Bill's Radio History

Last updated: December 23, 2012

After reading this page you may wish to visit my special page about my QSL collection, and also another that shows my various radio related certificates, including my prized Popular Electronics shortwave listener registration from the 60's

At one time I had an item on the Maritimes Scanning Site that outlined my radio background.  A few people emailed me to tell me how interesting it was. Somehow I nevertheless took the item down again, for privacy reasons, but I resurrected the idea when I began to think that  I should write one of those little articles for Popular Communications, saying how I got into radio and see my picture in the magazine and win a subscription.  I just never got around to doing it but here again are some highlights from my radio life that I might have chosen from:

I grew up on Vancouver Island in a small town in a beautiful situation with a view across Georgia Strait to the Coast Mountains, and backed by the smaller mountains of the Island.   The town had a nice long beach, and a mild climate with long warm summers, so that saltwater swimming and play in the sand was the norm. Our own house was on a ten acre plot of land, an an old farm really, but surrounded by forest.   In fact the region had some tremendously tall and large trees.   I guess that this background on a semi-isolated property not only led me into an appreciation of nature but also a pleasure in more or less solitary interests such as reading and radio listening.  When I was little, around 5 or 6 years old, we had radio that my folks had brought with them from Scotland and converted for the Canadian power system.  This radio had long wave on it and from time to time I would fiddle with it and hear various Morse code transmissions that I later realized were aero beacons.  The radio worked fairly well as my father had a long-wire connected to it.  He was not a radio enthusiast himself and I suspect he connected that antenna because it did not have an internal one like more modern radios.

Later we moved on to a newer radio but I found that in our area any AM radio could pick up, at the bottom end of the dial, a continuous beacon transmission consisting of the letters O and X followed by a long long dash.  Later I came to know that this was the 530 kHz NDB at RCAF Station Comox, about 30 miles away.  

Having listened to the bottom of the dial I also tried the high end but that was later when I was a teenager.  Some radios seemed to go quite a bit beyond 1600 kHz and I happened upon 1630 kHz.  1630 was really quite an odd frequency in North America.  There was (and still is) an MF marine band extending from about 2000 kHz to nearly 2800 kHz, but as sort of an offshoot of this was a small bit of spectrum from 1605 kHz to around 1700 kHz that was also part of that 2 MHz marine band.  As far as I know this was the only use of this bit of spectrum anywhere in Canada or the USA.  1630 was the major broadcast and working channel for the government marine coast stations on the west coast.  These are now part of the coast guard and many are gone, being replaced by remote facilities.  (In fact, 1630 is not even in the marine band anymore, as the AM broadcast band now goes up to 1690 kHz)  This was the start of my adolescence listening to the marine traffic on the 2 MHz (MF) marine band, including 1630 kHz.  I listened often to VAK, VAI, VAC, VAE, VAF, VAG, VAJ, VAH as they broadcast weather and traffic lists and worked the large fleet of coastal fishing boats, towboats, freighters and passenger ships.  All of them broadcast on 1630 plus had two way traffic as well.  Today, in 2012 only the stations in Tofino and Prince Rupert are still on the 2 MHz marine band.   I learned a lot about the remote parts of the BC coast, little knowing that I some day would be sailing there myself.  Eventually I bought a second hand receiver that actually covered the rest of the 2 MHz band and started to listen to 2182, where the real action was.  2182 was, and is, the calling and emergency frequency for that band and it was often busy.  Back then I also listened to the tugboat frequency 2366 kHz as  well as various other frequencies. I was introduced to the US Coast Guard and began to hear stations around North America, all on AM in those days.  Nowadays this is much diminished and is on SSB. Thus began my special interest in logging as many USCG stations as I could on 2182 and 2670 (their main frequency).  I have a nice collection of USCG QSL cards, some of which are shown on my QSL card page.   It was quite dramatic to hear the occasional Mayday, or more likely Mayday Relay following an emergency alarm, coming in from afar.  I don't remember hearing any from my local area in BC, but quite few from the North Pacific, especially through Kodiak Radio (NOJ) in Alaska.  I also became quite familiar with the government vessels and towboats of the BC coast and read a lot about their history and visited the docks in Vancouver and Victoria on a few occasions.  One special highlight was hearing and QSL'ing the Royal Yacht Britannia.    One comment worth adding is that in the 60's there was very little if any activity on VHF marine, and besides I didn't have a receiver back then to receive it.

Also off the top end of the AM dial and listenable on some AM radios was the Los Angeles Police, on 1730 kHz.   This was the famous KMA367, which apparently was listenable across the continent.  Check this interesting website.  I listened off and on a few times but in August 1965 the unfortunate "highlight" was to listen to the Watts riots via the police dispatch.  Hard to believe that was over 40 years ago.  Around then the first consumer tape recorders (reel to reel) were in use and I think I still have a few minutes of those transmissions on a tape somewhere.

In the mid-sixties I began my on-again, off-again interest in short-wave listening (SWL) and in broadcast band listening (BCL).  What I remember most fondly is the sound of the various interval signals from around the world.  The kookaburra from Australia and the Swedish Rhapsody from you know where and the one I can't remember but enjoyed from Radio RSA (South Africa).  I always enjoyed the beginning of the Voice of America transmissions -- back then they started with "O Columbia the Gem of the Ocean" later to be replaced by various renditions of Yankee Doodle, which I also enjoyed.

I did listen to the standard AM broadcast band a lot, and got my first QSL card in 1963.   For those not familiar with QSL's, these are verifications that a station has been heard.   Hams still use them a lot, as not only do they make a nice collection, they are also the basis for various awards given for having worked stations in various places.   QSL's used to be very common on the broadcast band (BCB) as well.   Listeners would report to stations on the signal strength, and would provide a few details of the program in order to prove the station was actually heard.   Generally a station would have a supply of prepared QSL cards printed up, some of them very attractive, with just the details to be filled in, and sent back to the listener.   If they didn't have QSL cards, then a verification letter would be sent.   In 1963 I was I think in Grade 10 and I suppose some would say that I should have been out having fun, and in reply, I must say that I wasn't a complete recluse, but I did enjoy this pastime.   Back then, as I have detailed more in my broadcast pages, there were a number of BCB stations that could be heard across the continent.  I didn't realize that hearing them was run of the mill listening so was thrilled to hear WSB in Atlanta, WBZ Boston, and several New York City stations as well as quite a few from the Midwest and Gulf area.   I sent reports off to them and these QSL cards, though not rarities in any way, are treasured mementos of that time.  I later sent many other reports, but like so many of my radio endeavors I have not been into them so much as to be an expert.   I never have had the special radios, antennas and other items for serious DX'ing on the BCB or on any other band.   Reporting for QSL's is still popular but much diminished, as young people coming up do not even listen to the AM band anymore, and as you all can relate to, people in general are not thrilled by things like this anymore.  Who can blame them, with instant gratification on the internet, and besides even I would be reluctant to try to obtain a QSL from any broadcaster nowadays, as so many are live on the internet, so that there really is no proof anymore that a station was actually heard over the air.

Another aspect of listening that I dabbled in was to listen to utility stations worldwide.  This would mostly include high seas radiotelephone and radiotelegraph stations that were very common in the days before satellite communications, and also aeronautical long distance stations, all of these on the HF bands.   

From 1966 to 70 I was attending university and really don't remember doing much in the way of radio listening in the earlier years, except when home in the summers.  In 1968 to 1970 I lived in an apartment in Victoria that had a view across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Port Angeles in Washington State.  I could easily see the lights of the city on clear nights, so of course I would have been able to hear VHF communications. Also in the summers of 1969 and 1970 I lived in a provincial park north of Victoria (not as a camper -- I was the resident park attendant/ranger).   I had by that time bought a  multiband portable radio from Eaton's department store.  I am not sure what prompted me to do this, but I think this was perhaps my first time to listen to VHF public service radio.  The area is very close to the US border so heard various Sheriff's departments as well as the local RCMP.   I continued with this as I lived in Victoria thru the winter of 1970/71 and became quite familiar with the Victoria area police departments on 155.55 MHz, as well as of course the police across the way in Port Angeles.

In the spring of 1971 I joined the Canadian Armed Forces and it was during basic training that I got my Lafayette monitor radio that allowed a little easier listening.  It took two crystals but at that time I didn't really know what exact frequency anything was on; however the tunable section was pretty good, for back then.

In the fall of 1971, during French language training south of Montreal and then during 1972 back in Victoria for naval training I listened to the 2 MHz band as in the old days.  Not much "scanning" but I sure heard a lot of US Coast Guard stations.   In the naval training we all had to learn visual Morse code and read messages on blinking ship's lights, as well as learn radio procedures.   I had already learned the Morse code back in high school for Scouts, and in my earlier radio listening days had become somewhat proficient in understanding it on the radio.

1973 brought my special training as a Communications & Electronic Warfare Officer.  Even now not much can be said except that the men in my section (not actually me) did a lot of listening for "enemy" radio traffic and missile radars (EW).   Of course the regular radio department was in my area as well.  As the officer you don't do any operating, just know more or less what's going on.  My main job out on the ship as Comm O was to break out the new NATO code each day, along with the radioman and ensure our radios were on it. Quite interesting.  One sidelight to all this was that this position required a NATO Top Secret clearance and in order to receive this clearance I had to be investigated by the military intelligence people.  When I had my interview for this they knew that I had in earlier years received mail from countries such as the Soviet Union and Communist China, and that so had my father.   My correspondence was the reception reports to, and QSL's back from Radio Moscow, Radio Prague and Radio Peking.   My dad was a big collector of various things including autographs and had written for and obtained autographs of various Russian cosmonauts and leaders.  Amazing what was known!  Anyway the explanations must have been sufficient and I was approved.    

I left the navy in 1973 and attended university in Halifax to become a teacher.  In all that time since I have not had an outdoor wire antenna up so have never really pursued HF or BCB DX in any serious way.

I have however been a scanner enthusiast pretty well all that time.  It is interesting to see how things have evolved in that time.  When I came to Halifax in the early 70's the Halifax Police Department was on 155 MHz but switched to around 142 MHz (lot of scanners then wouldn't go below 144 MHz).   I heard that they did this to avoid scanner listeners!  Then they went to 412 MHz UHF and after that to the now-gone city trunk at 862 - 865 MHz.  Around the turn of the century they moved again slightly to the provincial trunk system at 859 to 862 MHz.  Lots of changes and I am not sure there is much improvement from the original system!

By the way my first actual scanner was what would be deemed very odd nowadays.  This was a GE Searcher.   The Searcher was a manually tunable receiver with a twist.  It had four small tuning knobs or in other words four tuners in it.   There were no crystals and of course no programmable features.  The user would choose one of the tuning knobs and fiddle with it until something good was detected, then go on to another one.   Then once they were all adjusted to what was wanted, they were left alone, and then the radio would scan from one to the other.  Have a look at these excerpts from the manual....  Excerpt 1    Excerpt 2.   I enjoyed that radio very much, and in fact I wish I still had it, but it disappeared somehow.    Sometime in the early eighties I think, I got my first programmable scanner, the Radio Shack PRO-30.   It only had 16 channels, but boy what a revolution to be able to enter a frequency and know you would be on it.    Over the years I have had quite a few scanners, and always it has seemed that when one is obtained it is already on its way to obsolescence.

I have come to realize that although I am of course interested in the local action, such as "where is that fire truck going?", I am very much more interested in understanding systems and compiling lists, and that is where this website comes in.   In fact I think I am a little odd in this respect, as most scanner listeners are I am sure interested in the frequency lists and that is about it.  On the other hand I have run into a few radio friends over the years who are also interested in the details that fascinate me.

In the early days of my teaching career I worked with a ham in my school, Barry Lloyd, who inspired me to finally get my ham licence.  I attended a class taught by Clive Bagley and passed the test, done in those days by Transport Canada inspectors.  My call sign was VE1BWC.  At that time call signs were given out in approximate alphabetical order, so I was given the choice from a small block.  It was fortuitous that my initials were in the call sign!  Later, in about 1988, I changed to VE1CV which I learned later was the recycled call sign of a respected pioneer in the Truro area, a Mr. Ogilvie, and felt a bit presumptuous to be using his call.  Unfortunately I have never been much of a ham -- always saying that someday I will get the time and equipment and really get on with it.  I am still saying that!  Anyway, not feeling that I was a worthy successor to the late Mr. Ogilvie, I made a further change.   One day I saw a list or maybe a licence plate with VA1AA on it.   It was a surprise to see it, as of course VE1 is the usual for this area, and the supply of VE1's was far from being depleted.   I talked to the owner of the call and he said that he had seen that VA calls were being assigned in Ontario, and therefore he tried to get a VA1 and somehow they went along with it at Industry Canada.   Having heard that I applied immediately to get VA1WW and give up VE1CV, and soon I had it.    Subsequently as I used VA1WW I didn't really like the confusion with VE1WW and in 2012 I made what surely must be my last change, to VE1CY, not much different from that CV one I had but I do like the sound of this new one.

Speaking of ham radio, yes I do have my ticket but over the years I have not been very active.   In fact I can say that outside of hams who are also scanning enthusiasts, I am unknown around Halifax, even though I have had my licence since 1978!   I dabbled very briefly in HF back when I got my licence, but that did not last, and though I do possess a 10-metre rig now, I only occasionally go on two metres, and have not even taken part in some of the fascinating aspects of VHF, such as Echolink or satellite communications.   I would like to go on 2 m SSB as I am very fascinated by propagation and dx on vhf, which is also one of my scanning interests.

Currently my scanning activities are at a lower ebb than before.   I have to say that likely I was a nuisance to my family members who did not appreciate the sounds of a scanner in the car, and beyond that, it is not everyone who thinks that scanning is a particularly noble pastime!  Or even if not making that judgment they at least think it a little strange!    With that in the air, and lack of time I have drawn back some but maintain my interests if not my activity.

There have been some very kind comments over the years about the Maritimes Scanning Site, even references to it as the bible of scanning in the region, and I do appreciate those remarks.    Now I have reduced the site along with my active scanning to a shell of its former magnitude but hopefully it still holds something of interest.

Another unusual interest I have is in railways, somewhat in present day ones, but more so on abandoned ones.  And in that same vein I am interested in the abandoned roads and highways of our province.

I also am interested in abandoned airfields and bases such as the former RCAF radar stations, such as the one at Beaver Bank, not far from me,  and their airfields such as at Pennfield Ridge in New Brunswick.  I also like to read about the many abandoned DEW line, Mid-Canada, and Pinetree Line radar stations, and as well the huge number of American bases in Canada, the Pacific and the USA itself.    With the advent of Google Earth it has become easy to try to spot old airfields throughout those regions.   For example, have a look at Pennfield or at Argentia, Newfoundland.  Both of those bases are abandoned but oh so visible from the air.  Other abandoned airfields have been taken over by other uses.  It is interesting to see remnants of runways at the edges of housing and industrial developments, or simply overrun by vegetation.    I guess this all ties in with my education as a geographer!

More conventional interests are reading and in music.  I cannot play an instrument, though I would like to.   I enjoy the music of the 50's to 70's, and have a good collection of the oldies (2000+ of my favourites), but I am also eclectic.  I enjoy the Blue Danube Waltz, My Fair Lady and Christmas music as much as I enjoy Elvis and the Beatles!

Now go back to the top and click on my QSL and certificate pages if you like...