You can even hear the music at night. And though it's a part of the Lone Star state, People don't seem to care. They just keep on lookin' to the East. --- The Doobie Brothers, "China Grove"
Why am I an Engineer? Looking back, I can truthfully say that experimenting with AM, FM, and TV DX'ing started my interest in electronics. We all are the product of influences in our childhood - some experiences that were pleasant some that were not so pleasant.
A force that worked on me from my early years was a Hallicrafters S-38D shortwave radio on the ledge in the kitchen. It was off limits to children, of course. But the concept of receiving radio from distant places was fascinating, and that particular model had a section between the bands where the names of distant and exotic cities were printed. My world was growing, I could find those cities on the globe my parents owned. I knew perfectly well we were living on a round ball - a planet, and distant places could not be seen because they were over the horizon - yet we could hear their radio stations in our kitchen.
Another force that worked on me from a young age was the desire to disassemble things to figure out how they worked. It was a battle in my mind whether clocks or radios were more interesting. Radios were more frustrating, because soldered wires inconveniently connected all of the parts, and had to be broken by bending. Wire cutters were not an option for a little kid! From the time I disassembled a junk radio in my grandmother's living room at 7 or 8 years old, though, I was hooked. I looked in marvel at the plates of a tuning capacitor as they gracefully meshed. I remember carefully breaking the glass on each tube and delicately dissecting it - disassembling and re-assembling it until the mica insulators were tatters. I still remember the rapture of that day as I decided which "treasures" to carry home, and which to discard. My parents would only allow 3 - the rest had to go in the garbage. The tuning capacitor was my first choice.
My sleepy little home town of Midland was the place where I lived and went to school. But it was pretty lonely, I was an only child. A magical place called "Lubbock", two hours to the north, was the home of grandparents - two on my mother's side and a grandmother on my father's side. I always associated Lubbock with "fun" - not uncommon for a little kid whose grandparents would spoil him rotton! An early hint of my future profession was that I wondered if there were a way of moving the two towns closer so it would not be such a long drive. Some sort of giant lasso and winch. Little did I know that there was a vicarious way - through DX'ing!
Another place that was always fun was Houston. I had several cousins there, and visiting Houston was like having sisters and brothers. We had a blast, and we fought, then we had a blast again. To this day, they are the closest thing to brothers and sisters that I have. Houston was a long drive - terribly long, but the results were worth it. In early 1964, the whole world was becoming smaller. Better communications - escpecially satellites, began to shrink it. One thing that happened because of this was the sudden influx of tremendously talented performers from England, now able to be known and heard in the United States. With a few exceptions such as the Beach Boys, the American music industry was producing mediocre songs. Talented black artists were not heard, terrible "cover versions" were being forced on the public - performed by "acceptable" white artists. The time was ripe, and the British artists were superb. The resulting "British invasion" reached Houston around Thanksgiving, where my cousins had an album by "The Beatles". The words seemed to touch emotions that were developing in me at the time. I sang the songs from that album to myself for ten hours on the long drive home. To my surprise - the "Meet the Beatles" album showed up in my Christmas gifts. I am grateful that my parents were open minded enough to let me develop my own musical taste.
Music is a powerful influence on people, especially children. Parents - do not underestimate its force for good, or evil. Carefully screen lyrical content from the time your child first starts to listen! Music communicates on an emotional level that is very primal. I think we are each born with a pre-disposition to the style we will ultimately like. My parents would have preferred that I like classical music, but even my father likes the soulful sound of "House of the Rising Sun" by the Animals, and the semi-classical sound of "Let it Be", by none other than the Beatles!
I made a chance discovery one day - my parents had purchased a new television set. Everybody in Midland had an outdoor antenna. Channel 2, KMID was NBC, and easy to get. Channel 7 CBS was KOSA, Odessa, and had a little snow. KVKM channel 9 Monahans - the ABC station, was very hard to get and definitely required an outdoor antenna. Its logo had an oriental look to it -I always wondered if that was intentional. Everybody knew about channel 4 from Big Spring, but it was ABC. We didn't need it, and it was too hard to get anyway. But still, it was intriguing - was there a way to get it clearer? It made a good test for antenna systems.
My chance discovery was that channels 11 and 13 appeared one day, and they were from Lubbock! I had known that those were the channels in Lubbock, but the thought of seeing them in Midland never occurred to me. Channel 11 made cute little men out of the digits - and I could clearly see that something unusual was causing those stations to come in.
The little men logo of KCBD, channel 11 Lubbock. The wheels began to turn in my mind - a TV DX'er was born!
I spent hours and hours looking for more TV DX as a 10 and 11 year old. Sometimes, my interest was spawned by the local channel pre-empting a favorite show for something terrible. I remember missing "The Man from Uncle" because of a "Leslie Uggams" special. That night, there was no TV DX from Lubbock. I do not think I ever heard of Leslie again, but "The Man From Uncle" endures on nostalgia cable channels as a "classic". The summer of 1965 seemed to be very "hot" in terms of TV DX. I saw some incredible things - like a channel 6 from Corpus Christi. 20 years before there were "vidcap boards" I spent time copying the test patterns of each new DX capture.
Original Artwork by me at age 10 or 11.
When we went on vacations, I tried DX'ing at each motel to catch rare and exotic TV stations. The next time my show was pre-empted, I was ready. By that time, I was living in Abilene, TX, which has a channel 12 that was a peculiar mixture of CBS and ABC. The general manager of the station happened to live next door, and he was more than a little put-out when we erected a 30 foot tower with a deep fringe TV antenna on top. How dare we question his programming decisions! It was soon necessary, however, because channel 12 pre-empted the last half of the last episode of "The Fugitive".
Original TV Guide Article. Note that there is no listing for channel 12 Abilene. But this time, I was ready! KVII channel 7 Ardmore, OK was going to carry it. At 130 miles from Abilene, they were certainly a better possibility than the weak KVKM channel nine from Monahans, over 200 miles away. Perhaps I should have tried WFAA channel 8 from Dallas. But at the time, I had no idea of the potential of the Dallas stations.
Can you imagine the stupid mentality of not showing the last half of the climax of the whole series? To show the first half of the final episode, where Richard Kimball was finally exonerated - and pre-empt the last half. Channel 7 Ardmore, OK, was only barely visible. The picture was so poor we could only see outlines, but we DID see the last half of the last episode of "The Fugitive". "The Fugitive" - a TV classic, returned as a high budget blockbuster movie with Harrison Ford. Who knows what ever happened to the CBS show that channel 12 aired instead that night - or the incompetant station manager who did not air "The Fugitive".
But - I am ahead of myself. That experience in Abilene came later. I remember the day in Midland when I received my first little 6 transistor Delmonico radio, and discovered the world of "top 40" radio. Soon thereafter came a tape recorder - I could now record the songs! This was the summer of 1966 - my favorite song was Crispian St. Peter's "The Pied Piper". Remembering the Hallicrafters and my TV DX experience, which was pretty extensive by that time, I tuned the radio for weak stations. I found KFYO 790 Lubbock, and it became a favorite of mine in the next year or two. Thanks to Petula Clark and several American artists, the period from 1966 to 1967 was an era when the top 40 rock charts and the adult easy listening charts almost merged. An adult easy listening station was of some interest to teenagers at the time, because a lot of the songs on the charts were the same.
I remember not being terribly disturbed by my family's move to Abilene in 1967, except that I knew it would be harder to hear KFYO. To my pleasure, I found many more stations coming from other cities. Wichita Falls had KFDX 620, which I could also hear when I went to Lubbock. The little Delmonico radio soon was supplemented by my first "all American 5" tube radio, an AC model that plugged into the wall.
Disaster struck one day. I dropped the Delmonico radio on the floor, and the ferrite bar antenna broke into several pieces. I carefully taped them back together, but discovered that the pieces did not perform like before. By this time, I was able to handle a pencil soldering iron. Radio Shack sold a kit of three ferrite bars, I selected the one closest in size and started cautiously to work. It took me a while to figure out how to connect the four leads from the replacement instead of three on the original, but it was obvious the original antenna had the middle two twisted together. To my relief, the radio came alive. But there was a problem. The ferrite bar was too big. Another happy coincidence happened - while I was notching the case to hold it, the coil of wire slid along the bar. To my astonishment, the stations on the radio got stronger! And the larger bar was receiving stations better than before! I had stumbled onto the rudiments of alignment, and on the concept of "larger antennas being better".
I was on my way - and bought a larger radio with a bigger ferrite bar. Now stations from the nearby towns were easy to hear. I discovered that there was a big difference at night - stations could be heard from across the country. A particular favorite of mine was WLS, Chicago. I knew immediately that the cities had the best DJ's and best sounding stations. I remember listening to my radio in bed one night in Lubbock, TX with an earphone - I DX'ed a station in Cleveland on 1100 kHz! I began my first engineering projects - the purpose of which was to obtain even more and more stations on my radio.
My first "all American five" tube radio had a small loop antenna inside. My seventh grade "engineering insight" asked the question - would a larger loop with more area pick up more stations? After all, a larger ferrite bar worked in my portables. A junk radio (from who knows where) provided the answer. It had a larger loop, which was soon attached to my radio through a short wire. I remember having a flat cardboard enclosure for the loop, embellished with a hand drawn logo from what had to be the first alternative rock group - "Love", who did the song "7 and 7 is". Alternative rock (by anybody's standards) in 1966. The larger loop was better! I discovered "KLIF - the Mighty 1190" from Dallas. More than any other station, they were breaking ground and establishing the top 40 format still popular today. Dallas became a Mecca for me - rare trips there were very enjoyable because I could hear KLIF clearly, even on a portable! I remember staying in the Adophus hotel in downtown Dallas on occasion - I wonder how close that hotel was to the famous KLIF studios? Perhaps if I had taken a walk down there, I might have gone into broadcasting. Charlie Van Dyke was not much older than me when he got his break at KLIF. I even took my portable to the Dallas public library while my mother did some sort of research - clandestinely listening in the stairwell.
My tube radio came along to Lubbock on one trip, where I was able to DX WCBS 880 from New York. I thought I had discovered the big time! A station in Lexington, Kansas signed on shortly thereafter jamming WCBS. Not to be deterred - I discovered that when I was in Houston, I could cancel Albuquerque's KOB 770 and get WABC. WNBC 660 was an elusive goal I never quite acheived. But I soon discovered a clear signal from Boston on 1030 - WBZ! All of this before I was in high school.
I was constantly searching for larger ferrite bars, notching and modifying the case of every portable to make them fit. I travelled with my parents extensively. On one occasion I was in a market in Egypt. While my parents and the other tourists were negotiating for jewelry and other trinkets, I found the electronics junk dealer and negotiated for large ferrite bars. I still have and use them! Dropping and breaking a large one was always a sad experience.
I made the standard mistake of thinking more transistors would be more sensitive. The result was a disappointing AM/FM Jade portable that would not get KLIF. But - 3 years before I discovered FM, I noticed that cheap little radio was getting KNUS FM from Dallas in Eastland, TX, a range of almost 130 miles! The implications were lost on me until later. I assumed FM was the band for boring elevator music, and KNUS was a rare exception.
KNUS FM - my glimpse of things to come.
After the 12 transitor Jade radio disaster, I learned about tuned RF stages. I scrambled to find tuned RF radios, several of which I still own. My very first was a 8 transistor Radio Shack model, a serious DX unit for the time. Tuned RF tube radios were soon to follow, replacing the "All American Five" tube unit.
When I in 9th grade, my father got a job back in Midland. It turns out this was the opportunity of a lifetime for him, and I am now glad he took the job. A the time, though, I was extremely upset. I had a vicarious life in Dallas - the DJ's on KLIF were my surrogate introduction to a future that I was sure included living in Dallas or Houston. Now, I was going in the wrong direction - back to my childhood - away from Dallas. KLIF, I knew, was not the powerhouse that other stations were. It would not reach Midland.
I was wrong. KLIF was a tough DX'ing challenge, but I succeeded. Midland and Abilene were towns dominated by country music. Rednecks were particularly cruel to me in school - I associate country music with them and intensely unplesant experiences to this day. KLIF was the only source of top 40 music, unless you were willing to listen to mediocre copy cats like KRBC 1470 and KNIT 1280 in Abilene or KCRS 550 in Midland. I was not alone in my disgust - it turns out that Midland was breeding a generation of AM DX'ers. KOMA 1520 in Oklahoma City was a popular DX target with virtually every kid in high school. KLIF was unknown to them, and WLS too weak. But KOMA was a 50,000 watt powerhouse that was hard to miss. Another popular nighttime station was "X-Rock 80" (XEROK from Juarez, Mexico, across the border from El Paso). The link is an account of the station from an insider who worked there - look near the bottom of the page.
But I was becoming disallusioned with top 40. The bland, repetitive mixture of the same songs over and over was monotonous. I was discovering album rock. KRLD 1080 Dallas played album rock at night. I was not very popular in high school, but when I brought a radio that could get KRLD to the warehouse where they were assembling the float for homecoming, the album rock blew everybody away! They loved it and made sure I was there every night with that radio! I remember convincing a sceptic that the local oscillator in a portable could jam a car radio tuned 450 or 460 kHz higher. Everybody that heard it was astonished.
Mediocrity can only survive in isolation. Those who could - did not listen to the copycats. They listened to the real deal from cities. Were the Doobie Brothers talking about this in the song "China Grove"? Who knows except them. But it sure fits!
When I was in high school, I had the audacity to call "middle of the road" KNFM Midland to see if they might allow me to do a rock show on their station. To my surprise, they were receptive. I wish now I had followed through.
By the time I was a senior in high school - I had a very good grasp of the fundamentals of AM DX'ing as described in the articles here. I had already assembled several Heathkits, and built large speaker cabinets. I was the electronics guru of my high school - entrusted with servicing high voltage power supplies for the Physics lab. I was even entrusted with using the school's new VCR - in that era it was a VERY expensive rarity, with a black and white picture, and used 1 inch wide tape on separate reels. Mr. Biggs, the Physics teacher (but mostly the coach of some team or another) was on the road with the team a lot, and would deliver video lectures to the class on it.
My senior year, a friend of mine introduced me to FM. To me, FM was something my parents listened to on a table radio with too much hum - and it only played elevator music (YUK!) Of course - DX was impossible as it was line of sight only. I went to my friend's house, where he had a station from Lubbock, Texas, over 100 miles away - and it was clear! Even more important - it was playing rock music, and the sound was excellent!
My first FM tuner was pathetically under sensitive - a very poor performance FM section of an old tube receiver I was using for AM. I was so desperate for decent FM, I overpaid for an FM car radio, and ran it off of an AC adapter. Still - it did the trick, and I was soon hooking up and even constructing antennas. Eventually I abandoned making my own antennas in favor of a purchased unit from Radio Shack, but that was only so I could get more height. My old log periodic antennas are still in my parent's attic, gathering dust. I built them in that hot, dusty attic! The log periodic antennas were responsible for one incredible discovery: I had one antenna aimed at Lubbock, Texas, and one aimed at San Angelo, Texas. I heard that a new station was coming on the air in San Angelo, so I tuned around looking for it. Instead of discovering a new San Angelo station on the frequency I expected - I heard a station playing Donovan's "Season of the Witch" - something I knew would only be on underground stations in very large cities. I didn't have to wait long for a station ID - it was on KTFM 102.7, San Antonio - a city over 300 miles away! I gasped in disbelief, and started contemplating the implications. Turning the antenna slightly to the North, there was KASE, 100.7 Austin. I then turned it toward Dallas ---
Within a year, I was in college at Texas Tech University, and I had antenna arrays there and back in my hometown aimed at Dallas. I purchased a first rate FM tuner - a Heathkit AJ-15, and was easily receiving Dallas FM 80 to 90% of the time. Stations like KVIL 103.7 (the strongest), and KNUS 98.7 were regular fare. I also remember enjoying KWXI 97.1, and KFWD 102.1. KERA 90.1 had a "heavy jazz and mellow soul" (or was it the other way around) show late Saturday nights. Sometimes, a super skip day allowed KZEW 97.9 to drown out the pathetic monaural country station in Odessa on 97.9. Monaural music on FM? Only in Odessa --- I guess the rednecks thought a stereo was a radio with a cupholder to hold a beer can! The Odessa 97.9 mercifully shut down early on Sunday nights, just in time for KZEW's import show - introducing me to international artists such as "Kraftwerk". Another catch from Dallas on days with good skip was KAFM 92.5, adjacent to junky KNFM 92.3 in Midland. I often wondered if there was a way to increase selectivity in my FM radio, and bemoaned the fact that I had an AJ-15 with 70 dB selectivity instead of an AR-15 with 90 dB of selectivity. I almost bought an AR-15 because of that! Little did I know that I would one day publish an article on how increase selectivity. My DX system in both cities was reliable, and listening to Dallas routine. My Heathkit AJ-15 is still in service, supplemented with a newer and more sensitive model. But analog tuning on the AJ-15 can separate out closely spaced stations better than any digital. It has given me 25 years of reliable service. I will pass it on to the next generation of enthusiasts (hopefully my daughter). Some of my original Radio Shack antennas are still in service, still grabbing incredible DX.
I also encountered the ultimate AM tuner out at the college antenna site: a Hammarlund SP-600JX. I am happy to say that after 25 years of searching, I finally found one of my own!
I returned to Midland during the summers to pursue normal interests. Something about Midland at the time produced the loveliest girls in the world! For several years, I enjoyed an active social life there at a local pool. I always had a hot portable radio there, aimed straight at Dallas. It was only when WFAA 570 played top 40 that I had any real luck with Dallas stations on a portable in Midland, though. WFAA 820 from Fort Worth was country - darn it! The best DX'ing from DFW - and it was garbage. Still, even KSEL 950 Lubbock played much better music than KCRS 550 Midland. Good enough for casual listening - and socializing.
From WFAA's brief period as a top 40 station. Sophisticated big city radio at Kimber Lea Pool in Midland, TX, was possible during this time. WFAA's signal was awesome! They also ran AM stereo, and sounded really good for at least 200 miles in every direction. Now they have "stolen" the famous KLIF call letters - without "earning" them, and play the piddle, drivel, and swill of AM talk radio. What an insult to the legacy of "The Mighty 1190"! But - radio Disney on 620 kHz from Dallas may prove a tempting target for a new generation of young West Texas DX'ers. I am already planning a "craft" for my 5 year old daughter - an AM loop antenna for her "playhouse" at grandad's in Lubbock!
While in college, I poured over hobby magazine to discover articles on DX'ing and antennas. This page is a collection of those articles, tips, and techniques. I have several binders of information, saved carefully for decades, gathering dust and fading. Rather than let the information in these binders languish, crumble and fade, I thought I would condense and re-produce it here, for everybody to enjoy.
Due to an unfortunate work situation at my last job, and an equally fortunate turn of events in my favor, I am now living in the Dallas area - the target of my earlier DX work from Midland decades ago. What is it like to live in the middle of DX dream land?
Country music refuses to die - fully one third of the stations on the dial here are useless to me. Also, the proliferation of strong stations eats up adjacent channels. The bottom line is that people living here have less to choose from than those living in between cities. I have my selectivity enhancement to help me, but several tempting DX targets are country.
The DX works both ways. I have been able to hear KNFM from Midland with no trouble. Since it is formatted country, it is of no interest to me.
I used to think that the Dallas stations were all on 2000 foot towers straddling the stratosphere, and that was the only reason I succeeded from Midland and Lubbock. Not true, some of them are uninspiring 800 foot self supporting structures. The number of tall towers on the hill south of the Metroplex has grown to 9 to 10, presumably for HDTV. None of them are 2000' - they are just enough to cover the Metroplex - and Midland!
I had the opportunity, before the house was sold, to go back into my old room in Midland with a GE Super Radio 3 to see how it stacked up against the tube AM tuners I used decades ago. The quiescent level of noise made it impossible to go through the dial the way I wanted to. I had to go outside the house to get any DX. The SR3 is not nearly as good as I thought, I used to get much more DX on old tube units. "KLIF, the mighty 1190" was just barely there. I remember hearing a quite usable signal in my childhood. Of course, KLIF is now a 50's and 60's oldies station KLUV - I guess a worthy tribute to the former giant it once was. At least the songs are the same. But Charlie Van Dyke, Michael O'Shea, Dave Ambrose, Jimmy Rabbit, and owner Gordon McLendon with his award winning news department are gone. Soft music KFDX from Wichita Falls is now radio Disney from Plano - it is amazing how much difference 100 miles made in the signal strength. Nevertheless, my 5 year old appreciated the concept of DX very well when her favorite station came through from so far away - even with a little static. WFAA 570 is now KLIF news talk 570 - perhaps a play on the glory days of the old KLIF news department. The signal was disappointing on the SR3. WBAP 820 is always a powerhouse, but I have heard better reception in Midland on a tube radio. KRLD was hardly there at all, unlike with a tube radio. I was doing some really good engineering all those years ago! I will have to dig up records of what I did. It is apparent that tube is the way to go for AM DX.
As for FM - the incredible DX I once enjoyed would no longer be possible. New stations have appeared all over West Texas, permanently jamming the more distant Dallas stations. I wonder if I would have become an engineer if I hadn't done so much work years ago. With the formats now available in Midland and Lubbock - DX'ing Dallas FM would not have been necessary.
I am finished with Midland forever, except for occasional graveside visits with my mother. The closest I will come is to DX from Lubbock where my father now lives - enjoying AM DX of "radio Disney" with my 5 year old. Perhaps she will, after all, continue the DX'ing tradition. Or perhaps the techniques will die off due to wideband streaming audio, making every station in the world immediately available. I, for one, would not have hesitated to switch to wideband streaming audio in my childhood. DX'ing is born out of desperation with programming choices locally. I will rest very comfortably knowing that everybody will have unlimited access to whatever music they want, regardless of where they live.
My personal musical taste has changed to Christian rock, and I am proud to sponsor a "tuner" web page of streaming audio stations with that format. My web page, and others like it, will wait for broadband wireless internet access to come into their own. Until then, at least I have a local station in Dallas that plays Christian rock. This was not the case in Florida, where I revived my FM DX'ing talent to receive Christian rock stations. Station owners have not changed much in 25 years. Read the sad fate of the PD of X-Rock 80 above. I repeatedly begged owners of Christian stations to catch the vision of reaching young people - making DX efforts unnecessary.
I once helped WPOZ 88.3 in Orlando bring in their signal to a remote broadcast - mere half mile from a station on an adjacent frequency. I was quite a sight, holding up my old Radio Shack yagi antenna in the drive-through lane of a Chick-Fil-A restaurant. A specially modified Sansui FM-7, purchased for the occasion, rejected the trash on 88.5 beautifully! I aimed the yagi to put a null towards 88.5's tower.
My interest in radio finally branched out into the other side - the broadcasting side. I have 7 years on the air experience at WAPN in Daytona Beach as an announcer and producer of a Christian rock show. It was an interesting experience providing programming instead of receiving it. Although I love broadcasting, Engineering is my career. It boils down to money! DJ's and producers are not paid what they are worth.