In the meantime, many thanks to Chris for sharing his personal radio history (note that Chris has also posted this story on his new blog):
I have an interesting story on how I got into shortwave radio. Let’s hop into the Tardis and go back to 1997. Being 13 years old, a young Chris Freitas was a member of the Boy Scouts.
Because I was a part of this organization, Boy’s Life magazine shipped to my mailbox each month. In the December 1997 issue, there was an article titled “Tune In To The World.” This printed piece literally changed my life.
While reading the article, I was amazed that there were radios capable of receiving global signals. There had to be more information. Thus, I went to the Millington Public Library (Millington is a suburb north of Memphis, TN and my hometown).
Using slow dial-up internet and reading Passport to World Band Radio, I learned more about shortwave radio, international stations, and frequencies. Before buying one at Radio Shack, there was an epiphany.
I already owned a shortwave radio and just realized it at that moment. Months before reading the article, my next-door neighbor friend sold me his radio for $25.
I thought it was neat. It was my first shortwave radio: the Worldstar Multi Band Receiver MG 6100 sold by Sears.
My first two years as an SWL were amazing. I would sit outside on weekends with my radio and listen to the BBC, RTI, RCI, HCJB, VOA, RNW, and many others.
A QSL collection grew and station stickers littered the top of my radio. I wrote to Boy’s Life about it and they paid me some money for the article.
There were great programs like Musical Mailbag, live sports, DX Partyline, and Play of the Week that I would tune into every week. My parents “loved” it, as I annoyed them with loud static.
Unfortunately with all good things, the band knob on my Worldstar radio broke. However, my father conceded to a birthday wish and bought me a Radio Shack DX-397 (my dad told me that he still has it).
I also bought a book from Radio Shack titled Listening To Shortwave. Even for the late ’90s, it was a bit outdated but there were some interesting tips about shortwave.
It also came packaged with a cassette tape (Yes, I still remember them). It was called “Sounds of Shortwave.” If you want to listen, here’s Side A and Side B.
After three years of shortwave radio listening, it was not long before changing my childhood dream of becoming a TV weatherman (I had a crazy fascination with weather and still do). Instead, I wanted to be a radio announcer (or at least work at a station).
In 2000, the Delta Amateur Radio Club was present at a “Scout Base” on Naval Support Activity Mid-South. It was there that I earned my radio merit badge and perhaps my first on-air appearance.
Since then, I’ve been to college and earned my Bachelor’s of Arts in Communications. I am now working part-time at a local radio station. I have yet worked at an international station, but still pursuing that endeavor.
Chris’ Tecsun PL-660
Several stations like the BBC, Radio Canada, and Radio Netherlands left shortwave in North America. I have also been through various radios including the Grundig Mini World 300 PE, Eton E5, and Sony ICF-7600GR.
As of now, I am using a Tecsun PL-660 and I love it. Although there are fewer stations on shortwave these days, I still enjoy tuning the bands to catch some exciting sounds halfway around the world.
Many thanks, Chris, for sharing your story. I think it’s wonderful that you learned about shortwave radio through Boy’s Life magazine. I attend the Dayton Hamvention every year and one of the highlights is that SWLing Post readers stop by my ETOW table to introduce themselves. A number of younger listeners have told me that they learned about shortwave radio through Boy Scouts–no doubt due to the number of Scout Masters who are hams that “propagate” their love of radio.
In the meantime, many thanks to Allen for sharing his personal radio history:
Allen Willie, VOPC1AA
I first discovered radio DXing during the summer of 1968 at the age of 13 while living on the family farm at Lacombe, Alberta. It was the evening of June 17th to be exact.
What would become a life long passion was about to unfold. While sitting at the kitchen table I began to tune the Crosley model table top AM – FM radio sitting nearby with curiosity ultimately hearing signals that seemed weaker and not local in nature.
The first signal that I came upon had the following message:
“It’s 8:00 PM Mountain Standard Time, This is 5-60 KMON Great Falls, Montana” followed by network news. From that moment forward I was hooked on long distance radio reception . My radio DXing passion would have it’s spark lit that very night.
During the rest of that evening and over the coming months, I would continue to log many AM stations from the western United States and Canada including stations that are now no longer in existence, have changed callsigns, or have transferred to FM.
A few of the stations that I logged the first few nights included 1550 – KKHI San Francisco, 1330 – KUPL Portland , Oregon, 1360 – KMO Tacoma, Washington & 1600 – KLAK Lakewood, Colorado.
Over those initial years while still living and working on the farm I would develop an interest in other modes of radio DXing including Shortwave and TV as well.
I first had the opportunity to tune the Shortwave bands on a Zenith Trans-Oceanic tube model receiver during Sunday visits with my aunt and uncle. In later years that radio would eventually become mine.
After leaving the farm in 1974 and beginning a working career with Canada Post, I was able to eventually advance in their management ranks to Zone Postmaster and have the opportunity to reside and DX in several different communities within the province of Alberta. During that period of time my main receiver in use was a Realistic DX – 300.
Within Alberta, my favorite location for radio reception from amongst the many places I had lived and worked was Beaverlodge, Alberta situated about 300 miles northwest of Edmonton. It was great for long distance reception there with hardly any local stations close by to cause interference.
During the eighties I discovered the wonderful world of QSL cards and sent reception reports to many AM , FM , Shortwave and TV DX stations as well.
Later as the nineties came along, I also became a reception monitoring reporter for several of the Shortwave stations by sending reception reports on an ongoing basis to them. My favorite was Radio Beijing, now known as China Radio International. In appreciation the staff of the station sent many souvenirs , QSL cards and reading materials in return over those years for my efforts.
Additionally I had always had the wish to work in radio someday. That opportunity presented itself in 1992 after retirement from the postal service. I had the good fortune to get on board with an AM and FM station locally in Red Deer, Alberta which gave me a real sense of what working in radio was like.
During the mid nineties I would acquire another receiver for DXing , the Yaesu FRG-100.
Carrying on with the radio interest I also set up a few different internet radio stations online through Live 365. Today , one of those stations still remains in operation serving up 24 hour classic country music.
After being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1999, I found it much harder as time went on to deal with the harsher climate in Alberta, the minus forty degree and plus thirty degree extremes in temperature were having an adverse effect on my day to day mobility and general well being.
Through consultations with my medical specialist, the thought was that a change to a more temperate climate might be of help for my ongoing symptoms. During that time period I had also been engaged in online conversations with a very nice couple who lived in Newfoundland.
We eventually became good friends and have been for several years now.
They too had also suggested that Newfoundland’s milder climate could be of benefit to my health . Eventually a move to Newfoundland was in the works by September of 2002.
At that point my whole world was about to change for the better, medically speaking as well as radio DXing wise.
A double bonus came my way making that move to Newfoundland . After about a year and a half I could notice a significant difference in how I felt still dealing with the MS and what can I say about the radio DXing? Absolutely fantastic!
In all the years residing in Alberta I had heard many USA and Canada stations on the AM dial, however only a handful of countries. Since moving to Newfoundland I have now logged over 100 countries on the AM Broadcast band.
Over the years I was also involved in Ham Radio Band DXing as I competed in many of the SWL sections of Amateur radio contests as well as trying to log each country on each of the various amateur radio bands.
During the mid 2000’s I would attain another receiver for DXing, namely the Kenwood R-5000.
In 2008 the radio world would discover a new interest presented to DXers as Ultralight Radio DXing had it’s early beginnings thanks to veteran DXers, John Bryant, Gary DeBock , Robert Ross and others.
I had submitted some logs of what I was hearing to various sites after aquiring an Ultralight radio and the the Ultralight Radio Committee had noticed my logs posted online and asked me if I would like to share what I had heard with their group members as well. The rest is history as I have also been an avid Ultralight Radio Medium Wave DXer for the past 6 years.
There was also a stretch of time when I had tried to eventually hear and log a radio signal from each and every independent nation of the world just for fun using a combined mixture of numerous modes of radio i.e ham, AM, Shortwave etc. I accomplished that feat twice in fact, by 2006 and again just prior to 2013 .
While living in the tiny community of Bristol’s Hope, Newfoundland from 2011 onward, I was able to have my longest radio antenna in service ever, a 1200 foot longwire in place. The location was great for Trans- Atlantic reception as it was in a bit of a remote area with little or no man made interference and noise. Living directly above and practically over the water at a higher point helped for better reception as well.
Another move was in the works recently this year as we had to vacate our rental premises in Bristol’s Hope due to an eventual house sale
With potential residences taken up quickly due to recent economic prosperity in Newfoundland during the past year or so, it was much harder to find another place to live.
Luck shining upon us, we finally found a residence in Carbonear, but had to wait a month to move in. Meanwhile some folks in Northen Bay, Newfoundland offered their house to us temporarily for that month during the wait.
With the temporary move to Northen Bay , that circumstance opened up the possibility for a Medium Wave Dxpedition there for the month. It was my first attempt at a DXpedition and I enjoyed the experience very much.
Another new chapter of my radio DXing has now begun living in Carbonear.
That is my forty seven years in a nutshell involved in the wonderful hobby of radio and DXing.
Allen Willie VOPC1AA
Carbonear, Newfoundland, Canada
Many thanks, Allen, for sharing your story. I’m so happy to hear that Newfoundland and DXing have both been good “medicine” for you!
In the meantime, many thanks to John for sharing his personal radio history:
My story started when I was about 7-8 years old. My Father was in the USAF and was stationed in Germany. I remember my parents had this big Telefunkun Console that had a radio and record player. The radio had shortwave bands on it. I used to listen to the Armed Forces Network on the radio. I remember one day checking through the shortwave stations, I came upon an English language program that gave the station ID as “This is Radio Moscow speaking.” I was also able to tune in to BBC World Service which I really liked. After this initial contact with Shortwave Radio, I really never got involved again until after a car accident I had two years ago.
My mobility became limited after the accident. I started looking at low impact hobbies that I could become involved in that did not require a lot of physical activity. I already collected stamps and coins but I wanted something more engaging. In November, 2012, I saw an ad for a radio the Tecsun PL-660 and I ordered one. I really liked it because I had Air Band along with Shortwave and SSB/LSB. I remember the first overseas station I picked up in English which was Radio Romania International. I was very excited even though I was 60 years old at that time. I had studied about submitting reception reports and I immediately completed one and sent it out. After this I was hooked really bad. I read about other radios and decided to purchase a Grundig Satellit 750. What a difference that made along with a better antenna I started receiving stations the PL-660 could not get in. About two -three weeks after I sent out my first reception report I received a letter and QSL card from Radio Romania International. What a treat that was for me. My first confirmation.
Winradio G33DDC Excalibur Pro
As I continued to study about antennas and radios I got interested in SDR’s. What a neat concept I thought so naturally I had to try it out. I purchased a RF-Space -IQ and what a difference that made. I received more stations and had more control over noise filters and memory plus now I could record band spectrum for later review. Well, being hooked good now, lead to another purchase, a Winradio G33DDC Excalibur Pro. I had two choices with the budget I had, get a transceiver and get my Ham license or get a better SDR or Shortwave receiver and new antenna. I decided on the SDR/antenna and I am not disappointed. It is a great unit and really compliments my other SDR. I am still on the fence about becoming a Ham Operator as I would rather listen than talk.
I do realize that stations all over are stopping their broadcasts because of funding issues and newer easier forms of mass communication but I will not give up. Every two to three weeks I end up catching a new station I had not identified before. Many countries around the globe still depend on radio for communication and news so I really doubt if I will ever turn on the radio and be greeted just by a wall of noise.
This is a great hobby. I have come in contact with many knowledgeable and interesting people who have and continue to help me on my journey through the shortwave hobby. There is more to this hobby than just putting on headphones and trying to listen in to a far away station. I have had to do research, I have to read a lot to keep on top of the hobby, plus it has opened my eyes and mind to other cultures and their interesting histories. and it really keeps me busy. I also joined the NASWA and highly recommend that club to all newcomers.
Daily I look forward to the mail coming in hoping I have received a confirmation. This does not happen as much as I would like but when it does it is always a treat for me as I build my collection. This November is my one year anniversary in the hobby. I have no regrets and I will continue to enjoy my shortwave radio hobby.
John, many thanks for sharing your radio story!
I’m impressed that the radio bug hit so hard that you moved, in short order, from a Tecsun PL-660 to a WinRadio Excalibur Pro! What a leap!
I would encourage you to get your ham radio license, of course. By now, you understand enough about radio, that it would be a very easy step to take. Strike while the iron is hot! 🙂
I’ve had success with the Gordon West testing guides–they’re very informative while teaching you strategic techniques to pass the test.
I love hearing stories about how shortwave radio listeners and ham radio operators got interested in the hobby. I’ll tell you about my experience, but I would enjoy hearing yours either in the comments section or by sending me an email. In the coming months, I will select stories to feature on The SWLing Post––especially if you have photos!
As I started to write a little of my personal history in radio, I felt a sense of déjà vu. That’s because in May 2011, Monitoring Times Magazine asked if I would write a piece describing how I became an SWLer and ham radio operator; of course this made for a nice segue into how I started the charity, Ears To Our World. After a little digging, I have discovered the unedited piece and added/updated where necessary.
So here’s my story–(now please share yours)! [Update: Click here to read our growing collection.]
A Love of Listening: How I Relate to Radio
Growing up, listening…
I’ve never been a fan of television. Ironic, considering that I grew up in the seventies and eighties when most kids were glued to the tube, addicted to Nickelodeon. Perhaps one of the reasons why is that I find the visual often distracts from what I want to hear. Maybe it says something about my reluctance (or inability?) to multitask, but I’m much better at simply listening, rather than listening while also being asked to watch. I prefer to close my eyes, to just listen––and allow my mind to construct images from sound.
My father’s RCA 6K3 console radio.
When people ask how I became so interested in radio, the answer comes clear: I just love to listen. My father still has, in his living room, the vintage RCA 6K3 wooden console radio which emitted, like an aging, crackly-voiced Siren with her own kind of coarse charm, the various scintillating sounds that first caught my ear and captured my young imagination.
One of my earliest memories is of my father, tuning in WWV in Fort Collins, Colorado, on the RCA to set his watch to the atomic pulse coming through the aether, a practice he followed each Sunday morning. Sometimes he would allow me to tune around afterwards––on these occasions, I would catch broadcasts out of Europe, Australia, South America, as well as places I could not readily identify.
Not long after, my great aunt unearthed in her basement a classic Zenith Transoceanic, which she offered me; I took the dusty unit into my room and promptly set up a listening post. Little did I know at the time that I was joining a fraternity of radio listeners around the world who also logged and listened to stations, as I began to do, far into the night. I often fell fast asleep listening to my Zenith; no doubt, some of those mysterious DX stations I heard over shortwave and medium-wave infiltrated my dreams with languages and cultures altogether unlike my white-bread American one.
My trusty Zenith Trans Oceanic will always be a part of my radio collection (Click to enlarge)
Then when I was in my teens––again, in an ironic twist––a TV repair man who came to work on my parents’ set mentioned that he was a ham, and I was suddenly introduced to the intriguing world of ham radio. Though it took several years before I pursued my ticket, as I was busy with school, music, and other typical teen pursuits, my interest in the medium deepened.
While doing my undergraduate degree, I spent a year living and studying in France. At the time, the world wide web was still in its infancy, and my portable shortwave radio, which had helped teach me French back home, now became my English-speaking companion, bringing news from home courtesy of Voice of America. Unlike satellite television, cable TV, or an internet connection, radio was also inexpensive, vital for a poor student like me struggling to pay my own way in Europe. Through just listening, a virtual sonic flight home was free and nearly instant, arriving at the speed of light.
Mike Hansgen (K8RAT) teaching me the ropes at my first QRP Field Day in 1997. William McFadden was also there and was photographer for this photo. (Source: William McFadden WD8RIF)
After graduation, once more stateside, I encountered two hams who were to become lasting friends and elmers: Mike Hansgen (K8RAT) and Eric McFadden (WD8RIF). These two talented hams nourished my keen interest in the hobby, and in their company, I soon found myself in the field experiencing the scrappy fun of hands-on radio contests. I loved how my resourceful guides worked so many stations with the lowest-powered QRP equipment and only the simplest, cheapest wire antennas, and moreover, that they often derived their station power from the sun. I appreciated the remarkable skill with which they milked such modest equipment, initiating contacts all over the globe. With their steady encouragement, I finally got my ticket.
I’ve been a ham since 1997. Radio, no doubt, has influenced my decisions to travel, to live and work abroad, to pursue a graduate degree in Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics. Whatever I did, I did while listening to radio. I even changed my call not long ago to reflect my passion as a shortwave radio listener; my new handle is K4SWL.
Recently I found myself charmed and inspired by a BBC audio piece on Gerry Wells, the British radio repairman who in his eighties continues to do what he has always done, and is still sought for his skill. The story’s subject is truly enjoyable, if a bit of an anachronism: most remarkable is its relevance in the new millennium due to the simple fact that old mid-century (and earlier) radios continue to function today, and are still relied upon by listeners. As I listened to this report, I couldn’t help but wonder, as I have so often before: why does radio have such powerful nostalgic appeal? I reckon that, at least in part, it’s because radio has always been the voice of reassurance, of comfort, during darker times, reminding us that we are human, yet reminding us of our ability to survive. Radio is a friend––or, perhaps, a “great-uncle, in cords and a cardigan,” as Jeremy Paxman characterizes the BBC in his recent defense of this valuable institution in The Guardian––whose warm, familiar voice is there even when other media sources, or the internet, are down.
Shortwave, meanwhile, is much like the world’s pulse––we check in, we listen, and we confirm: all’s well, we’re still okay.
In this photo from Belize, I’m working with David (blue shirt), who is visually impaired–radio opens a world for him.
Listening as mission
One could say that listening to radio has shaped my life. I suppose that’s why radio has recently become a mission for me. Today, I’m the founder and director of Ears To Our World (ETOW), a charitable organization with a simple objective: distributing self-powered world band radios and other appropriate technologies to schools and communities in the developing world, so that kids like I once was, not to mention those who teach them, can learn about their world, too, through the simple act of listening. I want others––children and young people, especially––who lack reliable access to information, to have the world of radio within their reach.
Teacher in rural South Sudan with an ETOW radio. (Project Education Sudan Journey of Hope 2010)
Specifically, Ears to Our World works in rural, impoverished, and sometimes war-torn or disaster-ravaged parts of the world, places that lack reliable access to electricity (let alone the internet) and where radio is often the only link to the world outside. The heart of our mission is to allow radio to be used as a tool for education, so we give radios to teachers, who, in turn, use the radios in the classroom and at home to provide real-life, up-to-date feedback about the world around them.
Through the encouragement of our good friends at Universal Radio and the extraordinary magnanimity of Eton corporation, who donate our wind-up world band radios, in our first two years and on a budget of less than $3500, ETOW managed to distribute radios to schools and communities in nine countries on three continents––in Africa, Eastern Europe, Central and South America, and the Caribbean––as well as to both Haiti and Chile, where the dissemination of information through radio was life-saving when earthquakes struck.
Post-earthquake, ETOW radios continue to be a vital link for those in need in Haiti. Here, Erlande, who suffered a stroke in her early 30s and can barely walk, listens to one of our self-powered Etón radios, given to her by ETOW through their partner, the Haitian Health Foundation.
We’ve done all this through partnerships––with other reputable established non-profit agencies like us––that already help struggling schools throughout the world, and who believe, as we do, in freedom of and access to information. Creating these partnerships is an important move: due to the very nature of the remote regions we serve, extending our assistance demands persistence, financial resources, and logistical support, times ten. And often a great deal of patience. Just shipping radios to other countries usually involves detailed arrangements with national and regional governmental authorities (for example, to waive duties or taxes); once the radios arrive, safely distributing them to these remote areas can also be very costly and complex. We listen attentively to our existing partner organizations, who have often laid the groundwork in these regions, and have established reliable connections with communities in them. Their need is for resources—like radios.
By listening closely to and working cooperatively with other established organizations, we find we’re able to distribute radios much more cost-effectively, too. In other words, we can operate on a shoestring budget so that donations to ETOW are used wisely and to their fullest extent. For example, because of our strong partnerships, money otherwise spent on travel can be put into shipping costs instead, thus getting more radios to more of the world with less donated funds.
So far, our scope has been limited only by our financial resources. Meanwhile, we are looking to place radios in other countries farther off the beaten path; Mongolia recently received our radios. Yet we’re not simply focusing on expansion: ETOW is establishing strong, lasting bonds with our schools and teachers so as to better serve their needs long term. We endeavor to replace their equipment and batteries as needed. We would also like to develop on-air teacher training programs; a new partnership with Oklahoma State University seeks to develop and disseminate content on important subjects, among them literacy and health education, so there is new and valuable content to listen to.
June 2013: This map shows the world adjusted for each country’s Internet population. Click to expand (Source: Information Geographies project at the Oxford Internet Institute)
MT readers [and especially SWLing Post readers] will have already guessed why we prefer radio to, say, computers, for information access. It is because much of the world does not have the communications infrastructure to support access to the world wide web and other dynamic media sources such as digital television, wireless networks or even electric power or phone. [Simply take a quick glance at the map above which shows the world adjusted for each country’s Internet population; notice how central Africa is all but missing?] Political instability, meanwhile, can undermine even the written word [for examples, check out our tag category: why shortwave radio?].
Radio, however, is simplicity itself: all one needs is a modest yet capable receiver, and one has instant––speed of light––access to local and world media. So far, every teacher we’ve worked with already knows something about radio; indeed, many of them have an intricate knowledge of broadcast schedules. But in these places it can take up to an entire week’s wages to pay for a set of batteries. Thus ETOW’s wind-up radios become vital–we effectively eliminate this cost, giving them steady access to information.
And the reports we’re hearing from the field have been overwhelmingly encouraging: Teachers in rural Mongolia, Tanzania, and Kenya are able to teach current events. Visually impaired children in rural Belize can listen to the outside world and hear music and languages they’ve never heard. Children in Haiti and families in Chile learned where to go to get food and medical care and information about loved ones affected by the quakes. A remote community in southern Sudan was able to listen to reports of their burgeoning country’s first democratic election. Being able to listen is making a difference.
Listening and learning work together
Radio captured my imagination as TV never could, it travelled with me and taught me early on that everyone has a story. Listening to radio taught me, too, that each voice is different in the consideration of what’s meaningful or newsworthy. I learned to understand––or at least appreciate––the diverse perspectives I heard in my vicarious radio journeys, and from these sprang my own opinions, hopes, beliefs. Radio became my teacher, one who gave me, in my formative years, a global perspective.
Students in South Sudan listen to their favorite shortwave radio program, VOA Special English.
Just as radio taught me, and opened my young mind, I’m convinced that it can teach and open the minds of others. In some parts of our world, futures are still written on the airwaves. But it’s never just a one-way street–willingness to listen to those with whom we work helps us better serve them, but also to make the leaps of mind required to cross cultures, to become aware of those outside our Western sphere, to understand and grow and learn, ourselves.
Listen and learn. That’s ETOW’s tag line, but to some young people––and to me––it still means the world.