Thursday, October 23, 2008

Media: The Death of DX'ing

TORONTO, ONTARIO - It was October 21st, after all. On Tuesday, it actually snowed in Toronto. It didn't stick. Frankly, I was rather glad that there were flakes falling onto my jacket instead of cold rain; I've always said I prefer zero degrees and snowing to five degrees and raining. But, it was an unwelcome reminder that fall in Ontario is almost over, and the time to go into winter mode is not far away.

The signs were all there. I hadn't run the air conditioner in my apartment since my trip to Minnesota in mid-September, though I considered it a few nights in late September. I stopped storing chocolate in the refrigerator a couple weeks ago, confident that it would not melt in the cabinet. I haven't felt compelled to purchase green bananas for a month now, ending my summer worries that they would become inedible before I would get a chance to eat them. After walking through the light snowfall, I finally decided to turn on the heat in my apartment. I had been hoping not to do that until November. I had taken my last picture of the year of Canadian Pacific's evening "Obico B" local train on September 2nd--it now leaves the yard in the dark.

When I was a child, I actually looked forward to the winter, especially the shortening days. The lack of sunlight meant that AM radio stations from faraway places would be available to listen to at additional hours. Listening to distant AM stations, a specific form of the practice of DX'ing, or listening to distant radio stations, was once a significant hobby in the United States.

I had really never done any DX'ing until the summer of 1989, when I was spending time with my grandparents in eastern Washington state and wanted to listen to Charles Osgood's commentaries in the morning. While Osgood was not on a local station in the Tri-Cities at the time, he was on KREW 1210 AM out of Sunnyside, which came in just fine there--no DX'ing required. One morning, I was adjusting my analog radio to find 1210 AM and listen to Osgood when I heard his voice and stopped. However, after the commentary was over, I soon discovered that I had stopped on KSL 1160 AM out of Salt Lake City, not KREW!

After my parents bought me a new, digital radio for Christmas in 1989, I started doing a lot of DX'ing. From Seattle, I found that I could tune in KXL 750 AM out of Portland (which would soon convert from a NBC to CBS affiliate, a process I enjoyed listening to), KNBR "The Giant 68" out of San Francisco, and even KNX 1070 AM out of Los Angeles. While traveling, I would look forward to being away from Seattle's local stations so that I could pick up KOA 850 AM out of Denver, KFI 640 AM out of Los Angeles, or KDWN 720 AM out of Las Vegas.

I'll never forget the day--20 December 1990--when I managed in the Seattle area to hear Dan Rather Reporting, a three-minute commentary, as it aired at 3:35 in the afternoon on KCBS 740 AM out of San Francisco. KCBS--as the premier newsradio station on the west coast, as it still remains today--was often my favorite station to pick up. 740 AM was actually pre-set #10 (the last one, easy to find) on the radio that I used throughout high school. Ironically considering my current tastes, I was most disappointed when I heard CBX, the CBC Radio One station in Edmonton, Alberta, instead of KCBS on that frequency--that probably only happened twice, and now I wish I had recorded it.

It is not exaggerating to state that my time in Seattle spent listening to San Francisco stations KCBS and KGO 810 AM--the premier newstalk station on the west coast, to this day--were a major factor in my deciding to attend Stanford University. My level of comfort about living in the Bay Area was significantly higher because I already knew what made the news there and what kind of people called talk shows there.

DX'ing wasn't just a way to listen to the rest of the world when I became bored with Seattle radio. While traveling, it was also a way to get in touch with Seattle. I remember one night scanning the dial in Las Vegas, Nevada and having the seek function on the radio stop on 1000 AM as if it were a local station. I didn't believe it until I heard news at the top of the hour--it was KOMO AM 1000 out of Seattle, booming in like a local station. Indeed, tuning in KOMO for local Seattle news would be a regular nighttime activity for me while in college in California. While in Europe in the summer of 1998, DX'ing the US Armed Forces network on 873 AM out of Frankfurt was a way to keep in touch with the United States.

Listening to distant stations could even add to the effect of a radio program. The first time I ever heard the War of the Worlds, I was listening in Seattle to KNX 1070 AM out of Los Angeles, which used to run a drama hour every day at 9 pm. On 31 October 1990, they chose to re-run the 1938 version of the War of the Worlds. The fading in and out of the station a thousand miles away just made the experience seem more like the original broadcast would have been.

My practice of DX'ing started to fade after I moved to Boston in 1997. After first moving there, I was delighted to scan the radio dial and find out what was there, with WCBS 880 AM out of New York and WGY 810 AM out of Albany becoming a part of my radio listening routines as a result of finding them while DX'ing. Probably my favorite DX'ing experience was waking up to WBBM 780 AM out of Chicago during the winter. However, the Internet was starting to take over my non-local audio listening. The CBC Radio One stream out of Toronto suddenly became a popular choice for me on the weekends. I stayed in touch with Seattle and San Francisco through the KGO and KIRO web streams.

Today, DX'ing just isn't as interesting as it used to be. A wide variety of radio stations are readily available on the Internet, including streams of KCBS and various CBC affiliates. I've never sat down at night and scanned the AM dial here in Toronto, just to find out what was there. It took me almost two years to discover that WNED 970 AM out of Buffalo, a public radio affiliate, can be heard in Toronto. Podcasts have ended the practice of just missing programs--now one can listen later, reducing the time to explore.

So, the shortening day no longer excites me like it did when I was a kid. I'm not dreaming of what radio stations I'll be able to listen to on the winter solstice in December, the shortest day of the year. Instead, I'm looking at a backlog of podcasts in iTunes and wondering if things weren't better the way things used to be.

1 comment:

W6MPB said...

Reminded my of my nights as a kid, in bed listening to my crystal radio and excited about any non Los Angeles station I could pick up. In subsequent ears it was the amazing Fairbanks-Morse 8AT8 that was given to me by my neighbors when they upgraded to 'Hi-Fi' - the radio which eventually led me to my Ham Radio license, and eventual Commercial license.