The Transmitters of Freedom Should Be Turned Back On!

Where am I going with this?

This article will be outside the mission of Off Grid Ham but I hope you’ll stay with me. I’m going to drift away from my usual schtick and use my substantial internet platform to bring attention to this neglected issue.

My point can be stated quite succinctly. Recent world events and the rise of dictators and tyrants necessitate expanding international shortwave broadcasts from the United States and other democratic nations.

In the beginning.

Shortwave broadcasts started in earnest during World War II. In the following Cold War years they were a potent tool used by the United States for expressing American views to the world. Some called it legitimate diplomacy, some called it cultural outreach, and others called it propaganda. It was really a little of all these things. Powerful transmitters sent pro-American news and information in dozens of languages to millions of foreign listeners. Western democracies such as Great Britain, France, and Australia also presented their version of democracy via international radio. It was a two way street: Nations not friendly to the United States put their side of the story on the air too. We were in a radio Cold War.

shortwave broadcasts

LOGO COURTESY OF THE US AGENCY FOR GLOBAL MEDIA/VOICE OF AMERICA

The USA and other Western democracies sent news and information all over the world to listeners whose governments were opposed to citizens being exposed to any free media not cleared through state channels. Radio Marti was dedicated solely to broadcasting anti-communist content to Cuba. Radio Free Europe & Radio Liberty fulfilled a similar mission against the former Soviet Union and to a lesser extent, the Middle East. Day and night, voices of freedom beamed around the world to the oppressed. The shortwave broadcasts were effective. Why else would tyrannical governments try to jam the transmissions and/or punish anyone caught listening?

And then the internet happened.

shortwave broadcasts

LOGO COURTESY OF RADIO FREE EUROPE/RADIO LIBERTY

Since the 1990s, Voice of America closed two of their three transmitter sites in the United States. The venerable International Service of the BBC, the only entity that came even close to having a reach equal to the VOA, has become a shell of its former self. Australia, The Netherlands, France, and other nations who used to have a strong presence on the shortwave bands have cut back drastically or gone completely dark.

Of special note, recent data has communist China broadcasting more than two times as much international programming as Voice of America. We are being beaten at our own game.

The Golden Years of shortwave is well behind us, thanks to the internet. Computers propagate news and information more quickly. Internet audio quality is far superior to shortwave broadcasts and the listening audience can leave comments, repost articles, and actively participate as opposed to listen passively.

But there’s a catch.

The internet affords little privacy, anonymity, or security. IP addresses can be tracked. It’s fairly easy to know who is accessing what content. Plus, the internet depends on a complex system of routers, servers, and data circuits to connect them. Oppressive governments can and do control what information is accessible within their borders and severely punish anyone who crosses the line.

Shortwave broadcasts have no borders.

The success of the shortwave broadcasts of yesteryear was due to the fact that radio has no borders and defeats attempts at censorship. No one can know for sure who is listening because a received signal cannot be tracked to any individual. Somebody, somewhere can tell when and where you do anything on the internet. But if you had a radio on, who would know? Unless you have Amazon Alexa or some similar connected device eavesdropping in the background no one can tell what you listen to on the radio.

shortwave broadcasts

LOGO COURTESY OF THE US AGENCY FOR GLOBAL MEDIA/RADIO MARTI

For all the arguments against shortwave broadcasts vs. the internet, archaic analog radio has two major attributes that the internet cannot match: Anonymity and no need for infrastructure that can be controlled by adversarial governments.

It’s not that hard.

The technology that makes shortwave broadcasts work is over one hundred years old and relatively inexpensive. There is nothing to invent, nothing to innovate, and nothing to discover. A nation such as the United States has the resources to put stations on the air in a matter of months. It really is that easy.

Voice of America, Radio Marti, and Radio Free Europe still make regular broadcasts but are far from their former glory. Overall activity on the shortwave bands is a mere fraction of what it was in pre-internet times. That leaves people living under dictatorships with no options other than state run trash media.

Oppressive regimes exist in North Korea, Venezuela, Russia, China, most of Africa, and the entire Middle East except for Israel. The United States should take the lead and immediately restore local language shortwave broadcasts to these areas.

A legacy of freedom and liberty.

For decades, oppressed people all over the world found hope and inspiration in shortwave broadcasts from free nations. The internet allows a depth and breadth of content that makes analog radio seem like driving a horse & buggy down the information superhighway. Unfortunately, none of that whizz-bang technology matters if tyrannical governments are blocking the highway. Shortwave radio is its own “highway”.

If the United States and other democratic nations seek to establish peace and freedom and liberty in subjugated areas of the world, they must send their message over a medium that will arrive at the intended destination without censorship or interference. I don’t particularly trust my government…but I trust other governments even less.

The victims of tyrants, dictators, communism, socialism, religious persecution, and slavery need and want to hear truthful information. They want to know the free world is thinking about them. We can also put dictators and tyrants on notice that their oppression will not go unanswered. Shortwave broadcasts achieve all these goals with less complexity and more reliability than the internet.

We shouldn’t be too concerned about the transmission facilities ever becoming unneeded. When the current generation of scumbag governments fade away, more will come up behind them. No one should think radio alone will rid the world of evil. The mission of the shortwave broadcasts will never be complete.

I am calling on every democratized  country, starting with the United States, to put the transmitters back online! We should then build as many radio stations as needed to cover every single square inhabited inch of this planet with an unstoppable voice of freedom and liberty.

Editor’s note: This article is cross posted on my commentary blog, Twenty First Summer

33 thoughts on “The Transmitters of Freedom Should Be Turned Back On!

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Program schedules are in the links in my article. Radio Marti broadcasts only in Spanish and only to Cuba. Radio Free Europe focuses on former Soviet nations and the Middle East. It’s hard to hear those in North America. VOA is very easy to hear anywhere.

      Reply
  1. Robert Stessel

    I used to work at WCSN. When the Soviet Union collapsed, we got a bunch of listener letters thanking us for our news broadcasts. They were afraid to or could not write to us before. Sadly, WCSN was decommissioned a number of years ago. 5-22 MHz, 500 KW Transmitter, 20dB gain steerable antenna.

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Hi Robert, there are a few privately owned shortwave stations out there. Most are run by religious organizations and the rest are “brokered”, meaning they do not produce any programming of their own but instead simply sell airtime to anyone who has something to say.

      Reply
  2. Ted

    Well said Chris,
    I enjoy being the thorn in ths side of our Politicians, I’m forwarding a copy of your post to Rick Scott and Marco Rubio of Florida. Then, I’ll follow up wait a while, then I’ll rattle their cage again. 4B/73

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Hi Ted, thanks for your support. I’m not looking to become an activist myself, but if other are inspired, then I am glad to be the catalyst.

      Reply
  3. ethrane

    I was about 14 years old in 1977 and my grandparents had an huge old tube receiver that covered the SW bands sitting in one of the back rooms of the house. I was on their farm for the summer and some nights after the work was done I would tune around on the dial and listen to the foreign broadcasts. I distinctly remember one from Radio Moscow’s English service. It was in a section called “North American Mailbag”. They read letters from listeners who had burning questions about communism. The one I refer to was from “Frank” a farmer in Shelby Montana who asked, “When the United States finally takes its place in the brotherhood of communist nations, what will be done with the New York Stock Exchange?” The answer was that it would be turned into a museum memorializing the oppression of capitalists over the proletariat. I just struck me. I remember sitting there and thinking about all the farmers I had known and how this question was just absolute and complete made up BS. None of them spoke like this. None of them pondered these thoughts. Being young, up to that point, I figured governments would have different perspectives on things like people did, but wouldn’t lie! I realized I had to learn more. Faced with what I heard I began to seek out more information about the USSR. There was not much out there besides Newsweek or Time, but that fall I happened to find Solzhenitsyn and read every book in the library he had published to that point. Cancer Ward, Gulag Archipelago, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, I read them all. Through what he wrote I began to see communism as the true evil it was and it disgusted me. Vietnam was done but the country was just trying to figure out what happened. At 15, I understood. I realized what we were facing and that evil was not an abstraction. I began to understand how lucky we were and how precious the US was in the world. I originally got my ham license that next summer so I could potentially talk to Russians and Cubans based on some naive idea that I could change how they thought. I guess a peer to peer version of VOA. I don’t think I would have come to this so soon and so deeply had it not been for North American Mailbag. Thanks RM!

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      My first shortwave receiver was a Hallicrafters SX-43. It was really my dad’s, but I kind of took it over. I collected a lot of QSL cards from that old dog, one of which was Radio Moscow. It did not fully sink in at the time, but nearly everything they said was bullshit. The letters they read from American listeners were probably fake too. As a teenager I didn’t really know what communism was, but I knew it was bad. It makes one incredulous to listen to Radio Moscow, but there is value in witnessing for oneself what they are all about.

      Reply
  4. randall krippner

    I really miss those days. Once upon a time shortwave was so common that a lot of consumer radios included the more popular SW bands on them. My parents had an old Philco console radio/record player that covered most of the broadcast SW bands. When I was about 17 or so I got my first real SW receiver, a Radio Shack DX-160.

    But to get to the point, everything you say about SW is correct. The claim that we don’t need it because of the internet is blatant nonsense. Access to the internet is still a luxury in many parts of the world, and access is dependent on the whims of the government and even local authorities who control the physical equipment needed. China monitors and censors everything that flows through its internet system. Even VPN systems aren’t very effective at getting around that. Russia is working to separate itself entirely from the rest of the world, creating its own internal network that will be cut off from the rest of the world. Countries can, and have, cut off their entire internet access to the outside world because of “emergency” situations. Even the “free” countries like the US, the UK, etc. engage in widespread monitoring of traffic on the net. So considering what is going on, it seems that we need the shortwave service more than ever.

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Thanks for your affirmation! The bad news is that the internet can be easily defeated and oppressive countries do it all the time. The good news is that shortwave radio is an easy and inexpensive way around censorship. If anything, shortwave is more important now than it was back in the day.

      Reply
  5. DragoSapien

    Another outstanding story. Totally agree with all of it. Don’t know how you come up with such good articles.

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      This article just kind of came to me. Most of my article topics come from reader comments and questions. I appreciate your flattering compliment, but without you guys (readers) feeding me ideas, Off Grid Ham cannot exist. I’m just a “repeater” of the thoughts of the radio community.

      Reply
  6. Brian the Ham

    If you ever get a chance to talk with someone who lived in one of those other places, and then moved to the US, you will be surprised about how much they listen to, and depend on, shortwave broadcasts.

    Although more people have internet access now, it’s so much harder to impersonate a trusted broadcast station than it is to fake being a Nigerian prince. And there is also something about being able to listen anonymously, I would think.

    Reply
  7. Robert Stessel

    It is also much more involved (and expensive) to set up a transmitter with its associated power source and antenna field than it is to set up a cheap computer with internet access.

    Reply
    1. randall krippner

      Robert – you do have a point there but there are still advantages to radio. A computer and internet is cheap, yes, but it is also easily tracked and blocked unless you go through some extraordinary precautions, and the number of people you can reach is going to be restricted by their own access abilities. In a heavily censored country like China for example, chances are good your message isn’t going to get out at all or will be quickly stopped and you will be found. Even worse, they’ll be able to determine who actually received your message and possibly retaliate against them as well. With radio, a totalitarian regime can, of course, determine the source of the broadcast, but unlike the internet, it could not track down who actually received the information that was broadcast.

      And you don’t need a massive transmitter and antenna system to be heard, either. Just about anyone who can follow a schematic and knows how to use a soldering iron could put together a shortwave transmitter pretty cheaply. Hang a wire in a tree for an antenna and you’re on the air. Who would hear it is going to depend on propagation conditions, of course, but even a cheap, home brewed transmitter can get out and reach someone under the right conditions.

      Reply
    2. Chris Warren Post author

      Robert, you are technically right but you are vastly oversimplifying the issue. As Randall correctly pointed out, internet access comes with a lot of baggage and can be controlled or outright shut off.

      Reply
      1. Robert Stessel

        Cheery Hi from central Maine (It snowed here today by the way).

        In simplifying the issue, I guess my point got lost. Of course, the gum-mint control of internet access is the Achilles heal of the internet. What I was trying to get at was that *because* an effective SW station is much more involved than a web site, at least you can be *relatively* sure of the source of the material broadcast. SW ownership can be more easily (but still some work) determined than a website. Even the ownership of “pirate” radio stations usually becomes common, if not documented knowledge (Radio Caroline? Radio TimTron?) WRT the truthy-ness of the broadcasts, caveat emptor (Radio Moscow’s “North American Mailbag?). Jamming of SW is always an issue, but it takes even more effort to jam over a wide area than it does to broadcast over one. You can get on the air with a relatively cheap, low power (I consider anything less than 10kW to be low power) transmitter, but Jamming, propagation vagaries, and the inexpensive receivers most listeners use make QRO really necessary if you want to reach a lot of people regularly. You can get a 100W SW or a 100mW AM or FM “community” station on the air, and you will have a lot of fun doing it, but you will not have much of an audience, the physics prohibits it. I’m all in as far as SW broadcasting is concerned though, just get ’em the heck off 40 meters.

        Now I’m going to get back to getting my spark gap TX back on the air. 73 de K1WXY

        Reply
  8. Robert Stessel

    Cheery Hi from Maine there Randall!

    I think we’re on the same page, but “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”, the Captain. Pretty bad for a communications hobby. But then I’m an engineer not a writer, so I’m not surprised that I was not so clear. Let me try again. What I was trying to get at was that anyone can set up a website and be read by just about anyone with internet. Computer and internet will reach as many people as you can rope in with the right search words for your site, and if you are clever and get your posts to go viral, the world is your oyster. Anyone with internet access can access you anytime they feel like hitting your website. Problems with tracking and anonymity noted. I agree that a shortwave transmitter and antenna can be set up quite inexpensively, but not many people will hear you. With shortwave, they must know what time and freq you are on, have a decent antenna and receiver, and be in a relatively noise free location, especially if your TX is QRP. BBC, VOA, etc. were like rocks, always there, and (almost) always audible. Transmitters are relatively easy to track down, but if your transmitter is outside of their third world “S-hole” dictatorship, there is not much a tin hat despot or even a powerful despot can do to stop you. And if the listener cleverly hides their antenna, it is almost impossible to tell who is listening if your neighbors do not rat on you.

    73 de K1WXY

    ps. Hollow state forever, real radios glow in the dark.

    Reply
    1. ethrane

      “real radios glow in the dark”

      And I love the smell of insulation and a touch of ozone. Like the old computers did

      Reply
    2. Randall Krippner

      I understand now, Robert. You’re right, of course. I was thinking more along the lines of a worst case scenario where a totalitarian government had either cut off the internet entirely or was monitoring everything with a serious chance of ending up in jail or worse if you made the wrong comment. If you are in a relatively open society there’s no doubt the internet is a far more flexible and efficient way of reaching people.

      Services like VOA and the others are great ways of getting a message past the censorship. They’re subject to jamming, of course (Anyone who lived through the Cold War and was an SWL as I was will remember what that was like) but that’s something else again. Clandestine transmitters have all of the flaws you listed, but if that’s the only way you can get a message out, well, that’s what you have to go with. There are still “opposition” SW clandestine transmitters popping up now and then in the hopes they might reach someone, anyone.

      Speaking of hollow state [I love that term!] I’m about as high tech as it gets in a lot of ways here, but the HF receiver that gets the most use is my Hallicrafters SX-43. Perhaps it is just emotional attachment, but I think it sounds so much better and I find it easier to use. And it has the added benefit that I can repair it myself if I have to. There’s no way I could ever fix my TS-990 if something went wrong with that thing.

      Reply
      1. Robert Stessel

        Then there is “Holid State”, also known as hybrid. I can always fix my DX100 and HQ-180. And if you don’t “solid state” the power supplies, they are (perish the thought) relatively EMP resistant. de K1WXY

        Reply
  9. mikrat

    The United States of America is NOT a Democracy.

    Freedom and Democracy are opposing ideals.

    Reply
  10. Jasonn

    Trying again because my last post didn’t take….

    If you are a ham radio operator, check out AmRRON at amrron.com and also Radio Free Redoubt. Same outfit and friends and fans of James Wesley Rawles. Good source of info via shortwave after the grid goes down. You don’t have to have a ham license to LISTEN and pick up intelligence about what’s going on around the country, but ham radio is a lot of fun besides having a practical application for emergency communications.

    Reply
    1. Chris Warren Post author

      Hi Jason, You are correct that listening to others’ transmissions can provide very valuable information. This idea has been discussed on LOff Grid Ham more than once. Also, I am aware of Radio Free Redoubt. and AmRRON; don’t count on podcasts if the S truly hits the F. The internet, as awesome as it is, by definition is not “off grid.”

      Thanks for stopping by Off Grid Ham. Please come back soon, and invite your friends!

      Reply
      1. Jasonn

        Chris,

        Wasn’t talking about the RFR podcasts, but rather the AmRRON HF NETS where you can pick up SITREPS and STATREPS during a real world event. Go to AmRRON.COM and check out the dropdown menus under Scheduled Nets and Resources. Learn how to use your SSB capable shortwave radio and the FLDIGI suite of FREE software for listening in on the digital traffic. (If it’s FREE then it’s for me, etc.)

        There will be a T-REX 2019 (training exercise) in late July, so you have plenty of time to get set up to listen in. Info can be found on the AmRRON page.

        73

        Reply
        1. Chris Warren Post author

          Thanks for the clarification. I’ve attempted to find the AmRRON nets before but could not hear any here in the upper midwest USA. I’ll try again some other time; the band conditions have not been good for a while.

          Reply
    2. Robert Stessel

      Of course the time to check out web info is now, not after the grid goes down. A little late then. And of course *print* vital info such as freq. scheds for broadcasts/nets so that when the EMP wipes your computer, you still have the info, unless of course any one knows of a source of vacuum tube hard drives (hi hi). And sure hope the SW broadcast stations have all hollow state transmitters, or at least an all hollow state standby. de K1WXY

      Reply

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