Wave On

Music's lunatic fringe lives, breathes and flourishes on the shortwave radio dial

For 40 bucks, you can buy a device that emits some of the most irritating and beautiful sounds imaginable; a device that not only presents an international kaleidoscope of opinion but also receives secret spy transmissions. Best of all, every time you turn it on, the thing behaves completely differently, depending on where you listen to it. It's an old, discarded technology that most tech nerds know little about; it's free to operate, and every program it receives is shrouded in mystery.

It's a shortwave radio, and every serious fan of strange music, stranger noises and divergent political and religious views should own one. For less than $50, you can get a unit that will pick up a decent number of domestic and more powerful international stations. For less than $200, you can land one that picks up Radio Togo and Voice of Iran.

Shortwave listening (SWLing) is not just a pastime; it's a way of life, and those who purchase such a radio become obsessed with all the far-off bleeps and whooshes their receivers collect. Newbie SWLers often find themselves fondling the dial well into the wee hours, like a breathy adolescent looking for release on prom night. "Last night, it was right here at 8300 kHz," they mutter into the blank stare of their radios, "between the aggro Russian woman and the Balinese gamelan broadcasts." Alas, now the transmission is just a squelchy fart. But that's the way it goes with shortwave--and maybe that's part of the fun.

Constancy and security are foreign concepts on the shortwave band. "Shortwave" generally refers to the frequencies between 1700 kHz (the upper limit of the AM broadcasting band) and 30 MHz (the lower limit). What's compelling about the broadcasts in this band is that they travel globally. Broadcasters in Europe can "shoot the Atlantic" to target listeners in the United States, and SWLers in just about every corner of the planet can get the BBC, the longest-running shortwave presence of them all. Shortwave is also particularly affected by weather and sunspot activity, so no two sessions are alike.

Best of all, shortwave broadcasters are often fly-by-night operations or outright pirates that go on and off the air sporadically. The World Radio TV Handbook is the bible for SWLers hoping to identify a broadcast, but anything in print quickly becomes obsolete, so different Web sites that fill in the gap are essential for their hourly schedules of programming (try www.monitoringtimes.com).

The numbers are impossible to ascertain, but American-listener estimates are in the millions. Even David Letterman counts himself among them.


Since the Library of Congress decided to start charging Internet broadcasters licensing fees, the breadth of publicly available music has shrunk considerably. Shortwave, historically underscrutinized by the feds, is the last bastion for incredibly weird musical broadcasts. And since many are announced in non-English tongues or not at all, you usually don't have a clue of what you're listening to or where it's emanating from. This aspect is great for defusing the inner music journalist who constantly tries to classify every sound you come across.

Some recent choice broadcasts include weepy Ukrainian (?) instrumental string music; the Catholic music jukebox; Bollywood-sounding Indian music; and hard-line, old-school country (if AM country is its own genre--purist twang and tales of woe--then shortwave country is the stuff the AM folks are scared of). Particular favorites of many listeners are the North Korean stations that broadcast endless praise songs of Kim Jong Il. Fred Osterman, the shortwave buff who edits www.DXing.com (DXers are SWLers who try to receive especially weak and distant signals), reports frequently finding lagu melayu, which he describes as "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 shortwave outlets of Radio Republic Indonesia.

"The so-called worldbeat popular with young people had its origins in the 'high life' music broadcast by shortwave stations in Africa," he continues. "Other SWLers 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."

Then there are the sounds shortwave units make when tuned between stations or when receiving interference. Shortwave is especially prone to the radio phenomenon known as "fading," and even when you finally snag the station you want, it may periodically ebb and flow into warm static. Fans of experimental electronic music will find that certain famed artists in that scene can be convincingly approximated by tweaking the dial or merely tuning in to a signal that blips away on its own.

Self-described underground audio artists Hal McGee and Brian Noring created a 74-minute CD, New Music for Shortwave Receiver and Tape Recorder, from shortwave radio tones, static and noise captured on handheld cassette recorders. If you buy an affordable radio, almost every transmission received is bathed in some degree of hiss, and the way the baseline noise increases and decreases gives the listening experience a very organic feeling. Shortwave broadcasts seem to breathe.

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