Writing useful reception reports
A realistic guide to reception report writing for the 90's!
In the mid-80's we produced a simple pamphlet designed to explain how to write a useful reception report for most international broadcasters. We've printed some 50,000 copies since then. Now that we're well into the 1990's, we thought it about time to thoroughly revise the information, based on a new survey commissioned by our communications magazine, "Media Network".
International broadcasting across borders is a very specialised form of programme making. Bouncing signals off the ionosphere is not the most reliable way of reaching far off target areas. Good frequency choice is essential if the broadcast is going to have any impact at all. Listeners have sent reports on reception quality to international broadcasting stations since the early years of this century. This was simply because most transmissions contained (and often still do contain) a request for such a response. In the beginning, when many of the broadcasts were experimental, stations relied heavily on reports from listeners. In the 1990's there is now a different technique required to make your reception reports useful to an international broadcaster.
Before tackling the detail, please note the following: The comments that follow apply ONLY to reception reports sent to international broadcasters. If you wish to report to low power stations in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, you need to use a completely different approach. We have prepared some guide-lines for reporting to these stations, and these are listed in the "Listeners' Service Catalogue".
What is a QSL card?
Most stations welcome reception reports from listeners. Some acknowledge the reports with a so called "QSL" card. The term QSL has been adopted from the field of amateur radio where the so called "Q" code was developed for use between morse code operators. Transmitting the letters QTH meant "What is your location?" whilst the answer "QTH Hilversum" would mean "My location is Hilversum". The advantage of this code is that it is internationally recognised amongst radio operators, thus language is no problem. However, one is limited to standard phrases. The term QSL means "Can you verify reception of this transmission?" and the reply was usually in the form of a card containing the details of when and where the transmission took place, as a written confirmation.
If truth be told, many stations now issue QSL cards as a public relations exercise. That's why many no longer send out a card with the full details typed on the back, but rather it is a mass produced "acknowledgement card". That said, there are many beautiful cards around, each representing a unique era in broadcasting. It is no wonder that they become collectors items. Radio stations are very poor at keeping archives of these cards...look at how many stations start asking for listener contributions when their 25th, 40th, or 60th anniversary comes around!
So what is Radio Netherlands attitude?
We issue QSL cards as a "thank you" taking the trouble to write. We check each report against our schedule, and we look to see if the programme details are correct. Currently we issue full data cards which confirm the date, time and transmitter site listened to. If reception reports contain specific details about interference problems these are passed on to Radio Netherlands' frequency bureau. Our frequency bureau also selects volunteer monitors from the listener mail from regions of the world where our reception data is not complete. Currently we have a panel of around 300 monitors.
We make a special effort to ensure that programme comments reach the producer concerned. International broadcasting is very different to local radio, and knowing that specific items are of interest to people thousands of kilometres away is a helpful stimulus to the broadcaster. Trends in listener mail, and even individual letters, are often the topic of discussion at monthly producer meetings. Being different is the key to Radio Netherlands survival in a financial climate that is becoming increasingly hostile to public service broadcasters around the world.
You must be different!
The format for a "standard" reception report has been fairly constant over the years. So much so, that some DX clubs now offer printed forms for their members to use. Most are computer generated these days. These have both advantages and disadvantages. Forms are certainly easier to check, as far as the mail-processing department is concerned, but it might not have the desired impact in other departments, such as programming. If you live in a country where companies send unsolicited printed matter to you through the mail, you'll be aware how impersonal this type of mail can be. The use of pre-printed forms really depends on whom you wish to address your letter to.
The final section of this publication show a "typical" reception report as received by many international shortwave stations. Note that some parts of the form have been labelled with numbers. These correspond to the numbers listed below.
1. Name and address: So obvious and yet it is amazing how many people forget to include it. In many cases your reception report may be processed by more than one department within the radio station. (i.e. the Engineering and Programme departments), so we advise you to include your name and address on each sheet that you use. Either print your name and address in block capitals or type it. Many replies have failed to reach their destination because it was impossible to read the name and address of the sender. Signatures are often very difficult to decipher.
2. The station address: Always address your letter to the correct person. Avoid the use of titles like "The Director General", "Head of Programmes", etc, if you want a QSL or wish to make programme suggestions. It is very unlikely that the station director or the general management will be the people responsible for answering the letters. If a particular programme presenter made a point on the air that you wish to take further, then send the letter to her/him by name, c/o English Section, Radio XYZ, etc. This should ensure that the right person opens the letter. Alternatively writing to the programme by name: "Research File", English Section, Radio Netherlands, P.O. Box 222, 1200 JG Hilversum, Holland", increases the chances that the producer of that programme will see that letter.
3. Date: It is best to write this out fully (i.e. August 12th 1992) since European shorthand notation, such as 12.8.92, has different meanings depending on where you live. Naturally, it is usually obvious which meaning is implied, but writing the date out in full ensures there will be no mistake.
4. Time: This should be stated in "Co-ordinated Universal Time" (usally shorted to the French version of the abbreviation, i.e. UTC), which is the standard used by the majority of international broadcasters. The term "Greenwich Mean Time" (or GMT) is still being announced by a few stations, e.g. BBC London. But no conversion is necessary as both terms are interchangeable. Unless you're a scientist interested in accuracy to milliseconds, just assume that 1000 GMT = 1000 UTC.
If you are in doubt as to the time difference between your own local time and UTC, simply listen on the hour or half-hour to most international broadcasters (i.e. Radio Netherlands, BBC, VOA) who will announce the time in UTC. Simply work out the difference in hourd between your time and UTC. Use this information to make a conversion table to keep by your radio for handy reference. Alternatively, set a clock by your receiver to work on UTC. Note that UTC is always the same, and is unaffected by local changes, summer or winter time. All stations use the 24 hour clock system, so when you compile a report, avoid the use of AM and PM which can lead to confusion, e.g. 18.30 = 6.30 pm.
5. Frequency: This describes the point on the dial that the signal came in, usually indicated in kilohertz (or kHz). The frequency that you quote should be accurate to within about 5 kHz, i.e. saying "I heard you on about 6 MHz" is not sufficient. If, however, your set cannot give accurate frequency read out from the shortwave dial, say so in your report. The term kilocycles (kcs) is an older expression, but means the same as kHz. If you know that a station is using more than one frequency at the time you're listening, check as many of these as possible, and note how well each of them is received.
A report on one single frequency on one day has little value these days, though the station will probably still send you a QSL card. The experienced listener does one, or both, of the following:
a). Notes the reception quality of a number of frequencies carrying the same programme over a period of three to six days.
b) When a particular channel is blocked by interference, a check is made to see whether another frequency nearby is more suitable as an alternative (but see later notes).
6. Metre band: Not really necessary if you have noted the frequency correctly. If you only have "metres" marked on your set, then quote this in your report, though few listeners quote them these days. If you need to convert metres to kilohertz, then use the following formula:
_________________________ = Frequency in kHz
Wavelength in metres
7. Receiver: This is a useful piece of information to the frequency department, so don't forget to include it in your report. If you are suffering bad reception, one of the first things that will be checked is the type of receiver that you're using. Remember that the brand name and model may not be known in the country where the report is received, so decide whether your receiver is a "domestic" type (i.e. has mediumwave, or VHF/FM on it as well as shortwave?) or is it a "communications" type (i.e. made primarily for listening to shortwave broadcasts between 3 and 30 MHz?). If you can quote the description given in the manufacturers brochure, this is usually sufficient, (e.g. 8-band SW superhet portable).
8. Antenna: Also a useful piece of information and frequently forgotten. Transistor portable radios usually perform adequately on a built-in antenna of the "telescopic rod" variety. If you are using a piece of wire or a random length hung out of the window, the best description is a "random longwire aerial". Specially built antennas such as "rhombics", "inverted L" or "dipole" should be mentioned by name if possible. For more advice on antennas, remember we have a free booklet available called "Give Your Antenna Some Air".
9. Reporting code: As soon as reception reports started flowing into radio stations, some kind of internationally recognised codes were introduced. These were needed not only to standardise report writing, but to be able to compare one report with another. The first, and most popular was the SINPO code, in which each letter stands for a specific item, and each is rated from 1 to 5. Full details are given below.
S-Signal I-Interference N- Natural P-Propagation Overall merit Noise Conditions 5-Excellent 5-None 5-None 5-Excellent 5-Excellent 4-Good 4-Slight 4-Slight 4-Slight 4-Good disturbance 3-Fair 3-Moderate 3-Moderate 3-Moderately 3-Fair disturbed 2-Poor 2-Severe 2-Severe 2-Severe 2-Poor disturbance 1-Barely 1-Extremely 1-Extremely 1-Very poor 1-Useless Audible strong strong propagation
Whilst the above may look impressive as well as concise, it will soon become evident that the SINPO code is very subjective. Somebody may rate a signal as 33232 whilst someone else might rate it as 44333. Likewise, although the original SINPO code did lay down technical specifications for each number (i.e. a number 3 in the P column meant a fixed number of fades per minute) these are hardly ever adhered to by reporters. Nor is it advisable to use the so called "Signal Strength" meter to judge signal strength. No "S" meter on a communications receiver under US $2000 in price is anything more than a tuning indicator. The "S" meter reading is usually dependent on the setting of the RF gain control, so use your ears, not the needle, to judge signal strength. You may also find references to the "SINFO" code in some literature. In this case the "F" stands for Fading, instead of "P" for Propagation, but the two codes are essentially the same.
It is also clear that many listeners cannot distinguish between the "I" which stands for man-made interference, the "N" which stands for natural atmospheric noise, and the rating for "Propagation" is not often understood. There are some books and periodicals that maintain the SINPO code as being the only one for DX reporters. However, from a station's point of view we would suggest the following, simpler, code which is used by most professional monitoring stations around the world.
The SIO Code
S-Signal Strength I- Interference (of any O-Overall merit type) 5-Excellent 5-No interference 5-Excellent 4-Good 4-Nil or very slight 4-Good 3-Fair 3-Moderate 3-Fair 2-Poor 2-Heavy 2-Poor 1-Useless 1-Extreme 1-Unusable!
You can see that the SIO code is based on the SINPO code, but in a simpler form. The use of the SIO code, as opposed to the SINPO code, does not give the station the impression that you are an inferior reporter.
The Backward Secret to the SIO code!
Most books that cover the subject of reception report writing have a very simple method of evaluating a signal. First, they say, judge the signal strength, then look at the level of interference. Finally, fill in the "O" column by taking the average of the two numbers, and rounding down to the nearest whole number. So if the "S" was 3, and the "I" was 4, the "O" rating would automatically be "3". This is very misleading!
Instead, you should work backwards. First evaluate the overall rating of the signal. Is it "listenable" or difficult to hear? Give it either 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5. Now examine the reasons for your "O" rating. The signal may be weak (i.e. a 2) but if there is no interference on the signal, you simply have to turn up the volume control to enjoy the programme. Thus an SIO rating of 244 is not impossible.
Likewise a signal of 442 is possible. This might occur if the signal was strong, there was no interference, but the audio being broadcast was heavily distorted due to a fault in the transmitter. Listen around on the bands, and you will find a wide variation in the audio quality being broadcast. Being critical may alert a station to a problem. It is often very difficult to judge when measurements are made at the transmitter site.
If you give an "Interference" rating of either 1, 2 or 3 in your report, then you should explain why (as our example does in the "Technical Remarks" column). If there is interference on the received signal, note the following details:
a) Is the interference signal of the same frequency (so-called co-channel?). If it is, then as you move the tuning knob, the signal you want, and the interfering signal, will be tuned out together. If, however, the interference get stronger as you tune either up or down the band, the interference is probably coming from an adjacent frequency. It helps to indicate whether the interference is coming from a station on a higher or lower frequency than the one you are interested in. For example, if you are listening on 9895 kHz and a station on 9890 kHz is causing interference, the interference is from a station which is lower in frequency. In the interference station is a jamming signal (a buzzing sound designed to deliberately interfere with an international broadcaster) then this should be noted too. Fortunately, jamming levels on shortwave have dropped considerably in the last few years.
b). Local weather conditions do not generally affect shortwave broadcasts, with the exception of local thunder storms in your area. These may cause loud "crashes" which spoil reception. If this affects your "I" (Interference) rating, then note elsewhere that this was due to local thunderstorms.
10. Programme details: This seems to be the most variable part of a reception report. Some people simply write "Man spoke, woman spoke", or "News, Newsline, Media Network" (you will find the latter details in our programme line-up) neither of which can tell the station that you have really heard the transmission. On the other hand, a verbatim script of the programme is also very undesirable. It won't be read all the way through, as secretarial staff don't usually have time to read it all. So why bother? The correct details should include the programme title, the name of the presenter (if given) and a few of the most important points raised. If the programme is musical, note the names of those performing. The reception report we have shown has about the correct balance that most stations are looking for. Most stations need about 10-20 minutes of monitoring time for a verification.
11. Programme comments - not the same thing as programme details. It is one thing to report what you hear in a programme, in the form of supplying programme details, but another to comment on what you heard. Although stations have set down guide-lines in the past for sending in reception reports, this has rarely included advise on what to listen out for. To a certain extent this is probably the station's fault, rather than that of the listener. Suffice to say, stations are interested in your reaction to the programme. To assist you in filling the "programme comments" section of the report with feedback which will be of use to the station, and make your report stand out from the rest, we've listed a few questions that you might care to ask yourself while a programme is running.
Please note: These questions are only intended to suggest points to look for. It is up to you to put the answers into a readable form. Simply writing down the answers is not sufficient, as stations won't know what the questions were!
a. Did you tune in to the station expecting to hear a particular item or style of presentation? Did the station present the kind of information you wanted or did it seem irrelevant? (Remember though, that some stations have different specialist programmes on different days of the week. Give the station a fair hearing before complaining that they are ignoring a particular topic of interest).
b. Programmes consisting of short items of up to 4 minutes each can either be very interesting or extremely boring. If you tuned in to this style of programme (a magazine format) did the whole programme interest you or did you find only a small part was relevant? Did it sound too much like short unconnected stories connected by someone saying "Now here's something from..." and then: "That was...", or was there a theme to the whole programme?
c. Did music fit into the programme being broadcast, and was it of the style you enjoy? Was reception reasonable over shortwave radio, or were quiet passages lost in interference? (Remember that what the producer in the studio listens to on a hi-fi speaker, and what you hear at the other end of a shortwave radio, 1000's of km's away, may be two entirely different things.)
d. Did you feel that the item being presented was complete, or that you were being told only one side of the argument? Did the item change your mind on a particular topic? If so, why? If you found an item hard to believe or confusing, mention this, as the producer is being paid to get a message across! The listener judges how successful this has been done.
e. Was the item being presented too short or too long? Did the presenter sound interested in what he was reading (in some cases the presenter is the author of what she/he is reading). Was the speed of presentation too fast or too slow for easy shortwave reception?
f. Will you listen again? If so, what items interest you and what topics do you suggest the station should cover. If not, why not?
Stations receive anything up to 300 letters a day per language department. In the case of Radio Netherlands, the English service gets in the region of 60,000 letters a year. Some stations have the budget to reply personally to each one that comes in, others refer to letters on the air in programmes. If you follow the guide-lines set out above there is greater chance that you report will generate more than a QSL card. But please consider the following points:
NEVER THROW QSL COLLECTIONS AWAY!
There comes a time when many people lose interest in collecting objects, even QSLs! If you would like to ensure that your collection is preserved, then why not consider donating your collection to one of two organisations listed below. Both are dedicated to making sure that these colourful pieces of history are preserved.
The Committee to Preserve Radio Verifications has a superb collection and publishes reprints in several North American listener magazines. You can find out more by sending a stamped addressed envelope (in US) or an addressed envelope and 2 IRCs (elsewhere) to: Jerry Berg, Committee to Preserve Radio Verifications, 38 Eastern Avenue, Lexington, MA 02173 USA. Tel (1) 617 861 8481. No collect calls please.
In Europe, the Austrian DX Association has set-up an excellent collection together with respected international broadcaster, Radio Austria International. They regularly set-up exhibitions which tour many parts of the world (e.g. ITU conferences). For more information write to Austrian DX Association, P.O. Box 111, A-1111 Vienna, Austria. Send 2 IRCs for a "wants" list.
A Sample Reception Report
Date: 20th September 1992 (3)
P.O. Box 222
1200 JG Hilversum,
I wish to report reception of your English language broadcasts directed to Australia and New Zealand over the past few days in the 31 (6) and 25 (6) metre bands.
Date Time UTC (4) Frequency (5) S I O Comments (3) 13 Sep 0730 9715 4 3 3 co-channel Radio Japan after 0900 14Sep 0730 9715 4 3 3 co-channel Radio Japan after 0900 14 Sep 0732 11895 4 4 4 strong & steady 16 Sep 0730 9715 4 3 3 co-channel Radio Japan after 0900 17Sep 0730 9715 4 3 3 co-channel Radio Japan after 0900 17 Sep 0732 11895 3 4 4 weaker today but steady 18 Sep 0730 9715 4 3 3 co-channel Radio Japan after 0900 19Sep 0730 9715 4 3 3 co-channel Radio Japan after 0900 19 Sep 0732 11895 4 4 4 strong & steady
Programme Details: :(10) Media Network, was presented by Jonathan Marks. Looked at the Amsterdam Audio and Video Fair, with news of a new shortwave receiver. Media news with Victor Goonetilleke featured an item on broadcasting developments in the Middle East.
Programme Comments: (11) My main interest is in telecommunication, so I prefere items on satellite broadcasting and shortwave receiver reviews. I don't feel your musical programmes come across very well under the present conditions. I enjoy hearing the outside weather conditions at the end of the newscast..
Receiver: (7) Duo Muesen FRG-545. Communications type, PLL synthesized.
Antenna: (8) 10 metre long wire out in the garden.
I hope you find my reception report to be of some use. If the details are correct please verify with a QSL verification card. A sticker would also be appreciated, if these are available.
That's all there is to it. If you have any comments or questions about writing reception reports, please write to:
This guide to writing reception reports may be freely translated or reprinted in non-commercial publications, providing credit is given to Radio Netherlands in the article. A copy of the article would be appreciated, sent to the address above.
This edition written by Jonathan Marks, August 1991. Updated April 1995.