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Thursday, July 12, 2012

The vanishing short-wave broadcasters

As a teenager one of my favorite activities was listening to shortwave radio. It was a blast to hear broadcasts from around the world instead of Montgomery's WBAM. The BBC was still using the Morse code "V for Victory" signal (da-da-da-dummmm) on its European broadcasts. Many countries offered strident points of view; some of them, like Radio Tirana in Albania, so politically extreme as to be laughable. Finding a low-powered signal from Africa or Latin America in the middle of the night was an exotic pleasure, especially if it could be picked out of the incessant jamming against broadcasters like Radio Free Europe (remember them?) trying to penetrate the Iron Curtain. Around dawn in the U.S., Asian stations such as Radio Australia and NHK Tokyo rolled in.

I kept a list of stations from over 100 countries that I had verified by station ID -- not all in English, of course. I admit it's a classic hobby for an introvert, but it gave me a great background in world geography, languages, religions, politics, and cultures. (Radio Sweden ran a great course in how to identify a language -- for example, how to differentiate spoken Portuguese from spoken Spanish.) I was inspired to pursue a career that had an international dimension, and I've been fortunate to do that.

Although radio broadcast technology has consistently improved from the 1960s until now, the Internet has rendered shortwave mostly irrelevant. Now it's possible to read, listen to, or watch the news nearly anywhere in the world at any time without a special radio, antenna, and knowledge of radio propagation patterns. Last month, two of most widely respected international broadcasters -- Radio Canada International and Radio Netherlands Worldwide -- discontinued their remaining shortwave broadcasts. Swiss Radio International left shortwave years ago. Those were the three that I listened to the most, until the mid-1980s when I gave up the hobby.

What remains on shortwave today? A much smaller BBC World Service, the former propaganda outlets like Voice of America and Radio Moscow, the ever-fervent religious broadcasters, and some domestic broadcasters in third world countries. The world has become a much smaller place, and overall I'm thankful for that; but there are consequences that trigger nostalgia if not regret.

P.S. I still have the Drake SW-4A, but I'm reluctant to turn it on because the capacitors in it have probably degraded.