EXTRA: EXTRA! WATCH FRENCH-CANADIAN PROGRAMS RIGHT HERE IN RED-DIRT COUNTRY. SEE IRRELEVANT WEATHER FORECASTS FROM THE GREAT PLAINS. LISTEN TO PONDEROUS FARM PROGRAMS FROM WISCONSIN! ON YOUR OWN CRUMMY RADIO! ON YOUR OWN TV TUBE!

I love late spring and early summer. Especially when the blossoms are dead and the leaves turn brown with road dust and the same big H sits for weeks in a target of circles over the eastern halves on weathermaps. Oh, for that great season when people are on vacation and news is so sparse that all anybody can talk about is the unchanging, hazy, brown, stale air mass that collects pollution like a big upside-down bowl.

This is the season for what a small company of knowledgeable crazies call Sporadic E.

No, Sporadic E is not Elvin Hayes in the playoffs (that’s a basketball joke, nonsports fans). It’s something strange that happens high in the sky, like depleting ozone. The E layer of the ionosphere is what normally reflects AM waves back at the Earth when it’s dark outside. That’s all it does, and it does it reliably enough to make WABC in New York the most listened to station in the whole country at night. The AM band is set up so the big stations supply night time service to remote areas, thanks to the E layer. But at certain times, like a werewolf at full moon, the E layer gets very strange and difficult. All of a sudden it starts reflecting more than just AM signals. It starts reflecting FM and TV signals too! In the day! And at night. It even reflects CB signals, driving the poor CBers “skip crazy.” Instead of talking to the feller down the road, good buddies all over will froth trying to reach Texas or some place with their dashboard squawkbox.“HEY! I mean HEY DALLAS! Come back DALLAS! COMEBACKCOMEBACKCOMEBACK HEEEEEY! YEAH DALLAS! You got that one Double-Wide here. Double-Wide in PITTSBURRA, NORTH CAROLONNA. PITTSBURRA! DOUBLE-WIDE! COME BACK DALLAS!” At the other end, they’ll curse the babble that’s obliterated local communications or join in. “HEEY, NORTH CARALLANA, WE GOTCHA FOR SHORE, NORTH CARALANNA. YOU SAY YALL’S THE POWER-GLIDE IN HITSTON? YOU GOT THE ONE WIDE OVAL DOWN HERE IN BLISTER SHOALS, LOOSIEANNA. WIDE OVAL IN BLISTER SHOALS LOOSIEANNA COME BACK. And on it goes, as long as the skip lasts.

In the meantime, strange things appear on your television. First, some wavering shadows. Then a new picture will increasingly interfere with what you’re watching until everything looks horrible or your local program is replaced altogether by something 1,000 miles away.

 

One day last June we were watching the weather on Channel 2 from Greensboro when old Lee Kinard, the eternal weatherman, started talking French. Then his weathermap got all distorted and BZZT — in came Montreal. I turned the antenna so it aimed a little East of North, and for the whole evening we watched Canadian TV. Stations from all over Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland came in and stayed for hours. We watched Canadian Divorce Court, bewigged jurists and all. We endured 2-3 minute ads during commercial breaks. (Ah, for more American standards — ads only one minute long!) We watched beautifully produced smalltown French newscasts on which the only understandable words were “Dodge Charger.” The next night it happened again. This time we watched a whole Midwest full of Channel 3’s as the E-effect drifted northward. First was Lafayette, Louisiana; then Shreveport, Louisiana; Springfield, Missouri; Omaha, Nebraska; Mason City, Iowa; and finally Duluth, Minnesota. It happened during the local news period in the central zone, so we got to see a weird assortment of local features, news, weather and sports. My favorite was an oversweet TV weathergirl who had a little “Mister Rain” and “Mister Heat” to decorate her Iowa weathermap.

On FM it’s just as much fun. Sometimes stations will stay there a long time. Other times the effect will come and go and move all over the place. Once it was so widespread that with a twist of the antenna from west to east I could get stations from Kansas, Quebec and Bermuda on the same channel.

The effect usually occurs in late morning and late afternoon through evening. It almost never affects TV above Channel 6, and usually affects only the lower channels on the dial. Around here, Channel 3 is the one which is easiest to watch since there’s no local station. If you turn on your TV and see something strange on Channel 3, it’s probably coming from about a thousand miles away. That’s the average distance. Look for “venetian blind” effects too; this occurs when two or more stations are competing for your tube. If you also see faraway stations on Channel 6, chances are the effect extends to FM as well. It usually starts on the lower channels, works up to 6 and then on to FM. May to July are the main months for sporadic E. So now’s your chance for strange thrills.

— David Searls