We might be broadcasting local news and local views to our catchment area within the province, but 1000km north of Helsinki, Finland, a radio hobbyist directed his antenna toward Manitoba and picked up our very own CFRY Radio 920 AM broadcast. Graham Bell lives in Oxford, England, and makes expeditions to Finland as a hobby to connect and listen to stations around the world.
Bell was 4,000 miles away in northern Finland at Aihkiniemi when he made the connection this past December 8, 2022, at 2:04 a.m.
He emailed us and informed us of the clarity of our signal. Bell explains where Aihkiniemi is.
"It's right up in the Arctic Circle and there's a group of radio fanatics like myself," says Bell. "We call ourselves DXers; DX being short for 'distance' in radio parlance. And this group of Finnish DXers bought a piece of land up there and built two cabins so two people could sleep there. One of the cabins is a place where the radios are set up and the other cabin is with a sauna bath, of course, being Finland."
He explains it's miles away from anything else.
"They've set up these antennae -- fourteen of them altogether. Each one is about a kilometre long, beamed in every direction on the planet. And the reason why they're so long is because the AM signal -- like your signal -- is about 300 metres long. That's the wavelength. So, if you have an aerial that's 1,000 metres long, not only will it resonate with that wavelength, but that extra length also gives it directionality. We could point an aerial straight in your direction, Portage la Prairie (which is lovely name for your town), basically, in your direction. And that would enhance the signal coming from your side."
Bell explains their reception location is intentionally far north, allowing for plenty of darkness, particularly in winter.
"When you're that far north, the sun doesn't actually rise above the horizon in December. It only pops back above the horizon on January the 13th. And the thing about long distance AM reception is that you need darkness to enhance the signal to give you the long-distance effect. The ionosphere is made of layers of particles where the sun's radiation actually stripped electrons off the atoms. These electrons are then available at night in one of the layers to duct the signal -- to reradiate the signal -- across the earth. Sometimes, it bounces back to the earth and then bounces back up again into the ionosphere."
He says that when he's able to hear our radio signal, noting our signal can fade in and then fade out again.
"It's quite random," says Bell. "There's a lot of volatility out there. There are also other stations on your frequency. So, sometimes they're gonna pop in and out, as well. But because of that directionality and the length of the aerial, we're able to penetrate into your part of the world quite easily. There are a number of other stations in your chain and your network that were also audible, and have responded to my messages very kindly."
Bell notes he's been doing this for decades, having started as a teenager.
"A lot of the DXers, like myself, have the similar story that they switched on the radio, and they suddenly heard BBC or Voice of America. And they thought, 'Wow, that's amazing. It's a long way away.' We got hooked, basically, and I've been doing it ever since, on and off. It's not a very sociable hobby and they are very, very few women involved. So, it's a kind of real hunter/gatherer kind of thing. My wife thinks that I'm borderline insane, but she's gotten used to it now. Then, when I tell her about an event like this, with a video and an interview with yourself, and so on, she gets a lot more interested because she can see the kind of social side of it, and how the world connects like it does."
He says it's not only an effort to just listen for signals from stations.
"We try to get verifications, and that's what I did when I contacted you. What you've now done for me is you've verified my report, which is my little MP3 recording that I sent you with your station ID and station Q on it," adds Bell. "We collect those verifications. We call them QSL and that's because, in radio parlance, there are a whole lot of things that begin with the letter Q, and one of them is QSL for verification. I've been collecting those for forever, basically."
Scandinavians are really into this hobby because there's a lot of darkness in their part of the world.
"It's kind of just there for them. So, when they're teenagers and they were growing up, they suddenly realized they could hear the most amazing things, which people further south wouldn't have been able to hear so easily. And this group is on another level altogether. They just are so into this hobby. I'm the only person from the Southern Hemisphere who has ever been to this place. And I think I'm one of only two other non-Finnish people who have been there, as well. There are ten of them. They own the land, and at any given time, someone's there all the time. So, it's quite special to have gotten an invitation. I'm actually going back now for a third time in March. I find it so fascinating."
Among the experiences he's had in making contact with radio stations, Bell notes hearing a station 10,000 miles way comes to mind.
"I guess, it's distance that is the most important thing," explains Bell. "So, the most standout thing from Finland, a country like New Zealand is 10,000 miles away or 16,000 kilometres. I heard three New Zealand stations (all local stations like yourselves) with news and talk and station identification. I was able to hear all three of them, make recordings, and contact them, like I've contacted you, and had a really good response. Those three really stand out. But at this time last year, I was in Finland and I was able to pick up the local radio station in Tonga. There's this tiny little island in the middle of the Pacific. You may remember in early January, 2022, there was this big eruption in the sea. A volcano erupted in the sea just off the coast of Tonga, which covered them in dust and smoke. The radio actually went off the air. When I got to Finland, I was able to hear them two days after they had come back on the air. I made a recording and I sent it through to them, and they were over the moon to receive this. It was very exciting for them. That was about 9,000 miles."
He notes many people with this hobby go to northern Finland, but he, personally, always visits what is called Aihkiniemi.
"They love it so much that not that many other people have gotten to go there," continues Bell. "But I found out about it a few years ago and I just decided I have to get a chance to go there. I contacted them and they gave me an invitation. You fly into Helsinki from London, and then you fly another 900 kilometres north to a place called Ivalo. And then you drive another 925 kilometres up there to the cabins. It's situated in an area which is land that actually belongs to the Sámi people. They're an Indigenous population of Finland. You know how much of an issue that's become in the last couple of decades and how important and how much more aware of people have become."
He notes the Sámi people ranch reindeer and certain precautions must be made by the DXers so as not to endanger them.
"The aerials that I was talking about -- these 14 aerials -- are one kilometre long, copper wires. They post them up on poles that are four metres high, so they're well above ground. But the issue is, it snows quite a bit. And when it snows, the snow freezes and ice can gather on the copper cables. Then they can start getting quite heavy. And the risk is that they might break or sag. Then they could strangle the reindeer. You could have a very serious incident with the Indigenous population if you start strangling their reindeer. So, they have to go out, and I go out there. I have done it, myself. You go with a long pole, with a little hook on the end. You just scrape the ice off the cables. But there are a lot of cables. So, that requires quite a lot of work."
The radio he uses has a top-unit battery that connects to the box. It's called a Software-Defined Radio. The radio is connected to an aerial and then connected to a PC through a USB port. This brings up the entire radio dial with the full AM spectrum on it.
"The AM spectrum goes from about 540 to 1700 kilohertz, and you're (Portage) toward the upper end of that. These radios can record the whole spectrum at the same time. I set it to start recording, say, six or seven minutes before the hour, and go through to, say, six or seven minutes after the hour, because that's when almost all stations are going to put in a station ID and the station queue. Even if they're playing music between the tracks, there'll be a queue of some kind, usually in that time slot. And in fact, I'm not sure about Canada, but in the US, you have to put in a legal ID at that time, as well. So, that's a good time to record. I downloaded the whole spectrum, and then I come back and, at my leisure back home in Oxford, and I can go through and listen out for what's there. And that's how I discovered you because you just suddenly popped up. I didn't know you were there, and I wasn't especially looking for you, but there you were."
He notes how it's especially nice for him to hear local radio broadcasts.
"To have that local flavour rather than some big network -- ABC News or something like that -- is nice. If I go through the spectrum, at the same time, I might hear 20 stations with ABC News -- exactly the same news bulletin -- because it's just been syndicated in there. But in the case of stations like yourselves, I get that local flavour and that makes a big difference."
Bell originally hails from Cape Town in South Africa. He adds that being so far up in the northern hemisphere, while especially going up to a place up in northern Finland where it's so cold with so much ice, is something he considers to be beyond anything he's done in life so far.
- Date: 8 December 2022.
- Time: 0203 your time.
- Frequency: 920 kHz.
- Reception: good at peaks with some periods of fading. Your signal was audible for quite long periods of time.
- Receiver: Excalibur Pro software-defined radio with 1000-meter elevated copper wire antenna.
Bell notes he's verified about 1500 signals in all, including short-wave, with about half on AM.
"There are DXers around with far more than I," says Bell. "It’s gotten harder to get responses in recent years as radio station personnel have become busier and probably over-burdened with emails and social media. Also, attachments like the mp3 ID recordings I send are viewed with suspicion by some, understandably."