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I wrote what is below in 2003 or before. A lot has changed. I hardly ever listen to shortwave anymore. There's so little to hear because so many of the broadcasters are gone. They turned off their transmitters. Some morphed into internet based services. You can still hear BBC online, for example. On a rare day or night I can hear Voice of America's service to Africa. Radio Netherlands is gone altogether. I'm leaving what's below as testimony to what was, an experience I am pleased to have had and lament isn't to be had by others who weren't born yet or didn't know about shortwave listening before the medium's decline.
What joy it was to turn on a radio any time, day or night, and hear voices from other lands telling me news and stories, introducing another culture's music, and joking around. No, they weren't all honest. There was plenty of deceit when people in power in one place wanted everyone to believe things were so much better with them in power and so horrible elsewhere. But it was all part of the pleasure of learning about other points of view.
You may ask why I don't just find all that online and move on. I do. And that's okay. This is about nostalgia. This is about a wonderful feeling from remembering a time when learning about the world was harder and listening to shortwave was like opening a door to another realm. There was also something special about not knowing what the band conditions would be like from day to day or even hour to hour and getting a signal because of it or in spite of it. I suppose it's like the thrill some people get from successful bird watching, hunting, fishing, or a search for treasure.
Besides the old references to finding plenty to listen to not being accurate anymore, I will note here that the Popular Communications magazine hasn't been published since 2013 and the 2022 edition of World Radio and TV Handbook is the last. It's also important that now you can get into shortwave listening with the computer or cell phone you are using to read this page. You won't have to spend another dime. Many people have put software defined radios (SDR) online to let others tap into their connections and hear whatever their SDR receives. An SDR samples radio waves somewhat like a digital audio recorder samples sound waves. You decide which radio frequencies to sample and convert into audio. And if you don't get a good signal in one place, you can look for an SDR somewhere else that may get it better. What an age we live in.
Even so, I'm glad to have known shortwave listening as it was.
What's shortwave radio?
Shortwave radio transmissions occur on frequencies above about 2.3 Megahertz and below 30 Megahertz. That's above the medium wave band (540 Kilohertz to 1700 Kilohertz), which is usually called the "A.M. Band" in the United States. It's also below the frequencies used for television broadcasts, which start at 45MHz or higher worldwide. The higher the frequency, the shorter the wave length. In radio's earliest days, shortwaves were the shortest ones useful for communication. They're still called shortwaves, even though TV, cell phones, and satellites use much shorter waves.
What's on shortwave?
Music, news, radio-teletype, facsimile transmissions, "ham" radio, time signals, military communications, and lots more. Radio-teletype signals include weather data and news wire services. Facsimile includes satellite weather pictures and photographs for news wire services. Some ham radio transmissions are in morse code, some in voice, and some in computer blips or "packet" radio. If you know where to look, you can tune in on military maneuvers, although don't expect the really secret stuff to be an easy or obvious catch!
Why can shortwave signals go around the world?
High in the atmosphere, layers of charged particles called ions reflect radio waves in certain frequency ranges back to earth. If the frequency is too high to be reflected, the radio wave will pass through into space. If the frequency is too low, the wave will be absorbed. The ion layers make up the ionosphere. In shortwave bands, signals can be reflected several times between the earth and ionosphere before they get to you.
Do I need a license to listen to shortwave?
In the United States, no government issued license is needed to own and operate a receiver. "Ham" or amateur
licenses are for transmitters, not receivers. If all you can do with your radio is listen, you don't need a license. To
transmit, however, you do need a license in most cases. If you believe you have a transmitter that requires no
license, you'd be wise to contact a local radio club to make sure before you end up in expensive trouble. And if
you get a transceiver (a combination transmitter and receiver), make sure you only use it in receiver mode if you're
not licensed to transmit. Or to put it simply: no license required to listen.
What equipment do I need for shortwave listening?
At a minimum, you need a shortwave receiver and an antenna. Starting with just the basics is probably the best way to get into the hobby. Some avid shortwave listeners put up numerous antennas of different sizes, hook up signal amplifiers, signal filters, and audio processors. But if you're new to the hobby, you won't know what any of that stuff does or if you will even need it for the things you're interested in. You might as well get a simple radio with a built-in antenna. Then after you've tried SWL-ing for a while, you'll know what you want your next piece of equipment to do. For best results, whatever equipment you use, keep some paper and pens or pencils handy. Jot down a few notes about what you hear, when you hear it, what frequency it's on, how strong the signal is, what you think of the program, or whatever you wish. A good SWL log can help a lot if you want to find a station you haven't heard in a long time, or if you want to plan a listening session.
How expensive is this hobby?
Some of the least expensive receivers sell for around U.S.$50. If you're really into the sophisticated stuff, you could spend over $2000 on a radio! Simple antennas could be free if they're made from scrap wire. Or you could have an "antenna farm" with switches and amplifiers running into the thousands of dollars. Whether you spend a little or a lot is up to you. Whatever you do, don't spend a lot of money on anything if you don't know what all the fancy features are for.
What kind of receiver(s) should I get?
If this is totally new to you, I suggest you get a simple, inexpensive radio. You'll be able to hear news, music,
religious and cultural programs, time signals, and the like. If you want to hear hams, your radio needs to have
a beat frequency oscillator, or BFO. You'll pay a little more for that. If you want to decode radio teletype and
facsimile signals, you'll pay a lot more for the right type of receiver. You'll need one that's well-designed with
very stable circuitry. You'll also need additional equipment to connect to the radio--a decoder or a computer
with a decoding program, and possibly a printer. You definitely need to read up on that subject before you
part with the cash.
What kind of antenna do I need?
The answer to this could also be complex. Many portable radios come with telescoping antennas attached. You'll get strong signals with these but you'll find reception improves dramatically with an external antenna. My Sony came with a 7 meter reel-in wire antenna that plugs into a jack on the radio's side. Radio Shack sells something similar that can either be plugged into a mini-jack or coupled to a telescoping antenna. It's well worth the $10 to $20 a reel-in antenna will cost if all you have now is the telescoping kind. External antenna simply means one that's not inside the receiver. It doesn't have to be outdoors. If you use the receiver in any kind of building made substantially of metal though, you should have an outdoor antenna. Outdoor antennas can be built on your roof or in your back yard.
Is there such a thing as longwave?
Yes. Signals on frequencies below 500 kHz are considered longwave. Many radio navigation beacons use longwave. Occasionally a military installation transmits a weather report on those low frequencies. There's a time signal station way down at 60 kHz. Secret communications to submarines are somewhere down there. And deep down below 30 kHz are signals naturally produced in the earth's atmosphere. Tuning in that stuff is a whole-nother-subject.
How will I understand broadcasts from other countries?
The typical broadcaster that goes to the trouble of sending a signal across an ocean also produces programs in many languages. After all, no language on earth is spoken by more than a sixth of the planet's people. If you only know English, you won't have a problem finding a lot to listen to.
I don't want my radio to interfere with my neighbor's TV, radio, etc.
If you only have a receiver, this won't be a problem.
I want to learn more....
There are books and magazines you may want to look for at your local library or store. A good magazine is "Popular Communications". A great book, published annually with broadcasting schedules and listening tips, is the "World Radio and TV Handbook". A similar annual publication is "Passport to Worldband Radio". You can also look for "shortwave radio" tips by going to your favorite Internet search engine.
Rick Wiegmann Koshko