Translator update: FM dial is worse in Northern Virginia

transistor-radioThree years ago, I wrote about the rising amount of FM translators that have popped up in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, DC and its effect on FM DXing.  I am updating this article as the local radio landscape has greatly changed since my original 2013 article.

FM translators are low power rebroadcasts of either a full service FM or AM signal.  Or, they can be a relay of an HD Radio subchannel of a nearby signal.  LPFMs, or low-powered radio stations, on the other hand, can originate their own programming and often operate as a community radio station, complete with live and local content.

For the most part, the radio dial in Northern Virginia is much worse than it was in 2013 due to the existence of these signals.  Many of my good, quiet DXing frequencies are gone, replaced instead by a repeater of a signal that I can already get strong elsewhere on the AM or FM dial.

xltr_chart_2

* = As of writing, 98.1 W264BJ has not yet debuted, but online reports says sign-on is imminent.
^ = 106.3 W292BC is usually not heard in lieu of 106.3 WJPN-LP.  However, WJPN-LP frequently goes off-air and when it toes, W292BC can be heard instead.

Regardless of if these stations are translators or LPFMs, they both wreak havoc on a DXer’s ability to successfully detect other, more distant signals on the same frequency.  Even though these signals are weak (usually under 200 watts for translators; 50 watts for LPFMs), depending on where a DXer is located, these signals can, for all intents and purposes, be as strong as a blowtorch 100kw FM signal, rendering its frequency useless for DXing.

Since 2008, I’ve had 10 mostly perfect frequencies for DXing purposes overtaken by translators or LPFMs.  Six of these frequencies signed on since my 2013 article.  I can get up to five more translators and LPFMs in my car near my home.  Online reports predict that another translator will soon debut on 98.1 FM in nearby Manassas, VA.  Given its predicted tower location in relation to my home, it will likely wipe out 98.1 as an open frequency for DXing.  WJPN-LP, a recent LPFM sign-on on 106.3 FM, ironically displaced another translator, W292BC, that used to have a local-grade signal at home.  In my car, both stations are very strong and it is impossible to hear either without interference.  Also in my car, semi-local 94.3 WWXX Buckland, VA often fights with WOWD-LP from Washington, DC, an LPFM that signed on earlier this year.  I can only get WWXX at home.

My most depressing loss was in September 2016, when the clearest frequency in the region, 92.9 FM was lost to a very strong, new translator.  Prior to the translator’s debut, the only signal that I would regularly get on 92.9 FM was WVBW Suffolk, VA, at 132 miles away.  I have logged over 45 signals via tropo and Sporadic E on 92.9 since 1999–signals that are all now impossible to ever receive again, barring an extraordinary DX event.

As a DXer, having every available frequency being snatched up by these signals is depressing.  It makes the hobby much more difficult.  The hobby has transformed from a “let’s see what distant signals can come in on empty frequencies” phenomenon to a new “let’s see what very strong-propagated signal can overpower weak local and semi-local signals.”  In effect, this curtails the hobby since the ‘new normal’ now requires strong signals to overpower the translators and LPFMs.  Unfortunately, good tropo and sporadic E openings, which would precipitate such reception, are few and far between in my area.

Thankfully, most of the signals in the chart above are weak enough to be overridden by strong tropo or Sporadic E, but they are still there 24/7 and usually block weaker signals from being heard on their respective frequencies.  The only good thing about new translators signing on is that it allows me to log it as a new signal when first received.

My focus in the DXing hobby stops at the ability to log a station.  I can care less about the individual stations’ format, owners, on-air talent, branding, etc. and I don’t hold anything against any station mentioned in this article.  These factors have no bearing on my constructive criticism on the proliferation of translators and LPFMs.  I’m simply writing about the fact that this is happening in my area and that these signals now exist and ruin my ability to log other signals on the same frequency, nothing more.  But with that said, I wonder when it will stop.

Given that the FM band is already full with HD Radio signals and its related digital interference on frequencies immediately adjacent to the parent signal, every day there are fewer spots where these translators and LPFMs can sign on.  FM DXing is not what it used to be, at least to those living in suburban areas.  Unfortunately, it seems like one has to move to the country to experience a radio dial like all of us had just a decade ago.

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