95bFM

After listening to 95bFM for the first time in a while, albeit as an on-demand podcast of the top ten, this morning I am listening live – to the end of the top ten show, and now to Freak the Sheep (the NZ music show). Haven’t listened live to 95bFM in so long.

95bFM is an Auckland-based student radio station, one of a nationwide network. They play great music, from ambient chillout and hip-hop to rock and metal. I’ve been listening to bFM for the best part of two decades* (their website and online streaming has always been quite ahead of global trends for radio stations, particularly of their size).

* The first mention in my diary of bFM is from November 2004, by which time I apparently felt cosy enough with listening online to text the overnight DJ and request a song, which they kindly played for me.

It also has that ‘I keep getting older, they stay the same age’ vibe that all good student radio stations can have – bFM seems simultaneously not to have changed in the time I’ve been listening to it, and yet they still seem fresh and cool, and they engage in fresh talent in their DJs and the songs they play, as well as not forgetting to look back.

Like all good radio, listening live to a station like this is where it’s at: brief mentions of local news and affairs, plus ads for local events and businesses, it all makes it feel very local and takes you right there.

An ad for a camera rental firm in Newmarket, sent me straight to Google Maps trying to see where it fits into my very patchy mental map of Parnell and Newmarket, where I was based for a few months in late 2008. This was initially very confusing, but it was quite a nice sensation feeling the bits slip into place as my brain wrapped itself around the physical map/streetview.

I’m also struck by something I know I’ve felt before, but perhaps never written down, which is that I tend to find myself gravitating towards checking out 95bFM as the seasons change – rarely in deep winter or the height of summer (though I’ve always enjoyed the mental juxtaposition of hearing about surf conditions out at Piha in mid-December or ski conditions at Cardrona while I’m experiencing a heat wave).

Rather, it’s more when there’s a noticeable change in the weather and my mind seems to wander to the other side of the world where a similar change is happening, albeit in reverse. Can’t put my finger on the cause of this, but it’s something that I’ve always been half aware of.


On a related note, I’ve often likened music from the early 1980s by Dunedin and Christchurch bands – early Flying Nun releases, the so-called Dunedin Sound – with what I imagine were drafty, damp student digs in the winter term.

Inevitably there’s a lot of poetic licence and leaps of imagination in this: the truth is probably far less ‘neat’, but I do find myself conjuring images of a frosty morning in Christchurch, or emerging from a foggy, cold street into a pub in Dunedin when I listen to the Chills (hah!), the Clean or the Verlaines. Woolly jumpers and smoking a fag in the cold night air, or trying to get the car started first thing in the morning with steamy breath visible.

I got the Roger Shepherd book about Flying Nun Records for Christmas a couple of years ago and haven’t read it yet. Haven’t found myself in the right mood to really dig in. Want to give it my full attention and wallow in a book that, a few years ago, I’d have lapped up. Perhaps that’s part of it: I listen to 1980s NZ music far less nowadays than I used to. But it’s still in my bones.

And so I want to crank that up a little bit more, get it more into the foreground, and get into the right headspace to read the book, my mind all the more receptive to every morsel and anecdote. And as the nights draw in (we haven’t done the clocks yet, but with gloomier weather, the evenings do feel that bit darker suddenly), perhaps it’s becoming a good time to get back into that mood.


Back to the original thread, and that’s one other thing I love about occasionally dipping into 95bFM (and the other bnet stations): I can hear brand new and even unreleased demos by up and coming NZ bands played alongside the kind of stuff I hear daily on BBC 6 Music, and then occasional plays of proper NZ alternative classics – legendary tracks by some of the bands I mentioned earlier – just dropped into the playlist because they’re part of the fabric of NZ radio and popular culture (or at least alternative pop culture, perhaps not quite the mainstream). Hearing a track by someone like the Chills on 6 Music is almost unheard of – almost, because every few years they seem to play some of their Peel Session recordings at an obscure hour. But that’s pretty much it.


Oh – one more thing while I’m at it: a thing I want someone to invent, which feels like it should exist, but I haven’t even Googled yet to see if it does:

I want to have a database of loads of global radio stations (ideally with good streaming), and an input form where I drop in a few bands I’m digging lately. The database holds all these stations’ playlists. It then returns stations which have played those bands I love recently. Some sort of background algorithm so that it doesn’t just find a station that played one Deftones track yesterday, but nothing else for months, but actually ‘weights’ the results by stations that more consistently play tracks by artists I’m into.

Better yet: let me plug my last.fm or Spotify library into the database: scrape my favourite artists and show me which radio station – anywhere in the world – aligns most closely to my taste in music.

This feels like it could exist, but would necessarily depend on radio stations accurately logging their playlists in a common format. Which seems… unlikely. Unless there was an over-arching authority like PRS that did a better job of this. But still. Seems as unlikely as it does a cool concept. I can dream.

 

FM radio bandscan results – including London pirates

This post began life as a breakdown of an FM bandscan and dissolved into thoughts on RDS decoding and possible Raspberry Pi projects. I just wanted to jot down some semi-related thoughts.

Last weekend I popped up to Hampstead Heath to get onto high ground where I played with radios for a bit. One of those radios was my Moto G7 Power, using the built in FM Radio app, which is entirely decent (and I’ve written about using Moto G phones as FM radios before).

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When performing an auto scan of available stations, the app spits out a nice list of those stations, some with IDs. Unfortunately there’s no default way to convert this to text, but I found an OCR text grabber which did 95% of the work, and then I just monkeyed with a spreadsheet to sort out any oddities, and this is what I ended up with following an FM bandscan on 21/03/2020 at 1425 UTC:

MHz  RDS Station ID
87.8 | The Rock
88.0 | PULSE UK
88.2 |
88.6 |
88.8 | BBC R2
89.1 | BBC R2
89.6 |
90.2 |
90.6 | ANADOLU
90.8 |
91.0 | BBC R3
91.3 | BBC R3
91.5 | MEGA
91.8 |
92.0 |
92.5 |
92.8 |
93.0 |
93.2 | BBC R4
93.5 | BBC R4
93.8 |
94.9 | BBCLondn
95.5 |
95.8 | Capital
96.1 |
96.5 | [Maritime Radio] – no RDS data decoded
96.7 |
96.9 | Cap XTRA
97.1 |
97.3 | LBC
97.7 |
97.9 |
98.5 | Radio 1
98.8 | Radio 1
99.0 |
99.3 | SELECT
99.5 |
99.8 |
100.0 | KISS
100.6 | Classic
100.9 | Classic
101.2 |
101.4 |
101.8 | BiZiM FM
102.0 |
102.2 | Smooth
102.4 | LONDON’S
102.8 | RDYOUMUT
103.1 |
103.6 |
104.2 | -KRAL-
104.4 | Reel 104.4
104.9 | Radio X
105.4 | Magic
105.6 | PLAYBACK
105.8 | Absolute
106.2 | Heart
106.5 | PROJECT
106.8 | RINSE FM
107.3 | REPREZNT
107.8 | -JACKIE-

Where a station ID was decoded via RDS, it is listed. Where I’ve made it bold and italic, it is believed to be a pirate station. The rest are legit local/national FM broadcasts.

Where there’s no station ID listed, it’s simply because the FM radio app didn’t pick one up in time – some of those blank stations may a) be legit and b) indeed have an RDS stream, it just didn’t get logged in time. Either way, it could be pirate or legit.

A couple of them are stations that I knew had RDS data, and what’s nice about the Motorola FM Radio app is that if you tune to that station and it didn’t already have data, it adds it where possible, and this gets added to the overall list as above. This means that after a full scan, if there are gaps in the data, one can simply tune to the first station with a blank name, and let it play for a few seconds until RDS data comes down – if it has any. – and then use the skip button to move to the next logged station.

It only takes a few seconds for RDS data to appear, or for it to become clear that none is being broadcast. Weak signals inevitably mean the RDS data is corrupted, possibly beyond legibility.

Oona Räisänen could probably explain in quite simple terms exactly how RDS data is decoded and why some stations seem to display RDS data quicker than others. In fact, it’s Oona’s RDS projects that make me think that if I really set my mind to it, I’m probably like 90% of the way to creating a pocket-size, Raspberry Pi Zero-based RDS decoder.

What I think I want is a little device that I can pull out, attach to an antenna, run a quick 1-2 minute bandscan, and in that time, the Pi scans the whole FM band, logging as much RDS data as it can grab, plotting it neatly on a little spreadsheet, which I can then inspect later on.

Better yet might be adding a simple 2-line display (much like a portable radio) where I can see each station being scanned. There are other possible modifications that could be made that would effectively turn it into a usable radio, but I’m thinking more along the lines of a simple logging device.

On the other hand, it might make more sense to do some sort of spectrum grab using SDR where the whole FM band is captured for a few minutes, for later analysis in software. This whole concept blows my tiny mind – and, really, seems less fun than doing actual listening to live broadcasts – though I can absolutely see the appeal and the benefits for logging weak/rare stations when DXing.

2020 weeknote 12 – the week that everything changed

Well this was the week that things really changed, for me and those around me. It’s been interesting keeping abreast of how the spread of the virus and the reactions by different countries has rolled onward, in waves. Interesting and kind of horrifying, when you spend more than half a minute considering what it all means.

It has, in many ways, been good that the upheaval has kept us all so busy. Heaven forbid what will happen when we are all set up with our new routines and we stop for a second to get bogged down in the sheer existential woe of it all – and that’s before even considering the actual health crisis worsening any further, which each day it threatens to on a hitherto-unseen scale.

We have found ourselves unexpectedly buoyed by taping occasional news updates from Chinese state broadcasters in which they describe the recovery process. Life, while not returning to normal, per se, is returning to something approaching it. Or at least a healthy, post-virus world.

At work I have been extremely busy helping as far as I can to get the office set up for home working. A few months ago, working from home on the scale that we soon will be would have been completely unthinkable. But, as with so much of this escalating crisis, unthinkable things are now having to be thunk, and it’s funny what you can achieve when you have to.

In fact, the extent to which we’ve established a working-from-home policy means that it’s only really a few little issues and niggles we’ve found, rather than any flat-out business critical failure points.

We’re lucky in that a lot of what we do isn’t business critical. And where it is, the timelines and deadlines are those we set for ourselves and we are fortunate enough not to be beholden to many authorities or external/market forces. We have a job to do, and we do it however we can. This will not change, but the methods and timescales may.

Meanwhile, anything that isn’t related to work, or keeping ourselves constantly updated on news has, by necessity, been for the purposes of distraction, amusement or entertainment. The rest of this week’s note is simply some of that stuff that has kept me from losing my mind the past few days.


We had the first day of spring, and the weather this week has been cool but increasingly wonderful and bright. There is blossom everywhere, and the spring weather looks set to continue. This does mean that people who ought to be self-isolating are popping out more than they might if it had been tipping down all week, and I am concerned about that. But at the same time, the sight of spring springing is a huge boost.

As well as a brief trip to a nearby park (where I saw the woodpecker above), I also popped to Hampstead Heath on Saturday to get some fresh air. Unfortunately, so did a lot of other people, and I really should have known better. I was able to keep my distance from most people, and I found myself a secluded perch where I spent a happy hour or so playing with radios, and eating cold pizza.

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On FM, my elevated position near one of London’s highest points meant stations came booming in loud and clear, and I found a good number of pirate stations giving shout-outs to the shut-ins.

I found that the signal on my little POP Nano radio was decent, but both my Tecsun PL-380 and my Motorola G7 Power logged 58 stations each on the FM band, with the Moto serving doubly useful as not only does it have an RDS decoder built-in, but it also neatly displays all logged stations in one big list, acting as a very useful results page for active stations complete with station IDs, where available.

I’ve written before about the pretty excellent FM radio software on an older Moto G device, and it’s just as good on my current G7 Power. It serves as an effective stopgap between idly tuning around with a normal radio and setting up some sort of portable SDR that will automatically log station IDs in a neat spreadsheet for me.

(A rainy day project I daydream of is a Raspberry Pi Zero-powered unit that I can just switch on, run an autoscan, and log all active stations in a spreadsheet. Might have a little screen and possibly audio out.)

The subsequent list generated by the Moto is displayed as you can see to the right: it’s a neat list of station IDs and frequencies and I only wish I could quickly and easily export this data into a spreadsheet. I suspect there’s an OCR capture that could do a half decent job. But even in its present form, the FM radio software gives me a decent overview of what’s around in a given session.

One surprise, beyond the ever-present London pirates, was decent reception of a station apparently broadcasting to Greenwich on 96.5fm. A later dig around uncovered this as Maritime Radio, with the always-helpful mb21 giving more information about where this station broadcasts from. Not a bad catch at a distance of approximately 20km.

It’s hard to tell where the pirate stations themselves broadcast from – obviously – so it’s never easy to known whether you’re getting fabulous reception across a vast distance, or merely being blasted from the nearest rooftop. I suspect it’s usually the latter, though there is usually a good range of signals when tuning in from a high point in north west London, with some sounding stronger and others weaker.

The variability in the tech used by each pirate could give rise to this, of course, but it all makes it feel as though you’re picking up signals from all over London.

On DAB, my position near London’s highest point meant great reception of a huge range of stations. The POP Nano picked up 148 stations without issue, and I noted down that I was getting reception of the following multiplexes on top of those I’d expect to get in London: Kent, Herts Beds Bucks, Surrey NSussex, and Essex. On the one hand, these extra muxes simply bring in local stations or local variants of commercial stations. But it’s still pretty cool to pick these all up along with the ones which are meant to cover my area.

Of note, the Kent multiplex coverage map [PDF] does show parts of Hampstead as able to pick up occasional offshoots of the signal over high ground:

So it’s perhaps not that unexpected, but still vaguely interesting to me.

I also had a scan around on shortwave and aside from the usual national broadcasters who have mastered dominating the waves, I was pleased to pick up two pirate(?) stations on 5780kHz and 6205kHz – possibly Laser Hot Hits and Euro Radio. (This was at approximately 1445 UTC on Saturday 21 March.)

Nothing else really of any note on the radio, although I did spot this new addition to the London Trial multiplex – Health Info Radio, which launched a week ago on various other local muxes, and whose sole purpose is to play a looped recording of coronavirus-related public information.

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On the YouTube front, beyond the usual tech videos I tend to gorge myself on, the algorithms threw me a wonderful bone in a series of aviation videos by a chap named Matt Guthmiller. I’m not sure what YouTube thought it was doing, but I was absolutely enthralled by this four-part series on flying a 1930s DC-3 from the US to Duxford.

Spoiler alert: it’s not quite as simple as hopping across the Atlantic. In fact, it involves hopping to Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland, before hopping down to Duxford.

At times, the serenity and majesty of early to mid 20th century flight is intoxicating, and at others you are hit with the nauseating concept of hurtling through the air in nothing much more than a 1930s bus with temperamental moving parts and a hell of a lot to understand about how to get it airborne and keep it there.

The four parts are available in this playlist, or just watch the first one below:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JONkLEx6zeE&list=PLoruKoPAfKKjRtZw78nZC_E-pMmuaJJJ5&index=2&t=0s

Pro-tip: use the ‘Watch later’ button to save these kinds of YouTube clips to a… Watch later playlist.


And finally, I’ve recently seen a few good links to online collections of stuff and wanted to share some and add one of my own.

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The first, shared by Robin Sloan recently, was a directory of images by Eugene Delacroix. Delacroix is an artist I don’t know a huge amount about, but I stumbled across him years ago doing my degree as it turned out he kept diaries, and really enjoyable ones too. Sloan peppered a recent newsletter with images by Delacroix, all pilfered from this great online collection of his work from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The second collection was posted by the excellent SWLing Post, a great resource for all things radio – with a focus on shortwave and ham radio. They recently pointed to a subset of the Smithsonian’s open access collection of objects which is, quite simply, a bunch of radios you can look at. Wonderful.

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And finally, the National Trust’s ‘Collections’ image database is staggering in its scale – they have photographed countless objects held within their collections at the various properties they look after. You could find yourself lost for weeks on this website, whether searching across the entire collection by keyword, exploring the contents of one particular property, or paging through the works of one artist.

For the purposes of this post, I will simply point you to a collection illustrations and artworks by my man Charles Paget Wade. I have searched and filtered and refined this set so it may be a bit rough around the edges and not sorted in any particular way, but you get the gist.

By the collection’s very nature, this is not a greatest hits, but a snapshot of all that is contained within it: from sketches on the backs of letters, to glorious watercoloured ink sketches like that shown below, of the Great Wall at Hampstead Garden Suburb.

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2020 weeknote 8 – Radio recaps, selling singles, and work woes

A radio recap, first.

Desert Oracle – first the little magazine and now (only?) the radio show and podcast – isn’t something I listen to every time. But occasionally it’ll catch me in a receptive mood and I’ll think an episode was just a downright classic. The recent episode number 79 – These Enchanted Lands – was one such smash. Pretty much just a solid monologue of fascinating and spooky goings-on which is when Desert Oracle is at its best.

Repeats of I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again are just what I need some mornings before work, leaving me chuckling away to things that were funny in the 1960s, and the silly songs that still tickle me today. Hearing John Cleese do a sketch where he complains about his wife spending all his money was particularly amusing in how prophetic it was.

It’s nice to be reminded of how excellent and eclectic Radiophrenia was – it was a block of broadcasts of experimental radio and sound art last May, but Resonance Extra continues to replay it at various times, and it’s always a delight to hear a few random snippets of it. I’m not sure if it will be running again this year / in future.

I was also reminded recently that it’s nearly time for Audiograft in Oxford. I went to the event in 2018 (mentioned in this weeknote) and enjoyed some of what I saw, and generally found it all quite interesting and inspiring.

Looking at the programme this year, I see less that grabs my attention, but I can’t decide if that’s because of the way so many of these installation descriptions and synopses are written. Sometimes I just kind of want to know what it is the installation will look or sound like, and sometimes there just aren’t enough words to properly explain that.

Something something dancing about architecture.

Obviously I should just go with an open mind and support a cool festival. I might find something completely unexpected. Will look at trains and suchlike.


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Some daffs – we’ve been on a daffs kick lately, it seems


Work continues to be just a lot at the moment.

I realise that many people work much harder than I do, but circumstances have conspired recently to mean I am currently either directly or indirectly involved with a large amount of stuff and am being called upon to make suggestions and recommendations on things I don’t feel I have the confidence to answer.

There is an end in sight, but it’s currently quite draining. I did have one nice comment from a colleague which came out of the blue and surprised me, which was nice.

This shift in responsibilities also led to me attending an afternoon session on recent updates in charity law which… well. I suppose some of it was vaguely interesting – particularly the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)’s approach to breaches of GDPR and so on. But other elements were at best just not relevant and at worst confusing.

One speaker criticised the Charity Commission on a number of levels before explaining that she felt a fraud case involving approximately £25,000 for a charity with a turnover of c.£10 million probably ought not to be seen as ‘significant’ and so shouldn’t be reported to the Charity Commission as a serious incident.

Which is alarming.

Possibly she just meant what the Charity Commission deemed significant or serious, and she did clarify by saying any incident should be reported, and the Commission can decide whether it’s serious or not.


Sometime last year – I think it was from watching the Glastonbury coverage on the TV – I realised I had a bunch of 7″ singles just sat on shelves which I never play. I saw The Killers performing and remembered I had one of their first singles on vinyl, and quickly wondered how much such an item might fetch, fifteen years on*. And then I wondered what a load of my other records might fetch.

* In fact, it sold for more than £30, which wasn’t a bad start.

About half of the singles I’ve accumulated are things I would consider objects I have collected and feel attached to, whereas the other half I just don’t particularly have a connection to, and I may as well get rid. Some were duplicates of releases I do care about. But overall, they just never get played. I listen to 12″ albums now and again, but singles with one track on each side I just never really listen to.

I set about listing some of these on discogs.com and ever since then I have been selling one or two a month with *touches all the wood* no real issues. I had purchased from Discogs in the past with no issues, so it’s pleasing to find that the other side of the process is just as painless. Discogs also helpfully gives you an indication of the asking price for most releases, based on previous sales.

It’s also been the perfect combination of things for me: I have some niche, weird stuff that I no longer really care about, and Discogs has connected me with buyers who do care about it and would like to pick some of it up. Most are not that valuable. But Discogs has made it easy for me to find a buyer and to transfer it from one home to another where hopefully it might get a bit more love.

It’s nice selling stuff to fans and collectors. In fact, one of my first sales was to someone who hosts an overnight radio show in Estonia, which is just great. They’re exactly who I want buying my old 7″ singles.

I wonder if listing things on ebay might be better for certain items, particularly as, by default, Discogs doesn’t show photos of the item in question, just the metadata associated with it and the grade the seller gives it in their opinion. Ebay would at least allow me to add more photographs and details about my particular copy. But when I remember selling stuff on ebay, it just feels like such an effort. Discogs lets me just upload a bunch of stuff and leave it on sale until someone wants to buy it. Easy peasy.


Not much else to report this week.

I spent a bit of time in the Wayback Machine museum of ye olde interwebs the other day, poring over one particular website that I followed back when I started following websites. It was a personal website slash blog, and the owner seemed to have had it online for only a few years. I have no idea what happened to them after the website went offline, and I often wonder where they are now.

Part of me wants to do some digging and try and find out. Part of me just likes the neat open-and-shut case of it and is happy to leave it as a time capsule I occasionally peer inside. I think I’ll write more about this subject another time when I’ve formulated my thoughts a little better.

This dig into the Wayback Machine also uncovered a version of one of my first websites that I didn’t realise had been mirrored, which was a nice discovery.

I was pleasantly surprised to find I had thought to include a little extra colophonic metadata in the footer, which is something I love to see, and which I must get back into:

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Reader, I still occasionally listen to ‘incubus’ and ‘the living end’.

2020 weeknote 7 – Hastings, a new camera lens, and The Lighthouse

Recent radio and podcast listening: Radio 3’s Saturday Breakfast and Unclassified with Elizabeth Alker; Giles Coren and Esther Walker’s podcast Giles Coren Has No Idea; Late Junction.

I think I’ve set myself an accidentally high bar when it comes to Weeknotes as I seem to be writing a thousand words or more and sometimes there just ain’t enough notes for the week. This week is one of them.

Trying to summarise office-based workmadness is getting beyond me, but I’ve noticed it’s taking up more and more of my mental energy which is in some ways good and in more ways quite bad. I keep having (or needing) little things that provide context and help me to separate work life from life life.

I went to see The Lighthouse this week and it was batshit crazy, and very enjoyable. It’s always so fun to watch a film that seems to have such a good grasp on what it’s trying to achieve, and it feels like it was all hands on deck. There’s a lot of questionable nonsense in there too, but not everything has to make sense. I really enjoyed it.

I seem to have made it this far knowing little to nothing about the director or producers/studio – possibly because some of their other output has been (afaik) horror, which I don’t tend to go for. But I find that I like media that sets itself restrictions and works within them (or, I suppose, watching old stuff that had what we now know of as restrictions but which were, at the time, simply the norm). So I may check out some more in this vein.

On the subject of films, I use Letterboxd to log the films I watch. Do you?


I picked up a new camera lens on a recent visit to St Albans – an old SLR 35mm f2.8 thingy from the 70s or 80s I think. I already had an adapter for putting M42 lenses onto my Canon dSLR, and I am happy to report that I’ve been enjoying using this new one.

It is extremely manual, and obviously focus is an issue as, with a modern dSLR, there isn’t a frosted glass focus aid or similar, so you’re just doing it by eye through the viewfinder. Or you can use zone focusing, which I don’t think I really understood before, but which I do now (to a degree), and it has helped me achieve some nice results.

On top of this it’s just a nice object – all-metal, solid construction, etc. It’s nice to have in my collection of lenses.


At the weekend M and I popped down to Hastings – oddly enough a repeat of a trip five years earlier, and somewhere we’ve felt drawn towards on a couple of other occasions since. We had a nice (if rainy and stormy) couple of days down there and I’m intending to write separately about our weekend.

I took my new lens and took some pictures with it.

One draw was the Hastings Parkrun course which is a fast, flat, out-and-back along the sea front. I’ve run that course twice before, so this time went for a third. Being on the front and out-and-back (and in the beginnings of storm Dennis) meant for a particularly fast out and a running-face-first-into-the-wind back. Fortunately what this meant overall was that I broke my PB for a standalone 5k*, which was unexpected and very nice.

* Strava tells me I’ve run a faster 5k before, but in the middle of a 10k run, which figures as that would make it a 5k with a rolling start and finish which you’d expect to be faster.

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Anyway, being at the coast is nice and being at the coast in a winter storm is also quite nice (with the usual caveats). We ate good food and as much as we got soaked and windswept, we also found lovely cosy little places to warm up and dry out.

There we are, you see? I only wrote 700 words this week. Let’s see what next week inspires.