Radio Slovakia International asks, “Why is shortwave radio still alive?”

Many thanks to a number of SWLing Post readers who shared a link to this article via Radio Slovakia International:

Why is shortwave radio still alive?

If you use the internet to listen to streaming audio and podcasts, you could be forgiven for assuming there’s no need for shortwave radio any more. It seems many broadcasters appear to agree, with stations dropping their shortwave services year after year.

But not so fast. Shortwave’s not dead, say its proponents. Rather, it’s in a state of transformation. Not only does it still provide a vital service for the many millions of individuals worldwide who don’t have access to the internet, but this medium also has a certain ‘magic’ which, we discovered, is very hard for its fans to explain.

In this entertaining, full-length feature, Gavin Shoebridge asked shortwave listeners from across the globe to explain why they still use the service, why they don’t ‘go digital’, and where they think shortwave will be in the coming years.

Click here to download the MP3 audio.

Click here to read and listen via Radio Slovakia International.

12 thoughts on “Radio Slovakia International asks, “Why is shortwave radio still alive?”

  1. Jay

    Generally speaking, shortwave has had its day. It costs a small fraction for better instant worldwide stereo coverage with the web. For example, my college radio station WRUV is now 800 miles fro me. They run the service as alternative radio (but limit themselves to music each DJ selects). Power is 700 watts 90.1. No way I could hear them? Wrong, the webcast and as long as the infra structures of the web hold I receive them better than I did when I lived 30 miles away. Shortwave will persist with authoritarian governments where that regime limits or censors the web. Example: China, India (although there was talk Air India would drop shortwave)
    Now consider expenses huge transmitters 200kw and even more, very large towers and antennas and a staff to make all that work reliably.

    Reply
    1. Tom Servo

      Maybe in the so-called “First World”, but there are places where shortwave is still the only way to get outside information, or for alternative voices to the authoritarian government to be heard. I think that because of this “disrespect” for national borders, it will continue to exist in some form for quite some time, even if much of the developed world forgets about it. We forget about it at our own peril, however.

      Try streaming WRUV from a camp in South Sudan and see how much luck you have. First of all, there may be cellular service but it’s likely to have either no data or just 2G data, limiting access to mobile-friendly pages with a limited ability to convey content. Try streaming WCBS from North Korea and see what happens. Streaming anything from a remote village on a tiny island in the Pacific is an exercise in futility, too. Bandwidth is limited and satellite connections can flake out during foul weather. Targeted shortwave broadcasts will still work, and radios can be powered by cranks, batteries or solar in a pinch. Even taking into the vagaries of the fickle ionosphere, it’s still the most reliable way to convey information to far flung places at little cost to the listener.

      Sure, I could stream Radio Slovakia International online, and I’ve downloaded a show here and there when I miss it on the radio… But hearing it on the radio — even if their remaining SW outpost is merely from Floriduh and only a few hundred miles away — is still a bit of magic at work, and fun. When it goes away from WRMI (and I suspect it will sooner rather than later) I will no longer listen. Once you’re looking for audio online, there are a million other, better, things to hear, and state broadcasters like RSI and others are just noise in the background.

      We in “the west” tend to think the entire world has high speed, reliable and uncensored broadband internet at hand, when that’s hardly the case. Even parts of Australia and the US are still on dialup because of a lack of infrastructure, and as we’ve seen from the outcry in Australia, some type of long distance radio is still a welcome feature for rural residents. Hell, I live in the region of a moderately-sized American city and still hear music content on shortwave that I cannot get easily online or locally on terrestrial radio. WRMI’s music on 9395 right now is not heard locally, so I’m listening to it because I can.

      Finally, just keep in mind that government can flip a little switch and stop your streaming, your web access, your NEWS — with just the stroke of a pen. Information on the internet is not guaranteed. It is not a right, like freedom of the press or freedom of assembly. It can and will be revoked by anyone in power who does not like what they’re hearing. See: Russia, Fat Baby in Norkland, Thailand, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela… the list goes on and on.

      We in the US like to think we’re immune from such things… but the truth of the matter is, it could happen here. Since few outside sources beam to the US anymore, we would be up a creek without a paddle if a hostile administration put a Russian-style clamp on the TV, radio and internet. We’d all have to go back to reading newspapers, assuming you can even find one of those things anymore. (Young people: It’s like papery blog, to borrow a quote from Craig Ferguson.)

      Reply
  2. Tom Servo

    Maybe in the so-called “First World”, but there are places where shortwave is still the only way to get outside information, or for alternative voices to the authoritarian government to be heard. I think that because of this “disrespect” for national borders, it will continue to exist in some form for quite some time, even if much of the developed world forgets about it. We forget about it at our own peril, however.

    Try streaming WRUV from a camp in South Sudan and see how much luck you have. First of all, there may be cellular service but it’s likely to have either no data or just 2G data, limiting access to mobile-friendly pages with a limited ability to convey content. Try streaming WCBS from North Korea and see what happens. Streaming anything from a remote village on a tiny island in the Pacific is an exercise in futility, too. Bandwidth is limited and satellite connections can flake out during foul weather. Targeted shortwave broadcasts will still work, and radios can be powered by cranks, batteries or solar in a pinch. Even taking into the vagaries of the fickle ionosphere, it’s still the most reliable way to convey information to far flung places at little cost to the listener.

    Sure, I could stream Radio Slovakia International online, and I’ve downloaded a show here and there when I miss it on the radio… But hearing it on the radio — even if their remaining SW outpost is merely from Floriduh and only a few hundred miles away — is still a bit of magic at work, and fun. When it goes away from WRMI (and I suspect it will sooner rather than later) I will no longer listen. Once you’re looking for audio online, there are a million other, better, things to hear, and state broadcasters like RSI and others are just noise in the background.

    We in “the west” tend to think the entire world has high speed, reliable and uncensored broadband internet at hand, when that’s hardly the case. Even parts of Australia and the US are still on dialup because of a lack of infrastructure, and as we’ve seen from the outcry in Australia, some type of long distance radio is still a welcome feature for rural residents. Hell, I live in the region of a moderately-sized American city and still hear music content on shortwave that I cannot get easily online or locally on terrestrial radio. WRMI’s music on 9395 right now is not heard locally, so I’m listening to it because I can.

    Finally, just keep in mind that government can flip a little switch and stop your streaming, your web access, your NEWS — with just the stroke of a pen. Information on the internet is not guaranteed. It is not a right, like freedom of the press or freedom of assembly. It can and will be revoked by anyone in power who does not like what they’re hearing. See: Russia, Fat Baby in Norkland, Thailand, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela… the list goes on and on.

    We in the US like to think we’re immune from such things… but the truth of the matter is, it could happen here. Since few outside sources beam to the US anymore, we would be up a creek without a paddle if a hostile administration put a Russian-style clamp on the TV, radio and internet. We’d all have to go back to reading newspapers, assuming you can even find one of those things anymore. (Young people: It’s like papery blog, to borrow a quote from Craig Ferguson.)

    (second try, it seems my ability to leave comments is affected.)

    Reply
  3. Robert Gulley

    This is an interesting and well-produced piece, very balanced. The most obvious weakness of any non-radio source is the dependence on Internet/cellular services. I listen to radio for the magic, but I keep multiple radios (and batteries and flashlights) around for emergencies – I consider them all essential. Oh yes, and matches for fire for when all my electric cooking gadgets go out .
    Shortwave radios is still the best entertainment/instruction value for the money, and a few spare batteries will keep it going for days, weeks, and months. And of course, I also have a crank radio just in case!

    Reply
  4. Tom Reitzel

    The answer is simple for me. I don’t like my habits being profiled and placed in a flippin’ governmental or corporate database. In fact, I’ve DUMPED all personal communication devices except CB and public WiFI since the revelations of Edward Snowden. The release of the Vault7 e-mails has only confirmed my suspicions and intent to stay as disconnected as possible. Simplex radio plays an invaluable role in my life now. DRM will add important flexibility to my SWL by adding data services.

    Reply
  5. Roy Sandgren

    80 % of the world population has no access to internet radio. Internet reaches 15 % of the world surface. 70 % is water. 30 % land is left. half of the land is wilderness, deserts, jungles etc. You can get a multiband radio for 10-15 USD, but an iphone or simular costs a fortune for very poor people. Biljons are still listning to AM radio to get their news and info about the war nearby

    Reply
  6. Paul Mitchell

    I find listening to shortwave, medicine for the soul. FM does not do it for me nor does AM talk back or sports. Ham radio has taken a step back as it is too busy as well. For me as one radio announcer put it. It was like rediscovering his enjoyment when he was a child finding his first radio station from “Out there, some where”. Where would the people in China, North Korea and other places be without shortwave radio? I believe it is a great medium still. I still enjoy it very much.

    Reply
  7. 13dka

    “but this medium also has a certain ‘magic’ which, we discovered, is very hard for its fans to explain.”

    Yeah, what is this “magic” and how could it be explained? Maybe there is no magic and we’re all just a bit crazy? What the “magic” is for us …erm.. more seasoned SWLs and hams can be broken down to a few obvious reasons like “nostalgia”, “technical interest”, “grown up in the pre-internet days when hearing something from another continent was still something special”, “grown up in the cold war” and related to the latter “mystery signals and the thrill/shivers they give you”. But what is it to the newcomers (yes, strangely there are a few of them, some are even still young!)?

    The Twente webSDR seems to give a bit of an insight into this. Their “chatbox” is full of people experiencing shortwave for the first time, several of them crashing there every day. Despite the cold war being history, or the big broadcasters telling us tales from countries far away being history for the most part, the mystery of number stations and UVB-76 seems to be entertaining them to no end. Some also find the strange noises and signals exiting and ask about them all the time.

    When watching this for a while it all comes back to my mind – for many of us it started just like that. We heard the funny noises and there was quite an effort needed to get an explanation for them, they kept being mysterious for a long, long time and some still are a mystery. Then we asked ourselves how waves can propagate around the entire globe, how stuff works in general, or why Radio Moscow is so eager to reach out to the world. We wanted to know how to improve reception, why “propagation” is so elusive and every time we found out something, it raised more questions. We found a thrill in trying to eavesdrop on the world’s communication and we felt like we had access to hidden, elusive and alternative sources of information other people didn’t even know of. If radio was the “internet of ye olde days”, shortwave was (and still is!) the “darknet”.

    So to put it in one sentence: “Shortwave by its very nature is raising a thousand questions and the entertainment is in trying to find the answers.” Sure the internet caused a dip in interest, but it also brings shortwave back to the people who soon understand that it’s still reaching beyond the wired parts of the world, and that it’s a reliable fallback device in times of trouble, one that can’t go broke or be destroyed, and that will be there for us even if we don’t use it anymore.

    Reply
    1. Roy Sandgren

      Some countries had scrapped their SW service but now noted that they have loose listners and today leasing air time at remaining SW stations. Many SW stations rebroadcast programs from former SW broadcasters.

      Reply
  8. DO4 Harambe

    Internet can and is easily filtered. You can’t rely on internet during civil unrest, war, etc. If a country doesn’t want you hearing something, they’ll just block the data and you’ll never even know it was there.

    Shortwave? Not impervious to blocking, but a LOT more costly and technically difficult to block a whole spread of frequencies reliably.

    Shortwave isn’t dead, it’s just been sleeping

    Reply

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