2020 weeknote 3 – radio, field recording, and running

I feel like if I try and write these things quickly I might – just might – end up at weeknotes zero (as in, up to date, not going back in time). So, here she is: week three of 2020.

I noticed recently that my listening habits have tipped the balance from being mainly podcasts and some radio to mainly radio and some podcasts. This happens from time to time. I go through phases where I care more about what middle-class white guys have to say about the world of consumer technology, to caring more about music, current affairs and experimental radio and sound art. Thus, lately my ears have been mostly full of the latter.

An average day might look like this (thank me later, RAJAR):

Centreforce is not my usual cup of tea in terms of music. BUT it has the energy and pep of a breakfast show that I can’t help but enjoy at that time of the morning. But what really seals the deal for me are the shout outs. The radio nerd in me wants to call them QSL reports as listeners-in from Kent and Luton and Kilburn and south London chime in, with the deejay reading out the reports a few at a time every few minutes.

Out to Danny! Out to easy Dee, how are you fella? Out to Sam. Out to the 198.* Out to Bob the chippy – large cod and chips for me please mate – ah just kidding, not that kind of chippy are ya?! Out to Razzer. Biggin’ up Sara in Dagenham. Outs to the Cheshunt crew – oi, bring us a bacon butty yeah?

And so on. With deft use of the faders between each announcement for a brief burst of music.

* I believe this is a reference to the last digits of a phone number when used to identify an otherwise unnamed correspondent, rather than, say, Centreforce masquerading as a numbers station.

And it’s brilliant. It makes you feel like you’re on this big map of London and the home counties, where Centreforce, which started life as a pirate station, now broadcasts legitimately on DAB in glorious* 32kbps DAB+.

* listenable, but entirely not glorious. The state of Britain’s approach to DAB broadcasts is a bit of a shitshow, with the majority of stations still being in old-school DAB, and those that are in DAB+ having to squeeze as much juice as possible out of the fact that the more efficient codec allows for lower bitrates. As an example, Belgium broadcasts all its stations via DAB+ almost entirely at 96kbps, whereas most experimental British DAB+ streams seem to top out at 64kbps. ANYWAY.

Sure, the shout outs might be inflated or manipulated somehow but…. I bet they’re not. It just gives a lovely warm interactive edge to listening in, particularly on a breakfast show, as we are all variously on our way to work, on our way home, getting the kids off to school, or rejoicing in the sweet kiss of a day off.

The ‘OS’ show on BBC World Service is a funny one. It’s broadcast live from the middle of the newsroom at Broadcasting House, and sounds like it too. It’s one of the least good-sounding radio shows I listen to at the moment as there is a lot of background noise, and frequent delays when patching in correspondents from around the globe.

But, as with all good radio, this doesn’t get in the way of the content itself being great. It’s a refreshing take on the day’s news – and as with most BBC World Service shows versus BBC Radio 4, it knows it has a global audience, so you get the impression you’re hearing the news that actually matters on a global level rather than a bias towards events nearer to home.

Whilst I’m on the subject of radio, I saw this great visualisation of American FM stations from Erin Davis (via Robin Sloan) recently, which I loved:

Unnnf. Love it. Click through for how/why, and some other visualisations of similar data.

We also went to see Rose Matafeo performing her Horndog show at the Ambassadors Theatre which was great. She’s so funny and full of energy. I hadn’t actually seen her do full stand-up before, but she is great on Taskmaster and other things we’ve seen her in. Her show was great. The one we went to was a sort of technical rehearsal for a filming the next day, so it’ll be available somehow, soon.

It also meant that through a stroke of extreme luck, I managed to book seats dead centre of the middle of a row in stalls, right behind a space where some seats had been removed to place a camera for the filming the next day.

If only all London theatres had this kind of legroom.

On Saturday I went to a Field Recording workshop in Bethnal Green which was run by the label nonclassical and hosted by sound artist Kate Carr, whose Field Recording Show has recently just finished a run on Resonance FM and which I absolutely loved.


It was a really great session – inclusive, interesting and a great opportunity to understand different takes on the same medium, and to try out new techniques and equipment in an encouraging and helpful environment.

For me, it was cool to try out a pick-up coil mic to record electronic noises which are not normally audible, and it was great to be encouraged to explore the immediate vicinity – a busy high street and a London park – looking for interesting sounds to do… something…with. (More on that in another post to follow.)

It was also an opportunity for me to chat with other like-minded people and find out about their motivations and projects. I struggled a bit with that aspect, but only through my own anxieties and weirdnesses. It was, as I say, a really inclusive, lovely crowd.

They’re running more workshops and I’d highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in field recording, regardless of background or prior knowledge.

And on Sunday we started the day off seeing Princess Mononoke at the Kiln – which was more batshit than I’d remembered, but no less beautiful.

I then decided to go for a longish run. Longish actually turned into 22km or so, which was perhaps a bit overlong given my lack of preparation. But the weather was lovely, I had good snacks and music (Gerling’s In the City came on at a really well-timed moment), and I met some fun animals.


The BBC World Service Antarctic Midwinter Broadcast

Phew. Just a couple of hours after walking home from work on what I think must’ve been the warmest day of the year, I was settling down to listen to a most unusual radio programme.

Just as it was mid-summer’s day here yesterday, in Antarctica (and elsewhere southern) it was midwinter.

Stranded for months in nocturnal eternity, the staff of the British Antarctic Survey get a rather special gift from the BBC. On this day, the scientists, engineers and other support staff traditionally give each other gifts, have a big meal, and get rather merry.

But they also tune in to a special BBC World Service broadcast directly pointing at them. And I mean literally: the Beeb utilises three shortwave transmitter sites around the world, points them south, and broadcasts a special one-off half hour programme directly to Antarctica in the hope that the bases will pick it up.

Shortwave audiences may be shrinking as time and technology move on, but this show deliberately only has a target audience of 50 or so. I’m not sure how long it’s been going on, but it seems to be something of a tradition.

The show features a bit of music, some messages of support from the great, the good and the weird, and primarily plays messages from family and loved ones of the intended audience. I imagine it provokes scenes of joy, tears, merriment and embarrassment to all listening in. The show was presented this year by Cerys Matthews of 6 Music.

As a shortwave listener, this kind of special broadcast is especially interesting. Because although the target audience is the bottom of the globe, the nature of the broadcast meant that other listeners could attempt to pick up the signal as it made its way south.

I was very pleased to get good reception from two of the transmitter sites: Woofferton in England, and Ascension Island, a dot in the South Atlantic. Signals from Dhabbaya in Abu Dhabi eluded me.

I usually get good reception from all three sites, and even though in theory they were all directing their signal south, I was still able to pick up Ascension almost as strong as I was Woofferton.

Shortwave radio has fascinated me for 15 years or more, and it continues to. For every ten relays of China Radio International you have to wade through, there’s always an oddity popping up. And the variations in the atmospheric conditions mean that every listening session is different somehow.

But even more so, special events like the BBC’s Antarctic Midwinter Broadcast can’t fail to intrigue me and I was so pleased to be able to ‘take part’ this time.

My trusty Tecsun PL-380 continues to do sterling work with the aid of the bundled long wire antenna draped out of the window across the balcony. I’m pleased to get pretty decent reception in my ground floor flat in NW London, despite masses of sources of interference, lack in height, and being surrounded by buildings.

The reception quality of the Midwinter Broadcast was less good than I’m used to, but this is to be expected as the signals were directed in a particular way and it was just nice to pick them up on their way.

I made some very sloppy recordings of the broadcast for the SWLing Post blog, and they’re online here. The show itself can be heard in much higher fidelity online here.