Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A brief intro to shortwave listening

Shortwave listening (abbreviated SWLing) is tuning for radio stations located on shortwave frequencies, between 1710 kHz (the upper limit of the AM broadcasting band) to 30 MHz (the lower limit of the tuning range of most scanner radio). In between those two frequencies, a shortwave radio is capable of letting you hear news, music, commentaries, and other feature programs in English and other languages from stations located round the world.

Why bother listening to shortwave in this era of communications satellites and cable television news channels? Perhaps the biggest reason is that SWLing can give you a unique perspective on events that you simply cannot get from American media. If you watch coverage of an event in Iraq from CCN or CBS News, you get the American perspective on what is happening from an American journalist. If you listen to China Radio International, you might get a very different interpretation of events.

No one knows the exact number of shortwave listeners (SWLs) in the United States, most estimates place the number in the millions. Shortwave radio sales have increased dramatically in the US since September 11, 2001.

Of course, not all shortwave stations broadcast in English. If you’re studying a foreign language—or want to maintain your proficiency in one—shortwave radio will offer you an unlimited supply of contemporary practice material. If you enjoy music, shortwave will let you hear sounds you probably can’t find in the even the most specialized record and CD shops. Ever heard a lagu melayu song? It sounds like a cross between Indian-style instrumentals and an Arabic vocal style, and it’s very popular in Indonesia. You can hear such songs over the various shortwave outlets of Radio Republic Indonesia. The so-called "world beat" popular with young people had its origins in the "high life" music broadcast by shortwave stations in Africa. Other SWLs arise before dawn to catch the haunting huayno melodies coming from stations in Bolivia and Peru. Some SWL music fans have compiled tape-recorded libraries of folk and indigenous music from shortwave broadcasts that many college and university music departments would envy.

DXing (distance listening) is a manifestation of shortwave’s biggest weakness—the fact that shortwave reception is highly variable compared to the AM and FM broadcasting bands. Reception of a shortwave station on a given frequency will usually vary greatly with the time of day and season of the year. Shortwave reception is heavily influenced by solar activity as indicated by the number of sunspots visible on the Sun. Solar flares and storms can disrupt shortwave reception for hours and even days. Fading is also common on the shortwave bands. While shortwave can offer you listening you cannot find on your local AM and FM stations, it unfortunately cannot offer you the same reliable reception or audio quality from day to day or even hour to hour sometimes.

Many shortwave stations welcome correspondence from listeners, especially reports on how well the station is being received and comments on their programming. Stations often respond to such letters by sending out colorful souvenir cards, known as QSL cards, for correct reports of reception. Some station reply with QSL letters instead of cards, and a few send other items, like pennants with the station’s name or call letters, to lucky SWLs.

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