“Shortwave radio in Ukraine: why revisiting old-school technology makes sense in a war”

Many thanks to a number of SWLing Post contributors who’ve shared the following article from The Conversation:

Shortwave radio in Ukraine: why revisiting old-school technology makes sense in a war (The Conversation)

Shortly before access to the BBC News website was reportedly blocked in Russia a few days ago, the BBC announced that it was resuming the broadcasting of the BBC World Service via shortwave radio for four hours per day. It said that this was to ensure that people in parts of Russia and Ukraine can access its news service.

In a world with near-ubiquitous adoption of mobile phones, the use of early 20th century radio technology might seem unusual. But it makes sense for a number of practical reasons.

Shortwave radio is an old variant of what many people may remember as “AM” analogue radio, operating on low frequency radio waves to deliver audio services. Shortwave radio is far simpler than modern digital TV or telecommunications services: receivers are widely available (or can be built from spare electrical parts), and it works across long distances.

Traditional broadcast TV and radio fundamentally differ from modern internet-based services. Like Freeview TV received over an aerial, traditional broadcast radio services don’t require you to transmit anything to be able to receive a service. It’s transmitted once, and anyone with a receiver can listen or watch.

When someone uses a shortwave radio receiver, there’s no lasting trace of them using it. This makes it hard for an occupying force to find those listening to (perhaps banned) overseas media.

Conversely, when you browse the internet or use a mobile app, your device is requesting the content you wish to receive, and it’s being sent directly to your phone. This bi-directional communication means that when you browse the internet, various entities like your internet provider are able to see that you visited certain websites.

Internet-based services can also become overloaded, either as a result of high demand, or due to malicious attacks flooding a service with requests, aiming to make it unavailable.

There are a number of other technical reasons why shortwave radio can be very useful in crisis situations. Since it uses lower transmission frequencies, the signals can travel much further than TV or mobile phone signals – thousands of kilometres, rather than kilometres or tens of kilometres.

This means the BBC can broadcast from outside into a conflict zone without needing local physical infrastructure. And since low frequencies are used, the signals propagate better through buildings and the environment. If you’ve ever experienced poor mobile phone signal in the centre of an old building, you’ve experienced the challenges of radio propagation. Low frequency signals reach into buildings and basements better, even when transmitted from far away, which might be useful for people who are taking shelter.[…]

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15 thoughts on ““Shortwave radio in Ukraine: why revisiting old-school technology makes sense in a war”

  1. mangosman

    Radio’s problem is how do you know how many listeners there are.
    In affluent nations survey companies get listeners to fill out diaries. GFK also ask what technology is being used to hear the program ie AM/FM, DAB+, DRM, Smart speaker (internet), and mobile(cell) phone/tablet. They also ask where you listen eg in the car, home, work.
    Some TV rating systems use a box containing a microphone which takes audio samples. They are compared with the output of all broadcasters in the area to detect if a receiver is showing that station.

    High Frequency broadcasting can cover very large areas often over more than one country and language. This complicates data collection as used above. The only methods available are QSL cards which have been discouraged due to the cost. Once received that listener is unlikely to send a QSL card for each program received every time. Audience feedback within programs which also needs a return path, usually via internet or phone, which can be costly.

    Lastly QSL cards will give some idea of the coverage area, but not the number of listeners.

    On keeping High Frequency broadcasting it is not financially viable to maintain coverage just for wars. What needs to happen is to change all broadcasts to Digital Radio Mondial, to drastically reduce the power consumption of transmitters, make program selection by station name, rather than frequency, improve the sound quality to FM stereo quality. Multilingual Journaline indexed text system will make broadcasts more relevant.

  2. Paul JAMET

    I read this article with great interest. Here is my comment:

    The old school technology is far from being outdated and the international stations broadcasting in shortwave reach millions of listeners around the world. To see for yourself, just visit the short-wave.info website, which gives access to the list of stations, frequencies and the various languages used: https://short-wave.info/

    Today, it has never been so easy and cheap to listen to Shortwave. For only a few tens of euros, the recent DSP receivers allow to pick up very easily but also very discreetly an international station transmitting in Shortwave.

    The conflict situations that we know more and more give shortwave a renewed interest. A country cannot control the listening of a foreign station – despite the very expensive use of jamming stations – while it can very easily control and even trace the use of the Internet and of course block access to certain sites!

    In 2014, Russia shut down “The Voice of Russia” and replaced it with the website Sputnik and the television station Russia Today, whose access has just been cut off in all EU countries, among others. On the other hand, several countries broadcast in Russian and Ukrainian languages on Shortwave – see https://short-wave.info/ – In Russia and Ukraine many Shortwave receivers are still usable.

    Listening to shortwave allows access to many sources of information and for some citizens of the world it is today the best way to circumvent censorship. The countries that have kept an international station and maintained their broadcasting centers can today address the whole world and make their point of view heard in all independence.On the other hand, based on a very short term vision, Germany, Canada, Portugal, the Czech Republic, Russia and Switzerland among others have closed their international services and even knocked down the antennas thus becoming mute within the international radio landscape!

    Finally, let’s also remember that for some 30 years, a signal digitization technology has existed: it is called DRM – Digital Radio Mondial – But due to the development of the Internet, mobile telephony and other technologies such as DAB/DAB+ – Digital Audio Broadcasting – DRM Radio is especially attracting the attention of countries with vast areas to serve: Brazil, China, India for example. See: https://www.drm.org/

    See: https://swling.com/blog/2022/03/everyone-should-have-a-shortwave-radio/

    1. Andrew Cohen

      Reaching millions of listeners does not mean actually having listeners. CCTV claims through its international channel to reach 200 million viewers a week. But in the US alone they are lucky to have 10 thousand.

      How many people are actually listening. DXERS don’t count, but actually listeners.

      1. radioguy

        This is the typical ‘expert’ comment about broadcasting.
        The PROBLEM is that you can’t trace actual listeners. It may APPEAR the only people listeing are hobbyists and DXers (because they self report listening!) but there is no ‘Nielson’ ratings for SW to tell you how many (dare I say millions) are listening. You just can’t know. And anyone who says ‘we have the data but it is proprietary and we can’t share it’ is lying to themselves and everyone else.
        The BENEFIT is that you can’t trace actual listeners. And that means people can’t be imprisoned or tortured for getting information the ‘powers that be’ don’t want them to have.

        Do you see the parallels. What is at once its benefit is also why you want to denigrate it.

        People need to understand how to USE data instead of spouting meaningless ‘statistics’ ….

        Shortwave (and AM and FM and Broadcast TV) have a real purpose and there is a real need — but if broadcasters buy the ‘expert wisdom’ that ‘nobody’ listens and turn off the transmitters, guess what — self fulfilling prophesy time — nobody will be listening to transmitters that are no longer there!

        WHY is this so hard for people to understand? It seems pretty axiomatic and ‘easy’ to me — not ‘rocket science’ as the kids used to say!

        1. Andrew Cohen

          I retired in 2020 from Deutsche Welle, where i was employed for 40 years. The last 20 years in the audience research department for both radio and television.

          Every moment I see these blogs made up of listeners. It seems that hobbyists know more about international than those of use who worked in the field. Way too many hobbyists are going from informational from 25 and 30 years ago. The landscape changed so much in the last 30 years.

          In some ways I get it. You invested a life in a hobby that has changed. But you just can’t seem to let go and move on.

          in 2015 Deutsche Welle along with the BBC World Service sent a team to Ukraine for 6 months and hiring locals. Its objective was to look into the ways the population consume media.

          There was only oner area we were unable to access, which was Crimea. Of the 40,000 questions sent out to various people from different backgrounds. These were the results.

          Ages 50 to 80
          Television (local) – 87%
          Radio (local) – 96%
          Television (international) – 15%
          Radio (international) – 9%
          Internet (apps) – 67%
          Internet (computer) 68%
          Internet (social media) – 76%

          Ages 20 to 50
          Television (local) – 35%
          Radio (local) – 10%
          Television (international) – 27%
          Radio (international) – 15%
          Internet (apps) – 98%
          Internet (computer) 71%
          Internet (social media) – 97%

          What are your primary languages:
          Ages 50 to 80 – Ukrainian – 87%
          Russian – 52%
          English – 14%
          Other – 8%

          Ages 20 to 50 – Ukrainian – 97%
          Russian – 41%
          English – 66%
          Other – 27%

          Last questions on the list were about shortwave radio:

          Ages 50 to 80
          1. Have you owned a shortwave radio – 87%
          2. Do you currently own a shortwave radio? – 18%
          3. When did you listen to shortwave radio? (average years) 1972 to 1996)
          4. Do you still listen to shortwave radio? – 2%

          Ages 20 to 50
          1. Have you owned a shortwave radio – 29%
          2. Do you currently own a shortwave radio? – 1%
          3. When did you listen to shortwave radio? (average years) 1992 1995)
          4. Do you still listen to shortwave radio? – 1%


          1. Toms

            Still, you’re arguing from the viewpoint of “business as usual”. But it’s not anymore.

            Why do you think Ukraine powered up all their medium wave transmitters recently? If they didn’t already demolish their long wave and short wave transmitters already I’m sure they would be using them as well.

          2. radioguy

            Thank you Andrew, but … you still haven’t SOURCED your statistics. If I randomly select 5 people in a futbol stadium sitting near the middle of the pitch about their income, do you think I’ll get a ‘representative sample’ of the incomes of the people sitting in the nose-bleed seats on either side? HOW you collect data matters. I’m sure the study you quote was done. I just can’t comment on its reliability or context. And those things matter.

            And remember, In July 2011 Deutsche Welle began a radical reduction of shortwave radio broadcasting—from a daily total of 260 down to 55 hours (an now even less I believe!) and eliminating many languages and target areas including Europe. Again, self-fulfilling prophesy. If you don’t broadcast OF COURSE people won’t listen. I’m not shocked that 4 years *after* DW stopped broadcasting, people weren’t listening, in other words.

            And your ‘data’ is nothing new. (See Childs, Harwood L., America’s Short-Wave Audience in Propaganda by Shortwave, edited by Harwood L. Childs and John B. Whitton, Princeton University Press, ©1942). SW Media has often been ‘depricated’ as ‘not important’ by many ‘experts’ and that isn’t changing any time soon. I’m confused as to WHY, but I find it humourous that while OTHER businesses provide ‘perks’ to their ‘superfans’ (think back stage passes in theatre, infield seats for NASCAR fans, and ‘meet and greet’ galas for pop music mavens) radio broadcasters have always proclaimed radio fans ‘strange’ and downplayed their importance. I only report what I observe — and you’ve done it here with your ‘discounting’ of radio hobbyists!

            This is getting long, but I’ll provide one actual ‘document-able’ data point: The BBC. The BBC World Service ceased transmitting on shortwave to North America and Australasia in 2001 and to South America in 2005 largely because of the ‘there’s nobody listening’ attitude. But the BBC Data, published in their annual reports belies that assertion. Based on figures the BBC published in its annual reviews from 1999-2010 (BEFORE they doubled down on ‘internet’, the numbers of audience in North America remained pretty much constant.) Let that sink in. CONSTANT. The numbers weren’t falling as they claimed. Indeed, according to the numbers published by the BBC in its annual reports, SW user statistics showed a steady increase in numbers of listeners (to the BBC) from 1993-1997.
            Indeed audience numbers rose steadily until 2001—the year BBC decided to cut back on SW, and then leveled off or declined after the SW cutbacks took hold. This doesn’t look like ‘nobody’ was listening to SW to me, but maybe I just can’t count.

            I ramble, but the bottom line is that you’ve presented a wonderful rhetorical tautology. But you’ve not explained how or why your position is ‘right’. But then again, I’m ‘only’ a hobbyist so what do I know, right?

    2. mangosman

      You mention the advent of the DSP receiver. there is work happening to make a cheap DRM receiver using this technology.
      With so many DSP models around it is a pity they don’t just add the DRM algorithm to decode the signal. It would be even better if they were to use a colour screen so that maps and pictures can be shown along with Journaline. This could be used for public notices eg lists of names of the deceased for example.
      I suppose the DSP manufacturers are not installing DRM because there is no DRM signals with coverage areas in North America which may be a big part of the market. India is now covered in high powered DRM for 1300 million people. China has HF DRM for internal broadcasts

      As for DAB+ the Ukraine has a pair of DAB+ transmitters in Kyiv installed in 2017 with 9 programs. Don’t know if it is on air. Poland is transmitting Ukrainian Radio on one of its DAB+ channels which covers 70 % of Poland which has taken many refugees.

    3. Andre

      In Germany many thought that war and crisis were things of the past. They shut down AM broadcast, demolished antennas, closed civil protection rooms, reduced the military forces down to non-functionality. In times of crisis it is a good thing to be not too much depending on local infrastructure. The local FM and mobile phone stations could go offline very fast (as seen while nature desasters every year). AM radio could be heared from 100s or even 1000s of km away. Even behind frontlines and in occupied territory. And it can´t be traced who is listening, because it is real one way communication. Every 2way comm can be intercepted.

  3. Jock Elliott

    Years ago, after the North Ridge earthquake in California, one of the fire captains there wrote a report on the communications challenges they faced during the aftermath. He spoke of the problems with cellphones, the FD’s own radios, and so forth.

    The gist of his conclusion: You cannot be overprepared for communications in a crisis.

    Applying this principle to international events: every household needs a radio that can receive shortwave as well as local broadcast frequencies, and countries need the ability to transmit on shortwave as well as local frequencies.

    1. Andrew Cohen

      “every household needs a radio that can receive shortwave as well as local broadcast frequencies”

      Total RUBBISH,

      1. radioguy

        Care to elucidate Andrew? We know YOU think so, but why. Show your works and provide data if you can.
        And remember, an uninformed opinion is what really is rubbish, to pick a word totally at random. ….

        1. Tom Servo

          Andrew is probably thinking of this from the perspective of an American or European, where the infrastructure is robust and war is on someone else’s doorstep.

          Jock’s proclamation is good advice for anyone living in a dictatorship where information is controlled, however.

          As this invasion has proven, there needn’t be broadcasts to a target area beforehand for shortwave to rise to the occasion during times of war. That’s kind of the beauty of radio in general, really: it is quick to deploy after disaster strikes. That’s true whether it’s low power FM to cover a village or shortwave from another country to fight propaganda.

          1. radioguy

            Point taken, but I don’t think the Poles or the Czechs are thinking ‘war is not on their doorstep’ these days! 😉

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