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* My Shortwave Radios
* What is Shortwave? Why is it so Fun?
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My Shortwave Radios
Ever since I was a kid, I was always fascinated by shortwave radio -- at
the idea of being able to hear stations half a world away. I didn't
actually get my first SW radio until 9th grade, but even as a young kid,
I'd go out to the family car, turn on the AM radio and night, and
"DX" -- try to find the furthest station away I could. Even here in the
busy Southern California area, on hot summer nights with a good AM radio,
you can pick up stations in Colorado (KOA 850 AM) quite easily, and the
furthest station I ever picked up using a car radio is KRVN, in Lexington
Nebraska (880 AM).
My first radio capable of receiving SW (shortwave) was actually an old
1970s Sanyo battery-powered record player, but it had a cassette deck,
and an AM/FM/SW radio on it. Bought at a swap meet (in Hawaii), I took
it home with me, and spent hours tuning around, taping, and listening to
stations from the BBC to Radio Moscow (which at that time, still had
those great "American Imperialist!" commentaries).
Through the years, I've had a number of different sets (including a
Toshiba boombox with surprisingly sensitive and fine reception), and a
$20 made-in-China "set" I picked up for myself on 42nd Street in
New York. (It picked up all of two stations -- sometimes. I opened up
the back, and almost the entire radio seemed to be contained on one
NEC IC chip).
My two "old standby" radios are both from the 1980s: the Sony ICF-2002
(a portable palm-sized digital unit), and the Sony ICF-SW1S (a super-mini,
cassette tape-size digital unit). The tiny SW1S has been a GREAT travel
radio, and it's accompanied me on many of my earlier overseas trips. The
larger ICF-2002 has some features that the SW1S lacks -- like being able
to receive SSB transmissions (so you can listen to ham operators). Recently
though, I picked up some other sets, including a few good budget ones...
Sangean: In February 1999, I happened across two older, pocket-sized units
still for sale: the Sangean ATS-202 and Sangean MS-101. Sangean is a
Taiwanese company that makes some very good portable shortwave radios
(including most Radio Shack models). Now that Panasonic has left the
portable shortwave market, the only two decent brands left in the USA
are Sony and Sangean (the Grundig units you see today are nothing but
junk). The Sangean units were discontinued models from the early-to-mid
1990s, but I was lucky to still find some unopened and new-in-the-box,
and with a little searching, you might be able to find them as well.
The digital-tuning ATS-202 is just slightly larger than the Sony ICF-SW1S,
and though it can't compare to the quality and features of the SW1S, it
was also only about 1/5th the price, and actually does perform pretty
well. The unit also has a 9khz/10khz step-rate switch for worldwide AM/MW
compatibility -- something most cheaper digital portables lack.
The analog MS-101 is smaller than the ATS-202, and is about the same
size as the Sony ICF-SW1S. The $45 price was unbeatable, and both the
radio reception and sound quality are quite good. The only drawback to
the MS-101 is that its antenna is not a telescoping one. However, I
picked up the last remaining two units I saw, because there's just
something I like about the MS-101's neat design, small size, and
Sony ICF-SW22: While in Japan in August 1999, I found something even better:
the Sony ICF-SW22. I have no idea if the ICF-SW22 is a current or older
model (some of the pamphlets that come with the unit have a 1993 date), but
as of Summer 1999, it can still be found for sale everywhere in Japan. The
unit is actually smaller than the MS-101 (it's about the same size as the
ICF-SW1S), and seemed to go for about Y10,400 (US$85) at many stores.
However, a few stores had it on sale for as cheap as Y8,400 (US$68), so
I picked one up for myself. The ICF-SW22 literally does fit in a shirt
pocket; its reception and sound are excellent for its size, and it runs
for hours on two "AA" batteries. This is definitely the unit to search
for if looking for a tiny, inexpensive analog shortwave radio. Unlike so
many small radios these days, the ICF-SW22 is still made in Japan.
Sony ICF-SW100: The Sony ICF-SW100 is the newer version of the old
super-mini digital ICF-SW1S. Size and features are generally the same,
but the two main differences are that the ICF-SW100 folds open, and
(unlike the older ICF-SW1S), can receive SSB transmissions (there are
a few other improvements as well, but other than the addition of SSB,
they're minor). I never considered buying an ICF-SW100 because of its
similarity to my ICF-SW1S, and its $400 price in the U.S. However, in
March 2000, I found them for sale for almost half the price (US$232)
in the duty free airport shop in Mauritius (an island in the Indian Ocean
off the coast of South Africa). The reason? The U.S. model (called the
ICF-SW100S) comes with an AC Adaptor and an active antenna (and costs
over $400). The ICF-SW100E set I found for sale on Mauritius contained
the exact same SW100 radio, but did not include the active antenna or
AC adaptor as part of the set. The "ICF-SW100E" isn't an option in
the U.S., but if you're interested in purchasing this unit, you might
want to look outside the U.S. to buy it (at about half the price... if
an airport duty free shop was selling it for $232, I'm sure it could
be found for $200 or less elsewhere). Again, the only difference other
than the price was the lack of an AC adaptor and active antenna (you
buy your own if you want them) -- however, if you already own a Sony
shortwave radio (such as the older ICF-SW1S), chances are you already
have the same AC adaptor included with the more expensive ICF-SW100S.
Sony ICF-SW22 Sangean MS-101 Sangean ATS-202
What is Shortwave? Why is it so Fun?
FM signals are transmitted in a straight line.
AM signals tend to curve as the earth curves
SW signals are beamed up to the ionosphere (a layer in the earth's
atmosphere). When it hits, the signals then bounce back to earth,
winding up quite far away from the source.
Think of it this way: if you're in a car, driving away from a city
with radio stations, the FM stations will be the first to fade. Why?
Because FM is transmitted in a straight line, and doesn't curve around
the earth's surface as AM signals do. As you're driving away, the
FM signals still continue in a straight line (out into space), while
the AM signals will tend to curve with the earth, staying with you
longer. SW signals -- (which are also AM signals) -- are broadcast
up towards the atmosphere instead. When the signals reach the layer
of the atmosphere called the ionosphere, they hit it, and bounce back
to earth, reaching places quite far away from the original transmitter.
There are many variables in shortwave reception, ranging from sunspot
activity to local interference. Most stations try to aim their
broadcasts, so that they'll bounce back to a certain region of the
world. Thus, you might get an English-language Radio Moscow broadcast
aimed towards North America, and a Chinese-language broadcast aimed
To help with reception, many stations also place transmitters in
locations that are closer to the target area. For instance,
Radio Netherlands and the BBC use relays in the Carribean
(for North American broadcasts) so that the signal in North America
is much louder and clearer than if the transmitter had actually been
in Europe. So sometimes, you're technically not always picking up
stations as far away as you might think (for a while -- I'm not sure if
this is still the case -- NHK Japan used a relay in Canada to be better
heard in North America). However, many stations just have transmitters
on their home soil, so, for instance, when you pick up Radio Australia
in North America, the broadcast is coming from Australia.
(A little trivia: The word "broadcast" as applied to radio actually
is based on an old farming term -- "broadcast" meant to cast
broadly -- ie, a farmer would broad-cast his seeds during planting).
Besides the excitement of listening to a signal that originated
thousands of miles away, listening to shortwave can be both fun and
educational, as shortwave always reflects the politics of the time.
Years ago, Radio Moscow used to broadcast commentaries about how great
the Soviet system was, compared to the American capatalist, imperialist
way of life. Now, those are gone, in favor of more Western-minded ones
(though Cuba still carries the torch for those types of commentaries).
In all the commentaries I've heard over the years from Radio Free China
(Taiwan), I don't think I heard one commentary that didn't support the
USA 100% (probably because -- sadly so -- Taiwan is diplomatically alone
in the world). If you're really curious about what OUR (American)
shortwave station is telling the world, you can just tune in and
listen -- the VOA (Voice of America) can easily be picked up in the U.S.
Politics aside, shortwave is a great source for world news told from the
point of view of the country broadcasting it. It's also a great tool for
studying about other countries. Many stations offer over-the-air
language lessons (the South Korean station even sent me a "Learn Korean"
book in the mail when I wrote to them!), as well as lots of local
culture and music. Do you want to hear Aboriginal Australian music?
Tune in to Radio Australia! Shortwave gives you the world perspective
that you can never get just picking up your local broadcasts. And every
once in a while, there's a little fun over the airwaves. I remember
years ago, Radio Netherlands (one of my favorite stations) did an
experiment over the air on their "Media Network" program. In the age
when home computers used cassette recorders to store programs (before
disk drives), they broadcast computer programs over the air for
different computers (Apple II, TRS-80 Model III, etc) and people could
record them off-air, and (if the reception was good enough), get a nice
little computer program. I recorded that show years ago, and ran to the
local Radio Shack to test it out on their computer. Sure enough, it
worked, and it was a lot of fun. Stations also offer giveaways from
time to time, and during my college years when I listened quite a lot,
the walls to my apartment were covered with calendars, posters, and
stickers from the world's radio stations.
Three other things of interest to listen for over the shortwave bands:
(a) "Spy stations". These have decreased in number over the years,
but basically, if you hear mechanical male (or female) voices reciting
numbers, you've hit one of them. They'll just say a bunch of numbers,
and repeat them. Whether this is a government's spy service, an
international drug cartel, or two people playing a game of "Battleship"
is never certain, but they're fun to catch.
(b) Hams. If your shortwave receiver has an SSB (BFO) switch, you can
tune in and listen to ham radio operators talk about everything from
the weather to how to make Steak and Kidney Pie. During an emergency
(such as an earthquake), things take on a serious tone, and often,
during such emergencies, ham radio (and the ham radio operators) are
the only lifeline to the outside world.
(c) Pirate stations. Though I've never picked up one of these myself
(they're most popular in Europe), pirate stations are those that
don't have official license to broadcast. Whether the transmitter be
on a boat, or on land, there's quite a fan following to these secret,
Finally, you never know what you'll find on the shortwave dial.
Back in the mid 80s, Radio Netherlands produced a radio play -- a
spoof on shortwave listening and DXing, called "The Hitchhiker's Guide
to DXing". It was HILARIOUS (and for you musicians out there, it was
somewhat akin to "PDQ Bach" -- the more you know about the subject, the
funnier it is) -- and it sent me rolling on the floor with laughter!
The show ran for 6 episodes. I have no idea if you can still order it
on cassette (I doubt Radio Netherlands would broadcast it again...it
was made so long ago), but you can always try contacting them if this
piques your interest (I have a link to them at the bottom of this page).
After it was broadcast, I ordered (and still have) all 6 episodes to
this series. The officially-released cassettes sent to people who ordered
them were slightly edited from the broadcast version (two scenes were
removed, probably due to copyright worries). The first was a scene where
the actors pretended to be Kermit the Frog and Rolph the Dog (from the
Muppets) talking about DXers, before playing the "You Can't Live With Them,
You Can't Live Without Them" song from the Muppet Movie. The second scene
involved voice clips from an interview with DeForest Kelly ("Bones" on the
original "Star Trek"), except the real questions were substituted with fake
ones having to do with DXers and such. Other than removing these two scenes,
the tapes sent out to people who ordered them are pretty much the broadcast
version. Luckily, I recorded the show off-air on cassette as well, so a few
years back when I decided to make CDs of the cassettes I ordered, I did a
little editing, and re-inserted the missing scenes from my off-air cassettes.
I now have the whole show on home-made CDs (to ensure against deterioration
over time). I'm not sure of the current status of being able to order this
show, but anyone who likes radio plays and listening to shortwave will get
a kick out of it. I still take it out from time to time to listen to.
In a way, the Internet has somewhat diminished shortwave's exclusive
opportunities, as it's just as easy to get information on other
countries via the net as it is to turn on a radio. However, the
internet is still not shortwave. Even with Real Audio and the like,
nothing can still quite compare to tuning in and hearing a local rock
group, a symphony written by a national composer of another country,
or a commentary or news broadcast with a local slant.
Shortwave radios have come down in price, and are extremely easy to
operate. A nice Sony portable with a digital tuner can go for
$100-$150, and often, less. You can pick up a small portable
non-digital (ie, analog tuner) Sony set for $60 if you shop
carefully. That's not a bad investment for years of international
entertainment. So why not give it a try?
There's just a few here for now, but I'll try to add more later.
One of my favorite stations is Radio Netherlands. They've done some
great things over the years, and are an all-around cool station
to listen to. You can now also hear their "Media Network" program
over the internet, using Real Audio.
The ever-present BBC is a great source for international news
and commentary, as well as other special programs. Check out their
World Service link.
Though I've never picked them up, Radio St. Helena, the tiny island
in the South Atlantic, has a radio station, as well as a web page
(run by someone living in Sweden, as the island has no internet
access). I've always been fascinated with the South Atlantic Islands,
such as St. Helena and Tristan da Cunha, so I couldn't have a
Shortwave Links page without them! :)
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