How the FCC tracks radio signals

Ringway Manchester does a great job of explaining how, since the dawn of broadcasting, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has been tracking radio transmissions by using direction-finding installations in remote, rural areas.

Many employ a unique antenna known as a Wullenweber array that looks sort of like a wireframe Stonehenge. Viewed from above, some of these circular setups could pass for center-pivot irrigation systems.

Shortwave listening in a highrise sucks

Photo of a Sony ICF-SW7600GR shortwave radio on a table. Next to the paperback book size radio are its instruction book, earbud headphones and a map.
My Sony ICF-SW7600GR doesn’t work well in a highrise building mostly made of steel. Photo copyright © L.T.Hanlon

Well, I gave it one last try tonight and shortwave reception in my John Hancock Center apartment is strictly ixnay. I didn’t expect to be able to snag low-power pirate radio stations or clandestine transmissions, but even traditionally easy catches like time-station WWV are no-shows.

When I lived in Jefferson Park on Chicago’s Northwest Side, I could get great reception by  throwing a longwire out my third-floor window into a nearby tree. The nearest thing to that tactic here would be dangling a 20- or 30-foot wire out my 54th-floor window … and I can’t do that.

Ah, well.

If you’re interested in the characteristics of small shortwave portables, check out Thomas Witherspoon’s reviews.

I enjoyed being ‘radio-active’


QSL card from KIPM. I had sent my reception report to a mail drop.


(Originally published June 7, 2009.)

For many years, I was a devoted shortwave radio listener. Even on worknights and schoolnights, I’d be up until the wee hours scanning the high-frequency bands for unusual signals, pirate transmissionsnumbers stationsclandestine broadcasters and other fringe emanations from the ether.

One of my favorite pirate broadcasters was Alan Maxwell’s KIPM, which usually took to the airwaves on holiday weekends. Many pirate broadcasters simply played rock music and subjected listeners to vulgar humor, but KIPM produced professional-quality science-fiction dramas that could last an hour or more.

Like many pirate broadcasters, KIPM responded to listener reception reports. Much to my delight some years back, I received a QSL card from KIPM. Shown above, the card confirms I picked up the station’s signal on Oct. 27, 2002, on 6950 kHz. Maxwell also included some bizarre artwork and an audio CD of the shows.

About this same time, I began listening to the eclectic programs on WBCQ, a shortwave station owned by Allan Weiner that courageously embraces the First Amendment in a way that would make most mainstream broadcasters defecate cinderblocks.

Although WBCQ’s programming has always run the gamut from extreme vanity to extreme politics, I found some shows to be fascinating. Radio Newyork International with John P. Lightning was a favorite of mine. It’s a potpourri of pop culture and politics that’s best described as Howard Stern without the punchbowl — and without the turd.

Another great WBCQ show I enjoyed listening to was “Marion’s Attic,” which featured an elderly lady playing Edison cylinder and old 78 RPM records from the dawn of commercially recorded music.

But not all of WBCQ’s programming smelled so good. Weiner’s commitment to free speech also meant that some genuine weirdos, goofballs and nutjobs gained access to the airwaves. Among those was Hal Turner, who bought time on the station for several years to espouse his anti-Semetic and racist views.

Turner was arrested just the other day amid accusations of threatening public officials. I disagree with nearly all — if not all — of what Turner stands for and says, but this is still America and he has the right to espouse those views. But if Turner did try to incite violence, however, then he does need to answer for that.

An even more interesting fringe broadcaster active around the time Turner graced WBCQ was “Colonel” Steve Anderson, a self-styled militia leader who operated clandestine shortwave station United Patriot Radio from a site in Kentucky.

Anderson broadcast nightly diatribes against the federal government for far longer than most shortwave listeners believed possible. Here in Jefferson Park, his shortwave transmissions came blasting across my radio with such strength you’d have thought the transmitter was just up the street.

See a reception report of mine from April 2001 (scroll down to the USA logs).

The colonel’s rhetoric usually began at a seemingly sane level, but quickly progressed to mouth-frothing talk about New World Order conspiracies and Jews being the spawn of Satan. Interspersed among his Christian Identity pontifications were references to his love of baking homemade bread.

Anderson, a former Kentucky State Militia member who got the boot when he refused to stop his illegal transmissions, definitely knew how to keep his audience riveted.

United Patriot Radio’s hit parade included “You Can Take My Gun From My Cold, Dead Hand,” “Onward Christian Soldiers” and a taped interlude featuring a guy firing a machinegun and yelling, “Janet Reno! Get some! Get some today!”

The broadcasts ended one fateful night in October 2001 when a county mountie pulled the colonel over on a routine traffic stop for having a broken taillight on his truck. One thing led to another and Anderson whipped out an automatic weapon and swiss-cheesed the officer’s patrol car. (Initial newspaper reports noted that Johnny Law had a 15-year-old girl in the squad car with him, but if this fascinating detail was ever explained in subsequent coverage, I missed it.)

Anderson took it on the lam until he was arrested after his mugshot appeared on “America’s Most Wanted.” He’s now doing time.

The interwebs have occupied much of my spare time the past few years and I haven’t monitored the shortwave band for bizarre stuff for a long time. I ought to see what’s up and start listening again. After all, it’s like having kids in the next room: If they’re too quiet, you know they’re up to something.