Shortwave radio listening (SWL) was my first serious hobby. Actually, I tell a lie. It was Medium Wave listening on the frequencies just below shortwave radio, also known as the AM Broadcast Band. During junior high school, a few of us joined the Canadian International DX Club, which at that time was based in Winnipeg. DX means “distant transmission” and that’s what we did: listen to shortwave radio and AM broadcast band transmission from distant stations.
AM DX was easy to get into. You could hear distant Canadian and American medium wave broadcasts on any decent radio during hours of darkness. There were many hours of darkness during Canadian winters. At that point in time (1960’s) broadcast engineers actually wanted to know how well their signals were getting out. So, if you sent them a reception report, you would usually receive back a confirmation card, called a QSL card. Within a few years, I had received QSL cards from radio stations in all Canadian provinces and all U.S. states.
Then, I discovered the higher shortwave radio frequencies. This is the part of the radio spectrum that fits in above AM Broadcast Band but below those used by television. Shortwave radio signals easily span the globe. For two reasons, shortwave radio listening was very popular around 1960. First, at the height of the cold war, there were tons of shortwave radio broadcasts for propaganda, and the medium was still retained much of the popularity it built during WWII. Second, that time period coincided with the peak of solar cycle 19. The ability of the ionosphere to bounce shortwave radio signals around the world varies with the sunspot cycle. Cycle 19 was the highest recorded over the past 150 years. Shortwave radio was hopping.
So, I built my first shortwave radio kit – the Knight Kit R-55A. It was actually a pretty lousy shortwave radio. But it was cheap, easy to build, and what the heck did I know back then. (Actually, adjusted for inflation, that 1960 radio cost me about the same as my 3D printer in 2015.)
Over the years, I have continuously upgraded my equipment. My first really good receiver was the Drake SPR-4 (shown above) purchased with my second real paycheck in the early 1970’s. My first real paycheck went to a down payment on a car. (In case you are wondering, that was a Datsun 510, which never performed nearly as well as the radio.)
Another long standing joy of shortwave radio was the annual publication of the World Radio-TV Handbook (1947-present) and Passport to World Band Radio (1986-2009) containing broadcast schedules, feature articles and equipment reviews.
Shortwave radio was about knobs and programs, in that order
Yes, I really enjoyed listening to hundreds of stations, day or night. Even after my attention became focused on family and work, I still kept at least one radio and listened occasionally. Still do. But that will be another story.
At its core, the joy of shortwave radio is really about knobs, dials and switches. The more knobs, the more features. There were knobs for amplifying signals, and knobs for reducing them. Knobs for widening and narrowing bandwidth, and knobs for changing modes and bands. Knobs for rejecting interference. And of course, that extra big (perhaps phallic) tuning knob for changing the frequency.
Today, of course, the knobs have been replaced by mouse clicks and spectrum displays. Shortwave radio has become software. And, that’s okay, but I hope every shortwave radio hobbyist manages to hold on to at least one old radio with knobs. Perhaps a good compromise is to use software to control your old knob-laden radio. This at least lets you choose between turning a knob or clicking a mouse.
Do you want to rekindle your memories of radios with knobs, or perhaps create some new ones? I highly recommend Fred Osterman’s book Shortwave Receivers Past & Present: Communications Receivers 1942-2013. This is an amazing collection of pictures and technical descriptions of pretty much every serious shortwave radio made over the past seventy years. Fred owns Universal Radio.
A lot of retired folks finally have the money and time to buy and play with some of the great radios of the 20th century. Many have been carefully maintained and refurbished over the years. But you need to be selective in your acquisition. The components in these old shortwave radios wear out, and many mechanical parts cannot be fixed or replaced. Turning knobs is still fun, but you also need strange noises coming out of the speaker. Still, many hams and shortwave radio listeners maintain what they call a vintage or classic operating position, side by side with the new gear.
If you want to see how your old or new shortwave radio stacks up performance wise, check out Sherwood Engineering’s receiver test data.
By the way, if you are a real shortwave radio nut, you will have noticed that the Drake SPR-4 in the picture is tuned to 15,070 kHz. Although technically out-of-band, that frequency was occupied by the BBC English World Service until the mid 1990’s. It typically had the best daytime signal for the BBC to western Canada for many years.