Guest Post: Missing the Static

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Lou Lesko, who shares the following guest post:


Missing the Static

by Lou Lesko

Nineteen-ninety-one, my girlfriend Michelle and I were asked to house-sit her parent’s place in a remote part of Morgan Hill, south of San Jose, California. One had to drive for two miles on a dirt road through a running creek to get to the house deep in the woods. It was magical. The place ran on generators and a massive array of batteries.

We stayed in the master bedroom. Bob, Michelle’s step-father, had a shortwave radio on his bedside table. The radio was connected to a huge twenty foot high antenna stuck in the ground outside the bedroom window. Fumbling through the controls for the first time I found the BBC in London and a myriad of other broadcasts in different languages from cities all over the globe. It was mesmerizing.

Thanks to a book I found, Passport to World Band Radio, I learned that scanning to find broadcasts was called DXing. The book also listed frequencies and some of the known active times of stations around the world. It also explained the phenomena of shortwave: radio signals within a specific frequency range have properties that cause them to bounce between the ionosphere and the earth’s crust allowing efficient propagation around the globe. Conditions like weather, the electronic interferences of modern life, and solar flares all had an effect on the quality of the signal and how far it could travel.

The more I learned, the more I listened. Scrolling through the static to discover random broadcasts from radio Cuba or radio Moscow was blissful escapism that charged my imagination. At the time the BBC had 120 million weekly listeners. The largest audience of any broadcast medium in history.

It was a sad day when Michelle’s parents returned. Not only did Michelle and I have to go back to our tiny apartment—playing house was fun—I had to give up the shortwave radio.

A month later Michelle gave me a portable shortwave radio as a Christmas gift. It wasn’t nearly as powerful as the rig in Morgan Hill, but it worked fabulously well for receiving strong signals. I listened to it every night before falling asleep.

Three years later, during an annual trip to Yosemite, I wondered what the reception would be like if I were to take the portable radio up a few thousand feet way out of the range of street lights, televisions, toasters—all things electronic that impede reception of anything except the strongest signals.

I embarked on a solo hike up 12,000 feet to the top of Mammoth Peak in Tuolumne Meadows. Optimal listening time was just after sunset and into the night California time. Alone, wrapped in a subzero sleeping bag, a bitting breeze blowing, bathed the etherial pale glow of moonlight reflecting off the white granite, I turned on my radio. It was overwhelming. Every tiny turn of the dial yielded something new I had never heard before. I tuned in to almost every part of the globe.

Shortwave has faded. Its gradual decline started at the end of the cold war, Western governments no longer saw the need to shoulder the large costs associated with transmitting on shortwave frequencies. The demise was further hastened in 2001 when then BBC World Service Director Mark Byford stopped the broadcasts to North America citing the emerging Internet and satellite radio as the future for reaching audiences. He was of course correct.

Radio Garden, a web site that delivers a graphical version of what shortwave used to do, offers an animated picture of the globe dotted with internet radio broadcasters. Click on a dot, listen to a radio station in another part of the world in crystal clarity. Radio Garden is exceedingly clever and a wonder of modern technology. As are podcasts, streaming television, Facetime calls. All of it extraordinary and life altering. And yet, every once in awhile, I miss that unique thrill I used to get when I discovered a voice broadcasting from a far away place I’ve never been. Every once in awhile, I miss the static.


Lou Lesko is a writer, and a former editor-at-large for National Geographic.

Click here to visit Lou’s website.

Lou, thank you for sharing the static!

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21 thoughts on “Guest Post: Missing the Static

  1. Max

    I remember when the shortwave bands were plenty of interval signals at the hour. That was the best chance to receive some exotic station never heard before. That was in the late ’70s. I still have in my ears the notes of Radio Mayak.

    Reply
  2. Adam

    Awesome read.

    In 1992 I bought my first shortwave radio. It was a solid state transistor. I was working graveyard shift and turned it on. I hear an Australian accent and figured it was an Aussie a local AM station.

    It was Radio Australia booming in clear as a bell! I listened in awe!

    Reply
  3. Mark Fahey

    If you visit Radio Garden (recommended in the last paragraph of the article) please drop by us at Radio Seribatu in Bali, Indonesia. We are the stations in the centre of the Bali map, deep in the Balinese jungle!

    We are doing test transmissions at the moment – kicking off for real at midnight (Bali time) on January 1st 2020. Right now we are building the studios (a new fully digital broadcast centre), basically getting all our stuff sorted. Right now Radio Seribatu has three live 24hour station streams from Studio A which is now completed. In a month or two we will have a big info release.

    Anyway for now please tune into our test broadcasts – they run 24×7…

    On the Radio Seribatu VILLAGE station you will hear everything that is happening around Seribatu and wider across the island. This will be the place to hear live gamelan, festival broadcasts and discussions about issues affecting our community.

    On the VOLCANO we play 100% Balinese Indi Rock, Alternative and Punk. 24 hours per day this is the place to hear Balinese bands. If you are in a band, or know someone who is, then get in touch.

    On MESIN we are playing 100% Balinese Electronic, Trance, House, Techno and Dance. Hey, are you a Balinese EDM producer, a DJ or know someone who is? Then get in touch – we want to play you.

    http://www.radioseribatu.com

    Reply
    1. Mangosman

      Mark,
      You are predicting a start in transmission but no mention of the type and likely coverage area.
      Will it be tropical band (within 2.3 – 5 MHz) to cover a large part of Indonesia, medium frequency (0.53 – 1.602 MHz) or VHF 47 – 108 MHz using Digital Radio Mondiale, FM or AM?
      https://www.drm.org/digital-radio-mondiale-drm-and-radio-republik-indonesia-rri-to-trial-drm-digital-radio-in-indonesia/ and https://www.radioworld.com/global/rri-to-acquire-drm-transmitters.
      DRM is noise and interference free and when the monsoons come there is no static and the signal will not break up if there is sufficient signal strength.

      DRM also has an inbuilt Emergency Warning System which the Indonesian Government is keen on to warn of tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and cyclones. Perhaps you could get some financial assistance if you started DRM with EWS https://www.drm.org/drm-technical-specification/ and https://www.drm.org/drm-technical-specification/
      Lastly the Asian Broadcasting Union http://www.abu.org.my/ covers your region and has been holding webinars and seminars in Malaysia on radio topics. http://www.abu.org.my/eventer/abu-drm-regional-workshop-on-digital-radio-2019/edate/2019-10-09

      Reply
      1. Mark Fahey

        Oh sorry, I should have mentioned there in nothing shortwave about Radio Seribatu / Volcano and Mersin! We are the first stations on the island playing 100% Balinese originated content – the listeners are local! However we broadcast worldwide via our streams.

        Reply
  4. Mangosman

    I also wish to comment on the well written post but high frequency broadcasting isn’t all bad news,
    Komsomolsk Amur which is in Siberia there is a new 25 kW transmitter which has commenced Digital Radio Mondiale transmissions with the strongest signal at azimuth 34 degrees so there will be some spill in the USA direction
    11615kHz 13:00 – 03:00 Pacific Daylight USA time
    12025 kHz 13:00 – 20:00
    15735kHz 20:00 – 03:00
    You will need a DRM receiver to hear it such as https://www.tecsunradios.com.au/store/product/tecsun-drm-radio/ also see https://www.drm.org/products/
    DRM will never give you static or interference of any type, the sound is much better. Very poor signals causes the sound to break up.

    Reply
  5. DanH

    Thanks for the shortwave listening mementos. I still listen to shortwave radio at home in suburban Northern California. Yes, BBC World Service stopped broadcasting to the Americas from the Caribbean relay on Antigua in 2001 but I can still receive their English language service from the Singapore or Ascension relays during most early mornings, even during this solar minimum. I can pick up the beeb from Woofferton once in a blue moon. My other daily favorites include RNZI, Voice of Greece, Radio Romania and Voice of Korea. Shortwave broadcasts from RRI are rumored to end soon.

    Shortwave listening from an electrically quiet area on the coastline can be fantastic. I’ll be taking a vacation to a house situated in such an area in Northern California in ten days. I will be packing my favorite portable shortwave radio and a portable 150′ long wire antenna with me. I heard traditional gospel music on the 10 KW Radio Madang in Papua New Guinea from this location last fall.

    I remember listening to shortwave stations like Radio Rumbos, Radio Tahiti and enjoying complete symphonies and chamber music on Russian domestic shortwave. That’s all in the realm of shortwave nostalgia, now. But, I’m looking forward to enjoying shortwave broadcasts in another two years or so after propagation improves following the solar minimum. I’m an admitted shortwave listening diehard.

    Reply
    1. Lou Lesko

      Dan, thanks for the details, I’m gonna dust off my Sony ICF-SW7600GR and scope out the beeb. Some mornings I have to get up at 4 a.m. for phone calls with other countries. Now I can search the airwaves too.

      -Lou

      Reply
      1. DanH

        Great! Tune that Sony to Radio New Zealand International (RNZI) during our evenings on 13840, 9700 and 5945 kHz. They change frequencies as propagation progresses through our evenings. Here is the shortwave schedule: (https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/listen). RNZI comes in almost as well as KGO AM 740 for me. I use a Sangean ATS-909X and a DIY Skywire loop antenna at home but it should be an easy catch with a telescopic whip antenna outdoors. RNZI offers 30 minutes of live BBC World Service news (not BBC America from Boston) during the evenings. First rate music shows on our Thursday and Friday evenings. Happy listening!

        Reply
  6. jack blanke

    So well written…..it reminds me of the first introduction I had to the magic of shortwave radio. The bug bit me in my teens and the infection that ensued has lasted my whole life to my present age of 72. My first exposure to short wave was listening to a friend’s Hammarlund HQ 110-A. It was a HUGE cubically shaped receiver that weighed a ton with more knobs than the dashboard of a modern airliner. My friend called the receiver his “Heater,” because it radiated enough warmth to “toast” his drafty old apartment on cold winter nights. But it was a wondrous piece of technology that delivered so many foreign broadcasts and provided so many evenings of fun and adventure. Thanks for awakening the great memories, Lou! Walks down the memory lane of short wave radio are among my finest recollections of years gone by. I really enjoyed your article!!
    73’s
    Jack Blanke
    Metairie, LA
    WB5LVP

    Reply
    1. Lou Lesko

      Jack, I love it, “the heater” the dual purpose shortwave. Thank you for reading. The sense of discover short wave provided was important. I can’t find anything that equals it today. It was the barrier to entry to SW listening that made each and every discovery so good. Have a great day.

      -Lou

      Reply

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