Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Mission of Shortwave Stations

My second night of short wave listening made it clear to me that most of the stations on the bands had a “mission” of some type. For many, it was propaganda. I got an inkling of that with reception of Radio Moscow the first time and in closer listening to the commentaries on the Voice of America ( though those were much more tame or subtle than the Soviets!!)

The lesson began that second night of listening when I ventured down into the 40 meter ham band area that I had found during the previous day. I had done a little homework, reading old short wave columns by Hank Bennett in Popular Electronics with the idea of finding Radio Moscow.

I had marked down the general area occupied by the 40 meter hams as it appeared on the 0-100 dial calibration markings on my short wave converter dial and found it again without trouble. But it sounded nothing like it had during the day! The amateur conversations were almost completely covered up by broadcast stations.

In those days, in Europe, hams were only allocated 7.0-7.1 mc, while those in the Western Hemisphere were allowed to use frequencies form 7.0-7.3 mc. In Europe, frequencies from 7.1 to 7.3 was still allocated to short wave broadcasting. And though technically those broadcasters were not supposed to beam toward North America, if the signal levels that were delivered here were side lobes of antennas, I would have hated to have been in the main lobe!

There were programs in English, French, German, and a number of unknown languages ( at least unknown to me at that time!) Signals were quite strong and it wasn't long before I came across what had to be Radio Moscow. The commentary was unmistakable. At the top of the hour, I heard for the first time the unmistakable chime interval signal for Radio Moscow. As I tuned the band, I found no less than three frequencies carrying the same English language program from them arriving with varying signal strengths.

My folks and I listened somewhat spellbound to the rhetoric coming out of the speaker. We spent over an hour listening and talking about what we heard in the broadcast and what we had heard about some of the same “ news” stories from other sources and how they were so different. That night the concept of the Cold War took on a whole new meaning.

After I managed to tear myself away from the Radio Moscow programming, I looked around the rest of the 41 meter shortwave band and found almost the antithesis of the Radio Moscow programming in the BBC. The signals on 41 meters were not as strong as Radio Moscow, though there were as many frequencies in use. It seemed that night, and in fact in years to come, that the BBC's reporting was extremely up front, detailed and seemed to be balanced ( in fact, much more so than today where even it seems to have been infected with a little “political correctness”) The commentaries were labeled as such and were, as one would expect of the voice of a country, to be from the point of view of the UK. The chimes of Big Ben made a great impression and became a friend heard in many places in my future.

That first night, I did not find a lot of other English language programming and without a better reference guide did not have much expectation of being able to identify any of them. I did note one particularly strong station on 7300 kc and made a note to look through the short wave columns to see if I could figure out what it was. Looking back later, I figured it was probably Radio Tirana from Albania, which became a fixture on that frequency for awhile.

Tuning back up to 31 meters and skipping through the stations I had identified from the night before ( I was already mentally creating “beacons” for the band) I found another propaganda outlet in the form of Radio Havana. It became easily identified with its chime portion of the melody of their national anthem, followed by a rousing performance of it by a full band. It also appeared on multiple frequencies on the 31 meter band and also on the 25 meter band that I check briefly later. It was marked with commentaries heavily critical of the West and was not subtle about it at all.

It was becoming obvious that many of the stations on short wave existed to present a point of view of the originating country. Many, especially those from Western countries, appeared to exist to provide information to listeners behind the Iron Curtain or to those in countries that only had state-run media. Those in countries aligned with the Eastern Bloc appeared to be trying to do the same thing and to influence listeners in Third World, or neutral nations. It was indeed a Radio War!

Many stations also appeared to be “selling” their nations as tourist locations and carried programming that appeared to be of a cultural nature. The Swiss programs were particularly good for this. The BBC also had a cultural bent in those days, with music and radio drama.

There were also the religious stations. Perhaps they were not as pervasive as today, but they were there in fair numbers. HCJB was the most prominent, though there were others that had more locally targeted audiences. The first that I found in my early DX-ing days included WINB in Red Lion, Pennsylvania. It was a short wave outlet operated by a minister who also had local broadcast outlets. It was a single transmitter operation that ran 50 kilowatts into simple rhombic antennas.

Other smaller religious operations were targeted to more regional audiences. These often were programmed in local languages and were entered into my logs in later times when my ability to identify them improved. The most memorable from that first year of listening included 4VEH in Haiti which broadcast mostly in French, though they did have a couple of English language programs. I remember finding them for the first time in the morning on 25 meters as I was getting ready for school. They did not run much power, but appeared on three or four short wave bands and also had a rather high powered medium wave outlet.

Another widely heard regional religious station heard at the time was TIFC, “ The Lighthouse of the Caribbean” which broadcast from Costa Rica. It had a particularly good signal into Central Texas despite its relatively low power. It's religious programming was mostly in Spanish with just a few English offerings. In Spanish it was known as “Faro del Caribe.”

The other category of station that I soon found was that which was meant for totally local consumption. These stations broadcast to reach thinly populated areas of their respective countries without an overt attempt to reach foreign listeners. Some of these stations were religious, some were operated by local governments and some were commercial operations, simply relaying their medium wave programming. This category of station appears to be shrinking in recent years as methods of feeding programming to outlying areas by satellite to be retransmitted by low powered FM transmitters have become available. These stations gave the best picture of local cultures in those days, with local music and information that spilled over into the international airwaves.

Over the next several months, I began to get the hang of tuning the receiver. I was learning how to tune carefully and pick weaker stations out of the crowd.

That next Christmas I received a gift from a grandmother that would forever change how I listened to short wave. It was my first copy of the World Radio-TV Handbook. Suddenly I had a tool to help identify many of the stations I had been hearing. It and the excellent short wave columns in Popular Electronics also soon got me on the road of actively targeting stations I would like to hear. New doors were opening.

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