Many years ago, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to own a shortwave radio. Nevermind the fact that I didn’t know anything about shortwave, or what would be waiting for me there. The medium simply offered the capability of hearing things I’d never heard before, and the radios had all kinds of knobs for adjustments and tweaking. Besides that, nobody else I knew listened to shortwave broadcasts, and that gave me even more reason to pursue the endeavour.
My first exposure to these fantastic devices came to me by way of the thick annual Radio Shack catalogue which at one time came through the mail. Radio Shack seemed to have one of everything back in the days before mobile phones and computers came along. They should have never attempted to change their business model, because they had a developed a unique niche in their market, and lost their identity in the newly booming digital world.
But out of all the items that the catalogue featured, my favorite section was all of the specialised radios they offered. There were receivers specifically designed for eavesdropping on police, medical teams, fire departments, train yards, ham operators, and yes, shortwave stations.
The primary impediment for me at this time, was of course money. Multiband radios were generally big, and expensive. Back when twenty dollars could purchase what two hundred will now buy, $229. for a radio was a dream that I could only envision. I used to think to myself, ‘If I were rich, I’d buy a shortwave radio.’ The thought of boats, automobiles, and houses never entered my mind.
My initial infatuation with the shortwave waned, and as years passed I married, and started a family. But within three short years, my fate once again changed as I found myself single again and embroiled in a messy divorce. The year was 1981.
With young daughter in tow, I moved back to the town that I was raised in, got a couple of part time jobs, rented myself a small house, and concentrated on the acquisition of new audio recording equipment in order to re-immerse myself in the music industry.
One Friday evening, after getting paid, I dropped my daughter off to visit my parents for the night, and then stopped into Radio Shack to pick up a couple of microphone stands. Something in the window caught my eye and made me stop in my tracks before even entering the store: The big DX 200 shortwave that I had lusted after so many years ago was displayed there, with a hand written sign which read, Closeout Item! Last one left. 50% off!
I walked out of the store that day, not with mic stands, but instead a big box with the coveted radio inside. I stopped at the corner market and got a six-pack. This party had been a long time coming.
As the sun sank lower, I popped a beer and began to build a long wire antenna, which would be required to hear the transmissions on the radio. I didn’t bother to ask my landlord if I could install it, because I knew that it would be all but invisible. I stealthily twisted a screw hook into the eve of the house and, tying a length of paracord into a slipknot, slid it onto the hook and tossed the other end of the paracord into my window. Once back inside I assembled the insulators and bare copper wire and waited for nightfall.
Soon it was dark, and I tossed the finished antenna out the window, grabbed a ladder and sneaked to the garage apartments behind my little house. Propping the ladder softly against the building, I uncoiled the antenna, climbed the ladder, cranked another screw hook into the apartment building and, hoisting the antenna up, pulled it taut and tied it off and scurried back inside with my ladder. My covert work had gone smoothly, and undetected.
I filled a bong, and when it was cashed, I went back into the room with another beer and prepared for the moment of truth.
After attaching the antenna lead to the radio, I turned it on. The big drum dials lit the room up with a warm glow, and the static was punctuated with unfamiliar undulating howls and electrical crackling. I cranked the dial and before long, a big, strong station was booming through in English. However, the news programme was full of strange headlines and weird stories of World War II. Finally at the top of the hour, a powerful voice boomed out, “This.. is the External Service of Radio Moscow!”
I flipped out. I was listening to a Soviet broadcast!! I turned down the volume and looked around. I began to wonder if this was even legal activity, or if I would be viewed as a Communist sympathiser if anyone found out.
I reckon I stayed awake most of the night listening to Radio Beijing, Swiss Radio International, Radio Yugoslavia, and the BBC World Service, among others. I was in complete awe that I could lie on my bed and listen to a radio station on the other side of the World. The impact of how amazing this was at the time will probably be lost the younger reader. These days, we’re so used to turning on the computer and getting Tweets from all over the globe, and news broadcasts from Al Jazerra, the world seems like such a small place in comparison. During the eighties, when cable television was just coming into widespread availability, I was the only person that I knew who was able to get news from other parts of the world, without being at the mercy of the American news services ‘filtering’ what they thought I ‘needed’ to know.
Flash forward to a couple of nights ago.
I climbed into bed, plugged my Sony MDR-7506 headphones into my android, opened the University of Twente website (which is located in the Netherlands*), accessed the Wideband WebSDR, and began sliding my finger across the screen to tune into shortwave stations that were audible in that area of Europe at 2:00 GMT.
As I lay in the darkness, I stared into the screen, and wondered why this hobby no longer held the excitement for me that it once did.
* For anyone who may be interested, go to: Faculty for Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science