Broadcast Memories: Das Eurosignal

My first radio in the late around 1980 was a Palladium Mono Tape recorder with 4 band radio. It had a big dial on the right, a display with a moving stick, and four buttons to select FM, AM, Shortwave and Longwave bands. Even with its many limitations I loved this thing!

The FM band was always the strongest. We used to call it UKW in Germany, as in Ultra Kurzwelle (very short wave), a much more accurate description of this band. FM sounds much cooler and more “American”, but it really means Frequency Modulation which is mainly what this band is used for today, rather than describing the band itself. Anyway…

As I explored the FM band I inevitably came across two things that are difficult to forget for a young child: East German Number Stations, the monotonous voice of a woman reading strings of numbers, and something rather undecipherable like polyphonic tones (see video above).

The latter was on 24/7 at the upper end of the spectrum, at around 87 MHz. Mysterious, yet everpresent. Creepy. Much like Eastern Germany.

I never found out what this thing was – until today while browsing through a German Wikipedia article about the UKW Rundfunk (or FM Broadcasting in English). The article mentions something called the Eurosignal, and it turns out that this polyphonic shite in the eighties was indeed that very signal. Totally legit after all – who would have known! I always assumed it was in some way connected with the number stations or the Stasi!

 

So what’s the Eurosignal?

First of all it’s a thing of the past. It was switched off in 1998 and only ever existed in Germany, France and Switzerland. Other countries were thinking of using it, but it took them several decades to decide – by which time there were better technologies out there.

The idea was this: you paid a monthly fee for the precursor of “beeper”, and if someone wanted to reach you, you could leave your number with the Eurosignal service. But because it used the FM band, it needed a rather long antenna to receive things – so it wasn’t something you’d clip onto your belt.

Your device would constantly listen to a given frequency, and if it finds a message for you, it would display it. When I say message I mean a 10-digit string of numbers, nothing fancy or descriptive. Those could be either phone numbers that you would call back, or pre-defined codes between two parties (for example, 23 could mean”put dinner on”, or 37 could mean “assassinate El Presidente at 23:00”, that sort of thing).

According to the radio broadcast below, in its heyday the device itself was DM 1000 (about £300), and the monthly fee to use the service was DM 25 (about £7.50).

This Eurosignal was used way before other beeper systems and mobile phones as we know them today. Germany were the first to introduce it in 1975, France came in a year later, and Switzerland sometime in the eighties. Even by the mid nineties the German company EuFuRD who operated it had 90.000 subscribers.

Many other beeper services were introduced in the early nineties in Germany (Scall, TeLMI, Quix), all of which seized operations when mobile phones took over  less than 10 years later. By 2002 those were all gone.

 

I personally skipped the hole beeper thing and went straight to a Nokia 2110 sometime in 1996/1997. In fact, I probably abandoned personal one-way radio communications a few years earlier when I realized that listening to adverts and commercial ntss-ntss wasn’t really a pastime I could enjoy without brain pain.

Not until today, in December 2014 I’m beginning to develop a healthy interest in the radio spectrum again (read: obsession). I’m fascinated by being able to receive something without the internet being involved, like back in the good old days. My latest gadget, the Tecsun PL-880 has arrived – a world band radio. It’s wonderful! I had no idea shortwave and AM broadcasts could sound THAT good! The PL-660 is on its way already, bringing the total radio count in our household up to 4.

Too many radios you say? Well I see it this way: shortwave transmissions are getting fewer and fewer. Numbers stations used to be so common, but they’re being phased out. Technology is moving forward, and some may argue that analogue is so retro it no longer has a place in our high-tech world. There were talks to switch off all analogue radio services on the FM band in Germany since 2000 and replace it with DAB – unsuccessfully mind you, but sooner rather than later we won’t be able to listen to analogue stuff on the airwaves anymore. It’s already happened to television, and undoubtedly radio will be next.

And until then, I’d like to play with it for as long as I can.





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