Shortwave radio is a fluke. An accident of technology and nature. The Ionosphere is a layer of Earth’s upper atmosphere; because it’s ionized by solar radiation, it reflects radio waves broadcast by stations on Earth back down towards the ground.
And those bands of radio frequencies called ‘shortwave’ tend to be reflected UP by the ground. This sets up a situation where shortwave broadcasts can ricochet between ground and Ionosphere repeatedly, covering thousands of miles; and still be understandable when they reach a radio capable of receiving them far far away from their site of origin. (illustration)
Because of this oddity, shortwave radio is and has been the main means of long distance broadcast for decades. During the 1920’s and early 30’s many nations used it for cultural and news broadcasts. With the coming of WWII and the Cold War the emphasis switched to propaganda, mixing in news and music for entertainment value. Government sponsored stations in hundreds of countries broadcast thousands of hours of multi-lingual programming which, because of shortwave’s propagation characteristics, could reach across continents and oceans and into the homes of anyone with a shortwave receiver.
And since shortwave receivers were relatively inexpensive, many people could purchase them. Naturally this lead to the hobby of shortwave listening. Some did it casually or for entertainment or education. Others, called DXers, sought to hear signals from as many stations as they could, struggling with the intricacies of antenna, frequency, and propagation to try to bring in even the most distant and faint signals. And some expatriates did it because they just wanted to hear home again…
The end of the Cold War and the rise of the Internet have severely reduced most Western governments’ investment in and use of shortwave. This raises the question of the future of shortwave listening, and even broadcasting. Is there any place for international radio in this day and age, when with a computer or cellphone one can access webpages from almost anywhere on Earth?
And the answer would appear to be, yes. While many in the West, and rich countries and people, may have cellphones and Internet access, the majority of the world does not. But many DO still have shortwave radios, and shortwave remains a major news and informational source for them. And listening to such broadcasts can be of value to more than DXers, providing access to music and opinions not usually present in Western news or media. Shortwave broadcasting is still the preferred information distribution method of many of the world’s governments; AND of organized religions. Indeed, there are many Christian SW stations operating around the world and domestically in the U.S. as well, taking advantage of fewer governmental restrictions on shortwave stations than on normal AM/FM broadcasters. And shortwave listening can provide interesting insights into situations. Radio Havana in Cuba reporting on the island’s preparations in the face of an approaching hurricane, for instance. Or Radio Damascus insisting all is well, there is no rebellion taking place, it’s all just terrorists, everything is fine…
Shortwave was in many ways the Internet of an earlier time, bringing instant communication to millions. It may never again be as widespread and important as it once was. But it is still of value and relevant, even today.