Get Shorty

The lunatic fringe lives, breathes, and flourishes on shortwave radio

For 40 bucks, you can buy a device that emits some of the most irritating and beautiful sounds imaginable, a device that not only presents an international kaleidoscope of opinion but also receives secret spy transmissions. Best of all, every time you turn it on, the thing behaves differently, depending on where you listen to it. It's an old, discarded technology that most tech nerds know little about, it's free to operate, and every program it receives is shrouded in mystery.

It's a shortwave radio, and every serious fan of strange music, stranger noises, and divergent political and religious views should own one. For less than $50, you can get a unit that can pick up a decent number of domestic and more powerful international stations. For less than $200, you can land one that picks up Radio Togo and Voice of Iran.

Shortwave listening (SWLing) is not just a pastime; it's a way of life, and those who buy such a radio find themselves obsessed with all the far-off bleeps and whooshes their receivers collect. Newbie SWLers often find themselves fondling the dial well into the wee hours, like a breathy adolescent looking for release on prom night. "Last night, it was right here, at 8300 kHz," they mutter into the blank stare of their radios, "between the aggro Russian woman and the Balinese gamelan broadcasts." Alas, now the transmission is just a squelchy fart.

Constancy and security are foreign concepts on the shortwave band. Shortwave generally refers to the frequencies between 1700 kHz (the upper limit of the AM broadcasting band) and 30 MHz (the lower limit). What's compelling about the broadcasts in this band is that they travel globally. Broadcasters in Europe can "shoot the Atlantic" to target U.S. listeners, and SWLers in just about every corner of the planet can get the BBC, the longest-running shortwave presence of them all. Shortwave is also particularly affected by weather and sunspot activity, so no two sessions are alike. Best of all, shortwave broadcasters are often fly-by-night operators or outright pirates who go on- and off-air sporadically. The World Radio TV Handbook is the bible for SWLers hoping to identify a broadcast, but anything in print quickly becomes obsolete, so different websites that fill in the gap are essential for their hourly schedules of programming (try Monitoringtimes.com). The numbers are impossible to ascertain, but estimates number American listeners in the millions. Even David Letterman counts himself among them.

Since the Library of Congress decided to start charging Internet broadcasters licensing fees, the breadth of publicly available music has shrunk considerably. Shortwave, historically underscrutinized by the feds, is the last bastion for incredibly weird musical broadcasts. And because many are announced in non-English tongues or not at all, you usually don't have a clue what you're listening to or where it's originating. This aspect is great for defusing your inner music junkie, who constantly tries to classify every sound you come across. Some recent choice broadcasts include weepy Ukrainian instrumental string music; the Catholic music jukebox; Bollywood-sounding Indian music; and hard-line, old-school country. Particular favorites of many listeners are the North Korean stations that broadcast endless praise songs of Kim Jong Il.

Then there are the sounds shortwave units make when tuned between stations or when receiving interference. Shortwave is especially susceptible to the radio phenomenon known as "fading," and even when you finally snag the station you want, it may periodically ebb and flow into warm static. Fans of experimental electronic music will find that the entire aesthetics of certain famed artists can be convincingly approximated by tweaking the dial -- or merely tuning in to a signal that blips away on its own. Self-described underground audio artists Hal McGee and Brian Noring created a 74-minute CD, New Music for Shortwave Receiver and Tape Recorder, from shortwave radio tones, static, and noise captured on hand-held cassette recorders. If you buy an affordable radio, almost every transmission received is bathed in some degree of hiss, and the way the baseline noise increases and decreases makes the listening experience very organic. Shortwave broadcasts seem to breathe. Receiving and listening to shortwave are tied to specifics of place and space as few technologies are. You'll find an entirely different palette of sounds on mountaintops than in valleys, and the trajectory of the signal itself matters. Transpolar propagation (signals that cross the North Pole), for instance, will make stations sound as if they're underwater.

Perhaps most intriguing of all shortwave phenomena are the so-called numbers stations that are nothing more than orations of digits. Around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, American SWLers began coming across unidentified broadcasts of women reading a series of numbers in Spanish. Since then, numbers broadcasts in all manner of languages and originating from numerous countries have cropped up regularly. They begin with an interval broadcast -- a set of tones or a piece of music to let listeners know they are beginning. One defunct East German broadcast always began with off-key bells that were just plain spooky (SWLers have compiled CDs of old numbers-station broadcasts), and another that persists to this day opens with the English folk song "Cherry Ripe" repeated 12 times. There's no indication in these broadcasts of where the transmitter resides, who the intended audience is, or what the words mean. Everyone pretty much agrees that they are intelligence-related in some way, although the FCC only grudgingly admits they occur, and it still questions whether any originate from within the United States. SWLers who pore over the numeric codes for possible meanings have given nicknames to certain broadcasts, such as "Sexy Lady," "the Babbler," and "Bulgarian Betty." The prevailing theory is that various agencies use them to communicate with agents in the field -- a bizarre use of a public means of communication to reach only one or a few people.

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