It's the United Nations without the voting. Its members may be on expeditions in the Himalayas, nomads in Outer Mongolia, city dwellers in Australia, or villagers in Papua-New Guinea. It conducts its meetings in hundreds of languages.
And some of it is pure propaganda.
Today, the multicolored, intricate, and growing world of shortwave radio has millions of listeners. They live in nearly every country on earth.
Some 350 million people own shortwave receivers, according to the International Shortwave Club. The total number of listeners runs to many times that figure.
For travelers, the benefits have never been greater. Modern technology has made it possible for shortwave radios to be small enough to be carried in a pocket, allowing globe-trotters to keep up on the latest news back home with just a flick of the dial.
It is not only the news, of course, that shortwave-radio owners can tune to. Stations such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Netherlands International, and Deutsche Welle (the Voice of Germany) transmit a wide range of feature programming covering science, religion , sports, political analysis, economics, and the arts to virtually every country in the world.
Altogether there are some 200 shortwave radio stations around the world, which, thanks to a cooperative ionosphere, bounce invisible signals off the sky and enable programs originating in London, for example, to be heard in Hawaii - and almost everywhere in between.
No one knows how many people listen to shortwave radio. Collecting statistics can be a tricky business. And no station claims to have done it properly.
But the London-based BBC can probably boast being the world's most listened-to station. Evidence suggests that its World Service has a regular audience (i.e., at least once a week) of some 100 million adults, excluding China, who hear the network's broadcasts in English and 36 other languages. The VOA, based in Washington, also estimates an audience of 100 million - but its figure includes China. No worldwide estimates have been published for Radio Netherlands International or Deutsche Welle. But their listenership, except in certain parts of the world, is much smaller.
Most government-operated shortwave stations, while vigorously denying (at least in the West) that their roles are to propagandize, acknowledge a certain chauvinistic slant to their broadcasting.
The function of Deutsche Welle, which broadcasts around the clock in German and 33 other languages, is to ''put across'' the German view on important issues , according to the station's director-general, Klaus Schutz. But in an interview with Die Welt, he said while he has never been a journalist, he ''sees to it'' that journalists at Deutsche Welle ''can work as freely as possible.''
Recent surveys, in fact, have shown that the West German station runs neck-and-neck with Britain's BBC, which is not government-run, in terms of broadcast credibility, outstripping the VOA which, according to many listeners, has lost considerable prestige under the Reagan administration.
Radio Netherlands International, which broadcasts in nine languages to every corner of the globe, claims to be the oldest national shortwave station. It traces its origin to 1928, when it began transmitting regularly to the Dutch overseas territories under the name Happy Station.
Among the other state-run networks broadcasting in English around the world are Radio Moscow, Radio Australia, Radio Sweden, Radio Tirana (Albania), Swiss Radio International, and Radio Canada International.
The American Forces Radio and Television Service (AFRTS), even more US-oriented than the VOA, provides programs for military personnel stationed overseas and for a surprisingly large American expatriate community. AFRTS carries programs produced by the major American broadcasting networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) and others and develops some programs of its own. Its best-known fare is probably the live play-by-play accounts of American football, baseball, and basketball games, which, because of time differences, Americans abroad wind up staying up to all hours of the night to hear. AFRTS also broadcasts more than 700 American network newscasts to some other 25 countries every week.
Most shortwave listeners, however, would agree that the finest newscasts emanate from the BBC World Service in London. Its news can be heard on the hour 17 times a day, and diplomats, government leaders, businessmen, and the man on the street in cities as dissimilar as New Delhi and Warsaw regularly depend on the program (supplemented by the station's programs of news analysis, including ''24 Hours,'' ''the World Today,'' and ''Radio Newsreel'') for the most up-to-the-minute, comprehensive, and accurate reporting on the day's top stories.
Even in the East bloc, shortwave listeners can keep in touch. For some 370 million people living there, the VOA, BBC, Radio Free Europe (in the languages of the receiving countries only), and Deutsche Welle provide a veritable lifeline of uncensored news. And for Westerners traveling in East bloc countries , the lifeline can be equally indispensable. How invaluable can be measured by the estimated $100 million the Soviet Union spends every year trying to jam Western broadcasts - more than the entire annual budget of either the VOA or Radio Free Europe.
Receivers for shortwave broadcasts have become more sophisticated as the market has grown - especially since 1980, when the Japanese manufacturer, Sony, introduced its pioneering ICF 2001 (available for about $150 in the US). It operates like a pocket calculator and allows listeners to tune into shortwave frequencies with ease and accuracy.
''The new Sony took the 'ham radio' image out of shortwave listening,'' says Jonathan Marks, a producer in the English service of Radio Netherlands, adding that tuning no longer need be difficult.
Many electronics firms have newly turned to the shortwave radio market, and the selection available to consumers is expanding. West Germany's Grundig has entered the market. Phillips of the Netherlands has begun to manufacture shortwave receivers after a long hiatus. So has Japan's Toshiba. But most market analysts expect Sony to continue to give other companies a run for their money.
So widespread has interest in shortwave broadcasting and equipment become that Radio Netherlands International has begun to broadcast a special 30-minute program (in English every Thursday to Europe, Asia, Africa, the Pacific, and North America) called ''Media Network.'' It looks at current developments in the field, including receivers. A brochure providing consumer advice - ''a comprehensive survey of shortwave equipment,'' says Mr. Marks - is available from the network free of charge.
Here's how to find out more
For broadcasting schedules and frequencies of shortwave services easily received in English in the United States, write to the following addresses: The BBC World Service PO Box 76 Bush House London WC2B 4PH England The Voice of America 300 C Street NW Washington, D.C. 20847 Radio Netherlands International PO Box 222 1200 JG Hilversum The Netherlands American Forces Radio and Television Service Broadcast Division 1016 N. McCadden Place Los Angeles, Calif. 90038