Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Think again about buying that shortwave radio...

Several weeks ago I was having an online discussion on a site about Old Time Radio (for which I have another 'Blog, although it hasn't been updated in years) on Facebook when I made a comment that shortwave radio is something from another era. Boy, some people really got ticked off by that remark. And I still stand by it.

One of the respondents was a man who said the whole thing was going the way of high definition television and shortwave radio stations are thriving today. Knowing I am not a technical person, I ducked away from that argument and never found out if that man found peace with himself or not.

Let me tell you my interest in shortwave radio is something I got into when I was a boy living in Oceanside, California (sometime between 1962 and 1966). My dad went to the Goodwill in National City and bought a Hallicrafters radio that could pick up anything between 5,000 and 27,000 megacycles (we say megahertz today). And this radio was old enough that it had an extended AM (medium wave) band that went to 1700 megahertz. The area between 1600-1700 was labeled "Police Calls." If I remember correctly, each police department had call letters, like a radio station The power of each frequency varied according to the area of a city. Sheriff's departments and county police departments, as well as state police, had several frequencies. (I don't know why I tell you this: American police departments began broadcasting on higher frequencies before I was born.) Anyway, I loved to listen to radio stations far away from me, whether they were on shortwave, AM, or FM. Or any other frequency.

And it's not just radio: I can remember one summer, we had a freak rainstorm (caused by a hurricane off the California coast) and my mom was watching her NBC soap operas on TV when suddenly we were watching the "3:30 Movie" on some television station in South Dakota. 

Anyway, I finished high school. I went to college for almost four years and dropped out. I got a short job in a Los Angeles TV station. Then I joined the Army. Fast forward past nine months of training, I was in Berlin, Germany.

In Europe, AM radio (which they call "medium wave") was amazing. I listened to a Christian radio station at night from Monte Carlo, Monaco (with the Iron Curtain, it was about 1,000 miles to drive there), that had 1.000,000 watts of power. And it wasn't just Christian radio. Most of what could be picked up was government propaganda, whether it be from Radio Moscow, which loved to exploit American poverty, Radio Tirana, which ridiculed the capitalist bourgeoisie, or the Voice of America (which used a US military radio station in Frankfurt, Germany). That was fun for about four months then I realized I needed more. Even cars sold in Germany at this time were equipped with shortwave and longwave bands.

Now, as I constantly remind people, I'm not much of a technical person but I know something about radio. But just a little. I'm not into "ham radio." I'm more of a radio consumer than a radio participant.Let me explain something about broadcast radio that even a non-techie like me can understand (1 MHz = 1,000 kHz). By the way, how this "wave" thing got to be: The higher the frequency, the shorter the wave. And the difference between AM and FM is this: AM waves conform with the environment; FM waves move in a straight line. So that's why a 50,000 watt FM radio station can be heard only about 50 miles while a 10,000 watt AM station can be heard much farther and even more at night. Shortwave, mediumwave, and longwave all broadcast AM waves.

  • Shortwave Radio (1.6-30 MHz) This is generally used to send broadcasts far away.
  • Mediumwave Radio (500-1,710 kHz) Used for standard consumer broadcasts.
  • Longwave Radio (below 535 kHz, although all broadcast stations are below 400 kHz) Used by only stations beamed to remote areas.
Now there are innovations to make shortwave sound more like FM radio stations with the same frequencies. Whoever did the recent editing on Wikipedia definitely did not like that the previous editor explained that "shortwave radio is dead... why go through all the trouble with a shortwave radio set when it is so much easier to get the data online at any time... no scheduling difficulties..."

Since 1998, some of the best known and loved (some so bad they are good) shortwave radio stations have left the airwaves but continue on the Internet:

  • Radio Canada International
  • Voice of Russia (formerly Radio Moscow)
  • Spanish Foreign Radio
  • Swiss Radio International
  • HCJB World Radio (a similar but smaller operation set up in Australia using the same name)
  • Radio Netherlands
  • Austrian Radio
  • Radio Polonia 
  • WYFR Family Radio
  • Radio Prague
  • Radio Singapore International
  • Radio Luxembourg
  • Radio Lisbon
  • RAI (Rome, Italy)
  • Radio Sweden
  • Voice of Malaysia

Most of these radio stations moved their broadcasts from the airwaves to being online. However, six months after the Voice of Malaysia moved to the Internet, the website was taken down as it was identical to the one put up by the Malaysian Ministry of Information (which even included radio broadcasts).

What you can hear now, that I enjoyed from the past, are the following:

  • China Radio International (former Radio Peking)
  • Voice of America 
  • Deutsche Welle 
  • Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran
  • Radio Havana (the only real Communist propagandists still on the air, though not as rough today as they were before 2009)
  • All India Radio
  • Voice of Nigeria
  • Radio New Zealand
  • Channel Radio (former Radio RSA)
and approximately 25 other stations.

In my opinion, the only way you should communicate with these stations is by snail mail. That way you can collect stamps (if they use them). But the way this works: You listen to the station and write notes as you are listening. Then you write a report and send it to the radio station. Some stations still require IRCs (international reply coupons). These are purchased at the post office and can be redeemed to obtain the cheapest airmail rate out of the country. If the people at the radio station are satisfied with the report you will get a QSL card. (actually, some of my friends found out that you still get a card if they are not satisfied with the report; it simply say "UNVERIFIED").

So there you are. I think you may still want to purchase a shortwave radio receiver but there is not as much to hear today a there was 40 years ago.

73s to everybody!

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