HAM Radio 101

World Radio—Stayin’ Alive

You can hear all sorts of cool things on World Radio (shortwave). Although there are fewer shortwave broadcasters than in the past, more are returning to the airwaves due to world tensions. During the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, the BBC World Service launched two new shortwave frequencies for listeners in Ukraine and Russia, broadcasting English-language news updates in an effort to avoid censorship by the Russian state.

In the age of satellites and the Internet, shortwave broadcasts are still relevant. It’s the only medium of communication which can reach across borders—and around the world—without permission from governmental authorities. Shortwave is the only method of person-to-person international communication which cannot be stopped at national borders.

By listening to these broadcasts, shortwave listeners (SWL) can get many different perspectives on the news and learn about the cultures of these countries. They also offer a diverse range of content that you can enjoy, such as music, talk shows, and drama. You can also listen to air and marine communications, ham radio operators, spies, pirate radio stations, and more.

Know the Basics

No shortwave frequency operates 24 hours. You may not hear anything unless you are listening at the right time. You may hear another language or hear some other country sharing the frequency. Understand that higher frequencies (above 10 MHz) are received better during the day, while lower frequencies (below 10 MHz) are better at night.

Another factor is solar activity. Sunspots and solar flares can affect reception, making it better or worse. With the current solar cycle peaking in the next year or two, you’ll find that signals on the higher frequencies are already improving.

Most shortwave broadcast stations operate in AM mode. Some military and maritime communications use encrypted digital modes these days, though you’ll find some still using single sideband (SSB). You may also find digital modes and encryption, often used by the military or government.

Broadcast times are always listed in UTC (Coordinated Universal Time). It refers to time at zero longitude, also known as the Greenwich meridian. It’s the time standard used all around the world, effectively the center of the world’s timekeeping. All time zones are referenced by how far ahead of, or far behind, UTC they are.

What’s Out There?

One way to find out is to just listen—see the band chart for frequencies to listen to during specific times of the day. Of course, you can also start with an Internet search of shortwave broadcast schedules.

The Worldwide Listening Guide is a guidebook for listening to worldwide radio, news, information, music, and entertainment broadcasts in English. All program listings are provided in two ways: First, programs are listed by UTC time, station, days of broadcast, the type of program, and their frequencies and web addresses. Second, special classified listings are provided to find programs of specific interest. The 37 classified program listings make it easy to find programs by topic or subject area.

Glen Hauser hosts The World of Radio, detailing the status of various shortwave stations around the world. Be sure to return to his home page for additional information and sources.

To get you started, here are some stations you should be able to pick up easily:

  • WWV (Colorado) and WWVH (in Hawaii) Time Signals: Both stations operate on 2.5, 5, 10, 15, and 20 MHz, and are easy to hear because they operate at high power. (day/night)
  • HF Ham Radio: Here are two bands that are active most of the time: 40 meters, 7000-7300 KHz (early morning/ night) and 20 meters, 14000-14350 KHz (day/early evening). On 40m, there’s a bonus—shortwave broadcast will appear during the evening and night since it is a shared band. You’ll find Morse code and digital modes at the lower end of each band, phone and SSB at the upper end.
  • WRMI: Radio Miami International is a commercial international shortwave station with transmitters in Okeechobee, Florida, broadcasting to listeners worldwide. They have 14 transmitters on the following frequencies (in KHz): 5010, 5050, 5800, 5850, 5950, 7570, 7780, 9455, 9395, 9955, 15770, 17790. (day/night)
  • The U.S. Coast Guard National Weather Service gives high seas forecasts and storm warnings from six high seas communication stations: 4426, 6501, 8764, 12788, 13089, 17314 KHz USB.(day/night)

For something different, try these. You’ll have to do some searching.

Pirate radio broadcasts can be found in the 6800-7000 KHz range. They’re unlicensed stations with music, talk, or other formats. Frequently used frequencies are 6925, 6930, and 6950 KHz, AM or USB. (night)

The Buzzer (also known as UVB-76/ UZB-76) is a station that broadcasts on frequencies between 4600-4800 kHz. It broadcasts a short, monotonous tone and sometimes is interrupted by a voice message. It’s actually a Russian military station, and the tone is believed to be a channel marker. Maybe.

Spy Networks: Most consist of numbers stations, broadcasting strings of numbers—typically in groups of five—to communicate anonymously with agents in the field. Since they’re secret operations, they don’t generally stick to particular frequencies or schedules. If you come across a voice that’s simply reading a long list of numbers in groups, you’ve found a numbers station. The Priyom.org website has additional information for finding them.

Which Radio?

There are several different brands and models of shortwave radios which vary in price, features, size, ease of operation, and other factors. The best shortwave radio for you depends primarily on your listening interests and budget. However, there are some features you should look for in any shortwave radio you consider.

The minimum frequency coverage you should look for is 540 kHz to 30 MHz. Most shortwave radios sold today also tune down to 150 kHz, covering the longwave band. Most modern shortwave radios sold today have a digital frequency display. Avoid ones with an analog slide rule frequency marker to avoid tuning frustration. 

SSB is used by a few broadcasting stations in addition to ham, aeronautical, military, and maritime communications. A shortwave radio that can receive SSB in addition to AM will give you more listening options. Some portable receivers allow you to choose between wide and narrow, some may have more options. This feature lets you reduce interference from stations on nearby frequencies.

Some radios come with a built-in telescoping antenna, others also include an external antenna jack. External antennas give better reception than built-in antennas. Even a few feet of wire outside a window can make a significant improvement in reception.

Here are some examples that meet or exceed the criteria listed above:

Sangean ATS-909X2 World-Band Portable Radio

Eton Elite Executive AM/FM/LW/SW Portable Radio

DX-Patrol MK4 SDR Receiver

Most ham radio transceivers built in the last 20 years will also receive World Band radio with good results. If you’re a ham, this general coverage feature is a bonus.

Your shortwave receiver has another band built in—AM radio. Listening to distant AM stations can be just as interesting as shortwave and is a well-established hobby. AM DXing 101: An Introduction to AM Dxing by Sean Kutzko, KX9X, is a great introduction to this related radio activity.

SWLs Do It with More Frequencies

Shortwave Listening (SWLing) is one of the most popular radio activities in the world. Even with the presence of the Internet, SWLing stands apart because it provides some of the best uncensored news and content available. To join the hobby, you don’t need expensive equipment, a connection to the Internet, an elaborate antenna, or even AC power. An inexpensive pocket-sized shortwave radio and a few batteries are all that’s needed to pick up most broadcasts.

Once you’ve mastered the basics of SWLing, you may also be interested in DXing (searching for distant stations), monitoring government and military radio, or checking out the independent pirate stations. At this point, you may want to upgrade your receiver and antenna. Even then, you’ll be amazed at how little it takes to put together a good shortwave receiving system.

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