Shortwave broadcasters, by and large, operate on bands established by international convention:
120 Meters (2300-2495 KHZ)
90 Meters (3200-3400 KHZ)
75 Meters (3900-4000 KHZ)
60 Meters (4750-5060 KHZ)
49 Meters (5900-6200 KHZ)
41 Meters (7100-7350 KHZ)
31 Meters (9400-9900 KHZ)
25 meters (11600-12100 KHZ)
22 Meters (13570-13870 KHZ)
19 Meters (15100-15800 KHZ)
16 Meters (17480-17900 KHZ)
15 Meters (18900-19020 KHZ)
13 Meters (21450-21850 KHZ)
11 Meters (25600-26100 KHZ)
Writing in the 1980 edition of ``Shortwave Listeners Guide,'' H. Charles Woodruff shed some light on shortwave reception:
Most international shortwave broadcasting stations employ direction antenna arrays to beam radio transmissions to a specific geographical area ... Due to overlap of target areas and because of the nature of shortwave radio wave propagation, you may hear broadcasts that are not specifically beamed to your area.
To compensate for adverse ionospheric conditions, interference from other radio stations, jamming and technical malfunctions, stations may use several frequencies beamed to the same general geographic area.
In the on-line publication ``Traditional Shortwave Listeners Guide,'' Bob Ellis notes that ``current radio conditions are an Act of God.''
In addition to the daily and yearly life of the sun as we see it from Earth, it also has a life of it's own. This is the eleven year long sunspot cycle. Without getting into heavy physics, the radiated energy from the sun rises and falls in this period causing a corresponding rise and fall in the ability of our ionosphere to act as a mirror reflecting far-away stations to our radio sets.
Ellis also writes:
Short-wave radio is split into broadcasting seasons. Traditionally, there are two major seasons, Winter and Summer, with two smaller ones centered on each vernal equinox. We DXers love the variable conditions an equinox can bring but to a Transmission Planner, a nightmare. All the stations try to get frequency allocations in all the bands so they can move to lower frequencies in Winter in a desperate attempt to be heard.
Hugo Gernsback on tuning
Pioneering electronics writer and editor Hugo Gernsback, in the March 1934 edition of ``Short Wave Craft,'' said ``there is no sense in tuning haphazardly.''
``Try at the outset to be methodical,'' Gernsback said.
He offered these tips, which are just as timely today:
Remember always, that there is such a thing as time difference, and that certain overseas stations come in best only at certain times.
The mere fact that foreign stations do not always transmit as per schedule makes listening a great sport. You can only find this out by searching every band very, very slowly from time to time.
It is best to stick to one band during the time which you know best reception is had for that particular band.
Shortwave bands exhibit unique personality traits.
William Orr, W6SAI, listed some of these traits in his 1957 book "Better Shortwave Reception.''
The 90 and 60 Meter Bands
The 90 and 60 meter bands are primarily used for local coverage broadcast work in the tropical areas. During the evening hours of the winter months it is possible to hear many South and Central American stations in these channels. The high static level reduces the utility of the 90 meter band during the summer months, but the 60 meter band is useful the year around.
The 49, 40 and 31 Meter Bands
These three bands form the "backbone" of shortwave broadcasting, as they contain a majority of s-w stations of the world. Over a hundred countries compete for your ears amid this beehive of electronic activity. These bands are all-year performers, and are "open" most of the hours of the day and night, with conditions peaking just before sunrise, and during the evening hours. The static level is much weaker than on the lower frequencies, and the main interference comes from the magnitude of signals.
The 25, 19, 16, 13 and 11 Meter Bands
These four bands, high in frequency, are considered seasonal bands. During periods of great sunspot activity, the ionosphere will support propogation at these frequencies. ... During the summer months the 11, 13 and 16 meter bands will be erratic, exhibiting their best characteristics during the fall and spring season. The 19 and 25 meter bands are all-year performers.
No habla Espanol
One of the more challenging aspects of DXing - for the language impaired at least - is deciphering languages other than English.
Communications World, a long departed periodical, discussed this dilemma in its Fall-Winter 1971 edition:
Obviously, you can never learn them all. There are hundreds of different languages and dialects to be heard on shortwave. The Latin American outlets use Spanish and Portuguese. In Africa, French and Swahili are important tongues. Arabic programming is aired by stations in North Africa and the Middle East.
But it's not necessary to be fluent in a language to pick out certain key words that will allow you to identify the station and tell something about its programming.
Program format and announcers delivery are helpful too. Even if you don't know a word of the language, soon you'll be able to tell a newscast by the manner in which the announcer speaks.
Political commentaries are often delivered with a tell-tale intensity of emotion that is distinctive.
Dramatic presentations, with the back-and-forth dialogue in conversational tines, can also be recognized for what they are.
Your editor located the following item on the R.L. Drake Co. web site.
It was written by William Orr, W6SAI:
Sometimes simple is best. You already know that good reception depends on a good antenna. One of the best designs is a random-length wire, from 30 to 100 feet long, erected in the clear. It should be placed well clear of power lines (which are dangerous and also create radio noise). Try to get the horizontal portion at least 20 feet above the ground. It will work at a lower elevation, but height of the antenna is important. You can run a wire from the peak of your house roof to a nearby tree. You can also make an inexpensive antenna mast from five or 10 foot sections of TV mast or use a telescoping TV mast to support the far end of your wire.
Antenna insulators should be placed on each end of the horizontal wire. You can also buy suitable glass or ceramic insulators, or you can make your own out of one-half inch diameter plastic rod cut to about three inches long. Just drill holes at each end to pass the antenna wire and the supporting rope. Pass the wire through the insulator hole and wrap it back upon itself. It isn't necessary to solder the wire at this point. Use 14 or larger enamel coated wire for the horizontal portion of your antenna. The lead-in portion should be insulated to keep it from shorting to other parts of your residence, such as window frames, metal screens, etc. Stranded-18 wire (any color) will do.
Solder the joint where the the wires connect. You can coat the joint with a little asphalt roof paint, or wrap it with electrical tape. A weatherproof sealant is also available commercially that, when wrapped around soldered joints, effectively seals out moisture. Sealing the joint helps to keep rain or snow off the connection.
Orientation of the wire is not important. Just run it in a clear direction, away from as many man-made objects as possible. This is a basic shortwave antenna used by countless thousands of listeners. You'll be surprised at what you'll hear on the shortwaves with this easy-to erect sky-wire.
Transmitters and relays
Traditionally shortwave broadcasters operated their own transmitters and relay stations.
That has changed.
VT Communications - formerly known as Merlin Communications International - was organized after the British government decided to divest the BBC's global transmission network in the 1990s.
The company operates ``the world's leading commercial short wave network'' and ``delivers over 1,000 hours of both short and medium wave every day for international and religious broadcasters worldwide,'' according to the VT Communication's web site.
The web site also said:
We currently deliver broadcast services to our customers from 15 strategically located transmission facilities and broker services from a further 45 sites through established relationships with other major broadcasters around the world. Transmission customers include BBC World Service, NHK (Radio Japan), Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Radio Canada International and Voice of America. VT Communications also has extensive experience in the design, build, operation and maintenance of radio broadcast facilities and networks worldwide.
VT Communications is a founder member of Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) a consortium committed to delivering a worldwide initiative to bring digital AM to the marketplace. The digital technical standard developed by DRM will see VT Merlin deliver near FM quality broadcast and data services to its short and medium wave customers.
Tropics, pirates and numbers
In addition to the BBC and other international broadcasters, ``exotic'' radio stations also populate the airwaves.
The web site of the magazine Monitoring Times explains:
Tropical Band DXing - As you might imagine, atmospheric conditions in the tropics throughout much of the year are terrible. That makes the AM band nearly useless for domestic local broadcasting in many countries which lie between the tropical lines on the globe. These areas use the frequencies between 2300-2400 kHz, 3200-3400 kHz and 4750-5060 kHz. In this hemisphere listen for Spanish language broadcasts.
Pirate Broadcasting - Eschewing government authorization, these unlicensed broadcasters cluster around 6955 kHz +/- 10 kHz using bogus IDs and playing an assortment of music and scripted comedy. Catch them if you can. Their transmissions are often short, funny parodies of the shortwave bands themselves. It’s insider radio humor at its best.
Numbers Stations - Relics of the height of the Cold War, these stations are said to be sending coded messages to operatives in the field by way of these “spontaneous” transmissions. Often a female voice in Spanish enunciating numbers in groups of 5, these messages come and go mysteriously. It’s been spook-filled fun for the last 40 years.
And as we spin the dial, let's not forget the HF (high frequency) amateur radio bands, commonly known as ``ham radio.''
Here's a list from the web site of Monitoring Times:
HF CW BANDS: 160 Meters 1800-2000 kHz 80 Meters 3500-3750 kHz 40 Meters 7000-7150 kHz 30 Meters 10100-10150 kHz 20 Meters 14000-14150 kHz 17 Meters 18068-18110 kHz 15 Meters - 21000-21200 kHz 12 Meters 24890-24930 kHz 10 28000-28300 kHz
HF VOICE: 160 Meters (LSB) 1800-2000 kHz 75 Meters (LSB) 3750-4000 kHz 40 Meters (LSB) 7150-7300 kHz 20 Meters (USB)14150-14350 kHz 17 Meters (USB) 18110-18168 kHz 15 Meters (USB) 21200-21450 kHz 12 Meters (USB) 24930-24990 kHz 10 Meters (USB) 28300-29700 kHz
How did ``ham radio'' get it's name?
The ARRL - the national association for amateur radio, formerly known as the American Radio Relay League - offers an explanation:
"Ham: a poor operator. A 'plug.'"
That's the definition of the word given in G. M. Dodge's The Telegraph Instructor even before radio. The definition has never changed in wire telegraphy. The first wireless operators were landline telegraphers who left their offices to go to sea or to man the coastal stations. They brought with them their language and much of the tradition of their older profession.
In those early days, spark was king and every station occupied the same wavelength--or, more accurately perhaps, every station occupied the whole spectrum with its broad spark signal.
Government stations, ships, coastal stations and the increasingly numerous amateur operators all competed for time and signal supremacy in each other's receivers. Many of the amateur stations were very powerful. Two amateurs, working across town, could effectively jam all the other operators in the area.
When this happened, frustrated commercial operators would call the ship whose weaker signals had been blotted out by the amateurs and say "SRI OM THOSE #&$!@ HAMS ARE JAMMING YOU."
Amateurs, possibly unfamiliar with the real meaning of the term, picked it up and applied it to themselves in true "Yankee Doodle" fashion and wore it with pride. As the years advanced, the original meaning has completely disappeared.
The AM broadcast band, formally known as medium wave, is also fertile ground for DXing, and the ``graveyard frequencies'' - 1230, 1240, 1340, 1400, 1450 and 1490 KHZ - are especially enticing.
The web site of the National Radio Club Inc. - ``The World's Oldest And Largest Medium Wave DX Club'' - explains:
Originally called 'Local Channels', due to the fact the stations on these frequencies were intended to serve only small communities, and were allowed to operate non-directional with a maximum power of 250 watts, they were dubbed "Graveyard" by those who DXed the channels. DXers found these channels extremely challenging, due to the fact each was filled with about 200 stations, and picking out any particular station was very difficult. To me, a Graveyard is a very quiet place, so the logic escapes me. However, the name has stuck through the years.
These lists are divided into two categories: pre-1960 and post-1960. On January 1, 1960 the FCC acknowledged the fact that some of these 'small' communities had outgrown the coverage area of their 'local' station. So, they allowed all stations on the six aforementioned frequencies to increase their daytime power to 1000 watts. Then in the early 1980s, authority was granted to allow the stations to operate 24 hours at the higher power. Thinking was, 'they will only interfere with each other', which they do. Canadian and Mexican stations soon followed both plans.
Now, most stations on the six GY frequencies operate with 1000 watts day and night. Just a handful employ directional patterns to suppress interference to another station.
A license isn't required to be a shortwave radio listener.
And yet, W1GFH/6 recalls:
Believe it or not, during the 1960's, POPULAR ELECTRONICS magazine issued callsigns (WPE prefixes) to "Shortwave Monitors". All you had to do was send them QSL's representing a minimum number of stations heard/confirmed (perhaps 5) and they would ship you a spiffy 8 x 10 certificate with a sequentially-issued callsign emblazoned on it next to your name.
You could even compete for DXCC-type "award endorsements". It was the next best thing to being a real, licensed ham operator, especially for a 10 year-old kid like me with a Hallicrafters S-119 "Sky Buddy II" receiver and 50 feet of copper wire strung beween two pine trees. A Mastercrafters 24 hour clock, a pair of Brandes headphones, and a world map completed my "listening post".
My callsign was WPE1FYE. Funny how after so many years I still remember it. Apparently, a lot of others remember theirs, too.