A toast to the fools standing high on broadcasting’s hill

In Winter, the cap of dark on half the Earth is cocked to the north. So, as the planet spins, places farther north get more night in the winter. In McGrath, Alaska, at close to sixty-three degrees north, most of the day is dark. This would be discouraging to most people, but to Paul B. Walker it’s a blessing. Because Paul is a DXer.

In the radio world, DX stands for for distance, and DXing is listening to distant radio stations. Thanks to that darkness, Paul listens to AM stations of all sizes, from Turkey to Tennessee, Thailand to Norway. And last night, New Zealand. Specifically, NewsTalk ZB‘s main AM signal at 1035 on the AM (what used to be the) dial. According to distancecalculator.net, the signal traveled 11886.34 km, or 7385.83 miles, across the face of the earth. In fact it flew much farther, since the signal needed to bounce up and down off the E layer of the ionosphere and the surface of the ocean multiple times between Wellington and McGrath. While that distance is no big deal on shortwave (which bounces off a higher layer) and no deal at all on the Internet (where we are all zero distance apart), for a DXer that’s like hauling in a fish the size of a boat.

In this sense alone, Paul and I are kindred souls. As a boy and a young man, I was a devout DXer too. I logged thousands of AM and FM stations, from my homes in New Jersey and North Carolina. (Here is a collection of QSL cards I got from stations to which I reported reception, in 1963, when I was a sophomore in high school.) More importantly, learning about all these distant stations sparked my interest in geography, electronics, geology, weather, astronomy, history and other adjacent fields. By the time I was a teen, I could draw all the states of the country, freehand, and name their capitals too. And that was on top of knowing on sight the likely purpose of every broadcast tower and antenna I saw. For example, I can tell you (and do in the mouse-over call-outs you’ll see if you click on the photo) what FM and TV station transmits from every antenna in this picture (of Mt. Wilson, above Los Angeles):

As a photographer, I’ve shot thousands of pictures of towers and antennas. (See here.) In fact, that’s how I met Paul, who created and runs a private Facebook group called (no kidding) “I Take Pictures of Transmitter Sites.” This is not a small group. It has 14,100 members, and is one of the most active and engaging groups I have ever joined.

One reason it’s so active is that many of the members (and perhaps most of them) are, or were, engineers at radio and TV stations, and their knowledge of many topics, individually and collectively, is massive.

There is so much you need to know about the world if you’re a broadcast engineer.

On AM you have to know about ground conductivity, directional arrays (required so stations don’t interfere with each other), skywave signals such as the ones Paul catches and the effects of tower length on the sizes and shapes of the signals they radiate.

On FM you need to know the relative and combined advantages of antenna height and power, how different numbers of stacked antennas concentrate signal strength toward and below the horizon, the shadowing effects of buildings and terrain, and how the capacitive properties of the earth’s troposphere can sometimes bend signals so they go much farther than they would normally.

On TV you used to care about roughly the same issues as FM (which, in North America is sandwiched between the two original TV bands). Now you need to know a raft of stuff about how digital transmission works as well.

And that’s just a small sampling of what needs to be known in all three forms of broadcasting. And the largest body of knowledge in all three domains is what actually happens to signals in the physical world—which differs enormously from place to place, and region to region.

All of this gives the engineer a profound sense of what comprises the physical world, and how it helps, limits, and otherwise interacts with the electronic one. Everyone in the business is like the fool on the Beatles’ hill, seeing the sun going down and the world spinning round. And, while it’s not a dying profession, it’s a shrinking one occupied by especially stalwart souls. And my hat’s off to them.

By the way, you can actually hear Paul Walker for yourself, in two places. One is as a guest on this Reality 2.0 podcast, which I did in January. The other is live on KSKO/89.5 in McGrath, where he’s the program director. You don’t need to be a DXer to enjoy either one.