Window on the world

Shortwave radio offers listeners encouraging stories and unfiltered news, and it’s not as hard to tune in as you think

Henry Rogers stands among his “tuning-in” toys at Western Historic Radio Museum in Virginia City.

Henry Rogers stands among his “tuning-in” toys at Western Historic Radio Museum in Virginia City.

Photo by David Robert

As our country headed toward war with Iraq, I found myself seeking a better news source. While NPR and PBS do a pretty fair job, too much of the information seems filtered and focused on the negative.

The exception was the BBC World News on Channel 5. That program brought me back to an old friend, a medium I was looking for—shortwave radio. Another person who has long known the value of shortwave is Henry Rogers, owner of the Western Historic Radio Museum in Virginia City.

“When I was a young boy, I listened to Radio Moscow,” he said. “After hearing their broadcast, I began to think there were other ways at looking at world events.”

Shortwave radio depends entirely on the ionosphere, an upper layer of the atmosphere, to get around the world. Unlike FM signals, which are usually absorbed by this layer, shortwave signals hit this layer and are refracted, or bent, back to earth.

By altering its frequencies, a station can “aim” its signal to a certain part of the earth, such as North America. Amateur radio operators discovered this in the beginning of the 20th century when they began sending their signals great distances.

“By the mid-'30s,” Rogers said, “shortwave had established itself as a dependable system.”

Here in America, shortwave radio had a commercial application: East Coast stations would broadcast their live shows on shortwave to listeners in other parts of the country. In Europe, however, countries used national shortwave stations to transmit their philosophies and their ideals to different parts of the world. Nazi Germany took remarkable advantage of shortwave radio in the 1930s and ‘40s to broadcast its ideologies to people thousands of miles away.

“In the late-'30s, our government did a survey of what people were listening to in South America,” Rogers said. “They were shocked to learn that 75 percent of the people were listening to German broadcasts.”

Upon realizing shortwave’s potential for reaching a wide range of listeners, the government began buying commercial shortwave stations. The owners were more than happy to sell, since shortwave at the time was a money-losing operation.

The result was Voice of America, the international multimedia broadcasting service, which began in 1942 and continues to this day. Although shortwave was used as a tool of propaganda during the Cold War era, the broadcasts today tend to be much more informative and varied in their points of view, which may be why there are often peaks in shortwave radio sales after the occurrence of major newsworthy events, such as international conflicts or terrorist attacks.

The numbers of shortwave listeners had a dramatic increase since Sept. 11. In November of 2001, Mike Wendland, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press, reported that Grundig, the German market leader in shortwave radios, had a 500 percent increase in sales.

The war in Iraq might cause another surge in listeners.

In-depth news is not the only subject covered by shortwave stations. There are programs focused on travel, entertainment, developing trends and religion. Some of the oldest stations feature Christian programming, including HCJB World Radio’s The Voice of the Andes, which has broadcast news and music from Quito, Ecuador for almost 70 years.Over the past two weeks, I have heard a variety of programs. There was an ornithologist discussing the threats to migratory birds in the wetlands of southern Iraq. Another show had a very interesting interview with UN chief weapons inspector Hans Blix.

Unlike the majority of television and newspaper media, shortwave programming does not tend to be negative. I recently listened to a show that documented the plight of an American couple whose adopted Chinese daughter had leukemia and needed a bone marrow donation. Unable to find a donor in the United States, they took the child to China where 10,000 people volunteered to be tested in the hope of helping this little girl.

Another program covered the developing crisis with clean water, which is very rare in certain parts of the world.

One of my favorites is a BBC program on modern music that comes on Saturday evenings.

If you have a hunger for unfiltered, varied information, this medium can be your window on the world.

People looking to purchase a radio might want to look at new shortwaves; they are easier to master, while the older sets require some skill to operate. It can be difficult to fiddle with an older radio while trying to tune into the desired station. Compared with standard AM and FM stations, shortwave broadcasts at different times and on different frequencies.

“The biggest problem most people have is that they listen to the wrong frequency at the wrong time,” Rogers said. “The best advice is to listen at the higher frequencies during the day and lower at night.”

A shortwave signal can vary in strength and drift due to atmospheric conditions. Fortunately, modern radios eliminate many of these problems. Almost every station has some programming that airs in English and these shows are usually an hour long. The broadcast times are generally expressed as UTC, or Universal Time Conversion. UTC is actually the time in Greenwich, England, or Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). For example, 4 p.m. in Reno, Pacific Standard Time, is midnight in UTC. This will change by one hour when Daylight Savings begins this weekend.

An easy solution for figuring out when and how to tune in is to buy a copy of Monitoring Times magazine, which lists stations, frequencies and schedules in our time zone. Most bookstores in Reno carry this publication.

Finding the radio itself is easy, and most units receive AM and FM stations in addition to the shortwave stations. Radio Shack stores carry their own multi-band radios and the Grundig brand, with prices ranging from $40 to $150.

One Grundig radio has a built-in generator, which means no power or batteries are required—just turn the crank several times, and the radio operates. Another source is the C. Crane Company of Fortuna, Calif., which has a Web site ( and a catalog.