Tag Archives: The 39 Steps

The two-pocket listening post . . . for when “they” are after you

By Jock Elliott, KB2GOM

Man on the run thrillers, like The 39 Steps by John Buchan* and Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household hold a special fascination for me. Give me a yarn about someone being pursued by the bad guys, and I am enthralled. (Incidentally, there are a couple of good lists of these thrillers. Here and here).

Sometimes I like to play the mental game of: if I were that guy trying to stay ahead those who wished me evil intent, what radio(s) might I want with me?

The other day I realized I had the perfect combo, a pair of radios that cover a huge swath of spectrum, will fit in a couple of pockets (or one big pocket) and weigh just 14 ounces combined. Further, both will run off ordinary AA batteries, which are widely available.

Candidate number one is the C Crane Skywave SSB, which measures 3 inches by 4.75 inches by 1.1 inches. It receives AM, FM, shortwave (1711-29999 kHz), VHF aviation and NOAA weather radio with alerts. Because it receives single sideband (SSB) on HF frequencies, it can tune in aeronautical, marine and amateur radio stations that transmit in the SSB.

The Skywave SSB comes with a pair of ear buds that fit my ears well and offer pleasing audio. In addition, the SSB comes standard with an auxiliary wire antenna that can be deployed and clipped to the SSB’s whip antenna to boost signal-to-noise. Perhaps most useful for the man on the run, the SSB has excellent “signal seek” functions that can be used on any band. In fact, if you put the radio in SSB mode and activate the signal scan, it will search the ham bands and automatically switch from upper sideband to lower sideband as appropriate.

For the man on the run who can “hole up” for a while, I’ve tried clipping a 50-foot long wire to the SSB’s whip and antenna, and I was amazed at how well it can pull in faint ham signals. It’s the “little radio that could.” About the only thing that I wish I could change on the Skywave SSB is that it mutes between tuning steps when using the tuning knob.

But suppose our man on the run needs to monitor signals above the coverage of the Skywave SSB?  Candidate number two is the Icom R6. Measuring just 2.3 inches by 3.4 inches by 1.2 inches, the diminutive R6 covers from 100 kHz to 1309.995 MHz (less cellular and gaps) in AM, FM Narrow and FM wide modes (no SSB). It has 1300 alphanumeric memories, search-and-store capabilities, and rapid scanning of memory channels.

For high stealth, there is a setting that allows the R6 to use the wire that connects headphones or ear buds to the R6 as the antenna instead of the usual antenna. For a non-stealth application, using an aftermarket antenna like the Comet W100RX 25MHz-1300MHz Handheld Scanner Antenna, the R6T does a surprisingly good job of receiving shortwave stations. This antenna has markings on the side so that it can be set to the right length for various frequencies.

As you can see from the photo, the R6 has only a few buttons on its face and two on the side. Every button has multiple functions, and I found trying to program memory channels using the buttons to be a trial. As a result, I can highly recommend the RT Systems cable and programming software for setting up memory channels. In addition, some very useful notes for setting up and using the R6 can be found here: https://forums.radioreference.com/threads/icom-ic-r6-notes.442112/

Finally, I know that there are several tiny ham transceivers that might fill the bill, including the Yaesu VX-6R, although I am not aware of any that can receive single sideband. Besides, if you had the ability to transmit, “they” might be able to direction-find you . . . and we wouldn’t want that, would we?

*For sharp-eyed readers: yes, I know that The 39 Steps is set in a time before radio was widespread, but it is still one of my favorites.

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