Introduction to Shortwave Listening

Shortwave listening (abbreviated SWLing) is tuning for stations located on short-wave frequencies, usually thought of as those from 1700 kHz (the upper limit of the AM broadcasting band) to 30 MHz (the lower limit of the tuning range of most scanner radio). In between those two frequencies, a simple, low cost shortwave radio is capable of letting you hear news, music, commentaries, and other feature programs in English from stations located round the world.

Most of the larger nations of the world broadcast programs in English especially for North American audiences, and transmit them on times and frequencies for best reception in North America.

But why bother listening to short-wave in this era of communications satellites and cable television news channels? Perhaps the biggest reason why is that SWLing can give you a unique perspective on events that you simply cannot get from American media. If you watch coverage of an event in Moscow from CCN or CBS News, you get the American perspective on what is happening from an American journalist. If you listen to the Voice of Russia, you get the Russian perspective from a Russian journalist. As you might expect, the two interpretations of the same news event can be quite different.

Ever heard a country be reborn? Listeners to Germany’s Deutsche Welle on October 3, 1990 heard live coverage of the reunification ceremonies and received this souvenir QSL card for their reception reports.

Short-wave also lets you get foreign reactions to and interpretations of American news events. For example, in 1992 I was fascinated at how other nations attempted to understand the presidential candidacy of H. Ross Perot. Even European democracies like Britain and Germany seemed bewildered by his candidacy and popularity; they could not understand how someone could declare himself a presidential candidate and achieve such popularity outside of a political party system. Moments like that help you appreciate the profound cultural and intellectual differences that exist between ostensibly closely-linked nations.

While no one knows the exact number of short-wave listeners (SWLs) in the United States, most estimates place the number in the millions. SWLs range from teenagers to retired persons to David Letterman, who has mentioned on several occasions how much he enjoys listening to short-wave, particularly broadcasts by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).

Of course, not all short-wave stations broadcast in English. If you’re studying a foreign language—or want to maintain your proficiency in one—short-wave radio will offer you an unlimited supply of contemporary practice material. If you enjoy music, short-wave will let you hear sounds you probably can’t find in the even the most specialized record and CD shops. Ever heard a lagu melayu song? It sounds like a cross between Indian-style instrumentals and an Arabic vocal style, and it’s very popular in Indonesia. You can hear such songs over the various short-wave outlets of Radio Republic Indonesia. The so-called “world beat” popular with young people had its origins in the “high life” music broadcast by short-wave stations in Africa. Other SWLs arise before dawn to catch the haunting huayno melodies coming from stations in Bolivia and Peru. Some SWL music fans have compiled tape-recorded libraries of folk and indigenous music from shortwave broadcasts that many college and university music departments would envy!
Radio Togo broadcasts in French and local languages on 5047 kHz

Most stations operating on short-wave frequencies are not broadcasters, however. Ham radio operators have certain frequency bands set aside for their use, and you can hear them “talking” (by voice, Morse code, radio teletype, etc.) with friends around the world. Aircraft flying international routes, ships at sea, and military forces are also big users of short-wave. In fact, some SWLs ignore broadcasters altogether and specialize in trying to hear such “utility” stations.

Another specialty within SWLing is “DXing,” in which the goal is to receive faint, distant, and otherwise hard-to-hear stations. DXing on shortwave is like panning for gold; DXers patiently work through noise, interference, and fading to hear a low powered station deep in the Amazonian basin of Brazil or somewhere in the Indonesian archipelago.

DXing is a manifestation of shortwave’s biggest weakness—the fact that short-wave reception is highly variable compared to the AM and FM broadcasting bands. Reception of a short-wave station on a given frequency will usually vary greatly with the time of day and season of the year. Short-wave reception is heavily influenced by solar activity as indicated by the number of sunspots visible on the Sun. Solar flares and storms can disrupt short-wave reception for hours and even days. Fading is also common on the short-wave bands. While short-wave can offer you listening you cannot find on your local AM and FM stations, it unfortunately cannot offer you the same reliable reception or audio quality.

Many short-wave stations welcome correspondence from listeners, especially reports on how well the station is being received and comments on their programming. Stations often respond to such letters by sending out colorful souvenir cards, known as QSL cards, for correct reports of reception. Some station reply with QSL letters instead of cards, and a few send other items, like pennants with the station’s name or call letters, to lucky SWLs.

A blast from the past! Colombia’s Radio Mira sent out this pennant in 1974 to mark their “new image.” For years, the parrot was the symbol of Colombia’s TODELAR broadcasting network.

It is difficult to imagine anyone interested in what’s happening beyond the borders of their home nation not owning a short-wave radio. No other tool can provide you with such a wide array of news, music, and culture for such modest investment.

Even in this age of satellite television and the Web, there are significant portions of the world that can only be accessed via short-wave radio. The whole world is talking on short-wave radio. Why not give a listen?