Finnish AM-radio hobbyist hears WBAA from over 4,000 miles away
One night, from a remote cabin north of the Arctic Circle in Finland, radio hobbyist Mika Makelainen heard a voice through the static and crackle of competing AM radio waves.
“You’re listening to WBAA News,” the voice said.
Makelainen, a 56-year-old journalist in Finland, spends his free time trying to find and listen to AM radio broadcasts from around the world - a hobby called “DXing.”
“I’ve been doing this DXing for forty years, but this was the first time I actually came across your station,” he said. “I’ve got all these other stations picked up on 920 AM before I found your station this past fall.”
Makelainen keeps a massive binder full of AM stations from around the world that he’s been trying to catch - checking each station off after getting confirmation.
“I’ve been a fanatic listener of foreign AM radio stations for 42 years,” he said. “This hobby of mine led to your station and trying to pick up as many AM stations as possible from all around the world.”
Makelainen set up a listening station at the cabin that includes several 3,000 foot long antennas.
“Going up to Lapland, there are no AM stations operating in any of the Nordic countries of northern Russia. The AM band is really quiet,” Makelainen said. “There’s no local interference, so really faint signals from further away can come through.”
During the day, WBAA’s AM signal can travel up to 150 miles away. Like most AM signals, WBAA’s radio waves are absorbed by a layer of the upper atmosphere called the ionosphere during the day, traveling primarily through ground waves.
But at night, AM stations can travel further, bouncing off the ionosphere. The signals ping-pong around the earth to Makelainen in his remote cabin, which is designed to receive the faint signals.
“The most distant stations I’ve picked up are from New Zealand and other islands in the Pacific,” he said.
Makelainen said he’s trying to learn enough of a handful of languages to pick out the station ID in each broadcast he hears. Stations use those IDs to identify themselves, which allows him to plot where a broadcast is coming from.
“I’m trying to learn these few phrases in all possible languages so I can tell what the announcer is saying,” he said.
It’s a hobby that Makelainen started as a young boy. He tried to catch radio stations that played the kind of music he liked.
“When I was 15, there used to be a government monopoly on broadcasting in Finland,” he said. “They didn’t play my kind of music enough, so I’d try to find foreign radio stations that played the music I liked. I would pick up Radio Caroline, which used to be a famous pirate broadcaster in the North Sea.”
Since that time, Makelainen said he’s moved from trying to catch AM signals for their music and has become more of a collector.
“It turned into a hunting, collecting type of hobby,” he said. “I always wanted to find new stations, because obviously there are tens of thousands of AM stations [that] could be audible at some point.”
Makelainen isn’t about to stop listening for more stations from around the world, but he says he’s happy to check WBAA off the list.