Saturday, April 29, 2017

Listening to the World

On December 25th, 1964, I opened a Christmas present from my parents, a gift they were hoping would somehow appeal to their grade-school-aged son’s affinity for writing, electronics, and communication.

What I received that day was a portable radio about the size of a shoe box--American-made (what a concept!) and transistorized, no less.  While equipped with a carrying handle, AC adapter, AM and FM bands, a large speaker, a lighted dial, and a telescoping antenna, one feature immediately captured my imagination and hasn’t let go of it since: it could receive shortwave radio broadcasts.

With that humble beginning, my lifelong fascination with international radio had begun.

The mid/late 1960s was one the most turbulent eras in American history.  To say that the tapestry of American life was being torn further apart with each passing day would not be an exercise in exaggeration.  We were still reeling from John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963; little could anyone have predicted that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy would meet similar fates in the coming years.

The Vietnam War was polarizing the nation into hostile and irreconcilable camps: hawks and doves; police and protestors; conservatives and liberals; old school and new school; patriots and draft dodgers; students and draft boards; politicians and average Americans; the military establishment and pacifists.  Each faction trumpeted its “perfect” solution to the unsolvable: letting South Vietnam deal with its own problems; more soldiers and more bombs; immediate withdrawal; pacification; more effective weaponry; a negotiated peace; nuking North Vietnam ”back to the Stone Age.”

The air waves of the time were crackling with anti-war songs from iconic folk singers and rock-and-rollers alike.  Even the beloved Glen Campbell got into the act with his hit song “Galveston”—whose lyrics included “I am so afraid of dying,” and “While I watch the cannons flashing/I clean my gun/and dream of Galveston.”  At the opposite end of the musical spectrum, Sergeant Barry Sadler proudly sang of the bravery and patriotism of “The Green Berets.”

(Sidebar for those who are interested: Glen Campbell is currently suffering through the final agonizing stages of Alzheimer’s Disease.  He reportedly can no longer play his beloved guitar; neither can he communicate in any meaningful fashion.  The day he leaves us will be a very sad day in my life.)  

It was amidst this international turmoil that I began my shortwave radio foray.  I quickly discovered that battle lines had been drawn along the air waves.  Each day’s listening found mega-broadcasters such as Radio Moscow, Radio Peking (as it was known back then), and Radio Havana Cuba on one side—and the Voice of America, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, Radio Canada, and the BBC on the other duking it out for the hearts and minds (and support) of millions of worldwide listeners.  One concept I instantly learned was the extreme “spin” employed by both camps.  Objectivity?  Forget it.  The same news stories routinely assumed radically different meanings depending upon the station.  This served as my real-world introduction to Propaganda 101 and spin control

I recall a Radio Peking newscast which was prefaced with: “My God, Dean Rusk must’ve made another appeal for peace.”  What followed was a detailed recounting—accompanied by somber, funereal music--of a Hanoi bombing raid that allegedly destroyed private homes, hospitals, and orphanages.  That same raid—as reported by the VOA--reported the successful destruction of weapons caches, military command posts, and guerilla safe houses.

Who was right?  I don’t know; I wasn’t there.  But the truth was likely somewhere in between. 

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and then-President Lyndon Johnson were the favorite targets of those newscasts and were pilloried daily … and mercilessly.  Imagine if social media had been around then. (shudder!)

Okay, enough of the political background.  This blog isn’t meant to be a forum for ideological or political debate.

But shortwave wasn’t all propaganda during those war years.  Moscow and Peking did occasionally present culturally-oriented programs showcasing their finest artistic talents.  And I vividly remember an evening’s enjoyment of sensuous Latin rhythms during a broadcast entitled “Cuban Music of Yesterday and Today.”

Some stations avoided the war news as much as possible.  Radio Netherlands Worldwide focused rather on Dutch culture, upbeat music, cheerful program hosts, and informational dialogues with its global audience.  I recall one of its most popular shows was called "The Happy Station."  Ecuador’s HCJB ("The Voice of the Andes") and Trans World Radio beamed a steady stream of soothing religious programming from their transmitters in the southern hemisphere.  

As my appetite increased for more distant and exotic stations from around the globe, I gradually acquired higher quality and more expensive radios to feed my shortwave jones.  While I drooled over the top-of-the-line receivers from Hammarlund and the R. L. Drake Company, they were well beyond a teenager’s financial resources.  But I must admit I didn’t fare too badly with an Ameco R5 made in North Carolina (Electronics made in America?  Those were the days!), and a Knight Kit Star Roamer from that center of the electronics universe, Allied Radio Electronics.  Both are pictured below:

Ameco R5 - my primary receiver

(Photo courtesy of Universal Radio, Inc.)

Knight Kit Star Roamer
(Photo courtesy of Universal Radio, Inc.)

So what exactly was shortwave radio listening (otherwise known as SWLing or DXing)?

Many stations were either supported, subsidized, operated, or owned outright by their governments.  Broadcast operations were very costly, and the politicians wanted proof that their programming was being heard.  Maximum bang-for-the-broadcast-buck, as it were.  After all, listeners were the raison d’ĂȘtre for the station’s existence.

Was anybody listening?  

When I encountered an interesting station from amidst the atmospheric noise, static, and interference of other stations shoehorned into a very small range of frequencies, I would keep the “fix” going as long as possible, continuously adjusting my radio’s controls to improve the reception.  I would take perhaps 30 minutes of program notes including announcer names, music, news, commercials, features, etc.  This was needed to convince the station that I had actually heard them.  Finally, I would rate the broadcast signal’s strength, consistency, intelligibility, and clarity.  This information was then snail-mailed to the station.

If my reception report was validated, a “verification of reception card” (or, as the early telegraphers’ brevity-oriented code dubbed it, a QSL card) would arrive via return mail.  This was legitimate proof (and a badge of honor) within the SWL fraternity that I had indeed heard that station.  QSL cards were as varied as the stations themselves; no two were alike.  Below is what remains today of my former collection:

Armed Forces Radio and Television Service

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

Radio Moscow

Radio Finland

Trans World Radio

If you were really lucky (or if your report was especially valuable to the station), they might also gift you with a memento or souvenir.  These station pennants are some examples:
Radio Deutsche Welle (West Germany)

Radio Bucharest (Romania)

Radio Nacional de Espana (Spain)

My most noteworthy gift was from Radio Peking: a copy of Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, the infamous “little red book”.  While I neither embrace nor endorse Communist ideology, I keep the volume as a fond keepsake of that turbulent era.

But hard times have befallen the hobby in recent years.  Technology, national economics, and shifting audience tastes have prompted many major broadcasters to shut down their radio operations (and dismantle entire transmitter facilities) in favor of digital-delivery-based (spell that I-N-T-E-R-N-E-T) platforms.  Are these methods more cost effective?  Yes.  Are they more dependable than broadcasting?  Yes.

But I ask you: where’s the sense of achievement in that?  Where’s the thrill of searching the dial for THAT elusive station you’d been pursuing for weeks or months?  Where’s the challenge of straining to hear a station long enough to complete an acceptable reception report?  Where’s the serendipitous pleasure of scanning the shortwave frequencies and discovering a new and unknown station to explore?

Simply put, the thrill of the chase is gone.  It just ain’t the same anymore.

But I still have my memories of listening to war news, cultural exchanges, ethnic music, travelogues, concerts, and interviews at all hours of the day and night.  I still have the memories of meals eaten in my radio “shack” while straining to listen to some rare station I had spent months pursuing.  I still have the memories of receiving those treasured QSL cards in the mail and proudly pinning them to my bedroom wall much to my father’s disapproval.  I still have my memories of discovering Radio Somewhere-or-Other completely by accident at 3 a.m.

And what wonderful memories they are.

With that, we will now conclude our broadcast.  This is Ross Ponderson Radio signing off.  Thanks for listening and Good Night!

P.S. Don’t forget to pet your Thesaurus today.