Shortwave radio still packs an audible thrill

Wed Jan 14, 2009 3:29pm EST
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By Robert MacMillan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Somewhere on a lonely mountaintop on a starry night, or maybe in an apartment on a bustling city block, someone is channeling the whole world onto a mobile device. It's not a phone; it's a shortwave radio.

A staple form of broadcasting in many parts of the world since the 1920s and 1930s -- shortwave in North America has been mostly a hobby for decades.

Now that the Internet is a fixture in many homes in the United States and Canada, there are few practical reasons to buy a shortwave radio. Thousands of stations that once were available only on the shortwave band are online.

Shortwave also is distinctly old fashioned, cast against the shadow of the annual Consumer Electronics Show, which was held in Las Vegas earlier this month. The mother of gargantuan gadget fests featured shortwave radio makers, but the action these days revolves around digital audio devices.

The contrast is stark: iPods and satellite radios are slim and pocket-sized, while shortwaves are throwbacks, typically as square as a textbook and just as serious looking.

So why bother with shortwave?

It's easy and cheap -- and fun. You can hear and learn things that you would never find even if you work your search engine like a mule. From Swaziland to Paris to Havana, shortwave broadcasters can surprise an adventurous listener more than any MP3 playlist.

"You tune carefully, twist the radio from side to side, and there's still a bit of a 'Hey, I made this happen!' sort of thing," said Harold Cones, retired chairman of the biology and chemistry department at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Virginia.   Continued...