What am I listening to?
If you tune in to your local radio station it soon reveals it identity through a number of clues; its strength, frequency, programme style and most importantly its on air ID (callsign, jingle etc.) which is easily heard since there is no interference. Most station want you to know who they are so you stay tuned in. But this can be complicated by networked stations or syndicated programming. In the UK for example at night you will hear identification as “5Live” on BBC local radio stations. In the USA if you hear a game involving the LA Lakers it doesn’t mean that you are listening to a Los Angeles station.
We now need to ask what happens when you are trying to decipher a weak, fading signal from a distant station that may well be using an unfamiliar language. The fundamental question is, at what point is a station identified and how should a station that is not fully identified be described.
The process of identifying stations should be viewed as a broad spectrum of probability. At one end is the completely unidentified station, an example of which is the open or blank carrier with no modulation – although you may have quite a good idea about its identity such a signal really is unidentified. At the other end of the spectrum is the positively identified station with no doubt about the station’s identity.
Many DX stations heard fall somewhere between these two extremes; for example you may hear only part of a callsign perhaps in a poorly understood language, or maybe in the midst of heavy interference or jamming. Or perhaps no identification is heard but certain characteristics of the signal or programme content point in the direction of one particular station. Generally speaking, the longer you listen to a station, on one date or over many days, the more clues there are to help achieve successful identification. If you can’t ID a station keep listening! Even the most experienced DXer will not be able to identify everything heard, so there needs to be some way of indicating how certain (or uncertain) a particular identification is. Hence the following shorthand expressions have developed as a solution to this problem.
Implies that the listener is 100% certain of a station’s identity since a full announcement by the station was clearly heard.
For example this fantastic signal heard in the UK from KOMO Seattle WA, USA, clearly gives its slogan, its callsign and frequency. No doubt here!
Likewise this recording of KUMU in Hawaii heard in Scotland; “KUMU AM 15 hundred the new talk of Honolulu”
When a station is listed as presumed it means that the listener has had sufficient clues to the station’s identity to be almost (90-99% probability) certain of its true identity. About all that is missing is a formal ID announcement.
In this example we are listening to CKST Vancouver but there is no callsign given. Instead it refers to Vancouver and gives a slogan/frequency “The Team 10-40”. That’s as close to a perfect identification but technically no formally identification heard.
This term usually describes a situation where the listener is fairly certain that a particular station is being heard – indeed that the probability is substantially greater than 50%, typically from 75%-90%. It is important, however, to note that a tentative logging is not just a pure guess since there still have to be a number of clues pointing in the right direction.
In this example we hear….
Anything short of tentative is called ‘unidentified’ and the DXer should resist the temptation to classify loggings as tentative if there is insufficient evidence. When there is any doubt about a logging, it is wise to err on the side of caution and list it as unidentified; however it may be worth indicating which station you think it might have been if you have an idea. At this point a word of caution is probably in order with regards to station listings.
This recording was made on 540kHz and programming and the speaker’s accent sounded like Canadian/CBC programming so most likely from CBT but there is no proof. And sometimes networked stations like CBC will at best give you a network name rather than a station name. Which is a shame.
The factors which contribute to the identification of a station are almost without limit. Among them are time of reception, frequency, quality of signal, and programming style. The latter is usually one of the most important clues since valuable information can be gleaned from the languages used and music played, as well as from advertising, weather reports, time checks and so on.
Language: If you are a linguist you could identify the language in use, or even maybe whether you are listening to a Mexican or Colombian dialect of Spanish. But nowadays many second or ethnic languages are heard on MW radio. From the USA and Canada you’ll often hear Spanish and possibly Portuguese, even French or Creole, Korean, Vietnamese and Hindi and other Indian languages. Stations broadcasting across borders or serving tourist districts usually use the language of the target audience rather than their own national language. Bear in mind that an international city like London is home to over 250 spoken languages!
If you are unfamiliar with the sound and intonation of a language there are websites that can help you by listening to sound clips. And within the DX community we have many linguists willing to share their knowledge & experience.
Time checks – usually are a good clue but there are exceptions. If you hear “20 past the hour” there is no time zone to help you locate the station and that sort of time check is often used in programmes that are networked or repeated. Some stations get time checks completely wrong with recorded (not live) programmes.
Weather reports – often refer to local areas by name and the actual weather might be a clue to the location. The use of Centigrade, Celcius or Farenheit is also a help in pinning down the country
Traffic reports – always refer to locations, especially road numbers, but quite often in slang form. An “accident on the 401” may mean nothing until you realise it is Toronto’s main highway 401. Listen out for distances or speeds, are they in km (in Canada) or miles (in the USA)?
Adverts – even networked stations often carry local advertising, but it isn’t always obvious which is local and which is national. Adverts that have local telephone numbers rather than national Freephone numbers can be a good clue. With experience you’ll quickly distinguish between “Bob’s Auto Repair Shop on Highway 1” and “Special offers at Arby’s Restaurants”. Sometimes adverts have extra benefits – many stations using languages from the Indian sub-continents switch to English phone numbers in their adverts.
Programming – MW speech broadcasting is usually focussed on local or national issues so this could help narrow down the likely station. Music is more problematic due the worldwide dominance of Anglophone popular music. But many countries have rules that try to ensure that a certain percentage of music is local or in the local language. In some countries broadcasting is a real melting pot and you will hear music from most corners of the world.
DXers use lists of one sort or another to help them in their hobby (e.g. World Radio TV Handbook, club bulletins etc.) but it is dangerous to rely on a list (even the most up to date) as the sole means of identifying a station. That is not to say that lists should not be part of a DXer’s ‘tools of the trade’, but just that caution should be exercised in their use. Lists are invaluable to help narrow down the range of possibilities when it comes to identifying a mystery station; they can also guide a listener to the right place on the dial to possibly hear a particular station, but they cannot actually identify a station – only the station itself can do that.
Over reliance on lists and a bit of related ‘wishful thinking’ results in the practice known as ‘list logging’ which can be sometimes observed as anomalous loggings reported in the DX logs of some magazines and club bulletins. So the rarer the station being reported the greater the onus is on the DXer to get the identification correct.
It should be appreciated that one’s ability to identify a station depends mostly on the ability to interpret what is being heard. And, rather like a detective investigating a crime, it takes experience as a DXer to reach a correct conclusion based upon the limited clues available.