Hunting for radio signals near Arctic Ocean

by Li Jizhi, Zhang Xuan
HELSINKI, Nov. 18 — As winter approaches, it takes a huge effort to drive north and to find the tiny DXing cabin in a remote, snowy Arctic forest. The endeavor may, however, prove worthy.
DXing is the hobby of receiving or identifying distant radio or television signals, DX being the telegraphic shorthand for “distance.”
Mika Makelainen and Jim Solatie spent two weeks in northern Finland in early November, listening to radio programs coming across the oceans and the continents.
Being active DXers for more than 30 years, the two middle-aged men travel 1,200 km from Helsinki to Lapland in late autumn every year.
They are cofounders of the Aihkiniemi DXing station, located about 100 km from the Arctic Ocean. Away from TVs or other radio interference, this sparsely populated village is a unique place to receive medium wave signals.
Over the years, they have equipped the station with 14 metal-wired antennas, a valuable facility which they believe could be the most advanced in the world.
Each about one kilometer long, the antennas are fixed on trees, lifted over one man’s height from ground, and spread along different directions towards the other side of the globe.
“We have to lift them up in order to prevent the reindeer and moose from bumping into them,” said Mika, while trudging in thick snow, checking the antennas with a long pole.
The longer the antennas are and the better angles they are placed, the more capable they are of catching signals that have drifted and bounced over here from far away.
In below-zero temperatures, they live in a wooden cabin, equipped with a kitchenette, a composting toilet, a room for two beds and a 13-square meter working room.
However, DXers make the working room look more homely by filling it with packages of chocolate, cheese and berries.
Seated inside with headphones, Xinhua reporters could clearly hear the broadcasts of a number of Chinese radio stations including weaker ones like the People’s Broadcasting Station of Rizhao, a city of Shandong Province, in Eastern China.
As sunlight is a major factor that affects propagation of radio signals, they have to chase the darkness around the world, where medium waves travel faster.
“Afternoons are a good time for listening to Asian radio stations, whereas during the night signals from Latin America are stronger,” said Mika, showing a world map indicating how the borderline between day and night changes over 24 hours.
DXers may be the only people who don’t like to see the northern lights, or aurora borealis, since solar activity can amount to a disaster for DXing, preventing long-distance reception from the Far East and North America.
Mika and Jim wish they could keep awake every minute, and they take shifts, day and night, sitting in front of the laptops.
They really have a lot to do — to identify the frequencies of received channels, their location and, of course, the languages spoken in the programs. They even record the programs so that they have enough time to recognize them back in Helsinki.
While this seems a mission impossible for most people, Mika and Jim each boast of having recognized thousands of radio stations in over 200 countries and regions.
“You are the farthest listener we have ever known till now,” says a confirmation letter from Shenzhen Broadcasting Station in Southern China. A senior official of the station replied in May last year after receiving a recorded passage sent by Mika.
Mika and Jim now have one wish — the foreign radio stations would reply to their reception reports, confirming if the signals they have received in far-away Arctic really originate from the radio stations in question.
DXing is a hobby maintained by tens of thousands of fans around the world. The activity first flourished in the middle of the 20th century, when AM radio stations were more popular than FM stations.
While AM stations are intended to cover smaller areas like cities, medium wave transmissions are often reflected by ionosphere and reach unexpected places.
Like sports enthusiasts who compete for speed and strength, DXers compete for the amount of stations they can recognize.
“When you hear a new station in your headphones, and you realize immediately wow I have been trying to recognize this station for 25 years and now I got it. So that’s the big moment,” said Jim.
However, it took Jim’s wife almost 30 years to accept his passion, since he usually stays in the northern forest for two weeks annually, leaving the family members at home.
Mika remembered that a couple of decades ago he used to be the host of the chief editor of the English Service of China Radio International at his home in Finland, thanks to his hobby in DXing.
Now an experienced correspondent himself working in the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE), Mika said he felt no less addicted to the hobby, although he could no longer do DXing for 20 hours a day.
There are far fewer DXers than decades ago, as AM stations around the world are being replaced with FM transmitters to improve the technical quality of radio broadcasting. It is not possible to receive FM signals from quite as far away as AM signals. Moreover, youngsters are fonder of listening to the radio on the Internet.
There are only about 700 members in the Finnish DX Association today, compared with over 2,000 in the 1980’s. Among the association’s members, only a minority are active DXers, said Mika.
Admitting the popularity of the hobby has diminished, Mika and Jim both insist that DXing has been tremendously beneficial and rewarding.
Mika said he valued the opportunity of meeting anchors, editors and producers in different nations, and considers these contacts very valuable both professionally and personally.
Programmers are currently developing new computer software, which enable easier DXing by recording large portions of the radio dial, measuring exact frequencies, improving sound editing, and even recognizing languages.
“They develop the software not necessarily for marketing, but mainly out of enthusiasm,” said Mika.
The good news is while European countries shut down AM transmitters, Nordic DXers can receive more radio stations in surrounding areas like Asia and Africa and increase their portfolio.
For instance, the closedown of a nearby AM station in Russia has paved the way for Mika and Jim to catch Chinese and Japanese stations on a frequency which was previously very disturbed due to strong interference.[db:内容2]