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DXing, QSLs, SINPO, and 73s

Frederick Noronha

One generation ago, in our boyhood days, this was something like our secret club. It brought us together with a coded language, and encouraged us to link up with others who shared this odd hobby. We called ourselves DXers.

For those who might not be in the know, today it’s easy to find out more about what we are talking about. In our post-internet world, all it takes is a Google search, to throw up all the results and explain concepts very briefly. But in those times, it could take ages to meet the right person, to understand the right way of doing things. In that, lay half of the fun.

DXing basically means listening in to ‘distant’ (D) and ‘unknown’ (X) radio stations.

What’s so great about that, you might ask? Today, only a dedicated handful continue doing it, but that does not reduce its one-time importance, and historic value. Sudpita Ghosh wrote across the other day to say, “There were many members to the club from Goa. Do you think you can write something about the India DX Club International and its members from Goa during the hey-days of the DXing hobby?” Worth a try, however inadequate.

DXing became popular in the early days of radio broadcasting, which was as recent as in the 1920s and 1930s. By the 1970s, it was still quite active, and I suspect the many returning ‘Africanders’ (Goans earlier in East Africa) had something to do with its rising popularity in Goa then.

In its simplest form, “DXers” would identify a distant radio (or, sometimes, TV) signal, write down some details of what they heard and the quality of its broadcast, and post across the ‘reception report’ back to the station. They rated the station on the basis of its SINPO, which took its signal strength, interference, noise, etc, into account. In return, the radio station would acknowledge the reception report with what was called a QSL card.

Both gained from the deal. The radio got a reliable confirmation that it was actually audible in distant parts of the planet. For the DXer’s part, he (occasionally, she) got a colourful card, acknowledging that their report was correct. It became a challenge of sorts to collect the most number of such cards, from exotic locations across the globe.

In the meanwhile, DXers got in touch with one another, and also became friends. They’d drop in to each other’s homes, and pick up the tricks of the trade. If one recalls rightly, Osmond’s elder brothers, in my village, had an enviable collection of jazz records from the US, Dutch, and Russian language courses, memorabilia from South Africa, and
 what not.

There were other many goodies that came one’s way too. East Berlin’s radio sent across some fairly well made metal badges, demanding a ban on the neutron bomb in those Cold War days. One doesn’t hear of it now. Apparently, Ronald Reagan’s European allies would have nothing to do with it, and these enhanced radiation weapons were retired after 1992.

Radio Stockholm International was offering a tee-shirt in exchange for 10 international reply coupons. After scouting around to the general post office in Panaji, we found out that an IRC cost `2.50 in India then, and took the risk. The bright yellow and dark blue tee-shirt duly came our way and, between my brother and self, we must have shared it for half-a-dozen years.

There were other experiences too. One fine morning, the Indian Posts also sent me a show-causing notice, asking why something that had arrived from China should not be confiscated. One never ever learnt what were the contents of that mail, but being just a high-school student it hardly mattered.

But it was not only modest material blandishments which kept one going. Like the hobby of stamp collecting – now probably almost as dead – this one too was most educational. One got a broad window to the outside world. We got our dose of global politics, encountered geography and music from around the planet, even the diversity of languages. This meant a lot in those times, when the news and reading material was hard to source – forget about the internet, which was not even an idea.

Goa had its small network of DXers. I ran into Flavio Raposo at work, and we were surprised to have this common link. Zenon Telles, of Verem, is still very deeply involved with the hobby, and is amazingly aware of so many stations around the globe, he even knows their schedules on his fingertips, a knowledge he hides under his modesty.

HAM radio was one step above DXing, because it gave one the chance to be an amateur radio operator, and talk to some other amateur operator in some distant corner of the globe. By contrast, as a DXer, you were only listening in to mainstream radio stations and writing back to them.

Didier D’Mello, whose rooftop antennas made his location clear opposite Ashok-Samrat in Panaji, and passed away after a brief illness recently, was a prominent HAM radio operator, and one of the rare ones who could speak the Portuguese language, out of India. Virtually, a generation and a hobby coming to an end before our very eyes.

But once you get started, you never know where it ends. I think parts of the country like Bengal were active in DXing and even had set up some listener clubs of particular radio stations.

From a Goan point of view, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC, earlier Radio Ceylon), AIR-Bombay for its few and far between Western music radio programmes like Saturday Date, AIR-Panjim for Konkani and English music, and even Radio Australia, which faded in and out of the airwaves late morning after the SLBC went off the air, were popular listener choices. The BBC for its news and thought-provoking talk shows, and the Voice of America for its jazz and some music shows, were also popular.

Today, one can hear recordings of these on the internet, including Facebook. But, when it came to DXing, it was always a challenge to tune in to distant and rare radio stations, on both sides of the Cold War.

Besides the Cold Warriors, there were also a number of religious broadcasters. The Vatican was once known for its powerful radio operations. Others ran their broadcasts from tiny islands like Guam.

It was really a challenge in those times to tune into distant radio stations, with equipment (read: decent radios and antennas) and knowledge (like the World Radio and TV Handbook) being so hard to come by. But some enthusiastic Indian DX organisations made up for this to some extent, with their occasional magazines. Today, the challenges come from elsewhere. Short-wave (distant) radio is almost dead.

The other day, one came across an article on how the internet has impacted radio (written by James Careless in the Radio World International). BBC World Service started off by arguing that the web and webcasting would be a cheaper and modern alternative to expensive short-wave broadcasting. Many stations quit the short-wave bands for good. China Radio International is an exception, and the smart Chinese remain ubiquitous.

Goa has also been popular in Portuguese times for its Emissora de Goa broadcasts. More recently, its Bambolim transmitters would send out broadcasts to some distant lands. Some useful sites like https://swling.com/blog/ still offer a lot of online information.

Despite the changing times, DXing played a crucial role in shaping a generation and more. The intangible benefits can barely be calculated. It acted as our window to the world. Which is why, hobbies need to be encouraged among the young, at least as a way to find themselves.

Let’s sign off with 73, a ‘code’ which dates to the era of telegraphs and which DXers still use to mean “best regards” or “my compliments”.

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