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Introduction to DXing

by Mika Mäkeläinen

DXing means listening to far-away — usually foreign — radio stations. Listening to your regular hometown station is not DXing, but listening to a similar station thousands of kilometers away, outside the normal coverage area, is DXing.

The term DX is most often explained like this: "D" is said to mean distance, and "X" refers to the unknown. While this etymology is appealing and fitting, the origin of DX is simple: DX means distance, just as RX in radio parlance means a receiver — and not an unknown receiver. DXers — hobbyists who enjoy DXing — try to pick up radio stations, which normally would not be audible at such a distance.

Most DXers concentrate on finding rare and distant broadcasting stations. This refers to radio stations that are meant to be listened to by the general public. Radio waves are also used by various utility stations from cellphone companies to sea and air traffic as well as the military and other authorities, and some DXers enjoy hunting these signals as well.

Jim Solatie
Compare the mediumwave (MW/AM) band in daytime and in nighttime, and you will hear how the band if full of distant signals at night.

DXing was the way to learn about the world and connect with the outside world in real time before satellite television and the Internet. Even today, DXing offers an intriguing and challenging way to get in touch with remote corners of the world.

DXers should not be confused with radio amateurs — also known as ham operators. Unlike a ham operator, a DXer doesn't transmit anything himself and doesn't therefore need any license. DXers don't need to know about electronics, radio technology, or morse code, but as a hobby DXing can be equally challenging.

The challenge lies in picking up radio signals at an incredible distance. In other parts of the world there are still hundreds of radio stations, which no one on your continent has ever heard, but which could be picked up at your location under ideal conditions — by an experienced DXer, who knows what, where and when to hunt.

DXing broadcasting stations is a legal hobby all around the world, with the exception of North Korea.

Night time is the right time

If you only listen to FM stations, you know that the same stations can be heard day after day. The FM radio signal radiates directly from the transmitter antenna to all directions. Because the earth is round, and the FM signal doesn't bend, FM radio stations are normally not heard much beyond the horizon. Under exceptional circumstances even an FM signal can bounce back from the atmosphere, and these kind of special reception conditions are what FM DXers are after.

However, most DXers are interested in AM (mediumwave) and shortwave stations. If you have listened to the AM band, you know that more stations can be heard during the night than during the day. This is because at night a certain layer in the ionosphere (which is part of the atmosphere) reflects signals back to the earth.

In the 1990's this is what a DXer's communications receiver looked like. A beginner can start with any receiver which has shortwave bands (all or parts of the frequency range 3-30 MHz) and a digital frequency display.
Sunlight however creates a new different kind of layer at a lower altitude that weakens radio signals, especially on the AM band, so that you can no longer hear stations from far away. Therefore long distance AM reception is usually possible only when both the transmitter and the receiver — and the path in between — fall under darkness.

Radio propagation on most shortwave frequencies is rather similar. Therefore, around sunset, DXers are eagerly trying to hunt for signals coming from the east. Likewise, sunrise is the best time to hear stations from the west. At these times, interfering stations from other directions are not quite as strong as for example around midnight, when stations from all possible directions are heard and when they can cause interference to each other. Reception conditions change constantly due to a variety of factors, some of which are unpredictable. Therefore, scoring rare catches requires constant monitoring of the stations audible.

Send a reception report...

DXers use special equipment to monitor the airwaves. The cheapest option is a so-called world band receiver, which is a portable receiver with shortwave bands. A step up are communications receivers, which are specifically designed for semi-professional listeners. The best such receivers are very sophisticated, but can be bulky and expensive.

After the year 2000 the first software-defined receivers (SDR) came on the market. These are often small in size, are very good value for the money, and rely on a computer for processing power. The biggest benefit of an SDR is that it can often record a very wide frequency range, for instance the entire mediumwave band, simultaneously. An SDR works like a time machine, allowing a DXer to capture an exceptional moment not just on one single frequency, but over 100 frequencies at the same time. Decent SDRs can be found from around 150-200 euros/dollars upward.
A DXers setup
Since around 2005-2010 most DXers have used so-called SDRs, software defined receivers, which are connected to a PC. In this photo an SDR receiver called Perseus is the small black box on the right. Click to enlarge. This setup is from Aihkiniemi, a famous DX shack in Finland.

An expensive receiver is however useless without a good antenna. Most DXers use antennas made of copper wire, which is hung on trees or poles outside. In the extreme end these antennas can be over 1 kilometer in length. If an outdoor antenna is not an option, a small "active antenna" can be used also indoors. You can get started in the hobby using simple and inexpensive equipment, but you can easily spend enormous amounts of time and money to improve your hardware.

After hearing an interesting station, DXers try to identify the station in question. This is often difficult because of poor reception quality. The station may also be transmitting in a language that the DXer doesn't understand. Over the years DXers develop elementary skills in a wide range of languages and at least learn to recognize different languages, styles of music and identification patterns. Handbooks (especially World Radio TV Handbook), DXers' magazines and websites like DXing.info help in planning what frequencies and when to listen to, and also help in analyzing your catches.

For future reference, all interesting signals are recorded. By reviewing notes and recordings made at the time of listening, many DXers compile reception reports, which they send to the station. Nowadays this is done mostly by email or via social media. A reception report includes all the details of what, where, when, and how the station was heard by the distant listener. A recorded audio clip of a station identification should be enclosed as proof of having heard the station. In the report, DXers request a confirmation in return — this can be in the form of an email, a simple reply on social media, or a more traditional QSL card or letter by mail from the station verifying that the signal was indeed theirs.

In the past reception reports used to be valuable feedback for international broadcasters, but nowadays when monitoring reception quality is in many causes automated and more professional, many stations find themselves inundated with reception reports that are not much use, and reply just out of courtesy. Domestic broadcast stations can however be positively surprised that their small local station has been picked up in a distant country, even though far-away listeners are not part of their target audience.

... and hope for a reply

Traditionally QSLs have been in the form of cards like the above from the Mexican station XERED (1110 kHz), but nowadays emails and messages on social media are more common.

DXers collect these verifications — known as QSLs — as mementos of their discoveries on the dial, and also to demonstrate how many stations they have been able to pick up. Even though QSLs can't be considered as definite evidence of hearing a station — as some stations routinely confirm even insufficient reports and other stations hardly ever reply to any reports — collecting QSLs remains a major pursuit for many DXers. Competitions between DXers are usually based on the number of QSLs received. Increasingly, also recordings of station identifications are collected, counted and saved as evidence of hearing remote stations.

On DXing.info you can get a taste of many different aspects of DXing; read inside accounts on hunting elusive rarities on DX-expeditions (DXpeditions), listen to audio samples of distant radio stations, and browse articles on DXing or profiles of radio stations. Enjoy the site — but don't forget to switch your radio on, and discover for yourself what surprising signals the airwaves may bring your way tonight!

(updated in January 2021)

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