SIMPLE THINGS FIRST!!!!!

If you are interested in getting more stations, or pulling in a weak station that happens to have the format you want, this article is a good starting place. If you need or want more detailed information, I have collected many articles from hobby magazines of the 1950's through the 1970's. You can find these articles through the DX web page.

ANTENNAS - UGLY, BUT NECESSARY

Your problem may be as simple as needing to fix your antenna, or position it correctly. If you are listening on a portable, check to see if it has a metal "whip" antenna that can be extended. Walkmans usually do not - the antenna is in the headphone wire. About all you can do is make sure that wire is fully extended. A lot of clock radios have their antenna connection inside - wrapped around the power cord. But - if you have a whip antenna, extend it fully. Try moving it around to different positions, FM stations often have nulls, or gaps in their reception pattern. Moving an antenna (or radio) 3 feet may make a huge difference in reception! If the whip antenna is broken on your radio, it needs to be replaced. If you are really lucky, there will be a hollow stub left. Take an ordinary metal clothes hanger, straighten it out, cut it to 31 inches long, scrape the paint off one end, and stick it in the stub that is left. As long as it makes contact, it should function as well as the original antenna.

If you think that is too ugly, and want to invest in a new radio - the GE Super Radio 3 (I think they have them at K-Mart) - is a good choice. It has a very good FM section that is capable of long distance reception, up to 100 miles or more. It does not have a tape deck or CD player, and it is not a "boom box" with stereo reception, but if you are interested in long distance reception, it is about the only inexpensive model available. Flashy colored plastic, big knobs, big speakers mean NOTHING to the quality of the radio. Only the circuitry inside. The GE Super Radio 3 has sensitive circuits where it counts.

Car stereos: PIONEER - period. I have compared a $200 Pioneer with a $800 Alpine, and the Pioneer got many more stations. Again - are you interested in prestige, flashy exterior features, or getting your station? Pioneer may not have the prestige of Alpine, but it will get your station if anything can. A warning, though: Pioneer makes a low cost line that can be found in many discount stores, you want a Pioneer model with the "Supertuner" logo on it. They don't cost a lot more, and Crutchfield has a good selection. Supertuner 3 is better than Supertuner, and Supertuner 4 is best of all. By a large margin.

Home stereos: Remember that clear plastic wire you got in the box with your stereo? The one that you couldn't use because it stuck out past the ends of your bookshelf? Or maybe you have it crumpled up on the floor, or folded so it fits. That is your antenna!!! You need to use it, and use it properly! If you threw it away, cut it, or lost it, you can get another one at Radio Shack.

It has the basic shape of a "T". The top of the "T" should be completely straight, and mounted as high as possible in your room. It should be mounted horizontally, because almost all FM stations have horizontal signals. Most FM stations also have vertical signals, and on rare occasions you might get better reception with the wire vertical. But - if you are after a small, low power, low budget station, it is more likely to only have a horizontal signal.

The "T" wire also is somewhat directional. It is sensitive to stations that hit it broadside, not on the ends. Try rotating the wire to face the station.

OK, that was the easy stuff. From here on out, you are literally "on the fringes". Before you go on, take a good, objective look at your stereo. Is it a good one? Be honest! If you paid $80 for it at K-Mart, you are not going to have much luck receiving distant stations with it. It just wasn't designed to do it. You need to get a GOOD stereo, I recommend a separate FM tuner, but combination units (AM/FM receivers with power amp inside) can work as well if they are designed properly. I'm not talking about boom boxes, or little bookshelf systems. I'm talking about good audio gear. It may not cost you very much, either - read on!

A GLORIOUS PAST

Alas - the glory days of good quality audio gear are fading rapidly into the past. Many of the high quality receivers of decades past are being relegated to the garbage, garage sales, or second hand shops. These receivers were $200 to $600 new, and can often be had for $20 to $50 now. They do not have digital tuning, and they may have brushed aluminum instead of black front panels, but they have AWESOME reception capabilities.

Even if you find a receiver that has a burned out amplifier, you can still use it as a stand alone tuner! All you need is a working amplifier with an auxiliary input: connect the tape output of a receiver to the auxilary input of your amp - and have fantasic reception! Just be sure the tuning indicators move and the stereo light comes on if you look for one of these bargains. Especially be on the lookout for brands such as Marantz and McIntosh. These brands are exceptional.

As an example - I found an extraordinary Kenwood Receiver with a burned out left channel amp - that has a narrow / wide receptions switch and can receive a station 120 miles away with a 3 foot wire connected to one antenna screw! Even more remarkable - the distant station is right next to a local one, on an adjacent frequency! That is unheard of with modern digital equipment, which is too precise for its own good. The digital tuners won't allow you to tune off the center of the frequency to separate closely packed stations. Best part of all - the receiver was FREE - the previous owner didn't want to pay to get the amp fixed (a $12.50 part). But - hooking it up to the auxilary input of another stereo, I wouldn't even have needed to fix the amp.

WHAT IS POSSIBLE AND WHAT ISN'T

Once you are fairly sure you have good equipment ----

There are some limits to what you can do and what you can't. As a general rule, the farther a station is from you, the more problems you are going to have. You can reasonably expect over 100 miles, perhaps as much as 200. If you are in the Western part of the country, where the terrain is flat and most stations are 100,000 Watt monsters on 2000 foot towers, 300 miles or more is possible. I personally listened to stations in Dallas, Texas from my home in Midland, Texas for several years. That is over 350 miles! Even farther reception may be possible if you live on a mountain and are trying to receive stations from distant cites with no real obstructions in the way, but this is very rare. An example would be stations that have transmitters on a mountain (Albuquerque, NM is a good example).

Stations that are more than 100 miles off are subject to special problems. You will have to accept these limitations, or change your musical taste.

  1. Fading - if you can't see the top of the tower of the station you want (or potentially see it with a telescope at least), you are dependent on atmospheric reflection to bring it in. FM is not designed to reflect, but most of the time it will to a small extent - perhaps enough to help you. But - the atmosphere is a fluid, changing all the time with the weather. That will affect your reception. You may find that a station you can receive acceptably at some times is completely unreceivable at others. You may be listening, and right in the middle of your favorite song the station will fade out, then come back in. Be patient, it WILL come back!
  2. Time of day - this is another thing that is related to the atmosphere. The atmosphere changes during the day and night. Distant FM is generally better early in the morning and late at night. During mid-day, it is generally pretty poor. Most of us have to work during the day anyway. You might get your station during the morning drive to school or work, but after school or work the station will be gone! But an hour or two after sunset, it will be back.
  3. Weather - This affects the reflection of the atmosphere. Sometimes, storm fronts approaching from the North can bring fabulous reception, but as soon as the front passes, the reception gets worse than it has been in a long time.
  4. Airports - YUK! Airplanes reflect FM in usually unwanted ways. Unless you don't mind wierd stations popping in for a split second unexpectedly, and radid fade-ins/outs - don't live near an airport.
  5. Skip - not a kids game! During certain times of the year, usually on VERY hot, humid, still days over a lot of the country, a layer can form high in the atmosphere that is VERY reflective. When that happens, you may find that the stations you are accustomed to hearing from nearby cities are replaced by stations from across the country! These distant stations may be VERY strong, as strong or stronger than local signals. They massively disrupt the FM band, broadcasters hate it. Your specialty format station may be covered up - but there is a chance if you go hunting you may find another station with your format from the distant location. It is an opportunity to hear some unusual stations - travel across the country with your radio. Some people actually make a hobby out of listening for these distant station, they call it "DX'ing". The conditions are usually localized to a small region - it is like you suddenly have an antenna 1000 miles away, picking up stations there as well as your local stations. Sometimes there are 2 or 3 locations like that. So you may get a wierd combination of stations from your home town, St. Louis, Orlando, and Caribou Maine. These stations fade in and out RAPIDLY - pleasureable listening is possible (but rare) on the distant signals, and if usually only lasts a couple of hours at most.

ANTENNAS - SERIOUSLY

When you are trying to get stations more than 100 miles away, you really should consider an outdoor antenna. A properly designed antenna can do two important things for you:

  1. It provides gain, or amplification of the distant station. A gain of 10 or more is possible. Gain is usually measured in units called dB. 20 dB is a gain of ten. The higher the number, the better.
  2. It is directional - that is more sensitive to signals from the one direction than another. In a lot of cases, you may find that the frequency of your favorite station is re-used in other nearby cities. In that case, if you only had gain, you would get unwanted stations. My personal installation has two antennas, connected through an "A/B" switch, the same one that can be used for cable TV. On several frequencies, I can hear one station with one antenna, and an entirely different one with another antenna. Reception on each station is nearly perfect!

It is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT that you get an antenna designed JUST FOR FM! There are still antennas sold for TV that claim to have FM gain as well. In most cases, the FM gain is fairly low. In other cases, they have designed the antenna to have no gain at all, or even a loss on the FM band. The reason for this is that TV stations on channel 5 or 6 can suffer badly from nearby FM stations. It is better for a TV antenna trying to get a distant channel 5 or 6 if the antenna "notches out" the FM band.

FM only antennas are made by Channel Master and Winegard - you may have to look around for them, or make a trip to a nearby city. They may be special order items. They can cost well over $100, but you are in the realm of distant stations, and it is going to cost some time and money to do the job right. Radio Shack made a nice antenna at one time for around $30, you may be able to find one of them still gathering dust in the back store room of a Radio Shack if you have a co-operative store manager. I personally used their 10 element / double driven FM antenna to receive the Dallas stations, it still sits in my attic faithfully getting Miami stations from 180 miles away, even with bent and broken elements. It is over 20 years old. Properly cared for, they can last forever. Radio Shack still makes a 6 element antenna, I believe, that sells for around $20. In some places, where you are only 100 miles away, it should be very satisfactory. I also have one of these models, which I used in Austin, Texas to get Dallas stations 180 miles away. Even splattered with paint - it still works well.

Once you have the antenna, you are need to mount it. Most sub-divisions have deed restrictions that will prevent you from putting up a monster antenna array, but you may be able to put up a 20 or 30 foot tower with no problem. Just be careful with nearby power lines. Keep your antenna away for safety reasons, but also because power lines can be noisy even in the FM bands. At the very least, they will disrupt your reception pattern.

In remote locations, you may be able to put up a tower as high as you want. the general rule is: the higher the better! There are big gains to be made up to about 150 feet, because the ground acts like a conductor, shorting out your antenna. Above 150 feet, you are gaining "line of sight" only.

If you are in a wooded area, you may have a free source of height - tall trees! If you can shoot a line over a top branch, and hoist your antenna up there, you won't have to pay for the tower, which can be very expensive. Just remember:

  1. you may not have much control over which way it is pointed
  2. you need to clear all the tree limbs on the way up
  3. it needs to be level when it gets up there
  4. it needs to be secure when it gets up there, or else it is an extreme safety hazard. It can and will come down - and could injure somebody seriously. It also could poke a hole in a roof.

If you can solve all of those problems, then a tree installation may be an option for you. You may also wish to call a professional lumberjack - they have the specialized equipment to get to the top of the tree for you.

If you are putting your antenna up high, you need to pay special attention to the section on trasmission lines!

GROUNDING

This is an extremely important, but is almost always overlooked. It is very inexpensive, so why skip it?

If you have a lousy ground, you will get lousy reception. The ground quality depends a lot on the soil in your area, which is beyond your control, but you CAN help things along. You are looking for moist soil - moisture almost always causes the soil to conduct better. The easiest way to find moist soil is to go down deep. My favorite way to do it is to get one of those steel re-enforcing rods like they embed in concrete - and pound it into the ground with a sledge hammer. Wear hearing protection! A 2 or 3 foot scrap is probably fine. Once you get it pounded in, leaving a few inches above the ground, you can connect to it using a small automotive hose clamp. Aluminum wire, about 1/8 of an inch in diameter, used to be sold for grounding. I haven't looked for any in a long time, but if you can't find it - any large guage wire will do. Just connect the grounding rod to the metal chassis of your tuner and that's it!

TRANSMISSION LINE

The bottom line here is to use shielded wire. You are lucky, because cable TV wire works well, and is commonly available. You will need to get and learn how to use a cable TV wire crimping tool, and the little connectors that go on it. Both are available at Radio Shack. You will need to convert the antenna to "75 ohm" at the antenna, these adapters are available at Radio Shack, or maybe from your last cable TV installation. Screw the the wire to the adapater, run it to your stereo. Your stereo, if it is recent, uses this connector anyway. If not, use another one of those adpaters. A side benefit of having the crimping tool, connectors, and know-how is that you can do a lot of your own cable TV work!

If you go to the expense of getting a directional antenna, and don't use sheilded wire, you are throwing away some of the directional characteristics. The flat "300 ohm twinlead" wire will also pick up stations along its whole length.

NOT QUITE THERE, BUT ALMOST?

If all that isn't working - you got serious problems! If you only have a little way to go - the station is there, but has so much static it is unpleasant, there are even more drastic steps. But you are looking at some big money, so make sure its worth it! If you haven't even begun to hear the station yet, quit before you bankrupt yourself. It might be cheaper (and easier) to start up your own station.

  1. Vertically stacking antennas - you can get slightly more gain out of FM antennas if you use more than one, and stack them vertically. They should be at least 6 to 8 feet apart, or they will cancel out. Don't put over 3, or the wind drag on your tower will be too much. Connect the antennas in parallel.
  2. Side stacking antennas - after you try vertical stacking, you can put up additional towers side-by-side. The rule of thumb here is to allow at least 2 wavelengths of the station between each tower. In practice, you will need more spacing than that for the guy wires.

RIP-OFFS AND THINGS THAT DON'T WORK

  1. Amplifiers (except on LONG lengths of wire) - signal amplifiers add more noise than they do signal. You are primarily fighting noise when receiving distant stations. Most tuners now-days have very low noise front ends. Amplifiers add their own noise to the noise generated inside the receiver, making the problem worse, not better.
  2. Those things that plug in the electric outlet and make the whole house wiring into an antenna. The house wiring would make a better ground that it would an antenna - and these things are terrible safety hazards!
  3. Those cute little "dishes" that look like satellite dishes. Wrong design of antenna for FM (or TV) frequencies. Dishes work at higher frequencies ONLY!
  4. Amplified antennas - I never found one yet that works even as well as the stantdard old "T" antenna that comes with your stereo. They have lousy antennas in them and add noise to the weak signals.

    FANATICAL, BIZARRE (BUT WORKABLE) SOLUTIONS FOR EXTREME CONDITIONS

    PASSIVE REFLECTORS

    This one is a cute trick that works for people that are in a valley, with a mountain blocking their reception from stations on the other side of the mountain. This will only work if you have access to a place on top of the mountain where you can see (or see in the direction of) the transmitting towers and the receiving site on the other side. I'm talking about the top of the mountain. Respect property rights and the environment while you are at it. If you find a spot where you can see both, all you need is TWO of those FM antennas described above. Point one towards the transmitting station, and the other toward the receiving location. Then simply connect the antennas together!

    The way this works is simple: The receiving antenna has gain, and will amplify the signal from the received station. But the other antenna, pointed towards the receiving location, also has gain! So what you have effectively done is make yourself a little radio station up on the mountain. Since you are not "transmitting" with any real power, it is totally legal. You are merely reflecting the broadcast signals, the same as the upper atmosphere would. Beware, though, that ALL signals from the other side of the mountain will be reflected - the ones you want along with ones you don't want. Your neighbors most likely will be grateful, because they have the same problem you do. But you may bring in interfering signals as well, so make sure everybody at least has a vote in the matter before doing this.

    TRANSLATOR STATIONS

    If you are near a station - but just far enough away you have significant problems, and you are in a fairly sizable market, you might call your station and see if they have plans to install, or would be willing to install, a "translator" station in your city. A translator station is much lower in power, and on a lower tower, than a regular station. It may only be receivable for 10 miles or so, but that may be enough to cover several thousand listeners. This generates much more advertising revenue for the station, so it is very likely they will be interested. Some things you can do on your end - find a location for the necessary equipment - a spare closet at a church or civic center is just fine. If the church has a high bell tower where an antenna could be placed, even better! The electricity generally runs about $20 or $30 a month. Offer to pay for the electric bill. Try to find local broadcast engineers who would be willing to do the engineering so the station won't have to have its engineer travel to your town to service it.