DX-ing #atozchallenge

One year for Christmas I got a Zenith Royal 790 Super Navigator radio that had three bands on it, longwave, medium wave (the standard AM band), and shortwave. It was a great radio, although I was never able to get anything on shortwave (then again, I probably should have tried staying up late) and most of what I got on longwave were Morse code transmissions.

One summer night, I decided to try expanding my horizons beyond WLS, WCFL, and WMAQ (the station where White Sox and Loyola basketball games were broadcast) and started slowly advancing the tuning knob until I found something. As you can probably imagine, most of the “new” stations I found were Chicago-area stations, but out of nowhere, I found a baseball game: the Cincinnati Reds were playing the Houston Astros at the Astrodome. As the announcers talked a lot about the Reds, I figured out that this was a Cincinnati station, and it was: WLW at 700 kHz.

That was my introduction to broadcast DX-ing, the hobby of listening to radio broadcasts from cities other than your own, at a distance (which is what DX stands for, distance). The atmosphere helps a lot with it, especially during the summer: AM radio waves “skip” off the ionosphere and come down miles away, where they can be picked up by a standard radio. Depending on the strength of the station’s signal and the weather conditions, they might be heard hundreds of miles away. It’s not unheard of that a listener in California is able to pick up a broadcast from a station east of the Rocky Mountains.

The easy stations to try and hear are the clear-channel stations, North American stations that broadcast a signal of 50,000 watts. They’re called Class A stations and are protected as much as possible from interference from other stations that broadcast at those frequencies. So, a station at 890 kHz will either drop its power to 1000 watts or use a directional antenna to avoid interfering with WLS in Chicago, which is a Class A station with 50,000 watts of power. There’s a whole list of the Class A stations in the US, Canada and Mexico here.

I wasn’t a fanatic about broadcast DX-ing, but there are some people who go out of their way to try and hear as many stations as they can. When they find a station, they’ll send a letter to the station to tell them they heard their broadcast, along with what time they heard it and what they were playing or talking about then so the station can confirm that the person had actually received the broadcast, and then send the listener a QSL card, a confirmation that they had really heard them.

A QSL card from Jerry Dee at KXEL radio in Waterloo, Iowa (source: Wikipedia, public domain)

The most common forms of DX-ing are broadcast DX-ing on the AM dial or shortwave DX-ing, because AM radio waves used by short-, medium and long-wave stations propagate the best, but there are some hardy souls that attempt to pick up FM radio broadcasts or TV broadcasts (though I’m not sure how the move to digital TV affects that) from cities a couple of hundred miles away.


Incidentally, DX was also the name of a chain of gasoline stations, mostly in the Midwest, that was owned by Sun Oil Company (better known as Sunoco). Their gasoline contained boron (remember that?), which evidently helps car engines run better. Since I’m a sucker for old TV commercials, here are several of them for DX service stations.

This last one features the veteran character actor Jesse White, who was known for years as the Maytag repairman. He pops up a lot on vintage TV shows.

41 thoughts on “DX-ing #atozchallenge

  1. I didn’t know the name of this but my mom had a great German radio that had short wave in it and my brother and I once used it and we picked up something from South America but I can’t remember from where. We were shocked so we kept searching and picked up German and then we picked up what could have been Chinese or Japanese…we were kids so we had no clue which language that was. I remember this fond memory because my brother and I were doing something together when normally he didn’t want his kid sister around at all.

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    1. My guess is that it was a Grundig (if it had a shamrock on its nameplate, that was it). They seem to have gone out of the radio business. Their website talks about radios only as a historical item, and it looks like they’ve gone pretty heavily into the home appliance business. A shame, because they were fantastic radios.

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  2. We had a huge short wave radio and remember hearing stations broadcast in unfamiliar languages. Never heard the term DX before. My dad was a ‘pain in the butt’ CB radio guy. I can remember many nights when we drove to the top of the mountain so dad could ‘work skip’ and talk to people from all over. I always had the underlying feeling this was somehow a clandestine undertaking that the FCC frowned upon.

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    1. Nothing illegal about it, unless they were conducting illegal business. “Skip” refers to radio waves bouncing off the ionosphere, which is how you can hear stations from hundreds (thousands, even) of miles away. Same principle as shortwave or AM radio waves.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. When I was in the army stationed in Louisiana we used to sit outside at night and pick up Harry Carey and the St. Louis Cardinals. We were in kind of a remote area of Louisiana and couldn’t get much on AM radio, but we sure could get Harry loud and clear at night!

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  4. I don’t know about radio but we used to be able to get the Chicago Cubs on TV until the cable company decided that more Hispanic or Chinese stations were necessary and dropped WGN 😦 DX also stands for diagnosis in medical terms, just an FY!.

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    1. WGN became as much of a superstation as WTBS here, and much earlier. There was cable TV as far back as the ’60’s, a lot of it for the farmers in Illinois (maybe even the surrounding states), so WGN had lots of viewers all over. When we had cable, we watched it fairly regularly, because it was showing what was on the air in Chicago. Then they changed it with WGN America…

      Cable systems drop and add stations almost at will. Satellite, too, sometimes even network stations. We’re always seeing ads that some station or stations will be dropped from DirecTV. I’m glad we cut the cord…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. We loved watching the Cubs station for Harry Carey of course and they played the Pirates a lot, which is my hubby’s favorite team. Ah, the good old days!

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  5. John,

    I didn’t listen to much radio growing up unless we were in the car which I had little control of because my parents put it on a station they liked. At home, we lived in a valley surrounded by the hills of WV, so reception was horrible. However, DH could pick up lots on top of the mountain on his folks’ old radio. I forget what kind it is but it seems he picked up some really far away places, maybe in other countries. I will have to ask him about that now. He could even pick up WLS in southern WV. I had never heard of that station until he mentioned it to me in our dating years and I never heard a broadcast. I think you and he could talk a lot about DXing and other technical stuff like this or at least I get a good feeling that y’all could. Thanks for sharing your childhood fascination with radios and for your earlier visit to check out my Little Mermaid cartoon character, Dudley art sketch contribution! Happy a2zing!

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      1. John, the only station I recall getting came out Welch, WV. It’s only 22 miles from where I grew up but going across two lane mountain roads took about 45 mins to an hour to drive. That station sounded better at night it seems. I guess reception was better. I might have this all wrong but that my memories tell me. 😊

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  6. John, I may not have signed up correctly because it seems no one is stopping by, but then again maybe my subject is boring or I didn’t phrase well. I thought I’d pick 1 Musical & 3 tunes of just about the same era or the same. 😦 Oh well, guess I better get out and hustle as they say. So… first of all, what the heck is DX Gasoline??? I never… I swear I never heard of this gasoline. Dang, not once did I ever hear about it on our TV and believe me our TV or radio was going all the time. hahahaha Well, ya got me my friend!!! Have a great day and I’ll see ya tomorrow! hugs

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    1. I don’t think there were many DX gas stations in the Chicago area, but I do remember the commercials: “DX Super Boron! Drive a car that’s alive!” I do remember we had a few Sunoco stations, but they started disappearing in the late ’60’s. There used to be all kinds of service stations in Chicago besides Standard (now BP) and Shell. I made a list once when I was about 12, and my aunt thought I was crazy…

      Getting better traffic?

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    1. SSB is more associated with shortwave. A broadcast on a shortwave frequency has two sidebands either side of the frequency, and what SSB does is select one or the other. Hams in particular broadcast using SSB because it’s a little more efficient, but you’ll find some broadcasters (particularly clandestines) that use it as well. Radios that can receive SSB signals have a circuit that can choose either the upper or lower sideband. It can be useful if you’re having trouble receiving a station to put the radio in SSB mode, because sometimes you can pull in the signal a little better.

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    1. You’re in South Africa, correct? AM radio signals don’t usually make it across the Atlantic, but I can see where you’d be able to pick up an AM station from Israel. Even so, that’s quite a pickup…

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  7. I love hearing about radio stuff! I know I’ve mentioned it before that my dad built from scratch his own shortwave radio. I’ve listened to all kinds of far off stations on my shortwave…maybe Australia is the farthest away. 🙂

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  8. I lived in Southern Illinois as a kid and in high school, I would sit in my room and SLOWLY turn the dial on the AM band until I found something. I would listen long enough to learn what city it was coming from. I too picked up Cincinnati now and then. I had no idea this was a hobby of people. I just found it fascinating.

    I am at Transformed Nonconformist. I usually write humor pieces, but I am getting serious this month. I’m writing about people who have deeply impacted my life.

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    1. I would guess you had very little trouble picking up St. Louis and Memphis from there, especially a station like KMOX which broadcasts at 50,000 watts 24 hours a day. More people do it than you can imagine. It’s fun to do and see how far you can reach.

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  9. THat’s fascinating. I had no idea DXing was a thing – let alone that there are people who actively DX for cards as a hobby. You’re picking some great “X” words, John.

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  10. I remember getting stations from other cities on my transistor radio, Most were in Spanish, which I lived in Florida at the time. And at that time, there were not a lot of local Spanish stations like there are today. Love the old commercials! The cars were so cool back then.

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    1. You think you might have been getting some stations from the Caribbean? It wouldn’t be all that hard from Florida, I would think.

      Those were the days of the big iron performance cars. We had a 1966 Galaxie 500 that I swear got better mileage than any of the cars these days. Before that we had a ’59 Biscayne with a “three on the tree” manual transmission. Those were some great cars…

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