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.
Receiving and listening to shortwave is tied to specifics of place and space as few technologies are. You'll find an entirely different palette of sounds on mountaintops than in valleys, and the trajectory of the signal itself matters. Transpolar propagation (signals that cross the North Pole), for instance, will make stations sound as if they're underwater.
Perhaps most intriguing of all shortwave phenomena are the "numbers stations" that involve nothing more than orations of digits. Around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, American SWLers began coming across unidentified broadcasts of women reading a series of numbers in Spanish. Since then, numbers broadcasts in all manner of languages and originating from numerous countries have cropped up regularly on the shortwave band. They begin with an interval broadcast--a set of tones or a piece of music to let listeners know they are beginning. One defunct East German broadcast always began with off-key bells that were just plain spooky (SWLers have compiled CDs of old numbers-station broadcasts), and another that persists to this day opens with the English folk song "Cherry Ripe" repeated 12 times.
There is no indication in these broadcasts of where the transmitter resides, who the intended audience is or what the words mean. Everyone pretty much agrees they are intelligence-related in some way, although the FCC only grudgingly admits they occur, and it still questions whether any originate from within the United States. SWLers who pore over the numeric codes for possible meanings have given nicknames to certain broadcasts, such as Sexy Lady, the Babbler and Bulgarian Betty. The prevailing theory is that various agencies use them to communicate with agents in the field--a bizarre use of a public means of communication to reach only one or a few people.
One notorious signal was dubbed Cynthia, as in "starts with C and ends in IA." A former member of the Navy who calls himself Havana Moon became obsessed with cracking the numbers-station rubric and claims he used radio-direction-finding equipment to trace the broadcast to a military transmitter in Virginia, where the spooks have their headquarters.
Some particularly dedicated SWLers have developed emotional attachments to certain numbers readers. A lifelong listener from Brooklyn reports hearing the same Cuban woman for more than 20 years. One popular broadcaster is an exceedingly chipper female on Taiwan's New Star Broadcasting, who pleasantly shouts out a half-hour or so of numbers in Mandarin and then ends with a polite "Thank you very much for decoding your message!"
Recently, what seem to be spoofs of numbers stations have been popping up. A new one began with a few bars from Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" before a squeaky voice identified itself as Melvin Mouse, commander of the Rodent Revolution. He then launched into the group's manifesto: "The Rodent Revolution was formed in the 1980s by a coalition of members from every rodent family. Mice, squirrels, beavers, shrews and the most intelligent of the group, the rabbits. Our goal is to overthrow our oppressors, the ape-humans who drool on themselves, listen to shortwave and spend most free moments wanking their willies. We have, in collaboration with the CIA, been using mind-control methods to confuse and baffle the humans since 1985. Thus the inability to clearly hear our 50,000-watt transmission last night... "
Mr. Mouse proceeded to read a string of numbers, which an SWLer with way too much time on his hands decoded as "al fansome is a good human he will feed you eat the special carrots we got from ganja that is all bunny out."
A more perfect form of entertainment is difficult to fathom.
It's no coincidence that the shortwave band is at both the extreme right and the extreme left of the AM dial. Skinheads, fire-and-brimstone preachers, self-proclaimed patriots, anti-WTO paranoiacs and deeply opinionated people of every stripe all find a home on shortwave. There, Rush Limbaugh is written off as a conciliatory, moderate milquetoast. Shortwave is the only sure way to keep a finger on the fringes from the safety of your home.
Adam, a 25-year-old hippie woodsman from Michigan, is drawn to the fringe, and the dial. He says he's "down with the militia," though he's not actually a member. "Shortwave is those guys' lifeblood," he continues. "I got one to listen to Alex [Jones] and to hear how the neo-Nazis are trying to hijack the patriot movement."
Jones is a particular gem. He broadcasts from Austin and is a gun-rights and small-government advocate who hates Bush and his band of "globalists" with a vigor that would give any black-clad anarchist a run for her Molotov. A hater of Clinton, the WTO, Ashcroft, environment-raping corporations and the PC movement, Jones calls himself an information warrior, and his goal is to arm you with the proper ammunition. (Jones was the guy driving the motorboat car in Richard Linklater's animated feature Waking Life.)
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While Jones is worthy of serious consideration and intelligent debate (he's sort of the thinking man's Art Bell), the rest of the shortwave rabble is pretty monochromatic--that is, white. As in proud to be white. According to the book Waves of Rancor: Tuning in the Radical Right, there are more than 1,000 racist and radical-right "patriot groups" on the air in the United States. A stalwart among these is the National Alliance, a white-power group headed by William Pierce, author of race-war fantasy The Turner Diaries, the book that Timothy McVeigh sold at swap meets and attempted to put into action when he blew up the Oklahoma City federal building. Pierce had a shortwave show for years before migrating to the Internet.
Another shortwave veteran is Hal Turner, a New Jersey-based "Christian" who believes police brutality doesn't happen often enough. In an interview with www.skinheadz.com, he explained the merits of the shortwave medium. "I have restored freedom of speech on my Hal Turner Show. I do not shut callers off, regardless of the topic they wish to discuss. I do not screen out callers. Want to talk about blacks, Jews, Hispanics, fags, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians? Fine. No topic is taboo. That is something you will no longer find anywhere in the media today."
Indeed, shortwave almost rivals the Internet for diversity and absurdity of outlooks. The biggest service it provides for American political junkies is access to critical international media. Many countries deliver news and commentary in English, and the questions that were asked about the war in Iraq were a thousand-fold more substantive than those in the U.S. media. You can even catch anti-Castro guerrilla groups in Florida sending instructions for Cubans to sabotage their government.
So get a shortwave unit, find a station and sink your teeth into some very extreme audio material. Your bland-ass standard radio tuner will never forgive you for it.