We went to a Borders store the other day.
The whole chain was going out of business, and we went to pick over the bones.
There wasn't much, so I ventured over to the magazine racks and found a copy of Monitoring Times, a magazine devoted to radio. It brought back a lot of memories.
Radio is a big topic. There's amateur radio, emergency communications, commercial radio, and an old favorite of mine - international shortwave broadcasting.
I first got interested in the latter during middle school, when a friend mentioned listening to overseas broadcasts on a Zenith Transoceanic Receiver. I was instantly intrigued.
In those days the cold war was still going on and most of the world's major countries operated shortwave broadcasting stations in an attempt to get their messages out across the globe.
They encouraged listeners to write, and if you included some details about the broadcast they'd usually send back a QSL or verification card. This was an irresistible opportunity to create yet another collection, and I readily succumbed to the temptation. It's a weakness I'm still dealing with.
Anyway, I scrounged up the money for a Realistic DX-160 from the local Radio Shack. I immersed myself in the pursuit of "DX", or distant radio signals, and off went the letters. My first response was from one of the giants of shortwave broadcasting - Radio Moscow
Radio Moscow broadcast every evening in English to North America on a multitude of frequencies using powerful and easily-heard transmitters. It must have cost a fortune, and they kept me on their mailing list for years - broadcast schedules, souvenir pins, etc.
Years later, when I was in graduate school, I shared an office with a former Army intelligence officer who assured me that I most certainly had an FBI file as the result of my correspondence.
But I was thirteen years old at the time, and not motivated by politics. I didn't particularly care who I wrote to; the object was to add to the collection of QSL cards.
Below is a QSL card from Radio Sweden
As it happens, Radio Sweden eventually became one of the first stations to abandon shortwave broadcasting in favor of the internet, though we had no way of knowing that in the mid-1970s.
Religious broadcasters were very prominent on the dial, and one of the biggest was HCJB, out of Quito, Ecuador. (QSL card below)
Their strong signal was always reliable in Florida, where I lived at the time. HCJB finally gave up shortwave broadcasting in 2009.
Radio Belize (QSL card below) was another relatively reliable catch in Florida. I frequently heard them at 834 KHz on regular AM radios, but I got this QSL for reporting reception of a shortwave broadcast. They stopped broadcasting in 1998.
Radio Havana Cuba was an easy one. Indeed, from my listening post in Florida much of the lower end of the AM band was jammed with Cuban stations at night. They kept me on their mailing list for many years, and my dad would always faithfully forward their latest missives to me, wherever I happened to be living.
Radio Pyongyang (North Korea) was perhaps the most persistent. I wrote them once and found myself the recipient of not only a QSL card but a stack of books containing the collected wisdom of "The Great Leader Comrade Kim Il-sung". Oh, and there were the monthly magazines. As I recall that went on for about three years.
Much of Asia was too far away for my inexpensive receiver to pull the weak and fading signals out of the air. Africa was much closer, but most of those countries had more pressing priorities than international broadcasting.
Egypt was a notable exception. For many years Radio Cairo sat on 9.475 MHz, and their 250,000 watt transmitter punched a powerful signal into North America. I believe they are still on the air, though on a different frequency.
The Voice of Nigeria was a tougher one. They broadcast in the midst of a crowded amateur radio band, and the resulting noise and interference rendered their broadcasts harder to make out.
My DXing activities pretty much came to an end when I went off to college, though I was a devoted listener to the shortwave broadcasts of the BBC World Service for many years afterward (Here's a shout out to the wonderful Edward Greenfield, whose The Greenfield Collection classical record review show was a particular favorite of mine).
And as I've hinted at above, international shortwave radio is nothing like it was when I was a kid. Even the BBC no longer broadcasts directly to North America in English, and most of the other stalwarts of those days have also gone silent. The broadcast bands that used to be crowded with stations are pretty sparse now.
I'm sorry they're not around any more.
(Originally posted 7 August 2011)