Broadcast FM channels can often contain additional subcarriers hidden within the bandwidth. A common subcarrier is Radio Data System (RDS), and this is what provides song and radio station text information to your radio.
Another less commonly seen subcarrier is the Subsidiary communications authority (SCA), which is a separate audio channel hidden within the broadcast FM signal. SCA is typically used for niche radio programs, elevator music, music for doctors offices, and niche services such as reading for the visually impaired. In the past you needed a special hardware SCA radio to receive these channels, however receiving these channels with an SDR is relatively simple. Not all broadcast FM stations will have an SCA service, but the video shown below explains how to find one.
Over on YouTube channel Double A has uploaded a video showing how to decode these SCA subcarriers using an RTL-SDR, two SDR# instances and the MPX Output plugin. The idea to to use a virtual audio cable to pipe the FM Multiplex (MPX) audio output from one instance of SDR# to another. In the second SDR# instance you can then directly tune into the SCA channel. In his video he also explores the FM MPX spectrum, showing the different components, and also how to install and use RDS Spy for decoding RDS.
Tuning an FM Audio Subcarrier (SCA) & Decoding RDS Data with RTL-SDR USB
A typical broadcast FM station can sometimes contain “hidden” subcarriers embedded within the main signal. The subcarriers contain data or audio services.
An example of a data subcarrier hidden within broadcast FM is the “Traffic Message Channel” (TMC). The TMC contains traffic data, and is used on GPS devices that advertise as having live traffic capabilities. TMC data is encrypted so that it can be sold, but is very easily broken. Another data service is RDS-RT+ data which transmits song information, for radios that can display it.
An example of a voice subcarrier (SCA/ACS) might be niche radio stations, such as ethnic stations, elevator music, music for doctors offices etc. Usually a specialized radio is required to receive a SCA channel. In a previous post we showed how a user was able to receive SCA on Windows.
Over on his blog Gough Lui has been investigating the broadcast FM subcarriers in his home town of Sydney, Australia. In his post he looks at TMC, RDS-RT+ and SCA subcarriers and explains a bit about what they are and how they work. He also goes on to receive and decode the subcarriers with an RTL-SDR, gr-rds and GNU Radio. While Gough doesn’t bother to decrypt the TMC service, he can still see when an event occurs and what the even was. Without decryption he just doesn’t know where the location on the event is. For SCA he wrote a GNU Radio program to extract the audio subcarrier and was able to decode audio from a local Indian station for migrants.
In the USA and Canada a subcarrier called SCA (Subsidary Communications Authority) is used to add additional services to a broadcast FM signal. Some examples of the extra services provided are live financial stock telemetry, audio books for the blind, specialized audio radio programs for doctors etc and background music for supermarkets and stores. These SCA signals are modulated into standard broadcast FM radio signals, but require a special radio to receive them. Subcarrier signals can easily be spotted in the audio/baseband waterfall and spectrum plots available in most SDR software.