The Weirdest Thing Ever

Catherine and I were driving up to Margate late in the afternoon yesterday to have dinner at the [fantastic] Shipwright’s Café before going to the big Bruce Cockburn concert in Summerside.

We decided to take the iPod with us, and listen to some audiobooks on the car stereo, using the little Griffin iTrip transmitter that broadcasts onto the FM band.

As we were driving along, I noticed that there was an uncommon amount of interference on the frequency we were using, so I asked Catherine to scan the dial looking for an clearer one.

So she tried.

And there wasn’t one.

All along the dial, there were radio stations coming in at every frequency. We stopped tuning at 88.5, and heard, clear as if it were broadcasting across the street, the unmistakable sound of National Public Radio. A few more minutes of listening and we’d figured out that, as if by magic, we were listening to WFDD, broadcasting from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which is 1362 miles away from PEI.

Intrigued by this amazing occurence (okay, I was amazed, and forced Catherine to feign amazement), we scanned down the dial and picked out WVTF in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a couple of rock stations from Fayetteville, North Carolina.

This weirdness continued all along the drive from Charlottetown to Margate, with the stations fading in and out as we went up and down hills and around corners.

I immediately got on the horn to my “they know about radio” gurus, Kenny Adams and Gordon Johnstone, and they both confirmed that this is something that just happens once in a while because of something Gordon call a “lift.” Apparently the technical term is tropospheric ducting.

We shut off the radio when we got to Margate, tuned in again on the way to Summerside, and then, on the way back to Charlottetown around 10:30 p.m., found that our friends in North Carolina were gone from the dial.

I tried to convince Catherine that this was the weirdest thing that had ever happened, but she wouldn’t buy it. It was pretty weird.


Alan's picture
Alan on July 6, 2004 - 16:04 Permalink

AKA FM skip. Works with TV as well. I used to watch CBC Quebec in Rusticoville in the summer on the old rabbit ear black and white on summer nights when the skips were good. The Maritimes is a great spot for skips, sticking out in the ocean as it does. Come over the the dark side of radio nerditry, Peter.

oliver's picture
oliver on July 6, 2004 - 16:41 Permalink

If I’m remembering rightly, this is caused by “total internal reflection,” such that a layer of the atmosphere is channeling radio waves just like optical fibers channel light. I imagine the geographic regions whose local broadcasts enter the atmospheric waveguide and the other regions where those signals pop out again depends on cloud cover and/or vertical temperature gradients. Don’t listen to Catherine on this one, Peter. It _is_ the coolest thing.

oliver's picture
oliver on July 6, 2004 - 16:43 Permalink

P.S. Since I’m in North Carolina, I imagine I should have been able to hear Charlottetown broadcasts, at least if your transmitter is as strong as the ones down hear that you were listening to. You have to give me a heads up and tell me where to tune in the next time this happens. We have indeed had some serious cloud cover here over the last few days. I never saw lightning storms like this in California.

Dan J's picture
Dan J on July 6, 2004 - 16:44 Permalink

Peter, I was listening to CBC (96.1) on the way home yesterday and it was consistently being dominated by a country rock station from somewhere else.

Erin's picture
Erin on July 6, 2004 - 22:06 Permalink

The same thing happened to me last night, driving towards Kensington/Summerside — all of the local stations got wonky and I started to pick up other signals, although none distinct enough to pinpoint. One of them sounded like country, though.

Ken's picture
Ken on July 6, 2004 - 22:37 Permalink

Another system affected by this is cellular telephony. You ever get a message saying ‘you must dial the area code’ even though you usually dial only seven digits — your cell phone may be talking with a tower in a galaxy far, far away. Or at least in a differnet area code!

Ian Williams's picture
Ian Williams on July 7, 2004 - 07:24 Permalink

Geez, I go to PEI to get AWAY from my North Carolina rock stations.

As a past ham radio enthusiast, we were “skipping” on the atmosphere all the time, which is the only way you could talk to South America via a 40-meter dipole.

I’ve never heard of FM radios doing it like that — it’s very prevalent on AM, however, especially at night. Tessa and I listened to a UNC basketball game in Arizona, which ROCKED!

Jessica's picture
Jessica on September 20, 2006 - 18:51 Permalink

I think that if this was to happen to me, then i’d probably end up taking the bus next time no matter where i was going…..that is kinda weird!!! but then again, being the type of person i am then i would more than likely end up taking the same vehicle down the same exact roads just to see if would happen again, then if it did, then i might be a little freaked out…..