July 18, 2011

God in the Machine

So I have a clock radio.

It's nothing special, just a mid-range AM/FM device with two alarms, and I keep it tuned to a local AM classical station for my wake-up music.

Well, something changed with that this morning.

Instead of symphonic music, I was awoken to some beautiful Christian contemporary music--soft rock, I guess you would call it--and so I glanced over at my wife.

"Did you change the station?"


The song ended as we snuggled up in bed, and then I heard an unfamiliar voice announce the stations call letters and place on the dial. We were listening to WMHK-FM, 89.7.

Out of Columbia, South Carolina.

206 miles away.

And the signal was clear as a bell.

My radio dial was lying to me, still trying to tell me I was tuned to an AM station on the lower end of the band.

WMHK is a 100,000 watt station that is occasionally heard as far away as Florence, SC (81 miles away) and Charlotte, NC (92 miles away), but we're more than twice that distance, tuned to another station, on another band, and we're getting their signal like their broadcast tower is in our back yard.

I'd love to hear the technical explanation of how this happened, but I'm content with the minor miracle just as it is.

Posted by Confederate Yankee at July 18, 2011 07:25 AM

Neat stuff. I once picked up a TV station from over 100 miles away on a stick antenna on my old black and white TV because of it.

Posted by: brian at July 18, 2011 08:52 AM

The cynic in me says that both stations are run by the same company, and that the audio feeds were mixed up at the home office.

Really cheap radios can sometimes end up powering the AM and FM circuits at the same time. If you were really listening to the FM band, you may have heard E skip. E skip happens the E layer in the ionosphere charges up abnormally, and turns reflective in bands it usually just absorbs.

Posted by: Kentucky Packrat at July 18, 2011 08:58 AM

Brian is probably correct.

As a ham operator, I've learned that radio waves are funny things. Serious hams communicate on the internet, alerting others that a radio band is 'open', meaning that sommunication is somehow easy with far away stations.

Posted by: The Packetman at July 18, 2011 09:25 AM

Atmospheric effects can be pretty interesting. My rescue squad here in Virginia occasionally picks up an agency in Texas that just happens to be on the same frequency that we are.

I understand that Hams can actually talk to people on the other side of the world (literally!) when conditions are right.

Like Kentucky Packrat said, you probably experienced the results of a combination of a poorly designed radio and atmospheric effects.

Posted by: Jake at July 18, 2011 09:37 AM

I am guessing that the most likely explanation has something to do with your drinking habits. It is real easy to change bands and stations when you are trying to shut off the alarm.

Posted by: Professor Hale at July 18, 2011 09:41 AM

AM radio (amplitude modulation) "bounces" its signal off the atmosphere. FM (frequency modulation) does not.

With a rooftop antenna wired to my very fine receiver/amplifier in Milwaukee WI, I was able to pick up KOMA, (OKC), St Louis, Cleveland, and Atlanta stations during the night-time hours. With my el-cheapo AM clock-radio and NO antenna, I can pick up Cleveland and Southern Illinois.

Posted by: dad29 at July 18, 2011 09:56 AM

The Big Guy upstairs was wanting to remind you and your wife that He really does love you.

Posted by: gDavid at July 18, 2011 05:01 PM

Besides God wanting to put a smile on your face, there is that atmospheric effect mentioned by dad29. I recall listening to AM radio late at night when I was 10-12 years old in Memphis, TN. Easy to pick up the Cardinals games --
down river from St. Louis (warm and fuzzy memories, early 60's). But one night I remember fiddling with the dial, just being a curious kid, and picked up a station from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Forget the freq & call sign. Just remember listening to it for an hour or so through a couple of ID checks + some music, news, etc. Never forget it.

Posted by: Robert17 at July 18, 2011 07:23 PM

I'm not sure about how an FM station can be heard on an AM radio, but as for the distance, there is a phenomenon that ham radio operators are very familiar with, called "atmosphere ducting." When the weather pattern is just right, a certain range of frequencies (roughly 50-200 mHz, if I remember correctly), that normally are only good for local communication, can travel hundreds of miles along paths that the weather creates in the atmosphere.

This is an entirely different phenomenon, and an entirely different range of frequencies, from that used by ham operators to talk to people on the other side of the world.

Posted by: Dean at July 19, 2011 12:31 AM

I was once entertained by Los Angeles traffic reports while driving across I-70 in east central Utah. As I recall, I could barely see the lights of another car. Traffic jams were a nightmare away.

Posted by: STW at July 19, 2011 07:00 PM

Back when I was a dispatcher, the radios used (OK DPS)the same frequencies as Florida DPS; normally, not a problem. But in summer, if there was much sunspot activity, bounce was so bad that at times we had trouble talking to one of our units 20-30 miles out, but could hear Florida units talking; same on their end.

One day they had a unit calling for assistance, a wrecker and ambulance for a car in a canal, and his HQ could not hear him. The guy on duty in our station asked him for location , got it, got on the phone and called his HQ and relayed the message. Found out later he was about 15 miles from his station and they couldn't hear a word from him.

Posted by: Firehand at July 19, 2011 08:10 PM