Shortwave Souvenir (part 1)

Admitting you listen to shortwave radio in modern-day America is rather unlikely to impress anyone. Most won’t know what you’re talking about. And those who do (and they won’t be youngsters) will probably assume you’re a nostalgic fart wasting time in some antique technology bubble (and perhaps you have too much time on your hands). Years ago, I mentioned some shortwave broadcast I’d heard to my neighbor George. I still remember how he scrunched up his forehead at the time. And in a voice an octave higher than usual he said: “Shortwave?”

I think it’s safe to say that George doesn’t really know much about shortwave broadcasting, but he knows enough to make some assumptions about his neighbor who still listens to it in the 21st Century. And while we get still get along fine, I think the "shortwave factor" might just have changed the way he looks me in the eye some days. And then just a week ago, I happened to hear from someone I’ve known since high school. In an email recounting my life of late, I happened to mention this blog. “I was wondering about the short-wave interest,” he wrote back. “What exactly is the appeal?”

Well, that’s a good question. And even after writing about shortwave radio for years, I don’t have a stock answer. It’s no secret that the accepted wisdom of most who remember shortwave radio’s heyday is that it’s a fossil technology. Whatever miracles it once offered, all the magic has been more than replaced by all the data pipelines that drown us in information and intellectual property. Not only all that, but the truth is quite a bit of the international radio programming that shortwave was known for, now can be heard in a more tidy and clean fashion though streaming audio on your computer.

But to simply write off the technology (and medium) as outdated and unpopular, is to miss what is fantastic and extraordinary about shortwave listening. For one, it’s as wireless as you can get. While some of us are having a hard time getting a good signal from the router to our home office upstairs, major shortwave radio transmitters blanket huge swaths of the planet (without cables or wires or touching base with something in orbit). And then there’s all those exotic and interesting and beautiful radios that were built to hear signals from around the world. These wonderful toys made it a real adventure to tune.

No doubt some shortwave DXers also enjoy the ease and convenience of clicking over to a satellite channel or the URL of an audio stream to get to some compelling content. But almost all of them will tell you that it is NOT as much fun as sitting down with a shortwave radio and finding what’s out there. There’s a sport to it.

Listening to shortwave radio in the developed world was already a waning pastime when the popularization of the internet made it seem even more irrelevant. At least this has become true where the web at home and work has become ubiquitous (in North America and most of the overdeveloped world. In some far-flung wilderness or out in the South Pacific, bringing a portable shortwave radio along would still be a smart good idea.) And what’s kinda funny is that during the last BIG boom and bust cycle eighty years ago, shortwave radio was an innovative disruptive technology, like the web and digital technology today, that shoved a few industries into the abyss, like the makers of mammoth "longwave" transmitters that had previously ruled the airwaves, and all the business surrounding all the huge cables strewn across the oceans to connect the world together. It was the first wireless era.

But for "shortwave enthusiasts" (you see those two words together a lot on the web when you read about people who refuse to give up on shortwave) here in America, the fix was in. By 2001, the mothership of English language programming on shortwave, the BBC World Service suddenly quit filling our sky with their HF band programming. You wanna hear the BBC? Look around on the internet, or try to find out which hours may (or may not) be simulcast on local public radio. Thanks.

And now we’re zooming toward 2010, and world broadcasters are still unplugging their English language services to America. The most recent loss was Radio Netherlands excellent English programming. Turning on a shortwave radio is a different experience these days. (And I won’t even mention all the RF pollution in our "always on" gadget-enabled homes.) Some nights the 25 and 49 meter bands are strangely quiet in sections, like decimated neighborhoods of New Orleans and Detroit. Instead of crack addicts filling the void, the frequencies still standing are now inhabited by spooky preachers and nasty crackpots (and occasional squatter pirates).

Okay, there is Spain, and Greece and Iran and Russia and Turkey and the Ukraine. And more when the propagation improves. And of course, there’s always Radio Habana Cuba (and everything else Cuba…). And round the clock happy talk from China. On a good day you might come across a ham operator talking about something besides their rig or the quality of someone’s carrier. If you’re lucky.

While the release of the Eton E1 blew some minds in the radio world just a few years ago, what’s one of the most complicated and fantastic portable shortwave ever made compared to an iPhone? And all these other globally networked gadgets people attach to themselves? When you get right down to it, it’s easy to see how that buzzy box full of demented preachers, lo-fi ethnic music and plenty of barely audible content (most not in English) might seem oddly primitive. Or even a bit precious– like you’re in some grandpa world– like the anachronistic hipsters I see in the neighborhood, decked out in suspenders and Brylcreem. ("Hey let’s see if we can find that Rocky Marciano fight on the radio!")

But instead of carrying on about paradigm shifts and Williamsburg fashion, let me tell you about my weekend in Pennsylvania with the family. Not relatives. Shortwave radio people.

After a few years of putting it off or forgetting about it, I finally managed to escape the big city and attend the “SWL Winterfest” in Kulpsville, Pennsylvania this year. Finally. It was the 22nd gathering of the faithful in this part of the world. And once I got there I began to wonder why I had stayed away so long. And if you’re wondering what such an off the wall gathering might be about, it was right there in the paperwork that was handed to me at the hotel. It said the mission of the Fest was “to provide a place to relax and just talk radio.” That’s it.

Sounded good to me. My kind of weekend.

In case the lingo’s new to you, SWL stands for “shortwave listening,” or “shortwave listeners.” And that’s become shorthand for the hobbyists and listeners, radio professionals, writers, and all the radio pirates and scanner people who make this annual pilgrimage to the Philadelphia area for this conference. It’s an eclectic bunch to be sure. Yes, mostly guys. Not everyone wore glasses. And not everyone was balding or grey, or slightly padded around the middle. No, not everyone.

Actually, the youngest contingent there was the pirate radio folks. And they’re not kids any more either. There is no youth movement in this hobby. And the word “hobby” seems so quaint doesn’t it? If you’re life is navigated with a blackberry or an iPhone, isn’t that a hobby too? (Albeit, a much more intense and convenient one.) Or maybe you might call that a lifestyle.

Shortwave radio enthusiasts may be a little old-fashioned, but we’re not stupid. The reality that they keep getting together to celebrate (what many would consider) a doomed pastime doesn’t escape the attendees in Kulpsville. There’s a touch of gallows humor to the events, and every year everyone wants to know for sure if it’s going to happen next year. (And in case you’re curious. It certainly will, March 3-5, 2010.) However, nobody seems to make any long range plans for the Fest. At least, not that I heard about.

Not one to let a little futility get in the way of having a good time, I was happy to attend this yearly reunion of listeners and radio heads. And if you’ve gotten this far, I’d wager that you might like to have been there as well. (Or maybe you were there!) But either way, in this post and the next I’m going to share some audio and video highlights from my little vacation. And as you probably noticed, a few pictures too.

The first speaker on the first day seemed like a nice enough guy. Paul Ladd. Young professional. Dark hair. He’s the lead reporter (and a PR man) for a large religious radio operation broadcasting to the world from Alaska. And in their pursuit of world domination (which is, don’t forget, the whole purpose of Christianity), his company is in the process of setting up another huge transmitter on the opposite side of the world. In Madagascar. That’s what his presentation was about– the realities of making such a huge project happen. And from what I understand, this may be the last major shortwave construction project in the world.

On one level, it was quite inspiring– Highly motivated people, working hard to reach out to people in distant lands. And it was kind of fascinating seeing how they shipped every western amenity and tool they might need (including generators to power it all) over to the Indian Ocean, and over a hostile landscape. Just keeping adding fuel and parts and a little food and water (and most likely make regular payoffs to the proper authorities) and you’ve got yourself a high-power soap box at a prime spot in the Southern Hemisphere. Too bad they don’t have something less selfish in mind than turning more people into “us” (and probably away from native beliefs).

And that’s a funny thing. Despite the heavily evangelical nature of (domestic) American shortwave radio, there was very little representation of Christian broadcasting at the Fest. I did see a bumper sticker or two. Then again, I’m sure all the shortwave freaks and believers have their grand locations for their style of fellowship and enlightenment (like the annual meeting of the NASB). On the other end of the spectrum, the more entertaining event at the Fest was a presentation put on by a couple of English fellas who have a wonderful pirate radio operation on the AM band at the edge of London. And they’re not choir boys.

They went through quite a slide show taking the crowd through a brief pictorial history of pirate radio around the UK. However, when they started showing videos, showing off the “technical” (and occasionally hilarious) methods they’ve come up with to hide, protect and power their secret operation.

For many it was the high point of the fest. And I had actually posted a couple of videos of their presentation on You Tube, but after a request from the gentleman to take them down for “security” reasons, I complied. That said, I didn’t think there was anything particularly implicating in what I was going to show you here. Suffice to say that half the fun was Andy Walker’s contiguous mischievousness and his skills as a raconteur. But now you’ll just have to take my word for it. (However, I was kinda shocked when I heard an archive of a certain Canadian radio show that seemed to recount every secret the Brit’s revealed during their thrilling confessional. I guess if it’s not on You Tube, it’s not a security breach.

But what I can offer you hear is the sound of their station, WNKR. As an added bonus, a number of pirate radio operations set up shop at the fest every year. I think most of what I heard through the weekend was a mix of ‘”greatest hits” archives of pirate radio shows mixed with live programming. While it’s all very low power, it is like a big almost-secret cloud of radio that surrounds the fest itself. There’s nothing official about it. It is tolerated. I’m sure for a few it’s the only reason they come.

I recorded several of these temporary radio stations, filling up a few tapes over that weekend. And I’d have to say that, musically, this would have to be my favorite recording of the bunch. I guess I’m just partial to the sound of old 1960′s pop singles, especially some British rare gems. And it’s good radio.

WKNR (recorded in Kulpsville, PA) March 2009
(download)

While there were more thrills and surprises in the pirate radio presentations at the Fest, the yearly “Listening Lounge” put on by David Goren is where the faithful come to commune in sound– to enjoy and honor and fool around with the sound of shortwave radio itself. To listen.

David has a nice website– "Shortwaveology," and a wonderful podcast that resides there. And actually there’s only one. The second one has been almost done for quite a while now. And while a number of us with there were more podcasts from David (and more of his intriguing archival recordings there to hear), the first couple podcasts (I’m heard the demo…) are great– low-key atmospheric overviews of shortwave and DXing and a (grown) boy’s fascination with far away signals in the night. And there’s some great exotic radio clips there for you too. Check it out when you get a chance.

David played (the pre-release version) of his podcast, as well as some of the favorite moments he’s unearthed in his archives, sounds he’s rediscovered in some recent excavations through his boxes. (A few nugget’s from David’s aircheck archives now reside on the playlist of my streaming radio station– Radio Kitchen Radio.”) And this very topic came up in discussion during the Listening lounge.

Many DXers have kept recordings of their listening habits over the years that usually reside on cassettes and reels in closets and attic and storage bins. And many of us feel an urgency to start getting these recordings digitized, so they can find entry into the public square one way or another. (Kinda like what happens on this site.) As shortwave radio broadcasting has changed so radically over the last few years (and is in some sense in its death throes here in the developed world) we want to have more than just memories when it’s all gone (or when it has turned into something completely different).

Makes sense, right? (And if you have intriguing radio recordings you’d like to digitize some recordings and/or share them with others, drop me an email.)
                       
Goren’s Friday night Listening Lounge is always a grab bag of radio related entertainment and conversation, and usually includes a performance or two. Here’s a topical number. A DX Blues. It’s Skip Arey on guitar and vocals accompanied Saul Brody on harp and CQ. It’s the “Cycle 23 Blues.” (Or perhaps “Where have all the sunspots gone? Long time passing…”)

And that’s another thing. Adding insult to injury for the DXer– right now the solar weather is BORING. And that’s not good. No sunspots. The least amount of solar activity in a hundred years they say. And it’s all the stormy details of those dark spots on our closest star that energizes our atmosphere to carry and bounce all those short radio waves around the globe. They make DXing really happen.

All the solar action occurs in regular intervals. It’s an eleven and half year cycle, and right now we are officially at a “solar minimum.” However, we can be relatively sure that in a couple years things are going to get a little wilder up there on the sun. Maybe too wild! But DX conditions will inevitably improve. However, there are other ongoing “minimums” that offer less hope for shortwave radio. Like the dearth of meaningful shortwave broadcasting in English from Europe, and the damn economy (which was still in a downward spiral last I checked.) Of course, this means that the recent spate of new shortwave radio gadgets (and associated improved technology) is over. And it’s even less likely that anyone (other than christians or crackpots) is likely to invest much cash into new shortwave transmissions to the world in the near future.

One of the idiosyncracies of international shortwave (that prevails to this day) is the interval signal. These are snippets of music or sounds or voices that are little audio logos for the station or shortwave service that play before (and in between) programs, usually right before the top (or bottom) of the hour. Like familiar lighthouses along the shore, these recognizable audio bits help the DXer navigate their receivers to the particular station or program they may be looking for. And it gives the listener a chance to adjust or move or tweak their receiver for the best reception of the coming program. Avid DXers memorize many dozens of these, or more, as sign posts for the distant signals they come across.

And they some interval signals come and go, they become part of the lore and culture of shortwave listening. And so for the Lounge this year, David had VOA’s Dan Robinson run the annual informal quiz of exotic interval signals, many a bit buried in the noise and artifacts of the aroused atmosphere that brought them here.        

While shortwave radio fans may enjoy this video for the challenge of the quiz itself, like most of you I had no idea what I was hearing or where it might have come from. While I’ve sampled shortwave radio off and on since the 1970′s, it’s really only been the in the last few years that I’ve been anything more than a casual listener. And well over ninety percent of the people at the Winterfest are far more knowledgeable about the history of shortwave than I am.

But even if you’re more clueless than I was, you may enjoy this video just to witness the aural realities of DXing. You might find it slightly amazing that such a mess of noise would inspire anyone to think of far away lands and how cool the technology was that made it possible to hear such racket broadcast wirelessly from such an incredible distance. And on top of that, these raspy old blurts of sound invoke more than a little nostalgia for the acclimated ears in attendance.

And it’s the same kind of noise that makes more than a few radio wives wonder how their husbands can spend so much time in THAT damn room with all those squawky radios. Of course, nowadays we have the internet. Not much static there (but there were no naughty pictures on shortwave either).

Toward the end I briefly came up to talk about this blog, and specifically about the late John Parker, and the Roadgang program that was on WWL in New Orleans for many years. There’s a couple posts here about Parker already, and probably more to come in the future. David and I were both big fans of the man, and from the number or hits and comments I’ve gotten here when I’ve posted some clips, there’s lots of folks out there who miss ol’ John on the radio.

Not surprisingly, it’s not unusual to see people carrying around shortwave radios at the Fest. It’s almost normal. And while I was at the Listening Lounge I saw Dan Robinson showing off (and kinda fondling) a portable radio a few rows behind me. And as I squinted at it, I was trying to figure out what it could be. Then I thought might know. And I had to go back and see if I was right.

It was indeed one of the holy grails of portable shortwave collectors– a Barlow Wadley. Like a few radios I saw at the Winterfest, before I’d only seen pictures of this South African receiver. They show up on ebay every once it a while. And they’re never cheap.

A 1970′s product from the former apartheid state, the Barlow Wadley is a quirky imperfect radio, but has been a highly prized portable for the shortwave DX crowd. Although Robinson has quite a collection of SW sets back home, you could tell that the recent addition of the Barlow really meant a lot to him. (If you’re interested, you can read plenty about this cool radio here.)

And lucky for me, Dan was nice enough to park his latest acquisition in the exposition area the next day for folks like me to come by and pay their respects. And I was able to sit down and get familiar his Barlow Wadley. It was really something.

I’ve tried to play with shortwave sets while deep inside buildings before (with all those florescent lights and multiple walls between the antenna and the great outdoors), and you never hear much. At least not until you get near a window. But this radio, with just the standard whip antenna was completely alive on 19 meters when I went through the dial. And while I didn’t look for any identifiers and didn’t keep a log, you can hear how rich the band was with signals (clearly audible over the crowd noise behind me). They say this radio is very sensitive and selective. I believe it. Simple and attractive too.

That’s it for now. I actually have more to share with you from my time the radio tribes, including a few more videos and airchecks. But this one has gone on long enough. I will follow up with a part two soon. But I do have to write it first…

Let me leave you with one other sample of pirate radio I recorded Thursday night in Kulpsville. They call the station WBZO. I suppose it might be the sound of a glowing laptop in the corner of a hotel room. Or maybe it was the magic of radio. Either way, lots of old punk rock and the like. Which is okay by me. And the period music also roughly fits the demographic of the pirate people I’d seen lurking at the Fest.

WBZO (recorded in Kulpsville, PA) March 2009  61:13
(download)

I really do like a lot of the music in this aircheck. Reminds me of the kind of radio I was listening to back around 1980. And then in the middle of all the rock and roll you get a little dose of adolescent dick humor out of the blue. More about that in the next installment. I’ll catch up with you there.

Comments? Questions? Suggestions? Leave ‘em below. Thanks.

(If you missed it and you don’t see it above, part two of this post can be found here.)

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2 Responses to “Shortwave Souvenir (part 1)”

  1. Barry Says:

    I miss the days I could get news off the shortwave.  The internet is too sterile and unemotional.  Love the sound of static and changing propogation.  Listening to shortwave is really a feeling.

  2. Grant Says:

    I use to spend many hours listening to stations like HCJB  , Radio Nederland , SRI  in the 80's now sadly those stations are no longer transmitting and its getting harder and harder to find English speaking stations on the shortwave bands…

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