Listening to shortwave radio in 2008 is a willfully quixotic undertaking
February 8, 2008 9:21 AM   Subscribe

Waging a tiny rebellion via shortwave radio. "Missing the Internet's precision, what I think most recommends shortwave radio now is its offer of quest. It's in the hunting for something unknown that might not be there anyway, and if it is, may dissolve, sputtering, eaten by sunspots or zapped in static."
posted by ZenMasterThis (30 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I got my shortwave set two Christmases ago, and I can spend hours upon hours just turning the dial, listening to voices, music, strange sounds, numbers, Morse, and who-knows-what-else wavering in and out, bouncing off the ionosphere. It isn't for everyone, but it sure works for me.
Shortwave Music can give you an idea of some of the best parts of the experience.
posted by leapfrog at 9:35 AM on February 8, 2008

Thank you for this post. I am sure at some point the links i am posting below were linked to on the blue at one time or another.

Anyhow one of the things that one might discover when using SW radio is the number stations:
The Conet Project
is a collection of recordings of them.

There is also this site Numbers Monitoring. Which has a collection of recordings that can be downloaded

And an overview of the mystery of number stations on BBC 4: Tracking the Lincolnshire Poacher
I really enjoy SW radio:

The crackle, the seemingly random nature of it. The radio plays. Listening to the atomic clock. I could go on and on.
posted by yertledaturtle at 9:37 AM on February 8, 2008

That should read are the number stations. Rather than is.
posted by yertledaturtle at 9:38 AM on February 8, 2008

When I was a kid, my dad and I would hunker in the basement with the only light source being the illuminated radio tuning bar and scroll through the squawks and whistles and washes of static on the shortwave band, looking for international stations and trying to identify the language and then if possible to figure out what was being talked about. The numbers stations and other nonsequitir broadcasts were the ones I recall the best.

Russians and Venezuelans and Brits babbled and honked up against one another while endless streams of deadpan nonsense and staticky whistling and measured beeping rolled between and into the urgent staccato newsreaders, hinting at hidden structures and the power of the natural world. The sheer fraught intensity and strangeness of sitting in that dim light remains a wonderful and priceless memory.
posted by mwhybark at 10:09 AM on February 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

That's a beautiful article and sums the experience up perfectly. Thanks for posting.

I do shortwave for a living. It's my hobby, my livelihood, my inspiration, my passion.

I go up to Runyon Canyon almost daily with my radio. Surrounded by jocks, models, tourists, and Audubon types, I'm hunched over the same silver box with the same long antenna, looking for all the world like someone trawling for alien transmissions. In running pants.

Oddly enough, those evenings on Runyon have actually proven to be the best proselytizing experience there is about shortwave. People's faces turn from puzzlement to wonder in the turn of a sentence. Not a single person has yet suggested to me, "Why don't you just get that from the Internet?" This leads me to believe that, even if people don't necessarily want to go to the trouble themselves, there's at least something about the concept that they get. That there are still bigger ways of looking at the world. Some tiny filament of the romance lights up.

Post-Conet Project, we seem to be going through another one of these mini-cultural blips about shortwave again. Harry Shearer recently wrote on the subject for the New York Times. Wired had some good links recently. And, of course, SWLs are gloating over the recent undersea internet cable cuts: "It highlights the vulnerability of this very complicated system that requires infrastructure around the world. As we all know, give us a generator, a tent and some trees to string up some antenna wire, and we'll have a shortwave station on the air quickly."

Shortwave isn't what it was when I started 15 years ago, for sure, and it certainly isn't what it was at the height of the Cold War. But it remains an under-explored alternative for listeners with the right balance of adventurousness, patience, imagination, and an appreciation for the inexplicable. [*]
posted by mykescipark at 10:10 AM on February 8, 2008 [5 favorites]

The internet is the new shortwave radio.
posted by b1ff at 10:20 AM on February 8, 2008

Wow, with yesterday's gardening post and today's shortwave post the three things that keep me from actually interacting with other humans (the gardent, shortwave and the internet) have been united! It's like I've discovered someone's peanut butter in my chocolate!
posted by Pollomacho at 10:23 AM on February 8, 2008

What a strangely timely post; I was just thinking about getting into shortwave.

Back when I was a kid, a friend's mom and dad were heavily into the radio set; she operated the CB and he worked the ham radio. It was always fun to sit in their living room and hear voices from both near and far. (It was especially cool, when we started driving, and we always knew that as long as we had our CB and were within a couple of miles from home, we could count on being able to raise one of them in an emergency. Probably something most kids today don't even think about, but in those pre-cellphone days, it was awesomely neat.)

I do recall how much excitement it could generate when a strange language would roll over one of the sets, and there would be much effort expended trying to identify where it was coming from.

I've been kind of missing that.
posted by quin at 10:28 AM on February 8, 2008

I got tired of checking UTC charts for broadcasts, messing with antennas, tweaking dials, trying to hear faint stations, constant static and drift.... When I found this thing, I got interested in SW again:

I was listening to Radio Chad a couple of days the rebels stormed the capital. I never would have caught that on my old SW set....

One caveat: requires WiFi...or a good Intarweb connection.
posted by PhiBetaKappa at 10:36 AM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

The internet is the new shortwave radio.

Not even close, kiddo.
posted by mykescipark at 10:36 AM on February 8, 2008

As an inactive ham operator I still tune around the shortwave bands occasionally. The thing that struck me last time was the number of American evangelical and right wing political programs with rather extreme views. I specifically remember Pastor Peters

I agree that the internet doesn't really replace shortwave but, even so, my favorite techie and bedside toy these days is my WiFi radio. I use it mainly for listening to the BBC but the database has thousands of stations.
posted by tetranz at 10:59 AM on February 8, 2008

The always excellent WFMU goes hunting across the shortwave (and AM) dial in Adventures in Amplitude Modulation, complete with sound clips so you can remember the old days hidden under the bedcovers with your Radio Shack kit shortwave radio with the antenna hooked up to the metal window screen next to your bed and mono ear bud in place, pulling in far off signals (or was that just me?).
posted by 1f2frfbf at 11:22 AM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thanks for that article. Like others here, it invokes memories of my early teens when I was into radio-building.

My center-piece then was a kit "all-band" regenerative radio with plug-in coils and 3 tubes, kinda strange for a 70's kit. My Dad helped me string a long wire antenna in the back yard.

I still occasionally listen to shortwave. i bought a Radio Shack DX-160 from Ebay, but I also continue to mess with building regenerative radios. It's amazing (to me anyways) how much you can receive with $20 worth of parts.

( so, 1f2frfbf ... yeah, me too)
posted by Artful Codger at 11:35 AM on February 8, 2008

I've built a couple regenerative radio kits, but mainly do shortwave listening with a Yaesu FRG-100, and will be using this beauty (Kenwood TS-430S) once the power cable arrives.

My wife asked me to explain my obsession with amateur/shortwave radio, and the best I could do was "I like to know that I can communicate with people across the city, state, country, or planet with only the equipment that I own, without depending on someone else's telephone line or Internet connection." I then explained things like "worked all states" contests and collecting QSL cards.

I still don't think she "gets" it.

73 de K5WCB
posted by mrbill at 11:49 AM on February 8, 2008

mrbill writes "I like to know that I can communicate with people across the city, state, country, or planet with only the equipment that I own, without depending on someone else's telephone line or Internet connection.' I then explained things like 'worked all states' contests and collecting QSL cards."

Dammit, that's exactly it ! Independance is root freedom !

Every now and then I talk to my friends about building a network so intricated, so uberlinked and ownedby ordinary joes that absolutely nothing, not even an EMP pulse could bring it down , but for a few days.

It is definitely NOT the internet the way we know it today, even if it's a quite close approximation, from the point of view of deployed infrastructure. Similarly, energy networks are in need.
posted by elpapacito at 1:02 PM on February 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have a really flimsy Chinese shortwave radio that's fun. I usually can't pick up anything on it, but I usually manage to pick up the English edition of Radio Havana Cuba for the latest propaganda. I've also managed to pick up the BBC, Radio Canada International, Voice of America, and my favorite Radio Netherlands.

What shortwave has that the Internets don't is QSL cards. I've only gotten two but they're pretty cool. One was from VOA and I also got a free calendar (though it took them nearly a year to reply, so I got a 2006 calendar in like, September of that year). I got another one from some Christian station where since I was one of the first 10 people to send in a QSL report, I got a fancy certificate, a free CD from some Christian parody band, and a really swanky pen with the station's signals. I tried sending one for Radio Canada International, but they said it wasn't right but they still send me their broadcast schedule and I got two really awesome bookmarks from them.

I mostly don't bother much with shortwave since the only clear signals I ever get are for Christian stations, foreign stations like Radio Marti, and survivalist flavored conservative shows. I hope to invest in a better shortwave radio though to pick up more stations.
posted by champthom at 1:19 PM on February 8, 2008

I may purchase a used "1952 Hallicrafters Trans Oceanic #TW 2000" this weekend, but am uncertain as the current owner (who sounds legit) says "it lights up, powers up ~ and YES it makes sound ~ does sound differently as I turn the turner" (she doesn't know radios). I don't know radios either. Does anyone else know if that's a bad sign? She's asking $55 which sounds like a good deal. Also, the model # sounds off, but only because I didn't see it on Wikipedia.
posted by christopherious at 2:40 PM on February 8, 2008

I go up to Runyon Canyon almost daily with my radio. Surrounded by jocks, models, tourists, and Audubon types, I'm hunched over the same silver box with the same long antenna, looking for all the world like someone trawling for alien transmissions. In running pants.

I have a portable shortwave radio myself but I'm a little scared at the idea of listening to it in a public park around here, like say, Rock Creek. I can just close my eyes and see the little old ladies whispering to each other when they see the radio with the 3 foot telescoping antenna, and then the cops showing up about 5 minutes later. Next thing you know I'm on some watch list somewhere.

Yeah, that would go over well. Welcome to 21st Century America.

posted by smoothvirus at 2:53 PM on February 8, 2008

I'm a little scared at the idea of listening to it in a public park around here, like say, Rock Creek. I can just close my eyes and see ... the cops showing up about 5 minutes later. Next thing you know I'm on some watch list somewhere.

A colleague of mine in the shortwave world wrote up a handy "Know Your Rights" sort of document for precisely those situations, actually. It runs down all the legal rights of citizenry concerning radio listening and such. (Sounds tin-foilish to some, I'm sure, but certain types of radio broadcasts are illegal to intercept in other countries and could theoretically get you in trouble.) If you're interested, I'll dig it up.
posted by mykescipark at 3:28 PM on February 8, 2008

I should also recommend Shortwaveology (from NPR's David Goren) while this thread is still new(ish).
posted by mykescipark at 3:34 PM on February 8, 2008

There is nothing illegal about listening to a shortwave radio in a public park. (provided you're not turning the volume way up!) However it is pretty unusual to see someone sitting on a park bench with a handheld radio with a bunch of buttons on it and a huge antenna. That would get people's attention, and probably in the wrong way - especially in D.C.

Then again they might think you're a cop - that happened one time when I was in a shopping mall with my 2-meter handheld. And another time when I was playing around with a handheld police scanner next to a car full of very nervous teenagers.

In any case the shortwave radio works just as well on my porch.
posted by smoothvirus at 4:09 PM on February 8, 2008

I got a charge recently to find out that you can, you know, talk to satellites. Like on (cheesy) BBS software. At the end of the day I think its probably not as exciting as all that, but the idea that you could squirt data up into space completely by your own control and have it stick up there was kind of sexy.
posted by Ogre Lawless at 4:14 PM on February 8, 2008

Huh, I just got my Technician's license last weekend! How timely.
posted by mrnutty at 4:25 PM on February 8, 2008

I recently strung a 100 foot random wire (truly random, when deployed it's all over the house). I live in an area with a lot of knife edge type diffraction so reception can be difficult necessitating a better antenna than a telescopic whip.

With it I am getting a larger variety of signals.

In a lot of places, shortwave is the primary source of both news and entertainment. In Chad, the national shortwave station was apparently seized by rebel forces and disabled.

For a great daily shortwave recap, check out the dxld.
posted by Sukiari at 7:38 PM on February 8, 2008

Like on (cheesy) BBS software.

Alright, if that's for real, will someone please buy a packet radio and hax the ISS plskthx?
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 8:43 PM on February 8, 2008

WBCQ The Planet rebroadcasts Harry Shearer's Le Show Sun 7.415 07:00PM 08:00PM ET 0000 0100 UTC
posted by hortense at 9:45 PM on February 8, 2008

can I just download the podcast?
posted by OldReliable at 11:57 PM on February 8, 2008

w/t/r the wifi radio guys, lately I have been working on turning my Treo cellphone into the same thing. Pocket Tunes for Palm OS is a capable streamer, and all the Treos have decent speakers. Not all data plans permit streaming, though, and no Treo has true wifi yet (although there are adapters).

I have mostly used it to

a) listen to my local NPR affiliate when I will be doing something that carries me away from the rest of the recievers in the house
b) listen to a classical stream for 40 minutes at bedtime
c) listen to miscellaneous non-local stations (WFHB, WFMU, WBUR, WNYC) when working with a PC that chokes if Photoshop and iTunes are both up at the same time

The UI makes it a bit of a chore to add an ad-hoc station to the presets, and the Palm OS has weird rules governing the availability of clipboard data, which means that it is a real project to identify and add a new station, but it's doable. Alas, Pocket Tunes does not support .wma streams or Real streams, so a significant percentage of streams are no-go at the present time.

I do get a huge kick out of having a transistor radio that can receive programming from around the whole globe, though. It's a shard of that old living-in-the-future feeling from ten years ago.
posted by mwhybark at 6:33 PM on February 9, 2008

christopherious, $55 isn't a bad price, but know that when you buy an elderly radio (like a 1952 Hallicrafters Trans Oceanic), you're doing so because you're a collector, or like rebuilding things with tubes ;^). At minimum, it will require cleaning and some re-alignment.

If you're just interested in buying your first shortwave receiver, you'd be better off putting that $55 into a decent modern portable shortwave, which will work immediately. If you get hooked, you can then start messing with better vintage receivers (caution, addictive)
posted by Artful Codger at 8:12 AM on February 10, 2008

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