Op Ed: “OK, but why shortwave?”

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor and host of Underground Sounds, Kelsie, who writes:

Why Shortwave?

by Kelsie

A question I’m regularly asked when talking about our radio show, and radio in general, is why choose independent radio rather than publishing a podcast or streaming playlist?
The answer is not a simple one, but I feel that it’s a powerful one.

Streaming services have made it far easier for new and independent artists to publish music, but publishing is only the first step in exposing new music to a potential audience. The age old problem faced by artists and publishers since the commercialization of music, remains – how does an artist or label get their new music heard?

The sad truth is that the vast majority of artists publishing their music on streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal, etc., will not get what they’re really looking for, and that’s exposure.

Streaming services present content to their users based on a limited form of mathematical artificial intelligence known as an algorithm. Algorithms work by correlating searches by users with the content of their saved playlists. If users do not know that those new songs exist and have not searched specifically for them, the streaming algorithms will not have enough data on the new releases to suggest them to a wider audience who might like them. As a result of this, people who use streaming services are not exposed to a variety of musical styles and genres, unlike those of us who grew up when terrestrial radio was the dominant format.

While terrestrial radio may still be unencumbered by algorithm-generated playlists, commercial FM and satellite radio have effectively homogenized them over the years, resulting in a similar impact to musical variety. There was a time when radio stations used to allocate time slots for shows hosted by DJ’s that played different genres and styles of music on the same frequency. Since about 2010, the DJ format has become practically extinct.

Most radio stations today play a limited selection of songs and artists based on agreements with the traditional recording industry, resulting in very little variation from station to station at any given time of day. Both frequent listeners of FM or satellite radio can attest that the same songs and artists are played daily, even if they’re played in a different order, and even switching from one station to another during a song will oftentimes result in the listener hearing a different song by the same artist on the other station. This is only getting worse now that the majority of radio stations within the United States are owned by only two major corporations.


The lack of musical variety listeners are exposed to on commercial radio and streaming services lead me to the first part of my answer:

Independent radio is not subject to the homogeneity of commercial radio or streaming services.

This is largely due to the fact that instead of playlists or algorithms, independent stations are usually focused on the communities they serve, and tend to still produce individual shows tailored to different genres and interests. Tuning in at different times of the day exposes listeners to music they just wouldn’t have heard on other formats. Not everyone will like the same songs or artists, but there is usually something for everyone and a priceless opportunity to expand one’s musical horizons.

An explanation of this usually leads to the question, “OK, but why shortwave?”, or, “Isn’t shortwave dead?”

Here is where answer is is a little more complicated.

I’m sure, at least for myself, part of the decision to utilize shortwave broadcasting is based in the nostalgia of listening to broadcasts from all around the world as a child at the peak of the Cold War in Europe, hearing songs in languages I did not understand, often in keys and rhythms unfamiliar to a Western ear, and my particularly fond memories of listening to relays of Casey Kasem’s weekly Top 40 show from back home. As a former musician myself, and an avid shortwave listener who likes to restore vintage radio receivers, I still have almost that same level of excitement when I hear musical styles that I haven’t been exposed to before, and I want to share that with anyone in the world with an ear to listen.

This being said, the most important component of my answer comes down to accessibility.

Shortwave broadcasting is accessible. While independent radio may provide the only remaining viable format for exposing listeners to music from outside the corporate mainstream, independent shortwave radio potentially allows listeners from anywhere in the world to listen to music that they might be actively prevented from hearing in their own countries through various means, such as internet censorship or national broadcasters who only play what their governments mandate or allow.

As Geddy Lee from the band Rush used to sing, “One likes to believe in the freedom of music”.

I know that we certainly do, and I’m sure our opinion is shared by many of the fine music broadcasters on shortwave radio right now. From some of the more notable national broadcasters who pepper their broadcasts with music from their countries, to independent broadcasters such as Over The Horizon Radio, Alt Universe Top 40, VORW, Cruisin’ The Decades, Memphis Weirdos, Pop Shop Radio, Laser Hot Hits, This Is A Music Show, Texas Radio Shortwave, and many, many more who play music that terrestrial or satellite radio won’t play.

While shortwave radio is also going through somewhat of a renaissance right now, in large part due to the current dire situation in Eastern Europe, I think it’s more than that. I feel that large part of it is boredom and apathy with mainstream radio and the coldness of streaming services.

Whatever the reason, what better time than now to listen to shortwave stations from around the world, or even to become a part of the music broadcast resurgence yourselves?

Spread the radio love

11 thoughts on “Op Ed: “OK, but why shortwave?”

  1. Lee

    please note, I am almost completely anti-algorithm, and I am on board with your sentiment totally!
    BUT, your explanation of how Spotify etc works, is a bit inaccurate.

    What the algorithm really does is, it feed you the most-streamed (ie most popular) tracks that are audibly most SIMILAR to what you’ve personally chosen to hear.
    It also feeds you artists who are the most similar to artists you’ve personally chosen to hear.

    The end result, is of course, homogeny. Songs that are already frequently streamed become more so. Your playlist ends up having a small handful of artists in it, and multiple songs by each of them. AND, it will frequently feed you the same songs over and over again! Rather than anything fresh. Even within an hour or so! infuriating.

    The algorithms are also influenced by record companies (however much they wish to deny it.)
    A song’s popularity can be artificially enhanced, thereby pushing it into the algorithm’s sights, and onto any one of thousands of auto-generated playlists. A new artists’ best hope on Spotify is to have one of their songs added to one of Spotify’s spotlight playlists, or one ‘curated’ by a celebrity or other known entity.

    Anyway, this is all a bit moot. The core audience for new music is (very generally speaking) 15 to -35 year olds. And I suspect many more of those people use Spotify than read SWling Post (unfortunately.)

    I am relatively young (born in the 80s.) And I have my own little music project. I’m hoping to launch my original release on shortwave, simply for the personal fun and novelty of it! 😀 And, I’d like to get as many recordings of that ‘debut’ from around the world as is possible…

  2. Peter L

    Re: Radio station playlists … deviation from the list the PD put out based on being told to put it out by ownership has long been a firing offense on domestic stations.

    I recently (and will again) listened to a YouTube recording of a random July 1970 morning’s programming, 3 hours uncut, from 77 WABC (URLs may get eaten here but the title is “WABC- 7- 29- 70”). It’s a hoot but what really surprised me was the sheer variety of music played. All sorts of genres … but not disco and not hip-hop … and then I realized that there were over 50 years of music that they could not play … because it didn’t yet exist. *That* sort of radio programming, with that variety, was really only possible *at that time* … Today, people like what they like and they can listen to what they like … and ONLY what they like … 24/7 … even if they do use the radio (and most people under about 40 don’t … at all).

    So while I like the idea of exposing people to new artists via RF, I don’t think it will be successful.

    And yes, this all makes me sad … :-/

  3. ThaDood

    This is why that I’ll still use shortwave stations, immediate exposure on the cheap. When a band wants to get-on radio, you could do LPFM, college radio, and even Part #15 stations. However, for wide, immediate, exposure, shortwave stations, like WBCQ and WRMI, have the best deals in broadcasting, whether it be AM, FM, or shortwave. And, as a bonus, they do stream what they broadcast. That, and you are playing artist under their licenses. So, still the best deal in broadcasting, today. Pay like $60.00USD to air a show, advertise a product, or talk about events and issues. Can’t really go wrong here.

  4. Mike Westfall N6KUY

    For me, shortwave radio has always been a “the medium is the message” type of affair.

  5. Dan Robinson

    Thanks for posting this — it’s always good to listen to a range of views about what remains of SWBC. Unfortunately, there is no “renaissance” of SW. The war in Ukraine prompted a slight uptick in activity in the beginning. But as I observed in my article in Radio World and comments elsewhere, there was not and will not be any return to the medium by “major” broadcasters. We should enjoy those that remain while they remain — Romania, Japan, Cuba, Iran, China, etc and whatever musici is available from them at this point.

  6. Kevin

    Unfortunately, based upon at least US SW radio, it is becoming more and more the domain of Christian programs to “get their message out”.
    The other problem in the U.S. is that more and more folks are living in cookie cutter neighborhoods where the RFI in the area makes it more and more difficult to listen to SW broadcast from other countries. And antennas to help get over this hurdle makes it inconvenient for a lot of people to take advantage of foreign broadcasts.

  7. mangosman

    I have to disagree with you about EU radios. Since 2000, the EU has legislated that all new vehicles contain radios which can receive digital terrestrial radio broadcasts. AM transmitters in both low and medium frequency band have been closing because they are the most expensive transmitters to run and they require lots of expensive land. For example Norway; network radio only has DAB+ transmitters and Switzerland is soon to follow. There has been widespread rollout of DAB+ all of which simulcast AM & FM broadcasts as well as adding new programs. This has resulted in the sale of DAB+/FM receivers as shown in my recent post https://swling.com/blog/2023/07/the-new-sangean-mmr-99-series-emergency-radio/#comments

    1. Richard Cuff

      I was thinking more of the radio landscape in Europe especially during the 1980s and 1990s. You are right – Europe has adopted DAB+ in a huge way; when I was in Germany in November 2020 I purchased an expensive DAB+ / FM radio at their version of Best Buy (“Saturn”) for roughly 10 Euros. Certainly not a high-performance device but it was enough to get the DAB+ experience. It was like setting up a digital TV in the USA on its external antenna – you had to perform a spectrum scan each time you went to a new city before “tuning” around. And, yes, we’re seeing the closedown of such stalwarts as BBC Radio 4 on 198 LW and RTE on 252 LW. The point I was trying to make was that, in the USA, shortwave has been a niche medium for longer than it has elsewhere.

    2. qwertyamdx

      Not true. The EU legislation mandating DAB+ receivers in cars came into effect in 2019, not 2000. AM transmitters on MW and LW are not always expensive. It depends on many factors, such as the area a particular station wants to cover, condition of the transmitting equipment, the frequency etc. According to the data published by BBC, AM broadcasting consumes about 50% less energy than FM for a station with nationwide reach. The operation of the recently discontinued RTE Radio 1 LW transmitter in Ireland used to cost around 300 000 EUR a year, which was equal 0,2% of license fee revenue the broadcaster receives each year – a totally negligible expense. Here in Poland, the operation of a 1000 kW LW transmitter which covers a huge part of Europe costs only a half of what’s being spent on 40 FM transmitters for the same station, hardly reaching outside the borders of the country.

  8. mangosman

    I totally agree with you. But it gets worse…

    Coincidentally, Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ABC News Video Lab premiered
    Sunday 9th July at 7:30 pm (12 minutes)
    Why Australian Music Is Off The Charts: Casey Briggs investigates why Australian musicians are struggling to make it to number one was discussing just your points but with the problems of getting the 26 million Australians to be able to find Australian new music against the algorithms for the whole world.

    Government funded broadcaster the British Broadcasting Corporation is suffering repeated finding cuts which is causing staff cuts. Their current CEO is convinced that going ‘digital’ ie via the internet for podcasting and streaming of ‘Live’ programming is the way forward. The ABC Australia is also following this line. This means that they won’t have the pressure to fill a schedule, therefore it will be easy to make gradual cuts in production. It will be like going to a library, at the entrance there will be a small display of new books and the vast majority will be unread because there is just too much choice.

    Both UK and Australia have Digital Audio Broadcasting covering large proportions of their populations. It is the cheapest form of program distribution for large audiences. I say this because a single transmitter can carry around 18 stereo programs to everybody in the coverage area, where as streaming has to a program to each individual listener.

    Added to these woes is the fact that Google is paying car manufacturers to install Google play and Apple is providing the Carplay app for free!

    One solution as you say is high frequency (SW) radio. Unfortunately it uses Amplitude Modulation which results in very poor sound quality for music. The solution to this is to broadcast in the same band using Digital Radio Mondiale. Using the same channels you can get stereo sound, the missing high pitched sound and none of the distortion caused by multiple reflections from the ionosphere. All without noise and interference. This is like all digital systems including streaming and podcasts, the sound quality is determined by the broadcaster/netcaster!

    Lastly, you may like to see if you can find out what is happening to the music industry in India. They have a population 4 times that of the USA, high powered DRM nation wide broadcast u and lots of smart phones. I wonder what the algorithms do there?

  9. Richard Cuff

    Kelsie’s logic is generally sound, but the problem in the USA and Canada is that shortwave-capable radios have been the purview of specialist retailers since 1940, so the penetration rate — how many households have access to a shortwave radio — is quite poor and not likely to get better, as the usa’s last significant radio seller, Universal Radio, is winding down its operation.

    By comparison, Western europe has always had a higher penetration rate, as high tech and department stores have generally had radios wish shortwave bands available alongside their AM (MW) / FM (VHF) offerings.

    Streaming / podcast access gets you a great penetration rate — most people have access to a device capable of “receiving” the content — but exposure, as Kelsie cites, is extremely chancy — nowadays one has to hope their content somehow goes “viral” — that word gets spread and more folks start to listen.

    Nowadays a content producer has to realize there are a jillion alternative platforms (I know, I hate that word too) and you need a strategy to get your content out there and noticed on each one.


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