A hot topic.
My May 5, 2019 commentary, The Transmitters of Freedom Should Be Turned Back On, unexpectedly generated a great deal of attention. It quickly became one of the most reposted and shared articles on this website. It’s encouraging that so many people care about this issue. It warrants a follow up. I investigated further and it seems there is good and bad news regarding shortwave broadcasting.
First, the bad news…
Shortwave broadcasting is not dead, it’s just being kept alive by the wrong people. Shortwave broadcasting is almost exclusively the domain of sleazy oppressive governments and religious outliers. Communist-run Radio China International took over some of Radio Australia’s old frequencies when Australia discontinued their international shortwave service. And here’s something that should make shortwave fans seethe: The savings from shutting down shortwave saved the Aussie government…wait for it…was less than two million dollars.
That’s right. To save what isn’t even a budget rounding error, the Australian government killed shortwave to tens of millions of people. They probably could have raised that money from private donations.
When a pro-democracy voice leaves the platform, someone will step in to fill the vacuum. That “someone” is usually a bad actor. It’s unlikely shortwave broadcasting will ever completely die. It’s also unlikely shortwave will ever go back to the glory days no matter how obvious its practicality may be. Expect to see oppressive governments increase their presence on the HF bands at the same rate democracies abandon them.
The BBC increases shortwave broadcasting to disputed Kashmir.
The victims of tyrants, socialism, communism, etc., still clamor for the news of truth and freedom. They unfortunately have few options due to the rise of the internet and subsequent decline of shortwave broadcasting. Old school analog AM radio may seem like a quaint anachronism, but unlike the internet it requires very little infrastructure and is difficult to defeat.
The BBC has increased –yes, increased– shortwave broadcasting to the Kashmir territory in Asia. The backstory is somewhat complicated, but the short version is that India, Pakistan, and China each control a portion of the area. All three nations dispute the territorial claims of the others. India shut off the internet, some of the media, and phone service to the area.
To fill the information void, the BBC added one hour and forty five minutes of programming to the region. While this may not sound like much, put yourself in the people of Kashmir’s shoes. If you were living under a media blackout, having nearly two extra hours of uncensored news would be deeply meaningful.
Dissidents use shortwave broadcasting to reach Hong Kong and mainland China.
Sound of Hope started as an effort to bring homeland news to Chinese people living in the United States. It has grown into a full-blown pro-democracy shortwave broadcasting network beaming to mainland China and Hong Kong. They have even found a way to evade the jamming of their programming by using a network of small transmitters placed in strategic places. Sound of Hope moves its signal to whatever transmitters are least effected by the jamming. It’s an effective system.
As one of the few media outlets that can defeat communist censorship, Sound of Hope has become a significant player in supporting the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. Sound of Hope is not sponsored or funded by any government. It is run mostly by volunteers, many of whom are placing themselves at great personal risk by helping the network. It should be a national embarrassment that a group of volunteers with little money are doing what large governments deemed “too expensive” and “ineffective”.
What all this means.
A few extra hours of regional programming from the BBC and an obscure volunteer network in China does not mean shortwave broadcasting is making a comeback. At best, it’s a de facto admission that getting rid of shortwave was a bad idea. The internet may be a superior form of mass media, but only if it is open and free. The issue of the internet being too easy to censor or outright shut down remains unresolved.
Not long after I posted my original Transmitters of Freedom… article, a reader contacted me and said he was going to send a copy of it to Senator Marco Rubio in his home state of Florida. I don’t know if the reader followed through on that, but I’d like to see the US government recommit to shortwave broadcasting. My opinion that shortwave broadcasting is worthwhile, relevant, and necessary is not only unchanged, I’m now more convinced than I was before.
Across these two articles we’ve gone into great detail about why international programming is still needed. I’m not so full of myself that I believe a US Senator would jump to his feet and take up this cause just because I say it’s important. Perhaps the millions of freedom-hungry people in Kashmir and Hong Kong will be more convincing. The small steps forward by the BBC and Sound Of Hope are encouraging, but they are just that…small steps. I hope leaders of the free world who have the power to restore shortwave broadcasting will do the right thing and send the signal freedom-hungry people need to hear.
Many people in areas of the world with restricted or unavailable internet rely on Shortwave to hear world and regional news. Small SW receivers are less expensive than computers and more easily hidden. There are organizations that donate small SW receivers to impoverished people. SW is still an important means to keep the world informed.
Hi Don, yes shortwave is still important. I just wish non-radio people would understand that!
Lets bring back the Voice of America
Hi John, the Voice of America is not “gone”, but there is a heckofa lot less of it. But your point is well taken. Shortwave is still needed!
Right now we badly need more independent sources of information. The internet is a wonderful tool, yes, but control of the internet is concentrated largely in the hands of governments and a few big corporations. Governments can, and already have, shut down internet access in entire countries, instituted invasive censorship and monitoring systems, etc. Russia just passed a law that all internet capable devices in the country must now have Russian created software installed on them which will almost certainly be spyware. The mainstream media, radio, television, newspapers, magazines, etc. are almost all now concentrated in the hands of a few large media corporations… Well, you get the idea.
SW has a lot going for it. There are also a lot of disadvantages, yes, but overall it can be very effective in distributing information, especially to isolated and widely scattered groups of people. And you can do so without having to invest in billions of dollars in infrastructure as you need to do for the internet.
I agree with everything you say, Randall. Unfortunately, I’m not the guy who needs convincing!
The libertarian in me says shortwave broadcasts should be supported with private money. There are a few brokered commercial stations here in the USA that will put anyone on the air, for a price. Yet, it’s a legitimate function of the American government to promote American values to other nations.
I fully agree with you.
I drive past the old shortwave station in Delano, Ca, V O A,with its huge HoverV antennas,also rhombic antennas still in the air. Transmitters have all been pulled out as I understand.
Their ground planes are still there, plus antennas.
I just dream about it going on air again.
Here is their location:
The one up near Sacramento is off air too, just vacant land with sticks still up in the air.
Big loss as you say.
I started as a novice in 1955 in Louisiana as KN5SGY..
I also had been shortwave listening since I was 6 years old.
I had two longwires and could phase them. I had a fantastic ham Elmer in cub scouts, boy scouts, and later worked with him in AM , FM, TV commercial stations.
Was chief engineer of my first AM at 17 with a brand new 1st Phone. In high school!
And still a novice ham.
I have been in L.A., and Fresno, Ca. for the last 60 years doing commercial work, always holding on to ham radio all bands all modes. Next into EME.
NDB’s are fun too, but rather one sided.
K6KPH / KPH on the Ca. coast, with their fantastic operators maintenance staff., antennas, and Xmtrs are always fun to hear.
I follow all that you write. Keep it up.
Pete Barth W6LAW
Hi Pete, thanks for being a loyal Off Grid Ham reader.
I was into shortwave listening well before I was a ham. I’d stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning logging stations from all over the world. I still have most of the QSL cards. Many of those stations are no longer around.
I’m not sure what it will take to convince the powers-that-be that shortwave is worthwhile, but hopefully someone, somewhere will see the light.
Thanks again for your support and for sharing your interesting background.
This conversation, and recently seeing a WWII documentary about the Resistance in Europe during WWII got me interested in a possible experiment – could I build, from scratch, from commonly available and scavenged parts, a small, genuinely useful SW receiver and transmitter? No printed circuit boards, just old fashioned point-to-point wiring, no SMD parts, no IC chips, no computers, no SDRs. Just easily available and easy to work with discrete components, home made coils, etc. Might make an interesting project when I get tired of playing with computers and JS8Call and digital communications. And it would give me an excuse to dust off the bench full of test gear I’ve accumulated over the years and actually use it. If nothing else it would be educational.
You can easily build your own gear. Once upon a time every ham did because there was no commercially available equipment. To meet your requirements you’ll have to accept some old school limitations: energy-sucking vacuum tubes, limited choice of frequencies (if crystal controlled), and forget running data modes.
I know people who have transmitters modified to work in the AM broadcast band. When “doomsday” comes, they plan on running their own version of freedom radio. One guy had a pirate radio station when he was in high school. He picked up a Heathkit 100 transmitter at at hamfest for about fifty bucks and installed a crystal cut for 1450 kHz. It worked like a dream. He’s now a prominent off grid radio blogger ?
I know of guys like that too with modded radios or, if they have enough money, you can pick up a small broadcast band transmitter for “export sale only”. There is, or used to be, a company that made a complete AM/FM broadcast station in a box complete with transmitter, microphones, tape/CD player, etc. all neatly packed into a package about the size of a footlocker. Just add power, an antenna, and you’d be on the air.
Modifying a transmitter to transmit outside of its normal range can be as simple as removing a single component or jumper. In the case of my TS-990 transceiver apparently removing a single diode will enable it to transmit on any frequency from 550 KC to 30 mHz. I’ve never tried it because I’m not about to start experimenting with a $7,500 transceiver. But apparently it’s not that difficult to do with most modern transceivers. It’s also a surface mount component about the size of a pin head and I don’t have much experience working with SMD parts.
I’m still going to look into it. Would make an interesting winter project to see if I could build a receiver from scratch.
Well the radio project got “interesting” pretty fast. If I want a decent receiver with decent selectivity I’m probably looking at a superheterodyne design, and the parts count and the cost ramps up pretty damned quick. One design I was considering has parts that apparently are only available from China, with delivery times of 30 – 90 days. One opamp I was looking at seems to be available only as an SMD (surface mount device) and in quantities of 1,000 or more. I didn’t want to use ICs at all, but using the opamp would bring the cost and parts count down dramatically. The one variable capacitor I need is about $25 by itself if I can’t find it used somewhere. And I need two of those for a different project I’m looking at, so if I go that route I’m looking at $75 just for three parts. Hmph…
I’ve already learned quite a bit from this little project. Unfortunately a lot of what I’ve learned is negative. I now know why even hams who like building don’t bother with anything except for simple gadgets.
The days of the “junk box” full of parts salvaged from old electronic equipment is long gone thanks to modern manufacturing and production methods. It’s virtually impossible to salvage discrete components from modern equipment because of the use of SMD technology and robotic assembly techniques. So for the vast majority of parts needed you’re going to have to buy new. Find old radio gear and strip it down for parts? Good luck with that. Old radios are now considered “collector items” and are selling for ridiculous prices.
It is most definitely NOT cheap. The grouchy old curmudgeons over on places like QRZ would have you believe you can build your own equipment for a fraction of the cost of new commercial equipment. You can’t. Period. I’m sorry, but you just can’t. Buying discrete parts in small quantities is expensive. And even if you bite the bullet and spend the money, what you’re going to end up with will work, but it will not work anywhere near as good as off the shelf commercial equipment.
Then there is designing the thing in the first place. If you go out on Google and plug in something like “build your own radio receiver” you’ll come up with dozens, even hundreds of hits, most of which are utterly useless, of course. Once you start weeding through the stuff you’ll find that the same basic designs keep showing up over and over again. That’s because most of them refer to designs that were originally published back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, directly lifted from hobbyist magazines and similar sources. And most of those had some serious issues with them in the first place.
Anyway I’m going to keep plugging away at this just for the heck of it. I’ve got too much time invested in this already to be willing to just give up on it without having something to show for it.
That’s another thing, time. I’m retired so I can afford to fiddle around with this stuff. I don’t know how someone who’s working full time plus has a family, etc. would have the time to deal with this.
Starting from zero is very difficult, almost impossible if you want a radio with decent specifications. Maybe you should consider rehabbing an old rig as a compromise? They work well the they’re aligned and tuned up properly, and documentation is easy to find.
I could refurbish an old receiver, but I’ve done that before. In fact I have a Hallicrafters SX-101 sitting on the shelf right now that needs to be looked at and just haven’t had the time. It sort of, kinda almost works, but has some issues including some nasty frequency drift, and at some point in it’s 62 years of life someone modded it to do, well, something. Not sure what exactly yet. Might be a Q multiplier or some other attempt to make it more selective. A lot of people published modifications for these receivers that generally never worked very well and often even made their performance worse. So before I can take a stab at what is really wrong with it I need to remove the mods and put it back in its original configuration.
I’ve become fixated on this project now for some reason. It is sort of a challenge to myself at this point. If nothing else it will be educational. And I can point to my workbench and tell my wife “See? I really DO use all those tools and test equipment I buy!” . I know the theory behind all of this, or should, but I rarely try to do anything practical with that knowledge. So this gives me a reason to exercise not just all the test equipment I have down in the basement but my brain too.
I’ll shift this over to my website and put updates over there. If something interesting starts I’ll put a page up over there specifically about this project. If I ever get anything that actually works, I’ll let you know.