In the pre-internet society shortwave radio served a function now mostly siphoned off by the gossamer fabric of T-1 lines and DSL modems. The power and importance of these world-scaled transmitters was barely attainable by anything else.
Shortwave offered the advantages of operating at low powers with large ranges, which made the medium suitable in most other parts of the world--where nations were more defined by vast carpets of luxurious veldt, endless plains of eternal ice, or oceans of deep blue water rather than sprawling urban population centers. Short Wave transimitting stations didn't merely consist of the civilized giants such as the Beeb, Voice of America, RCI, DeutschWelle, or Radio Tokyo. Amongst and between the almost blaring interlatticing of these signals one could find local religious broadcasts aimed towards the communities of northern Argentina, or wheat prices and local news reports for some green corner of the Carribean. In Africa, China, or even places in Eastern and Western Europe, one found that shortwave did equal service as a local medium--and just not something confined to the bounding reaches of the ionosphere.
Hearing those stations back then was magic. It was everything the internet contains now and something more. There was kind of a subtle romance of imagination involved in trying to fish out some english broadcast of Radio Free China which was aimed at Hong Kong, or tuning into one of the broadcasts of Radio Red Cross--which operated somewhere around 9000kHz, could only be heard on my radio if I attached a wad of tin foil to the end of an (already 4ft long) onboard antenna, and was actually transmitted from some lonely tower seemingly in the jungles of Central America.
There were, of course, other items of import for these lower frequencies. Stations like Radio Marti, Radio Liberty, and Radio Free Europe existed as puppets to the State Department. Funded and administered by the same mechanics that brought the Voice of America to everyone's shortwave set, these stations were programmed to bring free and subversive material to the unfortunate souls locked behind the curtains of despotic commnuism. They were native language broadcasters, never needing to have an english feed because all of the listeners were Cuban, East German, Polish, Czech, Chinese, and other myriad members of societies deemed repressed by the United States around the world. I couldn't understand any of it, but it was somehow excitng to know that I was listening in on something forbidden, something that was being jammed by very angry Soviets on the far side of the Berlin Wall.
On top of that, almost being beamed back from the darker recesses of the radio spectrum, were the infamous numbers stations, doling out a sense of clandestine creepiness--as though they were alien operatives hiding under your bed. Beyond that were the pirates who, taking advantage of the low-power/high-range ability of shortwave radio, often took to powering their illicit broadcasts for an hour or two with less power than it takes to light most lightbulbs. Even further beyond that lay the seemingly indecipherable squawks and moans of ham radio broadcasts before being filtered through the appropriate level of sideband oscillation. One article on listening in to the broadcasts of amateur radio operators unfiltered described the noise as, "sounding like Daisy Duck in heat."
And that was really part of the charm of shortwave radio back in those days. It was the organic act of listening to someone who was alive and part of a culture who could relay even the tiniest part of this different world back to you. It was the kind of travel-by-thought enabled by hitting a power button, pointing an antenna in the right direction, laying back under the stars of a cool spring evening (spring and autumn evenings were always the best times to pick up the most distant stations), closing your eyes and just listening.
It could have been simple reports of Cricket scores from Autralia, or a brief 15 minute language lesson from Kyoto, it didn't matter. With that voice from Radio Taiwan calmly reporting whatever information was deemed pertinent for the day, or discussing the current state of housing in Taipei, I could see--in my mind's eye--the colourful pagodas, Buddhist temples, those steep hillsides covered in forest, I could even detect a faint hint of what I imagined Lotus blossoms might smell like.
It was the sense of traveling, of feeling a tiny bit of the world brought by radio through the night sky to my small little house in Kansas. The idea that these voices were real people, sitting in real studios, in those cities that could have been as far away as Neptune (by my estimated chances of getting to see any of them at the time), made the rest of the world seem so much bigger, and so much more real than the electron paintings I pulled off ABC World News Tonight. It was the difference between some twenty second blurb about a terrorist bombing and the knowledge that other people lived real lives behind all of that sensationalist mess.
Having just fell slightly out of favour with the rather limited personal computers of the day, my first real purchase of my life was made after spending six months of saved allowance and all of my Christmas money--a total of $200, a big deal for a 13 year old--on a Sangean ATS 803-A World Band Reciever to replace the 25 year old Montgomery Ward beast I owned (which had been out of action for 20 years due to being struck by a bat in the mid 60's), and the Sharp Boombox my dad had purchased for me on a trip to Japan. The Sharp was a novelty in that, as a Japanese version of a model already existing in the U.S. at the time, it actually had three Short Wave bands on it as features designed for the sparsely poulated Asian Market. The American model, having no need for such hobby-esque frivolity, lacked the shortwave ability.
Even after purchasing the radio of my dreams, I further annoyed my parents by stringing up roughly 120ft. of copper wire between my bedroom, the television antenna on the roof, and a tree in the backyard, so it would be easier to pick up the most distant stations. I still needed he wad of foil to pick up Radio Red Cross, though.
As I was just barely a child, and more recently a teenager during that period, it somehow made the world a bit more beautiful to me. There was nothing more beautiful than feeling a kind of realization that those things on television were very real and very there, and thus very accessible.