with both AM and FM, AM at that last station and my pirate stations, FM at KNHC, KCMU, and KBCS, I have to say there is something different about AM. I can’t say exactly what it is but even though the audio quality is inferior to FM, it seems more alive.

I think in part this might be due to the fact that AM can propagate great distances at night, and that the signal gradually got weaker but seemed to keep going where FM could never propagate great distances and it was very much different in terms of signal propagation. FM you could get a good strong signal, move ten feet and get nothing.

But there was also something different about how FM affected music in most cases. FM signals sounded very “flat” to me, even though the frequency response and signal to noise ratio was much better than AM, music on FM just sounded unnatural on most commercial stations.

One thing I came to learn later on is that this did not seem to be a problem with monophonic FM transmission. I wonder if it might have had something to do with the sharp filters required to rapidly roll off frequencies above 15 Khz on stereo transmissions. Whatever it was, music to me never sounded right on FM with the exception of those stations that were not transmitting in stereo.

I suspect though that the explanation might not be as simple as that. This is a wild thought but I’ve had the feeling that AM signals are in some sense interdimensional and that the signal, once radiated, continues on forever. Technically, both AM and FM signals are absorbed by various mechanisms and limited in range, but AM feels to me like it actually is not, it just goes on and on and becomes ever more nebulous.

If I had the opportunity to do it again there is another element that I’d like to add and that is live music and events. Financially, we did not have the opportunity to do that. Back then, remote broadcasts were difficult and expensive because you’d have to have special broadcast lines installed, or an expensive microwave link.

With the advent of digital audio it is now possible to transmit broadcast quality audio over an ISDN line or moderate speed digital link and with the Internet being so ubiquitous the connectivity is easy to obtain cheaply.

I hope you’ll forgive my ramblings, thinking of long delay echo got me to thinking about my pirate experience and then by extension everything else related to radio. I miss my involvement in radio, it was a lot of fun.

Long Delayed Echoes – Plasma Waves

I ran across this research article that describes the possibility of plasma waves as being the source of long delayed echoes. This is a PDF file so you will need a display postscript reader such as Adobe Acrobat to read it.

In this article they actually calculate the delay and it agrees well with observed delay times. They also show how microwave frequency transmissions could have delays generated in this manner, however, I am somewhat skeptical of the latter explanation.

The way that frequencies higher than about 28 Mhz can generate long delayed echoes via plasma waves is via non-linear mixing (heterodyning) in the ionosphere.

The idea goes something like this, an amateur radio operator is working moon bounce on 1296 Mhz. At the same time, another signal the operator is completely unaware of has a frequency of 1303 Mhz. They mix in the ionosphere in a non-linear manner producing a difference frequency of 7 Mhz and this 7 Mhz signal can be propagated via a plasma wave and later mix with a 1303 Mhz signal again and reconstitute the original 1296 Mhz signal.

Signals propagate in plasma waves at approximately 1/100th the speed of light so an around the world propagation of a plasma wave would take around 13 seconds. The actual velocity of plasma waves depends on variable factors though, how dense the ionosphere is, the percentage of atoms that are ionized, etc, so for this figure to vary considerably is not unreasonable.

On the surface this sounds like a good potential explanation. However, here is the problem. Most of these long delayed echoes are recognized audibly by human operators. Any modulation of the mixing signal, in this case the 1303 Mhz signal, would be reflected in the difference signal generated and propagated via plasma wave around the earth, and then when that signal is reconstituted by again mixing with the 1303 Mhz signal, those modulation products would be present in the 1296 Mhz signal.

None of the reports of long delayed echoes that I have run across involve any additional modulation of the original signal. I’m not aware of any good reason an unmodulated carrier would be transmitted continuously at 1303 Mhz, but if this mechanism were responsible for long delayed echoes of frequencies higher than 28 Mhz, at least some of them should have resulted from modulated signals and thus carry the modulation of the mixing signal.

Another aspect that I find troubling is that these long delayed echoes often are offset from the original transmission frequencies by a small amount and this theory does not explain that offset. The resulting signals often are at a slightly lower frequency than the original suggesting a reflecting surface or mechanism moving away from the source of transmission and reception.

One aspect that does suggest that long delayed echoes have something to do with the earth’s ionosphere or magnetic field, or possibly the interaction of the earth’s magnetic field with the solar wind is that some observations suggest a correlation with auroral activity.

Long Delayed Echo Radio Phenomena

Long delayed echoes refer to a radio phenomena where an echo of a transmission is heard that is longer than can readily be explained by most known origins, most typically 3-40 seconds.

This phenomena was first experienced by a Norwegian radio engineer, Jorgen Hals while listening to a Dutch shortwave station.

With shortwave broadcasts it is not unusual to hear an echo with a delay of about 1/7th of a second. This represents the time it takes the signal to go around the earth once using multiple hops between the ground and the ionosphere. However, in addition to this regular echo, Jorgen Hals also heard an echo of about three seconds in duration.

The 1/7th second echo corresponds well with the earth’s 24,902 mile diameter since light travels at 186,000 miles per second in free space, very slightly less than that in air, and the path taken around the world involved multiple hops between the ground and ionosphere so it was not entirely straight.

But that does not explain the three second echo. In three seconds, a radio signal would cover a distance of 558,000 miles, or could make a round trip of 279,000 miles. This corresponds fairly well to mean distance between the earth and moon which is 238,855 miles.

There are problems with moon bounce as an explanation even for this specific incidence of long delayed echo. Shortwave frequencies that are used do not penetrate the earth’s ionosphere, they are reflected back to earth which is what makes them useful, and if this had not been the case Jorgen Hals would not have been able to hear the primary signal or the 1/7th second echo. Signals which are nearly vertical to the earth can penetrate the ionosphere because the ionosphere actually ‘refracts’ rather than ‘reflects’ the signal and at a vertical angle the signal can go through.

The signal reported by Jorgen Hals was about 1/10th to 1/20th that of the primary echo. This is inconsistent with moon bounce because the huge distances involved and the relatively small area of the sky the moon occupies would result in severe attenuation. Amateur radio operators intentionally work moon bounce and to do so they use high power (maximum legal power of 1kw) combined with very high gain antennas and UHF or microwave frequencies so that a high degree of directivity can be accomplished with a reasonable antenna. Even with these optimizations, moon bounced signals are very marginal.

This however does not explain longer echo’s of up to 40 seconds or in some rare cases even more. It is also interesting to note that a shift in frequency has been reported in the reception of some echoes suggesting that the reflector, whatever it is, is moving relative to the transmission / reception site.

I also have had an experience with radio echoes but not of a long duration. The interesting aspect is that this was when I was operating a pirate radio station on 1200 Khz and at the end of the night when I powered the transmitter off I would hear occasionally hear a fraction of a second of the tail end of the broadcast on a receiver I used to monitor our transmission.

The 1/7th second echo of the shortwave signal could be explained by a trip around the earth, our signal was scarcely receivable twenty miles away so the source of this echo remains a complete mystery to me.

This phenomena has high strangeness to it. The reports are quite varied. Occasionally there are explanations but more often than not it is a complete mystery. Take for example, this report by “Dave S.” in which he reports something resembling a moving weather front that reflects signals from the east back to the east with a delay. The reports following it are also interesting.

The alien probe hypothesis suggests that an alien probe lurking somewhere in the solar system is picking up our signals and transmitting them back to us. The signals are often reported to be far too strong to be accounted for by reflection from a natural object.

There is a theory that suggests that acoustic propagation in the ionosphere may be responsible. The idea that ions, being charged, respond to electromagnetic radiation by physically moving, essentially setting up a radio frequency acoustic wave which travels at the speed of sound in the ionosphere rather than at the speed of light.

Some people believe there may be an ionized refractive region outside the earth’s own ionosphere say in the region of the Ort cloud, however I doubt this hypothesis because the earth’s orbital velocity would result in substantial Doppler shift. While long delayed echoes are often frequency shifted, the value of shift is small.

In short this is an intriguing phenomena for which no real adequate explanation exists. The echoes are observed all the way from long wave frequencies up to microwave frequencies. I have seen claims that they peak near the MUF, this is the highest frequency that the ionosphere can refract back to earth under the conditions present at the time, but reports exist both far in excess of the MUF and far below it.

This would seem to dismiss the alien probe theory as well because reports are not limited to frequencies which penetrate the earth’s ionosphere.

There are some indication that the Sun somehow plays a role as LDE’s stop just prior to a solar eclipse and resume approximately half-way through.

Some people believe there is a correspondence between auroral activity and LDE’s.

All in all it’s a great mystery. I’d be interested in hearing theories others may have regarding this phenomena as well as incident reports.

TV DX’ing

One of my early hobbies was TV DX’ing, this involves receiving a signal beyond the range that it could normally be received.

See Todd Emslie’s TV FM DX Site for some good information about how to go about it.

That said, I used a somewhat different approach. For starters, I was fortunate enough to live near the crown of one of the highest ridges in Seattle (Maple Leaf Ridge), and this height right off gave me a significant advantage.

My best VHF setup involved a Wineguard deep fringe Yagi antenna with a mast mounted pre-amp and Beldon 300 ohm Twinax downlead feeding a specially mangled Magotbox black and white television. I had intentionally narrowed the IF bandpass of this television which provided a less sharp picture but allowed reception of signals that otherwise would have been lost to noise.

I also very carefully tuned the tuner of this television for optimal performance. There were tweaks for each channel and I very carefully aligned each for optimal performance. This particular set had a nuvistor type tuner. Nuvisters were very small vacuum tubes that were in a metal case and about the same size as many transistors of that era. They had excellent characteristics for this application because they were low noise, high gain, and tolerant of strong signals and not as easily overloaded as many solid state tuners.

With this setup I could receive channel 2 from Vancouver BC, Portland Oregon, or Spokane. The fact that Spokane was receivable at all with the Cascades in the way is a mystery that to this day I do not understand, but it was weakly but regularly receivable. It was very snowy and even the audio was noisy but there was enough signal to get station ID.

The signal level did vary considerably hour to hour and night to night and often very late at night it would get strong enough to actually be watchable. Spokane is probably around 240 miles to the east as the crow flies, but the Cascades is in the way. So I don’t know how the signal managed to get to me.

Then CBUT, channel 2 in Vancouver, about 100 miles to the north came in like a local station. It was watchable always. Channel 2 from Portland also was receivable, better than Spokane but never as clear as Vancouver.

Chanel 12 from Bellingham, maybe 70 miles or so north, was also consistently fairly good. Occasionally multipath was a problem with channel 12 from Bellingham even though the antenna I had was quite directional. The directivity of the antenna was better on the lower frequencies however, being able to totally separate channel 2 from Vancouver, Spokane, and Portland.

I was able to receive channel 6 from Victoria BC, CHEK television at the time, and channel 8, but I don’t recall the call letters for channel 8, however, these were not totally clean like channel 2. I could sometimes receive channel 6 and 8 from Portland as well (KGW and KOIN) but really pretty ratty most of the time, sometimes not at all. For a brief while there was a channel 10 I could receive from there but then it went to UHF I think.

In Spokane there was also a station on Channel 4, but we had a local station, KOMO in Seattle and it never seemed to go off air back then so never had the opportunity to try to receive Spokane. The few times it did go off I couldn’t receive anything.

This was pretty much what I could get normally on VHF, I had a similar setup for UHF except that I used a 4-bay bowtie antenna with a reflector. We only had some UHF repeaters in Seattle up between channel 70-83, before those frequencies were deallocated as television channels. The PBS station in Tacoma used to be on channel 62, and I could receive it clearly. There was a UHF station in Vancouver, can’t remember the channel or calls but it was receivable normally but not clean, some snow. This was the norm.

The only UHF DX I ever got worth mention was on a few days I was able to pick up a 100 watt UHF translator in Vancouver. This was rare but did occasionally happen and I thought it was impressive that 100 watts could make the trip at all.

VHF is another matter though, I received numerous stations via numerous modes of propagation. We had a local channel 13, KCPQ I think it was at the time, but it would go off the air during the night. One morning I got up early, had the antenna pointed south (13 was normally in Tacoma back then) and I did receive a signal but it was not the normal programming, instead Bozo the clown cartoons were on. When it identified, I was surprised to find out it was in Eugene Oregon. It was extremely foggy that morning and all I can figure is that there was some powerful troppo-ducting happening.

I received channel 2 and 3 from many locations over the years, including channel 3 from Winnipeg Canada, don’t remember the call letters, I remember it being all in french, and New York WCBS channel 2 (from Seattle), but most commonly I received stations via skip in the mid-west.

During some peak solar years I have had E-skip MUF open up all the way to channel 12, but never succeeded in getting station ID’s on these high channels.

I wish I had formerly recorded these at the time but haven’t. But it was a fun hobby and if you are interested you might want to pursue it before everything goes digital. With an analog signal, you can still make it out even with a poor signal-to-noise ratio, but if a digital signal isn’t good enough for a low bit error rate and correctable, it isn’t usable so I think the opportunity for this hobby will end with the analog era.

Radio Locator

One radio show that I listen to fairly regularly is Coast-to-Coast AM, formerly known as the Art Bell show, but now hosted by George Noory except on weekends when Art Bell remains on the air from Manila in the Philippians. After his wife Ramona died, he married a woman there.

Sometimes the show is preempted by local events or programming, KVI might decide it’s more important to air election returns, local news events, Christmas music, whatever, and so I try to find the show elsewhere.

I enjoy the show quite a lot, sometimes. Other times I hate it quite a lot. The show basically will let anyone with an interesting paranormal subject tell their story and the end result of this is that you sometimes hear leading edge science, really interesting spirituality discussions, interesting alien encounters, near death experiences, and other interesting topics, other times you hear completely bogus material. Often it is material that, while it might be legitimate, I simply do not have a strong interest in. But enough interesting stuff does come across that I do listen to it regularly and skip those shows with guests I find boring.

Owing to computer hash from all the computer equipment here, receiving anything distant can be quite a challenge and so I will usually try to find a station on the net. On the Coast-to-Coast AM website they have a listing of affiliate stations but they do not specify which of those can be listened to on the web. I suppose this is because they are trying to sell a pay-for subscription service called Streamlink and don’t want to encourage people to do what I do and find a station that webcasts the show for free.

I stumbled across a useful resource for locating radio stations that have an audio feed called cryptically enough, “Radio Locator“.

Radio Locator allows you to locate stations that webcast by city, state, zip code, call letters, format, or by country, and in the advanced search section you can also sort by frequency or even the name of the stations owner.

I find the ability to search by frequency most useful because one of my hobbies is DX’ing, trying to get stations that are beyond the normal range of reception via unusual propagation modes such as sporadic E skip, tropospheric bending or ducting, etc. Often times such stations will fade a lot and it can be hard to catch a station ID, but if I can get the location and have the frequency, then I can locate it with Radio Locator.

Another function that it has is the ability to locate a vacant FM station in your area, assuming there is one. Here there virtually are none, even those stations it says are vacant there are receivable signals on, 87.9 is clear but it’s not a legitimate FM frequency. 103.1 is used by CKMO in Victoria BC and is quite receivable here, 104.7 KDUX in Aberdeen, not strong but marginally receivable here. If you live somewhere that the FM bands are less crowded perhaps it can find a truly vacant frequency.

AM / FM Band Broadcast Transmitters

I found a number of sources of FM transmitters that clearly would exceed the F.C.C.’s part 15 regulations, and yet don’t appear to be F.C.C. type accepted and approved and therefore not useful to legitimate broadcasters.

For example, this FM Transmitter Station sold by HobbyTron.com is advertised as having a one watt output which unless not connected to an antenna and buried 30 feet underground, or operated into a dummy load, would clearly violate F.C.C. part 15 rules. HobbyTron.com also sells some AM transmitters. These are very low power and from the descriptions might even be legal under Part 15. They claim a maximum range for their AM transmitters of around a quarter of a mile. Years ago I experimented with an AM transmitter, 100mw input to the RF final, and a ten foot British joystick antenna, (at the time Part 15 allowed a ten foot antenna, now they’ve gone metric and it’s 3 meters), and using a Sony Earth Orbiter receiver, I was able to get nearly three miles range on 660 Khz. Granted, this was the range at which it was still intelligible with a very sensitive receiver and a very quiet frequency, not a range that would be useful for the general population. But this experience leads me to believe that their claims are legitimate with respect to their AM transmitters.

On the AM band 1 watt would be ten times the power allowed under Part 15 rules, however, on the FM band much less power is required to travel significant differences so even a few milliwatts may violate F.C.C. rules.

I know when I was in high school I built a little FM power oscillator transmitter using the triode section of a 6U8 tube (which is an itty bitty low powered tube) and with what little power that generated, a few milliwatts, we found we could receive the signal several miles away. One watt, in the absence of other interfering signals, with a decent transmitting antenna located at a reasonable height, and a decent receiver, can go a number of miles.

Then there is this outfit:

FM Transmitters and Broadcasting Equipment

Providing FM transmitters up to 10 Kilowatts. They ship mostly to the US and Canada but will ship outside the continent if the order is substantial, the entity established, and proper arrangements are made. As with HobbyTron, you are required to sign an agreement to operate these only if you have a license for the proper jurisdiction, however, they do not mention their transmitters as being F.C.C. or C.R.F. certified so I am not convinced this is even possible. They do not list prices on their website.

C. Crane Company sells an FM transmitter that they claim is F.C.C. approved. I don’t know exactly what that means, I’ve heard of F.C.C. type acceptance, but at any rate, it’s a very low power unit that probably does fall within Part 15 rules and probably won’t transmit any significant distance.

Then there is Decade which makes FM transmitters as well. With a solid state FM amplifier that they also sell you can get one watt output, which fed into an antenna would almost certainly violate Part 15 rules.

PCS Electronics sells a variety of FM transmitter products, they also sell studio gear (which visually at least looks professional).

Quasar Electronics has FM transmitters of various power levels including one 25 watt unit. They also make a variety of other devices such as CB amplifiers. These guys could really get you filling the F.C.C.’s coffers if their products are used illegally.

Armstrong Transmitters makes an interesting AM transmitting unit, 500 watts and 1000 watts. These use multiphase modulation like the old CCA transmitters but these are solid state. I will have to admit I never much cared for this type of modulation scheme as it tends not to support very high levels of modulation without distortion. With high level modulation, in theory audio output power that is 50% of final input power is all that is needed to achieve 100% modulation, but in the transmitters I built, I tended to make the audio section around 200% of the final input power just to make sure I could modulate the positive peaks real heavily and that the audio section would be not at all stressed and distortion free at normal modulation levels. Using multiphase modulation does eliminate the need for a modulation transformer saving weight and improving frequency response. The downside to this type of modulation scheme is that it invariably leads to some phase modulation as well and because phase modulation introduces sidebands at not only the carrier plus the modulating frequency, but also the carrier plus modulating frequency plus harmonics of the modulating frequency, it results in some harmonic distortion. This can be somewhat compensated for with pre-distortion techniques or negative feedback, however, the phase modulation component remains.

Here are some instructions for a small AM transmitter that you can build. This is a very low power unit, useful for piping audio into an old radio or around the house.

Here are plans for a class E 80 or 160 meter AM transmitter. Class E is otherwise known as pulse-duration modulation and it’s really the best way to do things. It can provide upwards of 90% efficiency, matching or even exceeding multiple phase modulation schemes, but without the inherent distortion and phase modulation products. Note that 160 meters is around 1.8 Mhz, just above the top end of the AM band and 80 meters is around 3.6 Mhz or so, the lower end of the shortwave spectrum. This transmitter would be legal in those bands if you have the appropriate amateur radio license, however, most work in 80 meters is either single side band or CW because the latter use much less bandwidth and cover greater distance for the same amount of power. With SSB, ALL of your power goes into broadcasting intelligent information, with AM, two thirds goes into the carrier and only one third goes into intelligent information and AM produces both upper and lower sidebands using twice the bandwidth of SSB.

Low Power Radio and Broadcast Company makes some 100 mw AM transmitters, which, if operated with the proper antenna, would meet Part 15 requirements, but unlike many low power units these are crystal controlled so you won’t have issues with frequency drift.

Harris makes a 200 Kw solid state AM broadcast transmitter. I’m not sure where in the world 200 Kw would still be legal on the AM broadcast band, to the best of my knowledge the US and Canada both restrict the maximum power for AM broadcasters to 50 Kw. What is interesting about these transmitters is that they claim to use direct digital synthesis of the RF envelope as their source of modulation.

So there are some interesting transmitter sources if you are looking into low power broadcasting, or maybe in the case of the Harris unit you can buy a ship, go into international waters and do a Radio Caroline type operation.


Radio was one of my earliest electronic interests.

When I was a young kid, I don’t know exactly how young but maybe first or second grade, I visited relatives in Spokane. I don’t even remember which relatives.

There was someone close to my age and his older brother had a small low powered AM transmitter, what the F.C.C. would call a Part 15 device, which means it is a transmitter complying with F.C.C. part 15 rules which are designed to restrict range severely, generally less than 300 feet. It had a microphone attached and he could speak in it and his voice would come out of a radio.

I was totally captivated by this. I wanted to talk into it and hear my voice come out the radio but he wouldn’t let us touch it. I don’t remember if these brothers were cousins, friends of cousins, or just what the relationship was, it was that long ago. But the one that was my age, I convinced him that I could turn a record player into a transmitter like his brother had and so we proceeded to disassemble a record player there, but I was unable to re-assemble it into anything useful, transmitter or record player.

When I was young, I also contracted pneumonia, and it was sufficiently bad that I was hospitalized for some time. Most of the time I was alone in the hospital. I remember getting shots in the butt every six hours or so. Back then, penicillin was about the only antibiotic available so if you got a bad bacterial infection they just used a lot of it.

They had me breathing through an apparatus that brought oxygen through ice. I’m not sure if the ice was supposed to cool or humidify the air or just what. I was really too young to understand what was happening. I did understand that most of the time I was alone and that was very difficult.

Someone brought me a small transistor pocket radio to keep me company. I had a battle with the hospital staff over it because anytime I would turn it up loud enough to actually hear it someone else would complain of the noise. I craved hearing someone because I felt so utterly alone. Finally, someone brought me an earphone, one of those things you stick in your ear and plug into a radio and can hear without everyone else hearing. These were similar to ear buds you can get today except hard plastic instead of soft foam and the quality was far worse and it was for only one ear.

After I got out of the hospital, I still had the radio and would often fall asleep to it. I liked what used to be called “Top-40” stations, so called because they mostly played a rotation of the top 40 most popular songs that week, but they would throw in an occasional oldie, and other forms of entertainment, and of course commercials.

KJR channel 95, now a sports radio station, was Top-40 back then and was my favorite. After that, KOL, and later KING adopted Top-40 formats.

In 4th grade, one of my cousins, who secretly was trying to kill me, wanted to get me interested in electricity so made me a light board, basically a piece of plywood with two standard base light bulbs, knife switches, an a 117 volt line cord to power it.

First he wired it up as a parallel circuit so each switch controlled one of the light sockets. That was only so interesting. Then he wired it up as a series circuit with the two light bulbs in series and the knife switches across the light bulbs and demonstrated how with both switches open the bulbs would glow dim but when one switch was closed, the bulb across the other would get bright. He warned me not to close both switches at once. Then, I was allowed to take this light board home with me, a gift.

Well, you know I had to know what would happen if I closed both switches, so when at home, in the living room on the carpet, I did so. There was a bright blue flash, a loud bang, and then everything was dark.

My father, after replacing the fuse, decided that this was unsafe and so we went to the hardware store were we bought very small sockets designed for screw-base flashlight bulbs, some small bulbs to fit them designed for 1-1/2 volts, and an “ignition” type battery (these were a large single cell with wire terminals that used to be use to start model airplane engines. The glow plugs of that era were designed for 1-1/2 volts rather than the higher voltages todays variety operate on.) The light board was then converted to this new low voltage system not using house current and thus incapable of blowing fuses.

Of course I still wanted to understand this thing that happens when both switches are closed and so did the same thing again with this battery setup. Those old ignition batteries were capable of non-trivial fault currents, and what happened was the wiring immediately burnt all the insulation off and then glowed orange-red and then eventually melted.

This was enough to get me interested and so I started reading books on the subject of electricity and electronics. I can remember one of the first titles was, “Boys First Book of Electricity”. Yes, I know it seems awfully sexist now, implying that electricity was one of those things that only guys should have an interest in, but this was the 60’s and the book was old even then.

I grasped the concepts readily, even more complex things like circuits involving resistors, capacitors, inductors, and even transistors. My parents bought me this broadcaster kit thing which was a little tiny wireless transmitter and microphone in a plastic case but it did not have more than about ten foot of range.

A family friend bought some old table radios at Goodwill for me to play with. I managed to re-wire one so that the local oscillator became a power oscillator fed into an antenna and the audio portion got converted into a modulator. This was my first home brew transmitter and it had enough range to reach a few of our close neighbors, and I would go over to their house and tune in “my” radio station (which was usually repeating a commercial station at that time).

I continued to play with similar low power transmitters like this into Jr. High school where I met some new friends, Scott Shangle, Jim Dolan, and a few others. By this time I had converted a ham radio transmitter, a DX-40, to operate on the AM band, had put together a make-shift studio, and was, for a few hours of the day, operating a bootleg station.

They too were operating a bootleg station. They had modified an Apellco marine transmitter to do duty in the AM band. We used to take long walks to check out the range of our bootleg stations.

In 9th grade, I was permitted to go across the street to the high school for a radio class. The high school had an FM station, KNHC, at the time it was 320 watts but even at that low power it had a very good signal, actually better I think then it was before they got their power increase to 1500 watts.

I met many people there, Evan Green, Dan House, Arny Ringstad, Dan Toey, Keith Jackson, Dale Mortimer, Mike Dennison, Brian Swadner. Also, an old friend that I had known in elementary school moved back into the neighborhood, Jim Hepworth. These were all people in KNHC and there were many more whose names aren’t coming to me right now.

Of these, I didn’t know Keith or Dale very well but they were On-Air personalities at KNHC that I very much liked their style at the time.

I came to meet others that shared this interest as well, Bruce Girard had received my bootleg station, hooked a volt-meter onto the AGC line of his car radio and tracked me down. Funny someone privately doing so with such crude equipment yet we managed to escape the F.C.C.

Bruce had also been playing with pirate radio a bit, he had a small transmitter maybe a couple of watts, but owing to his location near the high school which was very low and wet providing an excellent ground plane, his signal got out well and I could receive it good at my house several miles away.

Then I picked up a weak FM signal on my Sony Earth Orbiter radio. The FM part of this receiver was excellent and if there was a signal to be had it would get it. This signal was very weak however, did not even register on the S-meter at all, still it achieved full quieting.

I could tell by the audio quality, which was horrid, that it wasn’t a legitimate operation. But the programming was wild. Crazy skits, lots of production work. What they didn’t put into their technical setup they did put into creating interesting programming. They gave their phone number out over the air and I called, and after a bit convinced them to let me come out and see their setup. I met Jeff Madison there.

He had this military transmitter that functioned in the FM band, it was originally intended for narrow-band voice, hence the bad audio quality, and a welding rod jammed in the antenna jack for an antenna.

I had borrowed an unused Gates tube limiter from high school, but later acquired a Langevin compressor / limiter from KXA radio. KXA 770 was an old radio station, and to the best of my knowledge one of the last in the country to switch from a long-wire horizontally polarized antenna to a vertical tower. The KXA setup was cool, two towers at either corner of a building downtown with a long-wire antenna suspended between them and the feeder from the middle came down to the roof. They were only 500 watts at the time but still had a very good signal.

Anyway, I acquired this limiter, a piece of used equipment there, for $15. It was vastly superior to the Gates limiter we had borrowed, so I let Jeff use that limiter for his FM station (until the school required it’s return). Evan and I modified his transmitter to provide wide-band, full audio spectrum with FM pre-emphasis, modulation. One of the grid resistors was burnt out in his transmitter, we repaired that which brought it to the full designed power. We built a dipole antenna and a coaxial balun to feed it and put it up on the roof.

With these modifications, now instead of not reading on the S-meter at my house, it pegged it, and it sounded good.

Jeff, had previously gotten busted by the F.C.C. for operating an AM station without a license. He had climbed up a high voltage line power tower and ran a wire down from up high on the tower for his antenna. His station operated on 1570, and at the time there was an oldies station on 1590, KUUU. The engineer for KUUU happened to live in the area and received interference from Jeff’s bootleg station and complained to the F.C.C. which lead to his bust. They didn’t do anything though beyond tell him he couldn’t broadcast on AM without a license (hence his ordering the FM transmitter).

We all were involved with the operation of each others stations to some degree. I will elaborate more on these things later. Right now mostly I wanted to give some background.

American Graffiti came out in 1973. We also had a cousin living with us for a while and she liked to listen to KUUU which was an oldies format. KUUU and that film introduced me to “Oldies” which at that time was mostly 50’s and early 60’s genre of music.

The movie also introduced me to Wolfman Jack:
Wolfman Banner

I loved his personality and was thrilled to find out that at the time he was actually still on the air. He was carried by CFUN, an AM station on 1410 out of Vancouver BC that used to have a good signal down here. Later when they changed formats, I found out that he also broadcast out of a mexican station, XPRS, which I understand was actually XEPRS but for whatever reason they never said the “E” in the call letters.

This station was on 1090 Khz, the same frequency as KING AM, a 50 Kw station in Seattle, but KING AM would go off the air late at night for maintenance and I could receive XPRS also at one time call letters XERB, operating out of Tijuana, then and Wolfman would be on. Later, I found out about a type of antenna called a “box loop”, and built one. This antenna was extremely directional allowing me to “null out” KING and receive XPRS even when KING was on the air.

Now the thing that is weird, is by all historical accounts, April of 1972 was the last time Wolfman Jack was on Mexican radio, and it was with call letters XERB. When the Mexican authorities changed the law not allowing paid religion which was 80% of their revenues, the call letters were changed to XePRS because Wolfman Jack owned the XERB call letters. Yet, I heard Wolfman on XePRS later than this. When I heard him they would do dual formats, playing mexican music and spanish programming at one time, and Wolfman with oldies at another. I can not find this documented anywhere.

Woflman did radio the way I feel AM radio SHOULD be done. There was NO dead air, they used reverb to give the broadcast a sense of fullness and power. The transmitter was modulated to the max at all times. Always there was music, even when the announcer talked there was music. They involved the audience to a very great degree. CFUN at the time also ran their station this way, even when they were originating programming locally.

If there is anything I miss from that era, it was that type of radio. Sadly, Wolfman Jack died in 1995 at the age of 56 or 57 (depending upon sources) from a heart attack.

Even more sadly, the radio format had largely died much before that. One of the things that really did it in was Disco, it was just impossible to do high energy radio with Disco. The late 1970’s was heavily polluted with Disco, even KISW, rock of the ages, mixed an occasional Disco song in the late 70’s.

Another thing that did it in was automation. Why actually pay an air personality if you can get a machine to just chug away playing music and commercials all day and all night? Well, the obvious reason is program quality, but that doesn’t seem to count for much these days.

The final blow was the relaxation of broadcast station ownership rules. It used to be that a single owner was allowed to own at most one of each, AM station, FM station, and Television station in a given market, and was allowed at most six markets. This meant at most, any one entity could not own more than six AM stations, six FM stations, and six TV stations. Then, it seems around the late 70’s or early 80’s, broadcast ownership laws were somewhat relaxed and we began to see broadcasting corporations with a few dozen stations. Then the 1996 Communications Act eliminated restrictions on national ownership altogether.

Now you’ve got megabroadcasting corporations, like Clear Channel Communications owing some 1200 stations, or Infinity Broadcasting which was owned by Viacom but merged with CBS Radio, which has around 220 stations.

These mega-broadcasting corporations have pretty much eliminated local broadcasting and audience interaction. And they’re overwhelmingly conservative. Conservative talk radio pretty much owns most of the AM market here and it’s boring beyond description. Most music has moved to FM, which seems like a natural evolution owing to the higher sound quality provided by FM, but even then it’s mostly low energy and boring, nothing like Wolfman Jack’s or CFUN‘s old energy level.

Anyway there is a lot more I’ve got to say and tell but right now I need to take care of other things. I’d love to hear your comments and if you have any pointers to resources on the web drop me a note and I will share them.