There is always something on worth listening to, at least in my experience. Looking at my Solar Data widget all the bands are listed in red as being closed or in poor condition right now due to a mild geomagnetic storm. The K Index is 5, and the solar winds are a bit active, coming close to 500. I turned my scanner on (since they are mostly local and higher frequencies are less affected by solar activity), but I got curious about the HF bands. I first tuned in with a small portable, and there wasn’t much coming in. Based on propagation conditions, that sounded about right. Still, I wondered . . . .
Next I fired up an old standard, the FRG-7. Not much coming in, in fact, almost nothing. Wait a minute. Am I sure I have the antenna switch set correctly? (I have only recently added the FRG-7 to the switch.) Click! Suddenly there is a lot more noise on the band. As I start tuning around I check some typical powerhouses to see how they sound. Around 6 MHz Radio Havana Cuba is going in strong. A little farther down the band a Radio China International station is on, and a bit farther still several religious powerhouses are undaunted by the space storm.
Moving up the bands I check 7, 8, and 9 MHz with varying success, but at 10 MHz WWV in Ft. Collins is coming in just fine. As I tune up 10 MHz just a bit I start hearing data bursts, no more than 1-2 seconds in length, with some occasional voice. It takes a while to zero in on the frequency because the transmissions are short and I realize I have to switch to USB. The transmissions are around 10.51 MHz, not a common frequency for anything I am aware of, but of course that does not mean it is not part of some country’s band plan.
At first I thought I might have run across a “numbers” station, but after listening for just a few moments it was clear this was a 2-way conversation, sprinkled with data modes. While it was not on long enough for me to try to decode the signals, it sounded a bit like MT63 to me, but I am not sure. The conversation sounded like Spanish, so I might have run across commercial or maritime transmissions, or just two friends talking and sending data to one another. Too bad I did not have my digital mode software running or at least a recorder nearby. It is amazing what the digital mode software can do even from a recording off one’s phone! Just pipe it in through a (.wav) file and most digital software can treat it like a regular transmission.
I then spent some time back down the band around 5-6 MHz and listened to an economic report from Radio Cuba which was pointing out its boost in tourism during 2015, as well as resorts, attractions, and reserved areas for vacationing. While interesting in its own right, I also found it interesting because a report like this would not have been aired even a year ago except for the changes to foreign policy here in the states. This was, of course, followed shortly thereafter by a report highlighting “this day in history” and referencing the United States’ “war of aggression” in Vietnam. While Radio Havana Cuba is certainly slanted against the U.S. it is nevertheless an interesting station for various programming, and even the news can be informative if listened to with an understanding of the anti-American bias.
While my opportunity to listen was fairly short, I heard some interesting things, even when the bands were supposed to be “poor,” and of course that is the point. Amateur activity was low, either due to the storm or to worries about the storm leading folks to turn off their radios. It is a bit like the chicken-or-the-egg scenario: is the band dead because propagation is bad or is the band dead because no one is on it? Regardless, if the ham bands are dead the same radio (unless it is quite old!) will also pick up shortwave radio, and there are always powerhouse stations which will get through. With more exploration I might well have been able to hear some weaker stations, and quite possibly monitored some commercial aircraft traffic on standard HF frequencies. Even if voice was difficult to copy (it wasn’t), there are always data modes which can be monitored as well, such as HFDL mode or similar modes.
One of the real joys of the radio hobby to me is that no matter how much or how little time I have (it is always too little!) I can find something to listen to any time of day. The most important thing is to have a listening plan, either written down or stored in your head, which offers alternatives based on band conditions at any given time. Developing this ability may seem daunting, particularly in terms of carrying it around in one’s brain, but with time it will become second nature. Until then, a cheat sheet near the radio is perfectly fine.
I will write more about a listening plan in a future post as it may be helpful, especially if someone is starting out fresh. There is nothing magical about mine, it is just something which works for me and may be of use, at least initially, as a jumping off point for your own explorations. The main thing to remember is: There is always something on worth listening to!