Ten years ago today, DXing history was made with a colossal Sporadic E opening that blanketed most of the central and eastern portions of the United States. This opening, which locally had a MUF of 195 MHz, came in with such a punch that it wiped out most local broadcasting signals here in the Northern Virginia/Washington, DC area. Nothing like it has been seen since.
The skip rolled in shortly before 5 p.m., with FM and TV signals coming in concurrently from Alabama to Nebraska. At 10:42 p.m. — almost six hours later — the opening was still going strong into FM. It finally left the low TV band by 1 a.m.
I logged 49 new FM signals and 12 new TV signals that day.
Looking back, I know I was largely unprepared for the opening. Although I had 5 years of DXing under my belt at the time, I had only experienced 3 garden-variety FM Es openings and a handful more fairly-weak TV-only openings. Therefore, I had really no clue how Es affected the broadcast bands. I sat in amazement watching station after station coming in on my TV set — to the point where I forgot that I was DXing. I, instead, stayed on the same channel for more than 10 minutes at a time, mesmerized by the never-ending co-channel interference. At one point, however, my DXing senses came back to me and I took a few snapshots of new logs, one of which was below 470 miles–a distance often too close for Es:
From top to bottom, left to right: 3 WAVE Louisville, KY (463 miles), 5 KCTV Kansas City, MO, (960 miles over local WTTG), 6 WBRC Birmingham, AL (641 miles), 6 WOWT Omaha, NE (1007 miles), 6 WRTV Indianapolis, IN (480 miles).
I didn’t even think of checking the FM band until an hour into the opening. What I heard upon turning on my radio was utter chaos. Bits and pieces from dozens of songs and snippets of unintelligible radio commercials swung in and out of my radio speakers with a vengeance.
The above audio file, from 93.1 FM on 7/6/04, perfectly shows how much of a mess the entire FM dial was in Northern Virginia that day. Rapidly-fading signals from at least seven different FM signals see-sawed in and out so fast that making IDs was literally impossible.
When the rare positive ID came in, it was very choppy and distorted, as noted in the audio file above from the logging of 92.9 KTGL Beatrice, NE @ 1044 miles. KTGL was fighting another unID classic rock signal at time of reception.
More than half of my local Washington, DC radio stations were gone, instead replaced with a chorus of distant, unfamiliar signals similar to the KTGL recording above. Only the strongest local FMs (94.7 WARW, 95.5 WPGC, 97.1 WASH, 104.1 WWZZ, 107.3 WRQX) survived the opening unscathed. Given my inexperience with FM Es, I unfortunately did not think of listening to any compromised local FM frequency for new logs.
At one point in the opening, I saw online reports of MUFs higher than 108 MHz, as well as several logs of Es on channels 7 and 8–an extremely rare event. I quickly tuned into TV 7, occupied by local WJLA Washington. While I watched Pat Sajak and Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune, I saw no trace of Es. I tuned up to TV 8, locally unoccupied, and saw a slight flutter. Faint co-channel interference was coming in over local TV 9 WUSA Washington. I then tuned to TV 10 (195 MHz) and couldn’t believe what I saw:
10 KAKE Wichita, KS, 1098 miles.
Compare the logo bug on-screen in my above reception to the screenshot below from this YouTube video of a 2004 KAKE-TV newscast confirming my positive log:
The next day, multiple reports of the colossal opening poured onto radio discussion boards and similarly-themed websites across the internet. DCRTV, a DC and Baltimore-area website which covers local media news, had multiple posts on their reader-submitted Mailbag page. Several noted the sheer abundance and power of the rapidly-fading signals I had also observed:
“… I was heading up 270 from Rockville around 5:15. I punched the 103.9 button expecting the “Z”; instead, heard a country station which turned out to be KNZA in Kansas! Great googlimoogli! Also heard along the way, in no particular order: KNEN 94.7 (Nebraska), KGMY 100.5 (Missouri), KZMZ 96.9 (Louisiana), KMMO 102.9 (Missouri), KHKI 97.3 (Iowa), and (nearly local) WRXL in Richmond, VA. The main problem I had was that on some frequencies, three and four stations were pounding in at the same time, making it difficult to ID any one…”
— Mike from Frederick, MD courtesy of the DCRTV.com mailbag, 7/7/04.
“…I knew something was up yesterday on my way home from work from downtown Baltimore and all the DC stations and out of market stations I have my on my preset were fuzzy with other stations coming, the Infinity stations were fine. After a scan I found myself picking up Oldies 105.1 KOSP out of Springfield, MO. Ha! I also picked up 94.9 out of Kansas City and 97.5 out of KC as well I believe…”
–Michael (ESRTV) courtesy of the DCRTV.com mailbag, 7/7/04.
Non-DXers wrote to DCRTV and said they also realized something wasn’t right.
“…I’m rather relieved that yesterday’s radio problem wasn’t just me. I thought something was wrong with the FM Reciever in my car because all I was getting was pulsating static and fade-ins & outs on every FM station on the dial. I don’t think I caught anything noticeable from out of town, though…”
–Stahi courtesy of the DCRTV.com mailbag, 7/7/04.
DXers also (at a later date) posted video of rare high-VHF TV Es from the mammoth opening.
YouTube user tkat0609 received 7 WDAM Hattiesburg, MS, at 1141 miles away from his Inlet, NY home on 7/6/04 and filmed the station’s news open, as seen above. Tkat0609’s YouTube account has other videos from the 7/06/04 opening, some of which show evidence of a TV 13 MUF.
In the past decade I have not seen any Sporadic E event come close to the 7/6/04 opening. There have been some memorable openings since then, such as a handful with midnight FM Es, but none hold a candle to 7/6/04.
I often wondered if such an opening would be possible today. The 2004 opening was received two years before local IBOC was turned on, a move which made most frequencies difficult (or impossible) for reliable DX. I think DXers in urban and suburban areas would likely not experience such an opening today (provided the opening was strong) due to local IBOC and a growing amount of FM translators clogging up the airwaves. I do, however, think DXers who live in rural areas devoid of IBOC may get similar results dependent on the Es opening’s strength, but I think IBOC from Es signals would equally reduce the amount of analog signals coming in.
Either way, I consider 7/6/04 to be a once-in-a-lifetime opening. Although I was proud as a DXer to have worked the opening, looking back I had wished I was more experienced with the method of propagation. I believe I would have logged over 100 FM signals had I been more experienced and solely focused on FM DXing that day.