A signal heard round the world

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The first time I heard a shortwave radio broadcast was on a winter night in the mid-1960s. I was a Boy Scout, visiting my scoutmaster to work on a merit badge. But before I left, he showed me a radio on a shelf above his basement workbench. He turned it on and played with the dial. Suddenly, I heard a voice declare that I was listening to Radio South Africa.

A program from South Africa! I didn't know such a thing was possible. The kids in my working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia were fans of Top 40 music in those days, and it was as hard to pry us away from our cheap transistor radios as it would be to separate a kid from an iPod today.

But a broadcast that traveled from one half of the globe to the other – well, that was something different entirely. I knew I couldn't afford to buy a shortwave radio, even if I knew where to get one, which I didn't. But until I did, I knew I could use my transistor to tune to distant AM stations.

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Night was the best time to receive the programs of clear-channel broadcasters whose booming signals carried hundreds or thousands of miles – as they were intended to do, by the Federal Communications Commission, to serve rural America.

It was exciting to search for those stations, as well as regional broadcasts from nearby states whose weaker signals seemed to drift in my direction by happenstance. I used my thumb and finger to rotate the plastic wheel on the side of the radio with the patience of a burglar turning tumblers to crack a safe. When I got something, I listened on a little speaker pressed to my ear for the call letters and the city – Boston, New York, or Chicago – and the news and weather.

It wasn't until 1980 that I heard a second shortwave broadcast. By that time I had worked as a news director at a small AM station (whose signal, pathetically, barely reached the outer limits of our listening area). One day I visited a colleague and noticed a shortwave on his kitchen table. He let me fiddle with it and told me about his hobby. Not only can you listen to broadcasts, he said, but also you can correspond with stations around the world, which will then reward you with a nifty "QSL" card – or a souvenir, such as a lapel pin – if you send a note telling them when you listened and the quality of the reception.

I was jazzed. I bought my own shortwave, for about $120. I tutored myself on the technical aspects of the broadcasts. And I learned that the major broadcasters were government operated and had been using the medium for decades to aim programs to expatriates and non-expats around the world. Some news outlets were respected (the BCC and Deutsche Welle, for instance). Others were primarily propaganda organs (such as Radio Moscow, as it was then known).

It was more of an adventure to track down these broadcasts than it was the AM stations of my youth. Sometimes I simply used a program guide to await a show transmitted to the Northeastern United States. Much of the time, though, I just dial-surfed. Sometimes I heard familiar voices from London or Moscow. Just as often, there was a cacophony of indecipherable languages borne aloft by weak signals from exotic locales – China or the Middle East – accompanied by static or that peculiar, annoying fading in and out that shortwave listeners learn to live with.

I gained non-US perspectives from stations that were global in outlook long before "globalization" became a household word. The propaganda reinforced what good journalism isn't. Especially amusing were newscasts from Bulgaria, where the lead story always seemed to be about increased industrial production or a trip by a local Communist official to Moscow.

Nowadays I own a more expensive radio. I made the purchase a few years back knowing full well that shortwave's heyday might be waning. International broadcasters had begun to stream programs on the Internet, a trend that has since accelerated.

"Shortwave-radio era looks short-lived," said a recent (and perhaps too pessimistic) headline in the International Herald Tribune. The story recounted how Deutsche Welle is ending German-language programming to the United States and Canada. Finland ended all shortwave broadcasts last month to focus on online programming. Japan and Korea are also cutting back. Such moves are controversial. For people in many countries, shortwave broadcasts can be lifelines to information their political leaders do not want them to hear.

At least a partial shift from the airwaves to the Internet is inevitable. Even I listen to static-free foreign programs on my laptop computer more often than on the radio.

But something is lost when I'm listening online. It's too easy. Just about all the work has been done for me, and there is little to fire the imagination. From time to time, I still like to turn a dial, gently and patiently, in search of an ephemeral, transoceanic signal that may transport me to a place far, far away.

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