Thursday, June 9, 2011

Radio Waves

Getting back to short wave listening and the radio hobby in general, is not without its nostalgia, and the natural temptation to make comparisons between the radio bands of the 1960s and early 70s and those of today. This column isn’t big enough to contain all comments, but I’ve been meaning to write a brief general overview for some time, and will now attempt to do so.

When I last hung up my headphones it was 1972, and there were some powerful and loud voices on short wave. The cold war was still at sub-zero temperatures, and east and west were engaged in a war of words and information that a simple spin of a radio dial would instantly reveal, regardless of the time of day or night. On the communist side the gargantuan Radio Moscow was everywhere. At any chosen moment the eerie interval chimes that would be played before a scheduled broadcast could be heard, loudly in Europe, and faintly as they beamed the socialist creed in over seventy languages to far flung lands. (They went iron fist in glove with Radio Peace and Progress with its equally chilling theme tune.) Then there was the cadre of Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe, each with their own socialist message: Radio Warsaw, Prague, Bucharest. And then there was Tirana. Radio Tirana. The most other-worldly of them all. By the 1960s Albania had distanced itself from the Soviet agenda and embraced an independent Marxist vision closer to that of China – and the broadcasts were so outrageously bad that they were worth listening to! And China itself made its voice heard clearly in the programming of Radio Peking. When it came to confirming a reception report (QSL) they were the most generous. I sent in my report and two months later a parcel arrived with, yes, a QSL card, but also a colorful pennant, a bundle of Chinese English language magazines and newspapers, and a copy of the thoughts of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (the famous Little Red Book!)

On the western side the main shortwave protagonist was the Voice of America with its various offshoots and repeater stations. Always slickly produced, yet with dull programming, and despite its designed information counter-offensive, it would become irritating to the European ear. To the shortwave hobby listener Voice of America was rarely of interest.

Of course the BBC World Service (“This is London.” Cue ceremonial march.) was in the middle of this mix. Always there, yet unassuming and surprisingly neutral in the name of good journalism – a fact that often riled Washington. Again, to the DXer, only of passing interest – but useful in catching up with the Archers when an episode was being broadcast to Indonesia!

Nearly forty years on and the shortwave scene has totally changed. The collapse of the Soviet Empire has given birth to radio stations that are the direct successors of their parent stations, but now with a new and open format. We can listen to the Voice of Russia, Radio Romania International, and, after the unification of Germany, Deutche Welle. Tirana is silent, and following the separation of the Czech and Slovak Republics, their international broadcasting is limited. (They continue to share the same transmitter and single frequency!) Peking, sorry, Beijing, is still big and loud, offering assistance to the whole world via Radio China International. The only constant voice that reminds the listener of the Cold War era is that of Radio Havana, Cuba. Voice of America is rapidly reducing its overseas service, as is the BBC in the face of huge energy costs involved in sending signals around the planet. They, together with so many national broadcasters, are retreating to the internet.
Has the shortwave lost its luster? Is it still an interesting place for the radio hobbyist? No, and yes are the answers to those questions. But it is a different place, and possibly a more irritating medium when it comes to a huge increase in the number of powerful stations and organizations that occupy its frequencies. They are today what the big Cold War broadcasters were yesterday, except they are now mainly American financed and fundamentalist faith based. (To be continued…)

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