Thursday, June 21, 2012

Inside Firedrake: a Tour of the Chinese Shortwave Jamming Facility

Firedrake (conventional meaning): a creature of Teutonic mythology; usually represented as breathing fire and having a reptilian body and sometimes wings

Firedrake (radio lexicon): a shortwave jamming service operated by China from multiple locations in the Chinese mainland, possibly using transmitters from the erstwhile Soviet era, and engaged in jamming of shortwave broadcasts originating from clandestine operatives as well as "some" foreign (international) broadcasters - which according to the National People's Party directives - are active pollutants of the Chinese Renaissance.

I am always fascinated by Firedrake music. The sheer force of its sound, its pitch and tone creates an auditory perception beyond words. Although, as a DXer you are bound to get frustrated when you spot a clandestine operating with low power transmitter and just when at the top of the hour you expect hearing a station id, up comes the Firedrake and disrupts your listening experience. This has been my personal experience and I am sure most DXers have similar experiences with Firedrake.

Even with a considerable amount of search and peer-knowledge exchange, I got very little information about Firedrake. But then, recently, I came across a well-researched post which shed new light on Firedrake. It is written by Steven Handler in his blog

Here's sharing with you this very interesting  post 

West of the central city of Beijing is 16a Shijingsham Road in Baboshan, part of the Shijingshan District of Beijing. As you arrive, you observe a modern high rise building. At the entrance lies a wall of glass rising almost six stories in height; a beautiful and imposing site.
This is the home of China Radio International. “CRI” is horizontally emblazoned toward the top of the concrete wall lying just right of the front entrance. Next to “CRI” is its name in Chinese, running vertically for about a half dozen stories of the building.
You won’t find a sign labeled “Firedrake”, but this building is also reportedly home to the nerve center of the Chinese government’s shortwave jamming effort.
Broadcast studios are arranged throughout the building including six studios on the third floor and seven studios on the forth floor. The studios are used for CRI as well as for China National Radio. The third floor also houses two separate control rooms.
Security is taken seriously near the control rooms on the third floor. They are guarded by armed members of the Peoples Liberation Army. Access is available only by a pass. The larger of the two control rooms handles the distribution of China Radio International’s shortwave programs.
The smaller, but amply sized control room is the more interesting of the two. A sign in Chinese above the control room door translates into English as “blocking of foreign signals room”. This control room has facilities capable of monitoring foreign shortwave broadcasts heard in China. It is also this control room that handles the satellite distribution of the Firedrake jamming music to transmitters within China. The Chinese government’s shortwave jamming sites can also be controlled from here.
There has always been speculation about why Firedrake usually signs off at the top of each hour. Perhaps it is because, while the jamming broadcasts are silent, the Chinese have the ability to use their monitoring facilities to search for their target’s frequencies that are in use. Apparently, if the target of their jamming switches frequencies, the control room can within minutes, commence jamming of the new frequency.
Although it is the control room which has much of the fancy electronics used in the jamming operation, there are other interesting parts to the jamming operation. Moving on with our Firedrake tour, we make a stop at the central tape archive division. This is the repository for tapes made of, and used for, CRI broadcasts. What is interesting is that, unlike most other tapes which are labeled with the full program details, the tapes containing the Firedrake music are simply labeled with the recording date and the notation “16 track”.
No tour of the Chinese government’s jamming facilities would be complete without a stop at a very special studio. Located to your right as you enter the building on the first floor, is Studio 8. Unlike the other smaller studios in the building, this one looks like a large
auditorium. It was in Studio 8 that the Chinese assembled musicians whom they had contracted to produce a musical arrangement. The music composition lasted over an hour and was recorded in just a single evening.
The tapes of the recording session were edited into multiple versions, including a version that is 59 minutes in length. That 59 minute version has been broadcast from the Control center to the Firedrake jamming transmitters throughout China and from those sites, by shortwave, through-out the world. Three or four minutes of the music from this recording session were eventually also broadcasted by the Chinese governments shortwave station during the Spring festival a number of years ago.
The jamming transmitters however, are not located at 16a Shijingsham Road. They are at sites scattered throughout China. Apparently two different types of jamming transmitters may be in use.
The older and more plentiful type of transmitters were designed by the Soviet Union and built in China. They are able to broadcast throughout much if the HF band. However, they appear to be limited to transmitting on increments of five kilohertz.
A newer style transmitters may have been reverse engineered from those bought from a major shortwave transmitter manufacturing company. Reportedly these newer transmitters more frequency agile and may not be limited to five kilohertz frequency increments.
I hope you have enjoyed this modest tour. The next time you hear Chinese government’s shortwave jamming you will have a better picture of from were it originates.
Note: I haven’t had the opportunity to pay a visit to the Chinese jamming facility mentioned in this article. However, I have spoken to apparently credible source (or sources) who had access to China’s jamming facility on numerous occasions and provided information used for this article. I thank my source (or sources) who shall remain anonymous because of concerns of retaliation.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Towards A New Beginning: Kolkata DX Meet

“Dreams are renewable. No matter what our age or condition, there are still untapped possibilities within us and new beauty waiting to be born” - Dr. Dale Turner

We all have dreams, yet not every one of these can be realized within a single lifetime. But it is said that even the most challenging and the toughest tasks known to man can be accomplished if we have a definite purpose, a clear objective, collective approach, enthusiasm and the will to achieve despite odds! With such an aim to bring Dxers of Kolkata together today (Sep 4th, 2011) a much anticipated DX meet was organized at Dr. Supratik Sanatani’s residence. Special thanks to Babul Gupta for this idea and Jyoti P. Chakravartty for his suggestion, this special event saw the attendance of 13 Dxers from Kolkata including veterans and new comers (picture below)

It was a historic event for all the participants, as some senior Dxers and HAMs met each other after decades and also the newcomers for the very first time! Among them some like Dipankar Dutta and Pratap Shankar Mazumdar are silent keys now, while Dr. Supratik Sanatani and Babul Gupta have started Dxing afresh after remaining in hibernation for several years. It was a pleasure meeting the youngest member Soumya Bhattacharya who QSL’d for the first time in 2006 as well as the senior-most member and the nucleus of the group Babul Gupta who QSL’d for the first time in 1967! Dxers who inspired a whole generation of the newcomers like Sudipta Ghose, Tripti Ranjan Basu, Swopan Chakraborty were present, which made this event a remarkable one!

When two people with common likes get together…time flies! And imagine, today it was full house! There were discussions on Dxing (now and then), snippets and anecdotes of Dxpeditions (past and present), looking at QSLs, radio souvenirs of the past and operating digital and analog radio gears of yesterday and today (brought by the participants), suggestions on building home brewed antennas, sharing personal experiences of visiting radio stations (in home and abroad) coupled with tasty snacks arranged by host Dr Supratik Sanatani, charged up the whole atmosphere!

One of the prime suggestions put forward by the senior Dxers of Kolkata was to revive IDXCI bulletin, a regular in the late 70’s and early 80’s besides issuing new membership cards and pennants for members. The other was to select a feasible spot for Dxpedition in the near future. With fresh blood coming into the group and with apt guidance and participation from seniors, it is highly probable that a DX revival is at the doorstep.

Dreams are renewable” The Kolkata DX meet proved it right for sure!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

All We Hear Is Radio Ga Ga

Radio has gone “forever” to posterity except for a few diehard devotees like me who still cling to it for whatever that is left of it. Of course, it has been resurrected in another avatar as FM (frequency modulation) with a very limited bandwidth and range — which is no match to the erstwhile radio box with its three-band range in which one could “surf and download” several national and international stations from America to Europe and from Beijing to Radio Australia in the far-east with a tiny knob for navigation of the dial! – Excerpt from “An ode to the radio of yesteryear” (an article published in The Hindu, dated, Aug 06, 2011) by V.Natarajan.

Great article! Surely brings memories of bygone days. There’s nothing more to add. It speaks your heart. I would recommend you to read the whole article. Here's the link:

The comments are intriguing as well! The views expressed in the different comments truly reflects the current state of radio in India and what listeners (past & present) think about listening to radio now.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Why Are Radios Important In An Internet World?

Recently there seems to be a growing apprehension about The End of Shortwave!

Reason? Major international broadcasters are either opting for a change of medium (read from on air to online) or dropping their programs, as well as closing down different language broadcasts entirely (without even caring to ask their longtime listeners about their opinion), with authorities giving explanations like - shortage of fund allotment from the respective government bodies, lack of listener participation and above all - ‘To Change With The Changing Times’ (read shift to internet-only format which will save costs).

“Change Is a Way of Life, If Nothing Ever Changed, There’d Be No Butterflies”

True! But practically speaking, is there any justification to close doors for radio just because WE have advanced technologies available? Has radio lost its relevancy in an internet world? Certainly NOT!
It’s More Important than it was ever before!

(Courtesy: Ears To Our World)
[The following is an excerpt from Ears To Our World’s webpage]

"In many countries, access to the Information Economy, the networking technology which instantaneously connects people across the planet with information, media, and each other, is now often seen as a basic human right. Unfortunately, much of the world does not have the communications infrastructure to support access to the World Wide Web and other dynamic media sources such as digital television, wireless networks or even the telephone. Political instability, meanwhile, can undermine even the written word. For many people living in poverty or in war-torn regions, radio is still the best and the most effective way to receive life-supporting information.

Ears To Our World is a grass-root, humanitarian organization that specializes in the distribution of medium and shortwave radios to individuals, primarily children and teachers, in the developing world. Our mission is to enable children and their support networks in the most remote, impoverished parts of the world to receive educational programming, local and international news, emergency and health information as well as music and arts programming through the use of shortwave radio receivers."

Work such as this, which rarely hits headlines, actually matters!

No doubt, its a beacon of hope to radio enthusiasts as well! It’s reassuring to know that amid all the internet-craze, still there are people working silently for the spread of shortwave literacy among children of the future!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Yesterday Once More: The Magic of Signature Tunes

"If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday"
~ Pearl Buck.

True! What we are today is by our choices made yesterday. The same apply to our hobbies as well! If you’re a radio hobbyist, I’m sure you would agree with me that, at some point in the past, you made a conscious decision to pursue this wonderful hobby of Dxing! But I wasn’t that ‘selective’. Instead it grew in me naturally! What attracted me to radio is quite hard to explain. It’s not a single factor but a collection of several factors. Among others I would say, listening to “signature tunes” or “interval signals” helped me stick to this hobby for years!

I recently saw a Facebook poll where a Dxer friend asked "If you get a chance then which station's signature tune will you choose as your mobile phone's ringtone?" While, the question was intriguing and the answers were equally interesting, it helped me recollect my memories of listening to interval signals and signature tunes from far away stations! Today, some of these stations have left shortwave and others are planning to bid adieu as well. While we’re uncertain about what future holds for us (the shortwave listeners and Dxers), let’s not waste the present time in debates, assumptions or presumptions; instead let us relish a slice of the past!

Here’s a list of my 10 most favorite signature tunes from radio stations across continents (in reverse order). Each one is special to me and I have extensive cassette recordings of the same. If you’re curious “click” on the links and listen to the tunes. And don’t forget to leave your comments or name your personal favorites to let me know, if we have similar tastes! Enjoy…

10. Radio New Zealand International (The Pacific Voice): I never get tired listening to the “bird’s call” from RNZI. I still remember the first time I listened to its opening announcement around midnight (my local time) and recorded the same after two successive attempts. The Maori chorus following the 'sign on' adds a special dimension to this exotic tune from down under. Technology has made things so easier today! Now you can listen to it here

9. RDP International, Portugal: Always a prized catch, there’s not much of a sign on tune! But the quick-paced Portuguese announcement followed by the anthem attracted me to tune in to RDP Intl. Sadly for listeners, the station has left shortwave recently and there’s every possibility of its staying that way in the future as well. Here’s your chance to listen to it

8. Swiss Radio International: So sweet a tune never heard! (Echoing the words of the great bard) SRI was one of my personal favorites for years. Its SW service is long gone into the history books! Luckily for me, I was fortunate to QSL & record their last SW broadcast (via- Sottens)! Click here to listen.

7. WSHB, Cypress Creek: Another station I loved listening to. It’s no more on the air waves. But you can listen to its wonderful tune here.

6. Radio Sweden, Stockholm: Rhythm and melody, with a dash of scandinavian flavor! That’s what made this wonderful tune appealing to me! Check it out

5. Channel Africa: Another all time favorite,I remember the first time I heard the “Bird’s call” and made my whole family listen to it. It was 10.30 at night, and breaking the silence outside, my portable radio sound box boomed “you’re tuned to the English service of Channel Africa, broadcasting from Johannesburg, South Africa”. Here is the tune (Click to open > South Africa > Channel Africa)

4. Deutchewelle: Its injustice not to select the DW tune as one of my favorites. There were times when my morning would begin with DW’s Bengali broadcasts. It was more of a habit and at some point in my career, a compulsion! Listen it here

3. Radio Australia: I’m a fan of RA. ABC Radio Grandstand heard on shortwave on weekends was my direct source of live sports update from The Ashes Tour to The Australian Open during my school days. However, Radio Australia’s sign on tune was logged much later. "Waltzing Matilda" or “Call of the Kookaburra” which one’s your favorite? Here is mine

2. Radio Vlaanderen Internationaal, Belgium: RVI‘s tune (the vintage one) played a crucial role in creating my interest in Dxing. There’s something ‘magical’ to it that still appeals to my ears. Check it out here. (Click to open > Belgium > RVI vintage c.1998)

1. Radio Japan, NHK World: My best signature tune. There’s a mystical element in this tune. Like the tune played by the Pied Piper of Hamelin, it will soothe your senses, preparing you for a magical flight to the Land of The Rising Sun!

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Are You Listening?

What is language? According to Merriam-Webster’s online encyclopedia, language is defined as “the words, their pronunciation, and the methods of combining them used and understood by a community”. The most important word that I found in the above definition was “community”. Now what’s a community? Again, I came to the same resource, punched in the word and out came the answer! It said, community means “a group of people with common interests living in a particular area”. Now I got 2 words from here “common” and “particular”. So does it mean that people who are members of a specific community should belong to a particular geographical area? And should they cultivate only similar interests? Then what would you say about English? Without a doubt it’s the lingua franca of our modern era. But even after attaining the status of a global language, is it free from clutters? The answer is No! It’s not. And it doesn’t make a difference to its high status and growing popularity!

Language is like fluid! As fluids take the shape of the containing vessels, a language too adapts itself to the region where it is being spoken. The vernacular dialects of the region exert their influence on the (non-native) language, gradually giving it a distinct shape and identity. The change is dynamic! It leads to varied pronunciations, typical word usage, and articulations. That’s why I find listening to English broadcasts from non-native English speaking countries - Fascinating!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Welcome to Ether Waves! My DX Weblog!

It was my long-cherished dream to create and maintain a weblog to document my DX endeavors, past & present. Alongside, I was also nourishing the idea of creating an online community or forum for Dxers and Radio enthusiasts, in the wake of the recent social media boom.

This latter ambition of mine was fulfilled a few months back when a fellow radio hobbyist and DX friend created a group called India Dxing Cooperation Forum on Facebook. It is an open group where all like-minded radio enthusiasts are welcome to join. Since its inception, it has developed into an excellent platform, with active participation from veteran Dxers as well as greenhorns, who wish to follow in their footsteps. With such an interactive group in action I find no need to create another!

However, my foremost ambition of writing blogs on radio and Dxing was far from being fulfilled. Today, there are umpteen blogs related to the subject, available on the Internet, churning out news, logs, and tidbits from the world of radio. While most serve 'breaking news' and carry feeds from different international broadcasters as well as share blog posts from other DX groups, only a handful (of those I have come across) actually contain quality DX information or authentic write-ups that could motivate young radio listeners and youths to take up this wonderful hobby. Thats what I wish to do. To popularize Dxing among today's youth. Through this blog I hope to reach out to my wonderful DX friends from the world over and my social media audience, to inform, entertain, and educate them about this wonderful hobby called Dxing.

I Believe in the Power of Words.

It was one fine morning that I got hold of an old edition of a youth magazine written in my vernacular language - Bengali. The cover story title (if translated from Bengali would mean) "Sailor of the Ether Sea", drew my attention. I finished reading the whole publication in an hour but at first, couldn't make any heads or tails of it! It simply flew over my head. A school boy of 14 in the pre-Internet, pre-cable television era India and with very little exposure to radio programming in the past, I could hardly understand what Dxing was all about! But those few pages of printed words changed my life! Gradually 'radio' became my ultimate companion and Dxing my passion, and for the last 15 years ... I'm lovin' it !

Once again, I thank you for reading this post. I wish to share more of my past DX experiences here. Besides, I wish to give insightful comments and share my personal opinion on news and information from the world of radio, in my future posts.

In the meanwhile don't be surprised if you find picture blogs or vintage schedules or links to some interesting DX sites here @ Ether Waves!

Welcome to My World of Radio.

73 & 88 !