Those frequencies beyond the medium-wave (AM) band, ranging (in several bands) from about 4000-22000 kHz. Stations are mainly regional, though with relays they are part of an international presence; they often broadcast in different languages to each region. Examples: BBC World Service, Radio Nederland, Radio France International, the Voice of America, Radio Habana Cuba, the Voice of Russia (formerly Radio Moscow). Many are now webcasting.

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.

A Shortwave Radio Buying Guide

Shortwave radio listening (SWLing) is a fun hobby if conditions are right and you're listening with a nice radio. Unfortunately shortwave radios are not inexpensive. A good portable usually costs $200, and a good tabletop model can go up to $4000. For this writeup I will focus on radios in the $200 -- $1500 range.

Portable radios are usually 14cm x 20cm x 3cm. Portables usually contain one speaker of modest quality, with FM stereo headphone output. Advantages: Smaller size, travel ability, self contained antenna, battery power. Disadvantages: Mediocre audio quality, frequency coverage, tuning resolution (large tuning steps, 5 khz instead of 1 khz), battery power.

Tabletop radios are usually 20 cm x 24 cm x 8cm. Since tabletops use external power and external antennas, their sensitivity and selectivity are enhanced with the cost of portability. In other words, tabletops can hear more stations and distinguish between them more easily. Advantages: marked increase in ability to recieve signals and discriminate between them. Greater tuning resolution. Can recieve single sideband (SSB) signals for ham radio communications. Can be used with a ham radio transmitter as a station reciever. Advanced tuning features (passband tuning, notch, noise reduction, synchronous detection) that make ferreting out stations even easier. Disadvantages: No battery option. Little portability. High level of feature sophistication on many models. No FM radio coverage, in most models.

Required features

Digital readout. Unless you want to use an antique radio this is a must for modern listening.

Direct frequency keying. Allows the user to dial in frequencies without tuning a knob.

1 kHz tuning. Though broadcast stations use 5 kHz spacing for the most part, ham radio operators, pirate, and clandestine stations use whatever frequency they can get.

Desireable features

Synchronous Detection. A computer algorithm that isolates signals on an individual sideband and cancels out noise from an adjacent station.

Notch, Passband Tuning, Noise Reduction. Tools that allow a listener to weed out weak stations. Great for hunting long distance (DX) stations, not necessary to listen to the BBC and other megawatt broadcasters.

Selectable filters. Unlike less expensive radios, tabletops will allow for multiple filter selection and the ability to add more filters. Filters enable greater stations separation at the risk of destroying audio.

Ham transmitter interface. If you are a ham radio operator, radios of the same make can be used with one another as a transmitter/reciever pair.

Reciever suggestions:

A great beginner radio is the Sony SW7600GR. This portable can be got at $150 on sale with used/refurbished units on eBay. The Sony sports good audio with good synchronous detection, a rare feature at this price and on any portable. Sonys are known for good selection/sensitivity and overall build quality.

The classic portable is the Sony '2010/'2001. This radio was perhaps the longest produced consumer electronic device, marketed from 1983 to 2001. If a clean '2010 can be got on eBay, I suggest you snap it up. This radio was the first, of any radio, to feature synchronous detection. The 2010 also has great filter shaping and selectivity. Quite a large radio (size of a college textbook) and heavy, nevertheless SWLs talk of the '2010 in reverential tones. In my opinion and the opinion of many, the best portable ever made. Replaced by the Sony SW77, which for many is not equivalent and besides, extremely complex to operate with computer menus, no tuning knob, and full of "automatic everything" for tuning controls.

A great tabletop is the Icom IC-R75. Icom, a speciality communications manufacturer, has produced a tabletop at $500 which is not the best but has a selection of good qualities at an unbeatable price. Specs on SSB are excellent, audio quality is good with external speakers, and the frequency readout is precise at 1 Hz! But, the synchronous does not work at all, though there is individual sideband selection with superb noise cancellation through passband tuning and a digital notch. If you are a independent type, then this radio offers a lot of flexibility. If you just want to chill and listen to the big broadcasters, this radio is too fussy.

An alternative is the Grundig Satellit 800, priced nearly the same as the Icom. This radio, also marketed as the Tecsun includes synchronous detection (that works!) and very pleasant audio without the learning curve of the Icom. The major downside is very poor build quality, so I suggest the Icom merely for durability. Yet ease of use and great audio lends this radio to effortless broadcast listening. Have fun and tell me what stations you get!

The general sentiment surrounding shortwave radio is that it is outdated; a technology that was practical before cables of glass and plastic were draped around the world, making communication instantaneous, easy, and cheap. Perhaps it's this old-tech quality which now makes shortwave radio endearing to the people (such as myself) who still use or listen to it.

Although its heyday has passed, there are still a few stations which operate on the shortwave frequencies. The variety of stations on shortwave, however, makes up for what they may lack in the departments of stereo sound, quality, or number. There's always some sort of religious group proselytizing to whomever will listen in on them, whether it's a lady who sounds like she lives alone in an old house in Maine, singing her terrible songs, or a sleazy group in South Carolina that sounds Scientology wannabes. There's other hawkers, people trying to sell things by casting out their offers on the aether, and talk shows, their words going into nothingness for all they know. The most interesting, though, are the foreign stations, the ones most afflicted by static and distortion. There's a certain charm to turning a dial on a box until suddenly, from noise, one hears a station like Radio National de Brasilia. Some languages are familiar, and phrases can be picked up with the skills from High School Spanish, French, or German - but others are completely foreign, comprised of languages whose simple identities are impossible to even guess at.

Modern communications have shrunk the world, it's undeniable - but the world is still a big place. Sometimes, it's necessary to remind one's self of this - shortwave radio can still serve this purpose well. The magic of signals, no doubt cast from far and wide, traveling across oceans and continents, interfered with by countless radio sources, and finally reaching the ear - distorted, too low or too high in pitch, but there - makes it obvious again that the world is more than what's in front of the horizon and carried by the Internet.

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