Tranny memories . . and a new toy to play with.
I remember when I got my first radio. It was a little thing, not unlike the one pictured above, but with a big speaker grille occupying most of the front space (unlike the one pictured, which is designed to be used with headphones, but which is the nearest distant relative I still possess).
It was cheap, plastic, and could be held easily in one hand. The sound from it was a little tinny, but it was mine – finally I could choose my own listening, my own place, time, and station. The controls were simple – one wheel for volume (which also controlled on/off) and another for tuning. The radio being small, and the wheel sticky, tuning in stations, especially on FM, was almost an art form. And with cheap components it whistled and whined on AM, and would frequently de-tune from whatever station you were listening to.
Back in those days, you still referred to these things as a “transistor radio” – hence the nickname “tranny“, which at that time either had not acquired any more adult meanings, or perhaps such things were beyond my innocent world. The “transistor” radio was one of those phases we go through linguistically, where we specifically incorporate the name of some new component into the name of a thing, even though most of the users would have little knowledge of what a transistor actually is, or how it differed from a non transistor radio. These technical names attach themselves to things for a period, and then eventually fade away, the transistor radio just becoming the plain old radio again.
Another good example of that is the “Microcomputer“, which, if you took it’s name as a literal meaning, would have been a computer so tiny that you would need a magnifying glass to find it on your desk. In fact, “Micro” computers were great big hulking beasts, taking up most of your desktop, and took their name from the then relatively new to mass market micro-processor at their heart. For a while in the early 80s, computer stores were always “Bill’s Micros” or “Sutton Micros” or “First Micro” etc, until the name gradually faded away to be replaced by the more prosaic “computer” of the desktop or laptop variety. Though of course, the biggest tech giant, which was born in those early PC days, does still carry the name – Microsoft.
Another example of such nomaculture, which has now almost faded away is the cellphone, which is what most mobile phones were initially called by users in the 80s and early 90s (and still are, to an extent, in the USA). This was again a case where the technical aspect of a product’s operation was included in the name – possibly by the designing engineers – and eventually being lost as generations of users, to whom the product is no longer a novelty, use them without any knowledge of the “transmission cell” technology which enables them to function.
Cellphones became mobiles, and just phones in many cases, and have now gained the title “smartphone” as they have started adding functionality not traditionally found on phones, such as mail, web-browsing, application support, and radio. How long will it be, I wonder, before the “smarts” of the smartphone are so taken for granted by users that they cease to have to be defined as smart, and become again, simply “the phone” ?
The arrival of radio onto mobile phones predated the smartphone era, and saved my bacon on one memorable occasion in 2009 when I was doing an outside broadcast for Phantom, and we suddenly lost the off-air monitor function on the desk. As I was not playing the music locally, but remote-controlling the playout system back at base through a laptop hookup, it was vital that I could hear what was going out on air, and i suddenly found myself adrift. Cue a few moments of panic before I realised that my trusty Nokia mobile could be pressed into service as an off-air monitor, though I’m sure it did our image no good at a very public location for me to be seen wearing, not the usual “big DJ headphones” but a tiny mobile with Walkman type personal earphones.
That was an FM radio facility, but mobile phones have moved on smartly since then, to the point where a variety of apps allow you to listen to online stations, or online feeds of terrestrial stations, from pretty much anywhere in the world, restricted only by occasional copyright issues. Most radio stations have their own app for ease of listening, and those that don’t are usually possible to get via specialised apps such as Tunein or Fstream (pictured above).
So a couple of days ago, I was lying in bed, enjoying what was, for me, a very rare lie-in. And I was listening to an online station through my smartphone. Nothing unusual in that . I use the phone for a lot of online listening: to get Radio 4 in good quality for example, or to listen to stations not available locally. But usually when listening, I am using headphones. In fact, I would virtually never listen to radio, podcast, or music on the phone any other way.
But lying in bed earphones are a drag, and I was feeling too lazy to get out of bed and go fire up the laptop to listen through the speakers. So I did something i rarely do, which was listen to the phone without headphones, through it’s own little speaker. And that’s when it hit me.
There I was, holding in my hand a device that was roughly the same size and shape as my first ever radio, though possibly a bit lighter. And I was listening to the radio on it, with that same slightly tinny sound that you get from small speakers, except that this was probably slightly better in that there was no whistles and de-tuning.
What I held in my hand at that moment was, to all intents and purposes, a “tranny”.
I know many radio purists of the old school who will disagree, and talk about receiving terrestrial signals. But to me that is not the point.
When I was a kid, I had a little box, and I could use it to listen to RTE, or BBC, or some other station I wanted to hear. Now, today, I can hold in my hand a box that allows me to do exactly the same. And more – If I want to, I can just as easily listen to Caroline or Radio Jackie or a station in Australia, all in the same quality, and without having to be in their specific area.
Just like the tranny of old, the battery will run down after a number of hours of listening. But instead of having to buy new ones, I simply plug in and recharge. And the phone allows me to do lots of other stuff too (though that is not the point of this piece).
The problem with internet radio always used to be it’s lack of mobility, as well as the fact that in pre-broadband days it could be clunky and intermittent to listen to. Better connection speeds solved the reliability issue, while the smartphone has essentially liberated online radio from the home, and allowed it to go with you. Wifi is nice, but not essential – as long as there is 3G coverage, most radio station apps will work just fine.
I remember doing online broadcasts 10 years ago, and at times it could be a pretty lonely show. The emails came in, but they could not be described as thick and fast. These days, working with Caroline, my response from online listeners vastly outnumbers satellite ones, and it seems to be almost as easy for people to tune in as it used to be.
It’s funny that I never made the connection between the smartphone and those old, little portable radios before. It took the removal of my headphones, and a sudden reversion to that lower sound quality of yesteryear, for me to make the emotional connection.
Broadcasting is not necessarily about aerials and signals, any more than good radio is about vinyl rather than CD.
Radio is about the content, the connection, the passion.
The old transistor radio was just a tool to deliver that content to me, just as the new age tranny in my shirt pocket does in 2013.
Some shots of the 252Khz Longwave transmission tower in Co. Meath, Republic of Ireland, currently broadcasting RTE but originally erected for Atlantic 252. Pictures taken Sunday 17th March 2013.
I don’t normally go out of my way to photograph broadcast sites – I usually prefer to think and talk about the content rather than the technology – but a friend in the UK asked me for some pictures, and as I was walking in a forest only about 20km away today I thought “why not?”.
So there you have it, 252 site on a typically misty St. Patricks Day.
I think it was John Denver who sang the words “He was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he’d never been before” (the song: Rocky Mountain High)
As Steve Conway I was born on the 6.30am news headlines exactly 25 years ago this morning, in the winter of my 23rd year, having just arrived at a place that would become home to me for a number of exciting drama and emotion packed years, and a sort of Tir Na Og or mystical lost land for me to look back at later in life.
This is a way of saying that today is the 25th anniversary of my joining Radio Caroline back in the days when it was offshore. Before that that day I had another name, but the practacalities of working on a radio station that was outside the law (not against the law, but actually outside it) made a name change advisible, and so Steve was born as a fully fledged adult, and Steve I have been ever since.
And, in a way, it was a rebirth of sorts, because joining Caroline so radically altered my life that the date 24th February 1987 is a dividing point in my life, which was very very different in shape either BC (before Caroline) or AD (after the drifting of November 1991 that ended my offshore years).
And what of the 4 years in the middle? They were, in a way, outside normal time and space – life on board a pirate radioship in International Waters being so strange and cut off from normal society, but so physically, socially, and emotionally intense that those involved seem to exist in their own little bubble. For a proper detailed description of those strange years, I would refer you to my 2009 book: Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline, and my forthcoming prequel, sequel and midquel “Running Away From The Circus – Everything I Know About Radio I Learned By Screwing It Up”
No, what the anniversary has really made me think about this morning is time.
25 years – a quarter of a century. In one sense it has passed quickly, but in another, it is a very long span of time, especially if I view it in terms of the changes in the world in which I live.
I’m not talking about the micro world of radio – though that has changed dramatically, offshore pirates now a thing of the past, onshore radio multiplied in number by a huge factor – nor am I thinking about the political world, which, to be honest, despite governments coming and going, wars and alliences changing, is curiously unchanged from 1987 (I have a couple of my Caroline news bulletins on tape, and apart from the names of the participants, many of the actual stories would seem perfectly normal if broadcast today, indeed an old bulletin might almost be played out instead of a new one with few realising there was something wrong).
I’m thinking of the more general world as it personally affected me an an individual, then and now.
Information has been the defining change of those 25 years. In 1987, information was something which you were given, in limited quantities. It was not something which, in the run of the mill that you accessed, unless you have a job which specifically involved accessing files and databases.
On board the radio ship we had a television (and no, we didn’t have a licence for that either!) and it gave us the diet of entertainment and slices of news that were deemed suitable or needed for the population at large. There was no hint of customisation – you had the choice to watch or not, but could not influence that content in any way. Also on the TV was teletext, a few hundred pages of information judged to be of popular appeal, so you could look up things like sporting results, the current UK Top 40, news headlines, weather etc. No deeper dive into this information was possible, and there was no such thing as search.
Onshore it was not much different. You could go to a library, but getting hold of any kind of information outside the daily norm required a lot of effort. What exactly was said during a debate in the House of Commons last night? What are the times of the bus that goes past my friends house in a city 400 miles away? What is the history of Danzig before 1939? All of these kinds of questions were, indeed, capable of being answered, but not on the spot, not at 8am on a Sunday morning, and often not without considerable time and effort.
When I made the snap decision to join Caroline, my family and friends back home in Ireland did not find out about it for many weeks. There was no Facebook to keep in touch, no text messages, and no way for them to listen to me even if they had known I was on there.
Whenever I wanted to take a trip back to Ireland to see them, booking it was a big undertaking. I had to visit a travel agent or ferry or airline office, where first of all I would have to wait, patiently, while many other people in front of me were served, slowly. Then I would explain my needs to a person seated in front of a booking system which I could not see, and they would outline the various options of flights or ferries to me. I had no way of seeing those options myself, no way of knowing if what I was being told and sold was really the best for me, or the best for them.
When I went home to ireland, I was in a different world from the UK. No Caroline, no London Evening Standard, no access to my London friends other than making an international phone call (house to house in those days) which would seem . . well, strange.
I don’t have to tell you how vastly different all these things are now. I listened to Caroline on my way to work on the bus this morning in Dublin in clear FM quality via my smartphone, which will also give me the Evening Standard if I want it, let me search and book my flights, even act as my boarding pass. Any of the pieces of information I mentioned above are at my fingertips instantly. Travelling is hugely different, through apps and alerts I know what is going on at airports, can be certain when the next bus or tram is arriving, and can text Geoff in Surrey to tell him that I’m just about to get onto a fishing boat in Harlingen, Netherlands. Or research the history of Danzig should I be hit with a curiosity to do so at 8am on a Sunday morning.
When we look forward in time, we generally don’t see and can’t see the real changes which are going to happen. We think of faster planes and spaceships and wars for water, but we can’t forsee the changes that are gestating which will affect the more intimate, everyday world we live in.
There are other ways of predicting the future however. A couple of the Dutch crew on the Caroline ship had this thing going with a piece of string and a weight which they used to divine the future for the small but important events – such as when the next supply boat would arrive (FOOD! NEW FACES! NEW RECORDS!), who might be on it, and other such things.
The future was predicted based on which direction the string would move when held with the weight on the end, and whether it would stay absolutely still or move around.
The fact that we were doing this on board a ship which even in the calmest weather would move gently may tell you that we were not neccessarily applying the strictest of scientific methods here!
After a string (!) of successful predictions they started asking it some bigger questions.
Who would find love? Who would marry? When would the Ross Revenge make its final broadcast at sea? (the string correctly predicted 1990, but then wrongly told us that the ship would be bought by the Voice of Peace and move to the Israeli coast).
The human curiosity for the future is strong, despite our almost always predicting it wrongly. Looking back today at this junction in my life a quarter of a century ago, I can’t help but wonder what changes there will be in the next 25 years of Steve Conway. Hopefully, when “Steve” is 50 he will still be alive (his body will be 73, so that’s a reasonable hope). Beyond that I can’t really say what will happen.
Whereas before, everyone talked of flying cars, now in the information age we predict brain chips. People will be able to access everything without any external devices, our memories will be preserved forever . . .
But perhaps we are failing to see the real future, and the changes to come will be just as unexpected and profoundly altering as the ones of the last quarter century.
I just hope they are as liberating.
Anyone got a piece of string I can borrow?
The past is indeed another country, but the future is a map that we can draw for ourselves if we dare.
It was 20 years ago this morning, (20th November 1991) that I came to the end of the roughest night I had ever known in all my years at sea with Radio Caroline, and faced what I came to believe would be my last ever dawn.
Aground on the infamous Goodwin Sands, which have claimed hundreds of ships and thousands of lives, we were gradually rolling over, each wave pushing us a little closer to the tipping point where the ship would capsize. Ironically, although there was not enough water to float her, there was more than enough to flood into her and fill her up if we went sideways . . more than enough to drown in.
The waves were towering in the North Easterly Force 11 winds, the seas icy – we wouldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes if we went over.
The brave men of Ramsgate Lifeboat had already tried to rescue us and failed, running aground themselves, losing a man overboard in the process (happily quickly recovered by safety line). Now we were waiting for the helicopter, but it seemed we would be in the water before it arrived . .
Certain that we would be drowning in minutes, the floor beneath us already at a 45 degree angle, we hugged each other, shook hands, and said goodbye. We knew we were going to our doom . .
The story of that morning, and our eventual rescue by the RAF helicopter R166 is described in detail in my book Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline, but even the printed word cannot do justice to the memories which are still vividly seared onto my brain, even all these years later.
I absolutely believed that I was about to die, and that morning, and in particular that moment, has changed my life since then.
The 20 years I have lived since that morning on the Goodwins is a bonus, and the older I have got, the more I have appreciated this, and the more I have lived my life with zeast and purpose. The sudden seeming end of Caroline in 1991 (though not the final end, as it has bounced back and is adpating to a new age) instilled in me a knowledge of the impermanance of states of being, and ensured that when I got involved with Phantom FM in later years I treasured each moment, and drove myself to both give and take the maximum from every day that I worked there.
In life too, I reach out with lust for living to take the most from each day, and push myself to do and experience more and newer things.
Life is a bonus, and I am determined to spend that bonus to the full.
Many people around me comment on my seemingly unflappable calm when faced with difficult situations. This too comes from that morning on the Goodwins, for as I see it, I have been minutes from an icy drowning death, so why should anything that happens in a more normal work or life based situation cause me to panic?
Time has been kind to Radio Caroline too, and that morning, seemingly a point of closure for the station was to be in fact the first step in forcing it to adapt to a new path, which though seemingly bleak for much of the 1990s, has blossomed in latter years into an unprecedented period of stable broadcasts, with new technology enabling the station to be heard in undreamed of quality in previously unreachable countries.
20 years on I have spent the night of the 19th/20th November sipping wine with close friends, and thanking my lucky stars for all the richness of life and the benefits of new technology that both I and Radio Caroline have enjoyed in the last 20 years.
It’s right to raise a glass and look back, but the biggest gift of all is to be able to raise my gaze and look forwards.
Have a listen to the tests of the custom-built AM valve transmitter on board the Radio Seagull ship in Harlingen, Netherlands, as picked up more than 300 miles away in Co. Kildare, Ireland
I reported during the summer on the construction of a custom built, old-style valve transmitter for high-power AM on board the Radio Seagull ship, the Jenni Baynton, located near Harlingen, in the northern Holland. For the last 6 weeks this transmitter has been in use, performing authorised tests on the 1395AM frequency, which is licenced to a different operator. During these tests Radio Seagull has been relayed, and they come to a close after this weekend (14th November 2011) after which Seagull will continue to be heard on its own frequency 1602Khz and online worldwide.
For the last week, the transmitter has been operating on a higher power setting, and in addition to providing coverage throughout The Netherlands (the intended coverage area) it has been possible to listen much further afield, the signal reaching many parts of the UK, and latterly Ireland.
Click on the link below to hear a short (1 minute) sample of reception on an ordinary car radio, at Monestrevin, Co. Kildare, at around 5.45pm on Monday 7th November. This recording was made simply by using to “voice memo” function on my mobile phone to record the sound inside the car, so the original reception quality is even better.
Not a bad reach for a hand-built rig on a little lightship. Kudos to Walter, Colin, Sietse and the the onboard engineering staff on the Jenni Baynton.
The recent test-transmissions on 1395Khz by Radio Seagull have driven quite a few Google search requests to this blog, so I’ve decided to give a quick run-down on the station for any new visitors, as well as for those who follow me for my other content and might be curious.
Please note my disclaimer: I am a Radio Seagull presenter myself (Saturdays 7-9am and pm CET, 6-8am and pm UK/Irish time) so you are reading an insider rather than an outsiders point of view. Having said that, I also have to point out that all views are my own, and not neccessarily endorsed by the station.
So, what is Radio Seagull?
Radio Seagull is a full-time, permanent, licenced terrestrial, English-language radio station based in The Netherlands, specifically the town of Harlingen, in the northern coastal area. As well as AM coverage emenating from Harlingen, the station can be heard worldwide via its online stream, accessible from the station website – www.radioseagull.com
How can I hear Radio Seagull?
In The Netherlands the station shares its AM frequency (1602Khz) with Radio Waddenzee, a regional station servicing the north of The Netherlands in the Dutch language. Waddenzee is heard from 7am-7pm and Seagull from 7pm to 7am on mediumwave, however Seagull is available 24 hours a day online.
(Radio Waddenzee takes its name from The Wadden Zee, a large area of sea on the fringe of the North Sea, but partly protected by a chain of islands 20km or so from the coast.)
As well as terrestrial and online outlets, Radio Seagull is sometimes carried as a sustaining service on other stations around the world. Currently the station is being relayed as the content of a series of test transmissions on 1395Khz on AM, which are being made from the Radio Seagull ship, the Jenni Baynton. These are scheduled to continue until mid-November (but Seagull will continue to be available on its permanent frequency of 1602Khz, at all times).
What type of programmes does Radio Seagull have?
Radio Seagull features both modern alternative and classic rock, as well as a wide variety of specialist music shows. Some presenters specialise in new and alternative music, others present more general shows. Details can be found at the website www.radioseagull.com.
In order to cater for international listeners in different time-zones, the schedule is organised into groups of programmes in 12-hour blocks, repeated once the same day – so that, for example, a show aired at 3-5pm will also be aired at 3-5am, giving people in different parts of the world the chance to hear each show in their “daytime”.
How is Radio Seagull different from other stations I can hear on the internet, or local stations on FM?
Radio Seagull’s programming philosophy is to gather together experienced and professional presenters from around the world, people who are passionate about the music they play, or very knowledgeable in their specialist area, and to give them complete creative freedom to produce the best shows that they can. Unlike larger commercial radio stations, there is no restriction on playlist size, and as a result the music you hear on air is incredibly diverse and wide-ranging.
Presenters come from all across Europe and further afield to work on Seagull, and many are people who have been involved in radio for a long time.
So what’s all this about a ship?
Radio Seagull (and its sister station Radio Waddenzee) are housed on board a former British Lightship (LV8), the Jenni Baynton, which is normally berthed in the harbour at Harlingen. The ship itself is an attraction, bursting full of history, and much restored since its acquisition by Seagull in the early 2000s, and it makes a wonderful base for the radio station – lots of room for studios, engineering facilities, radio mast, and cabins where crew and visiting DJs can be accomodated during special offshore broadcasts. The station also has landbased transmission facilities.
But the ship is more than just a static base.
Once a year, for the last several years, the station has put to sea for periods of about a month each summer, with crew and DJs living on board, a great opportunity for friendships to be rekindled and knowledge to be swapped, as well as recreating some of the excitement of the old offshore radio days (a number of the Seagull presenters, myself included, are veterans of the former offshore pirate stations such as Radio Caroline).
Who is behind Radio Seagull?
Seagull is the brainchild of Sietse Brouwer, a Dutch businessman and radio presenter who also spent some time working with Radio Caroline in the 1990s. Sietse has a passion for good radio, and a great love of ships, and putting the two together in his home town of Harlingen has occupied a great part of his time for the last 10 years.
Where can I get more info / how can I listen?
The best place to start for both is the website – www.radioseagull.com
You can also see more of my pictures from Radio Seagull’s offshore adventures at the following pages:
If you are a new visitor, I hope this has answered your questions, and made you curious enough to listen.
I can be heard every Saturday 7-9am and pm CET, (6-8am and pm UK/Irish time).
But don’t just listen to me – the rest of the presenters are superb!
A little while back I wrote about the lovingly handcrafted AM transmitter being built onboard the Radio Seagull ship Jenni Baynton during the summer. Now I am pleased to report that you will be able to hear it in action.
Starting tomorrow, 1st October 2011, the ship will be used for test transmissions on 1395Khz AM at various power levels, for a number of weeks. During this time, the programmes of Radio Seagull (already available on 1602Khz AM) will form the content of the test transmissions.
These tests will run 21 hours a day, as due to international agreements the frequency 1395Khz cannot be operated in The Netherlands from 2000-2300 CET (1900-2200 UK/Irish time).
As these tests will be at times on higher power than the existing 1602 service, you may find that you are able to pick us up further afield than usual.
Reception reports will be appreciated – full details and regular news at the Radio Seagull website.
And don’t forget, you can catch my Saturday show on Seagull every week, from 7-9am and 7-9pm CET (that’s 6-8 am and pm in UK/Ireland) featuring the best in indie and alternative rock, with at least 50% of the show devoted to brand new releases, including unsigned bands.
As well as the two AM frequencies, you can listen online anywhere through www.radioseagull.com