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Shortwave is part of the radio spectrum, and lies roughly above the AM broadcast band (aka mediumwave band) and below the lower reaches of the television frequencies, from 3MHz-30MHz.
Outside of the United States, shortwave broadcasting has been popular since the late 1920s. Thanks to its ability to cover large areas, government broadcasters often use shortwave to communicate with their most remote areas.
Inside the U.S., shortwave had its greatest popularity following Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Nearly every American radio manufacturer offered several models with at least one shortwave band (Americans worrying about their relatives who lived overseas often tuned into foreign broadcasts to hear the latest news). After the end of World War II, a wave of isolationism swept over the U.S. As a result, the number of American radios equipped with shortwave bands dropped off significantly.
There's good and there's bad.
Shortwave radio was traditionally the best means by which you could hear the news and interesting radio programming from around the world because these frequencies bounce off the ionosphere quite handily. Many countries' governments ran their own shortwave stations and some, like the BBC World Service, Radio Canada International (aka CBC International Service or "Voice of Canada"), and Radio Netherlands were highly respected. In some times and places, shortwave was the only place you could get unbiased news from across the border. For example, international shortwave broadcasting really took off during World War II, when people living in Axis countries who wanted news not censored by their governments tuned in to shortwave broadcasts from neutral or Allied countries, in some cases risking criminal prosecution for doing so (but the shortwave broadcasts from Allied countries also smacked of propaganda). Axis countries responded by jamming shortwave radio broadcasts from Allied countries. During the Cold War, shortwave became a hotbed of international intrigue, with broadcasts from Warsaw Pact countries (USSR's Radio Moscow, East Germany's Radio Berlin International) competing with the likes of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe for international audiences, ideological rants from countries with radical governments not aligned with either side in the cold war like Libya and Albania, rebel governments like the breakaway Republic of Biafra, and spy transmissions and maritime activity taking up some of the shortwave spectrum as well, which always made for interesting listening.[note 1]
Besides commercial and nonprofit radion stations, shortwave radio is still used by amateur radio operators to talk and send Morse code messages globally.
What happened after the Berlin Wall fell? It went something like this: Cold War competition in propaganda nearly ceased, as did most of the spy transmissions although a few can still be heard. Satellites and later the Internet replaced most of the maritime and utility transmissions. After the rise of streaming audio over the Internet, broadcasters like the BBC World Service, Radio Canada International, Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, and many other respected international broadcasters severely curtailed their shortwave broadcasts and all but eliminated their broadcasts directed at Europe and North America.
One notable example is Radio Moscow, which began in 1929 as the shortwave propaganda powerhouse of the USSR, and became Voice of Russia in 1993. Instead of extolling the glories of Communism, it reported on news, sports, and cultural affairs in the Russian Republic. On 1 April 2014, it left shortwave altogether, a victim of government budget cuts.
At the same time, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in their infinite wisdom decided to open the floodgates to privately owned U.S. religious broadcasters, starting sometime in the middle 1980s. By 1992 a few of these broadcasters figured out they could make money by selling airtime to assorted kooks and freaks, and the shortwave bands became cluttered with the likes of "God's end-times prophet" "Brother" R.G. Stair and his Overcomer Ministry; American Dissident Voices, an openly neo-Nazi program produced by William Pierce's National Alliance; infomercials trying to get you to put your life savings in gold bullion or canned food; and more recently an assortment of 9/11 truthers like Joyce Riley and Alex Jones. The main culprit in selling airtime to these fringe kooks and nutburgers in the early 1990s was originally WWCR ("World Wide Christian Radio") in Nashville, Tennessee, but after other stations (like for example WINB in Red Lion, Pennsylvania, and WRNO in New Orleans, Louisiana) noted WWCR's success in becoming an open forum for the lunatic fringe, they started selling airtime to them as well. Other broadcasters, such as WGTG ("With Glory to God,") originally founded to broadcast Bible readings and educational programming, were forced to rebrand (WGTG became WWFV and then WWRB, "World Wide Religious Broadcasters") and transition to more radical programs as the shortwave audience turned increasingly right-wing.
One of those broadcasters buying shortwave airtime, Chuck Harder out of Florida, actually had an interesting program (at least if you agree with economic protectionism, buying U.S. made products, and opposition to globalization, enjoy hearing Ralph Nader as a frequent guest, like railroads, and mourn the passing of Elgin pocket watches). Unfortunately given the shortwave milieu he was operating in he got lumped in with the nutters by certain people. He didn't help matters much by having the occasional wingnut as a guest on his show. Equally unfortunately, his show is all but defunct and no longer heard on shortwave.
All that aside, the creepiest station broadcasting out of the U.S., hands down,
is was[note 2] KJES, located in some place called "The Lord's Ranch" in New Mexico. Programming consisted of what sounded like heavily medicated and brainwashed children repeating the same Bible verses over and over for hours on end.
To cut a long story short, tuning through the shortwave bands no longer yields as many interesting and intelligent broadcasts from the BBC or Radio Canada International, or international intrigue.[note 3] Instead it is a frustrating experience tuning across the dial and finding little more than extremist religious and political nutters from the United States.
The good, or what's left of it today
The good is there are still some interesting international broadcasts to be heard. Radio Netherlands used to be the only western country which hadn't discontinued its English language shortwave broadcasts to Europe and North America, and as it was one of the most highly respected used to be well worth the listen. Otherwise, Eastern European countries like Czechia (Radio Prague) and Asian countries like Japan (NHK World Radio) are still broadcasting to Europe and North America, and if you want a flashback to the glory days of the Cold War, Cuba (Radio Havana Cuba) and North Korea (Voice of Korea, formerly Radio Pyongyang) are still broadcasting and still sound much as they did in the 1980s and earlier. All worth a listen.
Voice of America, the long-running US broadcaster, is still on the air and is worth tuning into. Unfortunately, many of the freebies given out to overseas listeners can't be sent to US addresses, because VOA operates strictly as an external radio service. Also, recent cutbacks in shortwave broadcasting have gone into effect. Armed Forces Network, which serves US military overseas, broadcasts on shortwave, but uses very odd frequencies, and all in upper sideband.
China Radio International (formerly Radio Peking and Radio Beijing), from the People's Republic of China, seems to have modeled itself after the BBC for style, but its content is still very pro-Chinese, although it's nothing like it was during the Cold War. Its separated twin, Radio Taiwan International, used to broadcast to the Americas over the now-closed WYFR, but if you're lucky, you can hear their signals beamed to South East Asia.
Radio Australia, although the broadcasts were ostensibly beamed to Asia, it was quite prolific and easily received in North America on 9580 khz mornings. It had stopped broadcasting on Shortwave on January 31, 2017 due to budget cuts.
During the day WRMI on 9955 kHz broadcasts international content from the World Radio Network . . . if you can receive it over the noise. Due to some of its other programming, Cuba jams its transmissions, supposedly because of the US government's largely ineffectual Radio Marti. In addition, there's always some good programming on WBCQ (owned by ex-radio pirate Allan Weiner), especially during Saturday and Sunday nights - this usually on 6160 kHz (and less frequently anymore, 7490 kHz, which now has more evangelists and less of the eclectic music and former pirates). There are also the pirate stations to listen to, some which show a rather eclectic sense of humor, especially Commander Bunny railing against the idiot humans who refuse to acknowledge him as overlord. Pirate stations tend to frequent the vicinity of 6925 kHz upper or lower sideband, but this can and does change.
WTWW ("We Transmit World Wide") in Lebanon, Tennessee is another mostly religious lease-time station. Most of their airtime is brokered by the late Peter J. Peters' Scriptures for America. The station formerly aired Art Bell's last radio show, Midnight In the Desert. WTWW sometimes fills in time with 70's and 80's era pop tunes and talk shows for amateur radio operators.
The Mighty KBC began as a Dutch pirate station in the 1970's founded by Eric van Willegen and is now a legit shortwave, DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting), and AM station broadcasting from Germany. The intended demographic is long-haul truckers in Northern Europe and programming is Oldies Rock with a mix of Euro-pop, but the station's shortwave signal can be heard across Europe and (on Sundays UTC) in parts of North America .
Glenn Hauser produces his own shortwave program Glenn Hauser's World of Radio, which reports on the shortwave scene and can be heard on a number of shortwave and local AM & FM stations.
Time signal stations WWV in Colorado, WWVH in Hawaii, and CHU in Canada all rawk and will give you the bends if you listen to them for more than 10 minutes. Better than Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music!
Or if you're into shipwrecks and disaster survival and the like, just keep it tuned to 2182 kHz upper sideband. Once every few weeks, you'll hear something fascinating.
The "tropical bands" from 2300 to 4900 kHz are widely used for local interest programming in tropical areas; few of these stations are intended for or targeted to English-speaking audiences. If you are interested in world music they are your best bet, though listenable signals are at the whim of atmospheric conditions and pure luck.
At one time, there were two good magazines; Popular Communications (known to its readers as Pop'Comm) and Monitoring Times (also known as MT) , which covered the whole world of broadcasting, but had very detailed articles on shortwave. Today, the material that would have been in Popular Communications has been incorporated into CQ Plus, an on-line magazine and part of the CQ Magazine subscription package., and Monitoring Times has shut down entirely. But in its wake are two web-based publications: The Spectrum Monitor is a pdf-based monthly run by former MT staffers, and International Shortwave Broadcast Guide by Gail Van Horn, another former MT staffer, is a Kindle-based bi-annual of shortwave broadcast listings, available via Amazon.com. The World Radio TV Handbook (WRTH) is printed annually, and has detailed listings of just about every radio station there is, including contact addresses, frequencies, and schedules.[note 4]
Three regularly updated websites are PrimeTimeShortwave.com, (mostly listing English language shortwave broadcasts), HFRadio.org, and ShortwaveSchedule.com. There are also a number of Facebook groups devoted to shortwave listening, and the members often post updates on stations and schedules. Unfortunately, if you live in North America and want to hear the more interesting stuff, you'll need to tune into the services that are beamed to places other than North America, which requires a very good antenna.
Thomas Witherspoon's SWLing Post publishes industry news from the world of shortwave as well as equipment reviews.
Digital Radio Mondiale, or "DRM", was supposed to be the technology to save shortwave. A digital form of broadcasting on AM first released in 2003, it has yet to catch on.
In short, do your research on what's on, get a good antenna, and happy signal hunting. Just beware the nutters broadcasting from the U.S.
Numbers stations are primarily used by governments to send messages to spies in the field. Some are still active on the shortwave bands today, though their activity is much diminished since the peak of the Cold War when dozens of stations were assumed to be operated by host governments at secret facilities. Spy transmissions from Cuba are still heard daily, and tracked by several hobbyist organizations. The Cubans use a mixture of blocks of numbers spoken by a computer generated voice, and a digital mode with a sound reminiscent of old school dial-up modems. Thanks to several gaffes over the years, it was learned their transmissions originated from the same location as Radio Havana Cuba's facilities.
In the Cold War past, most of the numbers stations were assumed to be operated by host governments at secret sites. Several years ago, The Conet Project released an annotated multi-volume CD collection of off-air recordings of historical numbers stations, which is widely available on the Internet.
One station, UVB-76, has been operating continuously since 1982 in the Soviet Union into the post-Soviet era in Russia. Some hacker(s) even found it a worthwhile in 2022 by inserting Gangnam Style audio and the text-image memes of trollface and Anonymous' Guy Fawkes mask.
The historically mysterious and generally spooky nature of the transmissions has spawned a number of conspiracy theories, such as NWO puppet masters exchanging nefarious plans or the coordination of an alien invasion of Earth. However, there's really nothing very mysterious about governments sending messages to their spies.
Notable shortwave personalities
- Tony Alamo (deceased)
- Harold Camping (deceased)
- William Cooper (deceased)
- Deborah Green of Aggressive Christianity Missionary Training Corps (incarcerated)
- Alex Jones
- Mark "from Michigan" Koernke
- Pastor John Lewis (deceased)
- Texe Marrs (deceased)
- "Pastor" Peter J. Peters (deceased)
- William Luther Pierce (deceased)
- Gene Scott (deceased)
- Ralph Gorden "Brother" Stair (deceased)
- Linda Thompson (of America Under Siege fame) (deceased)
- Hal Turner
- Coast to Coast AM, via shortwave translators of AM stations
- Final English language broadcast of Radio Berlin International
- You can hear clips from some of these stations here: http://www.simonmason.karoo.net/page467.htm
- Yep, even the kooks are leaving shortwave.
- You can still pick up English language broadcasts from the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Radio Netherlands, Radio Australia and the others. Ostensibly they are beamed toward Africa, South Asia, or Latin America (cough cough yeah right). Budget cuts shut down Radio Canada International in 2012, leaving it available only on the internet. See http://www.primetimeshortwave.com/ and http://swling.com/Resources.htm for current schedules and frequencies.
- There was an excellent annual guide entitled Passport to World Band Radio, also known for its covers by cartoonist Gahan Wilson, but 2010 was its last issue.
- SWLing.com: Voice of Russia to abandon shortwave in April 2014 (20 March 2014)
- J.R. Lind, How a Nashville Radio Station Became a Conspiracy-Theory Hotbed in the ’90s. Nashville Scene, 28 October 2021.
- HF Underground and The Free Radio Network are good places to keep up with current goings on in pirate radio.
- Tropical bands part 1, DX International, Apr. 2007
- Inside the Russian Short Wave Radio Enigma: No one knows why a shortwave radio station somewhere in Russia broadcasts mysterious beeps, buzzes, and hums. But thousands listen in. by Peter Savodnik (09.27.2011 12:00 PM) Wired.
- See the Wikipedia article on UVB-76.
- Pirates Spammed an Infamous Soviet Short-wave Radio Station with Memes: The UVB-76 numbers station took a break from being a suspected communications tool of Russian intelligence to blast 'Gangnam Style' by Janus Rose & Joseph Cox (January 20, 2022, 8:13am) Vice.
- Above Top Secret
- Behind The Truth UFO Insight
- Numbers Stations Damn Interesting
- Spy Radio: Numbers Stations Skeptoid