Tricks of the Trade

It helps to be organized and prepared before the DX starts rolling in.  Upon setting up your very own FM DX machine, it's a good idea to start a log.  Spend a couple of days listening to and logging all the stations you can hear on each and every frequency.  This will establish the baseline or playing field, so to speak.  Not only will you get a good start on your log, but you'll know where the local and semi-local stations are, both in terms of station frequency and geographic location.  Basically, if you have a good feel for what's normal, you will be in a much better position to know when conditions are not normal!
 
As an example, here's a representative section of my own log.  I have the log organized by frequency, and I include the following information for each station reception: 

89.5

10/24/00 WETS TN Johnson City / Bose Wave Radio / Yagi 163 miles
10/29/00 WMOT TN Murfreesboro / AJ1510 / Yagi / (Jazz 89) 181 miles
10/29/00 WVXW OH West Union / AJ1510 / Yagi / (The X-Star Radio Network) 75 miles
11/06/00 WKPB KY Henderson / Super Tuner / Yagi 170 miles
11/07/00 KHCD KS Salina / Super Tuner / Yagi / (Meteor Scatter / Station ID) 715 miles
11/12/00 WHSS OH Hamilton / Super Tuner / Yagi / (only 190 watts) 97 miles
11/12/00 WCVV OH Belpre / Super Tuner / Yagi  180 miles
11/12/00 WBCY OH Archbold / Super Tuner / Yagi  243 miles
11/20/00 KLND SD Little Eagle / Super Tuner / Yagi / ( Meteor Scatter / RDS) 993 miles
11/20/00 KENW NM Portales / Super Tuner / Yagi /  (Meteor Scatter / ID) 1086 miles
 
I start with the date I first received a particular station, followed by its call letters and city of license.  This is followed by distance and any other information that might be helpful, such as the station's imaging slogan (as in Jazz 89).  I list "normal" space wave reception in black, tropo-enhanced stations in blue, and sporadic E or meteor scatter in red. Some people also include the time of their reception, and perhaps go as far to indicate just how they came up with their identification of the station.  I've since added azimuth (antenna aiming direction) to my logs, as well as the station's format information.  Do whatever works for you.

Station Identification - Identifying stations before you put them in your log is often tough, but identify you must!  Otherwise, what's the point?  If you can't identify the station, you have no way to determine how far away the mystery station might be. Since the ultimate goal here is to dig out really distant FM stations, you'll want to be sure of your identifications so that you know just how far that signal traveled to get to your receiver.

The FCC requires all U.S. stations to identify themselves once per hour, "...as near to the top of the hour as is practical." A legal station identification consists of the station's call letters, followed immediately by the official city of license.  Other information can be included, such as an alternate or dual city identification, the frequency of the station, or the FCC channel number (200-299).  Nobody except the FCC uses channel numbers, so don't expect to ever hear these.

Many, if not most, of the non-commercial stations (those below 92.1 MHz) apparently don't care if you know who they are or not.  I guess they feel that as long as they know who they are, everything is copasetic.  Consider yourself lucky if you hear a station ID on a non-com at any time other than the top of the hour.  I've heard a few that don't even bother at all with the legal formality of a station identification.  Shame on you!  In addition, many non-commercial stations run the NPR or PRI networks around the clock.  On some of the non-com frequencies, I can turn the antenna around and receive three or four different stations, all running exactly the same network programming!  This makes it particularly difficult to figure out who's who.    

Commercial stations (those on and above 92.1 MHz) can sometimes be a little deceptive with their identity.  An example is WHTZ (Z-100), New York.  I was involved with the original construction of Z-100 back in 1981.  I recall Scott Shannon, the program director, working painstakingly with J. R. Nelson ,the production director, to produce a barely legal top of the hour ID.  You see, even though Z-100's transmitter is in the Empire State Building, and the station is imaged as a New York City station, WHTZ's official city of license is Newark, New Jersey -  not New York City.  Scott and J. R. produced a dual city station ID that sounded like, "WHTZ, New York, New York."  If questioned by the FCC about the ID, I suppose they could have made the case that the first "New York" in the ID was really "Newark.." However,  it sounded exactly like "New York" to me. 

Most commercial stations are pretty good about identifying themselves, legally and otherwise.  Many will identify themselves in some manner after each song.  Unlike the non-commercial stations, commercial stations actually want you to know who they are.  However, instead of using their legal call letters, many identify themselves with an imaging slogan, such as Mix 94.5, 104.5 The Cat, 98.1 The Bull, and so on.  The call letters of the station often have some relationship with the imaging slogan.  For example, Mix 94.5 is WMXL; 104.5 The Cat is WLKT; and 98.1 The Bull is WBUL.  As such, the imaging slogan will often provide at least a clue as to the real call letters of the station.  This information, coupled with other items, such as local commercials, weather forecasts, local news items, and so on, often lead to positive identification of the station.  Probably the best time to catch IDs and local information is during the morning and afternoon drive shows.  That's when most stations tend to talk the most.  Finally, most commercial stations are good about running a real, honest-to-God, legal station identification at or near the top of the hour. 

Positive ID! - What constitutes positive identification of a station?  For me, I will not log a station until I am totally convinced of the true identity of the station.  Otherwise, what's the point?  I do this hobby for my own enjoyment.  I would only be cheating myself if I haphazardly logged stations I might not have actually heard. You can do whatever you think is right, depending on how serious about FM DXing you want to be.

I use a variety of criteria for positive identification.  To me, each station identification is like a jigsaw puzzle -  when all the pieces fit together I know I've made a positive ID.  Here's what I go by:

RDS - As mentioned previously, a station with RDS will generally have it programmed so their call letters will be displayed on a receiver equipped with RDS.  This is usually a "slam dunk" identification.  However, I've run across more than one case where a station had changed call letters, but continued to run old call letters on their RDS.  I've also run into situations with non-commercial stations displaying totally incorrect RDS call letters.  

Station ID - Often, the station is coming in clear enough, and a distinct set of call letters are heard, such as "This is WKQQ, Winchester / Lexington"  After confirming that what I think I heard is actually listed as it should be in the FCC database, I consider it a good ID and move on.

Sometimes, even what seems like a positive ID may not be what you think it is.  For example, while listening on 88.3 MHz, I ran across a station clearly identifying itself as WYFG, Gaffney, South Carolina.  However, things just didn't add up.  My antenna was not pointed toward South Carolina, yet the signal was fairly strong with no fading.  I could only hear this station with the antenna pointed away from South Carolina, towards the west-northwest.  I looked up WYFG my database, and was disappointed to find that it is actually on 91.1 MHz, not 88.3 MHz.  I put my internet connection to work, and logged onto the Yahoo search engine.  I plugged in WYFG, and sure enough, they have a web site.  The web site listed their stations and their compliment of satellite-fed translators.  Sure enough, they listed a nearby translator on 88.3 MHz.  The ID is W202AZ in Frankfort, Kentucky, only 27 miles away, right where my antenna was pointing.  I wasn't too disappointed, however.  That was my first translator logging since setting up shop in Kentucky. 

There are many translators scattered around the country that rebroadcast the signals of their primary station.  Translators are generally on a different frequency than the primary station it's rebroadcasting (if it's on the same frequency, it's called a booster).  Translators are usually used to fill in "holes" in the primary station's coverage area.  You'll find them everywhere, but they are most plentiful in the Rocky Mountains, where mountain towns are often shielded from hearing a station's main transmitter, even though it may not be very far away.  Translators only need to be specifically identified a few times a day under FCC rules.  Otherwise, they carry the ID of the station they are rebroadcasting.  The maximum power output for a translator is 250 watts, with many running as little as 10 watts or less.  Translators are usually connected to a directional antenna, producing a higher effective radiated power in a particular direction.

Local Information - A good clue (but not always a perfect one) for identifying a station is information given in local commercials, local news, and local weather forecasts.  Coupled with partial call letters or other information that might be heard, this can lead to a positive ID.  However, local information is sometimes not sufficient in and of itself for a positive ID.  I'll give you an example:

I've logged both WMRN, Marion, Ohio and WMRI, Marion, Indiana.  The call letters are very similar, as is the city of license. Even the beam heading between these two stations is fairly close.  To further confuse the issue, both stations are on the same frequency, 106.9 MHz!  I almost skipped logging the Marion, Indiana station because I was hearing local information about "Marion," and my log already listed a "Marion" station on that frequency.  But, since I had just turned my antenna slightly west from the other "Marion" station, I stuck with it until I figured out that it was an entirely different station.

"Lebanon" seems to be another popular town name around here.  So far I've logged "Lebanon" stations in the States of Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky.  As you can see, relying solely on local information can sometimes be misleading.  However, if I hear a city and state name in a commercial or weather forecast, and that city and state are the only ones listed on that frequency, and the beam heading makes sense, then it's pretty safe to call it a positive ID.  I still try to catch at least partial call letters or a station slogan to confirm the reception in my own mind.

Beam Heading - The last clue I use is beam heading (the direction in which the antenna is pointed).  If I'm pointed toward Ohio and I'm hearing a station that is talking about Ohio, then I'm probably listening to a station in Ohio. But, which one?  In other words, if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. But, which duck?  Obviously, the beam heading by itself is only a small piece of the puzzle.  Only when combined with the other pieces of information does the beam heading assist with the positive identification of a station.  More often than not, the beam heading will be used to eliminate suspects from a list possibilities. 

The whole point is that to truly enjoy the FM DXing hobby, it's important that you don't guess about station identifications.  If you are always careful, you can look at your log and know with certainty that you received each and every station listed.

Band Conditions - How do you know if DX conditions exist at any given time?   If you have a television set with its own antenna (not a cable hookup!) tuned to one of the low-band VHF channels (channels 2-6), you can often see the onset of what might become good FM band DX conditions.  Used this way, your TV set can become your FM DX early warning device.

In Denver, we had TV channels 2, 4 and 6.  It was not uncommon for our local channel 2 to be totally obliterated by channel 2 out of Los Angeles or some other distant place.  Regina, Saskatchewan would often show up clearly on channel 3.  When the "interference" made its way all the way up to channel 6, I knew it was time to fire up the FM tuner or 2 meter rig.

There is a downside to this approach.  Just because skip shows up on channel 2, it does not mean that the FM band is open to distant stations.  Skip on channel 2 is fairly common, and only means that there might be an FM DX opening. I only get excited when I start seeing strong DX activity on TV channels 5 or 6 (these channels are just below the FM band).

In my opinion, the most logical way to determine what the FM band conditions are at any given time is to listen.  It's important to listen to both the upper and lower extremities of the FM band when checking for DX.  As mentioned before, tropospheric effects tend to favor the top of the FM band.  Sporadic E, on the other hand, will always appear first in the low end of the FM band, moving up in frequency as the E cloud ionization becomes more intense. 

I do use a TV to monitor channels 2 - 6 for the onset of sporadic E DX activity.  If I'm seeing activity moving up toward channel 6 on the TV, I know that FM DX activity is likely.  I monitor a "dead" frequency on the low end of the FM dial, waiting for DX to appear. 

After you've logged all the locals and semi-locals, you'll find that, under seemingly "normal" band conditions, it becomes more and more difficult to log new stations.  This is certainly true, but don't give up!  A very important fact to realize is that FM band conditions are always changing. FM band conditions are usually weather related, and, as you know, weather conditions rarely remain unchanged for any length of time. With seemingly dull band conditions, a little patience will often pay off.  You'll find that on one day a semi-local will be very strong, not allowing anything else to be heard on a close beam heading (assuming the use of a directional antenna).  Yet, on a different day, the very same semi-local station may be coming in very weakly or not at all, allowing new stations to be found at or near that particular beam heading.  It's kind of like mining gold; you start by picking up all the nuggets that are just laying around.  After that, you have to dig for the gold!

I often park the radio on a fairly quiet frequency, and turn the antenna until I hear nothing but static.  Quite often, something will fade in for at least a little while, sometimes just long enough to get an ID.  As I am writing this particular section (the night of 11/19/00), I got a new station on 93.3 MHz - WTPT, Forest City, North Carolina (233 miles), using this technique. A little while ago there was nothing but static.  Then, WTPT (The Planet) faded in, more than long enough to get a positive ID.  Over the last hour, it's faded in and out several times.  Sometimes it was in with a good, full stereo signal.  WTPT is a great sounding radio station, and is a pleasure to listen to.  And, as an added bonus, while WTPT was in a fade I enjoyed some decent meteor bursts.  Unfortunately, they didn't yield any positive IDs.

During late November, 2000, as winter is finally taking hold here in Kentucky, I've noticed that fewer and fewer signals are coming in from the north.  At the same time, stations from the south (presumably where it's still warm) are stronger than ever. The reduction of signals from the north has allowed me to pull some weak signals out of Alabama and Mississippi, a pretty good haul from Kentucky.  When it seems that signals you are used to hearing from a particular direction are down in strength, try pointing your antenna in the opposite direction and see what you can dig up.  Weak signals in one direction often mean opportunity in another direction.  Overall, be patient.  Be optimistic.  Listen carefully.  Log carefully.  And, most importantly, have fun!  That's what this hobby is all about.

Hobbies Within Hobbies - There are sub-hobbies or interests within the broad category of FM DXing.  Of course, the basic goal is to hear as many far away stations as you can -  the farther away, the better!  At the same time, I find it interesting to sniff out and log low power stations or translators (known as QRP in the ham radio world).  I'm happy, for example, to have little WHSS out of Hamilton, Ohio in my log.  WHSS is 97 miles away, and operates with only 190 watts.  Not a bad QRP catch!

It's also fun to try to find pirate stations.  These are stations not authorized or licensed by the FCC.  While not personally admitting anything, I can say with unquestionable authority that more than a few current-day broadcasters got their first exposure to the industry by building and operating pirate radio stations.  More often that not, pirate stations are operated by high school or college students on a non-profit, non-commercial basis, just for the fun of doing it.  Transmitter power levels are usually modest, often 100 watts or less.  Sometimes, however, there is the occasional "big gun" who manages to produce some real power.  I knew a fellow once in Southern Colorado who had a very professionally equipped 25,000 watt pirate FM station!


Artist's engraving of a Leonids Meteor Shower
in the 1800s - Imagine the DX possibilities!

I recently found myself concentrating on meteor scatter because of the particular challenge it presents, and because there happened to be a meteor shower going on at the time!

I have read how difficult meteor scatter DX is.  Indeed, over thirty years, I've heard many hundreds of meteor bursts on the FM band without ever getting an ID.  Then again, I hadn't really tried.  I was usually tuning around for a station's signal instead of a "dead" spot on the dial where nothing but static could be heard.

After actually trying for meteor scatter, I'm now convinced that it's not as difficult as I previously believed.  During the month of November, 2000, I logged six meteor scatter stations, all with positive, beyond any doubt, IDs.  Perhaps I'm on a lucky streak (and I need to go buy a lottery ticket). It takes some decent equipment and a lot of patience.

During November of 2000, I managed to log the following stations via meteor scatter from Lexington, Kentucky:  KHCD, Salina, Kansas; KLND, Little Eagle, South Dakota; KENW, Portales, New Mexico; KOSU, Stillwater, Oklahoma; KVTT, Dallas, Texas; and KTCO, Duluth, Minnesota.  Most of these were heard during the Leonids meteor shower of 2000.