Shortwave broadcasting is almost as old as the radio medium itself. It is a chunk of radio spectrum where signals travel long distances – a region, continent, or the world, can be covered with a single transmitter. The space available means it carries narrow-band signals, and most shortwave broadcasting is still analogue.

With a large decrease in government-backed shortwave broadcasting from the United States announced last week, shortwave is getting ever closer to fulfilling it’s Marshall Mcluhan destiny: the medium is increasingly the message. The official broadcasters on shortwave are sliding towards just the most heavy-handed propaganda – religious preachers, China, and Cuba. Other parts remain in regular use – ham radio operators are still there, of course, as are some long-distance airborne and maritime communications. Here though, I’m looking specifically at broadcasting.

And as the government-funded broadcasts decrease, an increasing proportion of the broadcast signals are pirates. Hobbyists, mostly on air at the weekends. They are small operations, often just one guy with a homebuilt transmitter, with fake presenter names and hard-to-trace contact details. There is no licensing body, but they still keep to their own ‘pirate bands’. Just past the traditional continent-wide 49 meter band, is the 48 metre band, favourite of pirates in Europe. Many stations here are from the Netherlands, where you can rent a powerful transmitter along with DJ decks, PA system, and a party tent to have a big old beer-fest on your farm at the weekend.

Of course the numbers of outlets and resources mean it’s easier to hear official broadcasters than pirates. I made a comparison of those audible in Europe on a web-based shortwave radio in the Netherlands in half an hour on Saturday morning, 5 July 2014.

Stations on Pirate Bands: Three.
Stations in same the adjoining broadcast band: Four (of which two were licensed but independent).
Official stations across whole shortwave spectrum: 18.

These figures are approximate – depending on stations being on air, and attempting to count multiple signals from the same outlet just once. On a weekday, the number of pirates would likely be zero.
For guidance I used the FRFreak Twitter feed, while a similar real-time listing of stations in North America can be found on HF underground.

The music I heard on pirates included (to my ears) oompah, polka, 70s pop ballads, and the Village People.

More interesting than the content, is wondering who, where, and maybe more, such as what’s the power output, what sort of antenna they have, and assessing how well they are modulating the transmitter. That’s what piques the listeners’ curiosity. It’s a community of like-minded people (mostly men), who listen with broadly the same set of criteria. The medium, namely low-cost shortwave, is the message.

Building your own transmitter for your own station is just one approach to shortwave these days. The powerful transmitters mothballed by state broadcasters are available for rent, and some pirate types pay up to reach their friends among the shortwave listening community. Other customers for these big transmitters are fully utilising the potential of shortwave as a medium.
One NGO, Ears to Our World, run by Tom Witherspoon, rents airtime to provide educational content to remote areas in developing countries, via shortwave radio – it is very often the best way of reaching isolated places without the technical or financial resources for satellite TV or internet. The organisation also distributes low costs radios for the purpose. The message for the listener is the educational content, while for the NGO and policy world, the message is the need for the medium – there are people so far removed from anything else, this is the only way to reach them en masse (and, the policy-makers with an eye to extremism note, it’s a one-way medium).

There have to be strong reasons for financial backers to put money into not just shortwave transmission, but also creating the content – radio that works in a narrow-bandwidth signal, not much clearer than a phone call. So my former colleagues at Radio New Zealand International (RNZI) produce a Pacific Islands news service, and distribute it via shortwave. This is because the government of New Zealand has traditionally taken up such a duty as an advanced South Pacific nation.
An interesting sidenote, they use both traditional analogue shortwave for reaching listeners directly, and digital shortwave, providing a audio clear enough to be rebroadcast on FM in the islands. In other places satellite would be used for that distribution, and indeed RNZI does have such a feed available – but picking up the satellite in this region requires large antennas, dishes three or more meters across, whereas Radio New Zealand International’s digital shortwave signal requires a long piece of wire, which is far more robust in the face of South Pacific storms. Here’s an example of a small broadcaster using technology really smartly, identifying the potential and practicalities and implementing a reliable low-cost solution. But for the lack of consumer receivers, that same technology would have commercial potential in other regions too.

There is a handful of other good state-funded broadcasters still on shortwave – the BBC World Service (another of my former haunts), along with Radio Australia, being the stand-outs. Radio France International in French, mostly for Africa, is interesting and influential.

Beyond that though, and the programmes of official international broadcasters are mostly of just novelty value. The loudest broadcaster on shortwave is China Radio International. I worked there a decade ago and today the programmes are still empty cans, rattling loudly because of all that has been censored away. Next loudest (in English at least) are the religious broadcasters which seem to preach to the converted.

It’s worth noting that in this article I have somewhat contradicted the typical views of a shortwave listener. We tend to be defensive of the medium, saying broadcasters are making a mistake by shutting off services. Most shortwave listeners started the hobby at a time when it was chock-full of state-funded broadcasters: the Cold War. Back then of course the medium was the message too – listening to ‘the other side’, as some sort of defiance. I started listening in 1992, and from my perspective, the loss of those broadcasters is a good thing. They clogged up the frequencies with mostly drab programmes about economic developments and cultural information – not emotion-based programmes, celebrating the passion or convention that drives cultures, but just reading about them and then playing a record. Bad radio, in other words. Now though, they are clearing off, allowing enthusiasts to take to their playground, with their passions, their hobbies, and their will to share something with people in far away places. Bringing us back to that Marshall Mcluhan quote, no?

 

Some background: I listened to shortwave pirates a lot in the 1990s, and have been tuning in a few times a month for the past half year or so, but decided to do a reasonably systematic survey for this article. I worked in China Radio International 2003 – 2004, the BBC World Service Chinese Service (no longer on shortwave) 2005 – 2007, and briefly at Radio New Zealand International in 2008.

Some Frequencies: For pirates, of course, there are no official limits, but 6200 – 6400 kHz is the place to start looking. A few more both here and in the USA found in 6900 – 7000 kHz, 3900 – 4000 kHz, and a few elsewhere too.

How to use the webSDR: This is a piece of radio hardware, with a web interface. Amazingly, hundreds of people often use it simultaneously, each tuning in to whatever frequency they like. It has a graphic visualisation of the whole of shortwave, called a waterfall – it scrolls upward with time, and the frequency increases along the bottom. Each vertical line is a signal of some sort. The signals mentioned in this article are all broadcasts, and in AM mode, so first off press AM in the Bandwidth section. This will also widen the default bandwidth to 8.09 kHz. Next, look to the left and type in a frequency. Let’s start at 6200, and hit enter/return.
Our waterfall still shows the full shortwave band, so you can zoom in to see where you are (and tune) more accurately. To the right of the Frequency and Bandwidth areas, is the Waterfall view settings – start by clicking band, to zoom to a comfortable level. Now you can start tuning around! The vertical yellow lines are signals on-air, and the little yellow frame shows where you’re tuning. You can drag around with your mouse, click on signals, or type frequencies into the Frequency box back on the left. There will be many odd sounding signals, speech and data. Likewise there is more to the webSDR – this is just the introduction! If you get a taste for the shortwave pirate scene, find out more, find out more at makerf.com and hfunderground.com for starters.