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Getting Started in Shortwave Listening

Have you ever listened to your own local or national radio stations and wondered what similar stations are like around the world? Maybe you’ve listened to news bulletins in the US and wondered what was being reported in the UK about the same events. These days, it’s easy to get the information we need over the internet, and I’m often asked why I bother listening to radio when I can just stream the audio online. Those of an older vintage will know that receiving radio signals from around the world was a normal and everyday experience, and that listening to radio has a certain “quality” that online digital audio streams simply can’t provide.

This is where shortwave listening comes in, and you won’t believe how easy it is to get started with it. You don’t even need to spend lots of money, and it’s very likely that you already have all the equipment you need in your home already!

First of all, a quick lesson on how radio works. Radio waves are a type of electromagnetic radiation, just like light or ultra-violet or infrared. When you move electricity over and back through a wire (an oscillating current), the wire will send out radio waves; this is an antenna. The rate at which that current oscillates or moves back and forth is the frequency of the waves. Those waves can be encoded with information – such as audio – and when we tune our radio receivers to the oscillating frequency, we can listen to the news reports and music shows encoded on that carrier signal. The radio signals in the air meet your receiver’s antenna, and cause the electrons in the metal to move over and back at the same rate as the transmitted frequency. This motion of electricity in your radio is detected by some electronics, and the encoded signal is converted into audio for you to listen to and enjoy.

So let’s get started!

Take a look around your house and find all the radio receivers you can. Somewhere on the body of the radio there will probably be a selector switch with FM, AM, LW on it: these are the radio bands (or frequency ranges and types) that can be received. Hopefully, you’ll find a radio that has an SW option on it; this stands for shortwave and is what we’re looking for.

If you can’t find one, or don’t know anyone who has one, don’t worry: shortwave radios can be found and bought easily. My first (and second, and I think third) shortwave radios were bought from Lidl – a discount grocery store in Europe that does various offers on electronics from time to time – for about €10, or $15. Obviously, these radios were not the best quality and don’t match the performance of more expensive models, but they served me very well and I was able to listen to signals from as far away as Australia (I’m in Ireland). Something like these should certainly be good enough to get you started in the hobby. I’ll talk about the higher end radios later on.

Once you have your radio, it’s time to turn it on. Select the SW option, extend the antenna, and power on the radio. Most likely, you won’t hear much, or a lot of static, as it won’t be tuned in to any station. Let’s try to listen to China Radio International: its one of the powerhouses in the shortwave world and picking up their signals should be easy enough.

Take a look at this webpage from China Radio International, which lists the frequencies it broadcasts on, and at what times. It also has sections for various regions around the world. So for example, if you’re in Europe, scroll down to the Europe section and find your current time in the list (note it lists UTC, Beijing time, and sometimes the local time). Next, look at the frequency in the furthest right field for that row. That’s the frequency you need to tune your radio to, so go ahead and do it.

Hopefully, you will now be listening to China Radio International in your language. Congratulations! If you don’t hear anything, or the signal is very bad, there are a few things you can do:

  • Move the radio away from other electronics, such as TVs, computers, charger cables, etc.
  • Try listening outside
  • Make sure the antenna is extended, or point it at different angles
  • Try an alternative frequency if one is listed
  • Sometimes, activity from the Sun will affect radio conditions, so you may need to try again later

The next thing you should do is make a minor “upgrade” to your radio: build a longer antenna. To do this, simply get a couple of metres of light electrical wire or speaker wire (the longer the better), and strip a few centimetres of the plastic insulation off one end. That’s all there is to it! To use your new antenna, wrap the exposed wire around the antenna of your radio, effectively increasing its length by a couple of metres. Stretch out the wire – preferably off the ground – as far as you can, and you should hear an immediate improvement of your radio signal. I hang my wire antenna out my kitchen window and attach the far end of it to the shed across the yard. If I’m listening outside, I simply drape it across a fence.

When you’re listening to shortwave, you’ll notice that you’ll tend to get more signals above 10 MHz (10,000 kHz) during the day, while you’ll hear more below that frequency at night. This is because the Sun affects the ionosphere – the layer of atmosphere that reflects radio waves around the world – such that different frequencies propagate in different ways. If you look to the right of this webpage (or scroll down to the bottom if you’re on a phone) you’ll see a graph telling you which frequency bands are the best to listen to on the day and night sides of Earth. Use this is as a rough guide for your listening, and focus on the green and yellow frequency ranges.

Where do you find frequencies of radio stations? My favourite site at the moment is www.shortwaveschedule.com. Go there, and in the upper right click the ‘Go’ underneath ‘On air now’, and you’ll get a list of all radio broadcasts happening now. The first lot are mediumwave and longwave bands, and you won’t hear them on the shortwave selection on your radio (though you may hear some close ones if you select LW or AM/MW!). Your radio probably goes from about 3-5MHz to about 20-30MHz, so scroll down to the stations that lie in your frequency range. Next, look out for stations broadcasting in a language you understand. The power on the right tells you how strong the transmitter is (the stronger the easier to hear). All times listed are in UTC, so you’ll need to convert them to your own local time to ensure you’re listening to the correct broadcast.

You may notice that in some cases you might hear two (or more!) stations at once on the same frequency, even though they’re listed to be broadcast on different frequencies. You may also note that even some strong stations can be difficult to hear. This is were higher-end radio receivers come in. At some point you’ll probably want to upgrade your receiver to something that can can pick out single stations from a barrage of audio from several, or to something that allows you to type in the frequency directly rather than scroll through all frequencies, or maybe something that simply has a wider frequency range, allowing you to hear more.

There’s a whole range of good quality radio receivers out there, and debate often rages about which one is best. Honestly, it’s down to your own personal needs in a radio and your own comfort in listening. eHam is a great site for reviews of radios, and you can check them out at this link. You’ll see that the prices range from a few tens of dollars up to thousands – there really is something to suit every budget.

My most recent radio upgrade was to a Tecsun PL-600, which is on Amazon for about $90. This covers the whole shortwave band as well as longwave, mediumwave, and FM, and it also covers single sideband (SSB) meaning I can listen to radio hams speaking to each other. Tecsun are considered an excellent producer of radio receivers that won’t break the bank, though there are several other manufacturers who also make excellent radios. Names to look for, aside from Tecsun, are Sangean, Kenwood, Alinco, and Eton. If you wish, you can take a look at my Radio Store link for a selection of shortwave radio receivers to give you an idea of what’s available. Personally, if you’re still finding your feet in radio, don’t spend loads of money. Instead, do your research on the radios you like the look of, check out reviews, watch YouTube demonstrations or reviews, and see what you like best. Taking the time to choose a good radio will be worth it and allow you to enjoy your hobby for years to come.

Before I finish up, I want to talk a bit about hobbies within the shortwave listening hobby: DXing and QSL card collecting!

QSL is a radio Q-code meaning “I receive your broadcast”. Q-codes are short so they can be sent easily by Morse code and other modes, and they’re still used by radio hams today when speaking to each other. In the world of shortwave listening, we can send a QSL report to a radio station outlining what we heard and a summary of the reception quality. In return for this, stations will often confirm your report by posting you a QSL card, which is a postcard from the station with the frequency, times, and dates you listened. As well as this, stations will usually include promotional material such as broadcast schedules, stickers, pencils, and so on. You can check out one of my QSL cards and accompanying material here, which I received from the Voice of Korea, in North Korea.

DXing is simply shortwave listening, but with specifically trying to hear distant and/or low-powered stations. These can be quite a challenge because oftentimes low-power stations are broadcasting locally, and not intentionally sending a signal halfway across the world. A DXer will also experience bad signal quality, interference from other stations, a language they don’t really understand. These challenges pose an opportunity to learn more about radio and to build equipment to help try to catch these elusive signals. I once heard – very briefly – an English broadcast from a local radio station in Vanuatu in the Pacific. Unfortunately, the quality was so bad I was unable to get enough detail to send off a proper QSL report. But I’ll do it sometime!

You can read more about DXing and QSL cards on Wikipedia.

So there you have it. As I mentioned, you possibly already have a shortwave receiver in your home, and you can easily upgrade the antenna for better signal reception. Check online for broadcast frequencies of radio stations around the world, and be sure to write up some reports and send them off to get yourself a QSL card!

Enjoy!

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