What is Shortwave?
Shortwave listening is a pastime followed by millions of listeners worldwide. They’re people of all ages and races, who are interested in radio, politics, news, languages or cultures. Most of us listen to AM or FM stations – those that broadly speaking can be received only in their local area. Shortwave stations operate on frequencies which allow their signals to travel far greater distances. While a mediumwave station in Wellington would only be heard in the lower North Island during the day, and further afield at night, a shortwave station from the same location will be heard right across the Pacific and – if it’s powerful enough – in North America and Europe. Likewise, shortwave stations in those parts of the world are easily heard in New Zealand. People who listen to shortwave stations are called SWLs – shortwave listeners, or DXers – DX being an amateur radio term for long-distance.
How do I listen?
You may have a little radio or a ghettoblaster which, along with AM and FM bands, will slao have a setting for SW – meaning shortwave. While AM and FM stations can be found only in one area of your radio dial, SW stations may have many more frequencies available to them. Just flick your radio to SW and turn the tuning dial – you’ll soon come across something!
Shortwave stations broadcast on many frequencies in many languages – you’ll hear a lot of gibberish, but sooner or later you’ll hear an English voice. There are scores of shortwave stations broadcasting in English for reception in New Zealand every day – from Europe, Asia and North America, especially. Shortwave stations don’t broadcast 24 hours a day like AM and FM ones – but rather in language and time blocks varying from 30 minutes to two or three hours daily.
As you become more experienced in “catching” shortwave stations, you may want to invest in a purpose-built communications receiver which is more sensitive and easier to tune. If your radio has a built-in antenna, pull it out – it’ll make a big difference. You might even want to put up an outside antenna to improve the signal strength – some insulated copper wire is usually the best, and can make a huge difference in what you hear. DXing is one hobby where size doescount – the general rule with aerials is – the longer the better!
Why does it sound different?
Unlike AM and FM, shortwave signals bounce off the atmosphere – sometimes two or three times – before they reach your radio. Because they travelled such a long way, the signal often sounds quite scratchy and faint. The best time to listen to SW is at night – when darkness falls, an atmospheric layer that absorbs these signals during the day disappears, allowing the signals to bounce clear around the globe.
Some stations have relay sites around the world – common places are in Sri Lanka, Rwanda, Singapore and on Caribbean islands. Signals that have been relayed onward sound better than those that have come all the way from their home country. Also, shortwave signals are very sensitive to electronic interference – for the best results, turn off flourescent lights and TV sets, as they are a shortwave listener’s curse.
Okay, so now what?
Once you’ve tuned into an English voice, keep listening to find out what station it is – the programme may come from Australia, the USA, Japan – or somewhere more exotic like Mongolia, Sweden or Egypt. DXers often take note of what’s being broadcast, and then write to the station regarding their reception, asking for a QSL card in return. QSL is another amateur radio expression meaning confirmation that you’ve actually heard that station. This confirmation usually comes in the form of a little card, which may be accompanied by programme schedules, magazines and tourist information, posters and car stickers. Experienced DXers have albums filled with hundreds of colourful QSLs from many different stations in far-flung countries. Other prefer to concentrate their efforts on the programming offered on shortwave – hearing the news direct from an international trouble-spot, local press commentaries, language lessons, and exotic folk music.