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The Basics of Shortwave Radio

Copyright April 12, 2010 by Robert Wayne Atkins, P.E.
All Rights Reserved.


Listening versus Talking: A radio is only for listening. It cannot be used for two-way communication. In other words, a radio is not a transmitting device. This has advantages and disadvantages as follows:
  1. Disadvantage: During a serious hard times tragedy event you will need a "satellite phone" or a "cell phone" to communicate with other people.
    • A "satellite phone" bounces signals off a space satellite and it does not depend on the local cell phone antenna network. Therefore you would be able to talk to anyone almost anywhere if they also had a satellite phone.
    • A "cell phone" does depend on the local cell phone antenna network. If that network is damaged in some way then a cell phone may not work the way it does during normal times, or it may not work at all.

  2. Advantage: You can listen to a shortwave radio and not worry about being located using any type of tracking technology with which I am familiar. The reason is because you are only receiving a signal and you are not transmitting anything. This is the same basic concept as human speech. If a person is speaking then you can easily identify where that person is located based on the sound of their voice. However, if you are only listening to the person then no one will know where you might be because your ears do not make any noise. In fact, hundreds or thousands of people could be listening to one person who is speaking and you would not know how many people were listening or where each of those people was located. This is the same basic concept as listening to a radio broadcast as opposed to transmitting a broadcast.

The Basics of Shortwave Radio

Although English is not the most widely spoken language in the world, it is currently an important "second language" in many countries because of the need to communicate with English speaking travelers and investors. Therefore many foreign nations broadcast in their own native language and also on a second frequency in English.

A shortwave radio will allow you to listen to radio stations that are broadcasting from almost anywhere in the world. This is a significant advantage because it allows you to hear a variety of different interpretations of how other major nations perceive significant current world events and news stories. Although every nation will impart its own "bias" to a particular news story, you will have the opportunity to determine how the rest of the world is responding to something that happened in your own country.

Just because you are awake and listening to your shortwave radio please do not assume that the rest of the world is awake and broadcasting. Everyone needs to sleep and different stations go off the air at different times during the day based on where they are located in the world.

Many shortwave broadcasts are from Europe. Therefore, if you live in the Eastern half of the United States then you will probably be able to receive those broadcasts using the telescoping antenna attached to your radio. However, if you live in the Western half of the United States then you will probably need to install an external antenna to receive these same European broadcasts.

Shortwave reception during the day is usually poor because of daytime atmospheric conditions and the fact that most European stations are not transmitting their broadcasts in the direction of the United States because they know that most of us are probably at work during the day and therefore we are not listening to our shortwave radios. However, at night reception significantly improves because of the reduced atmospheric interference and the fact that many European stations are now directing their signals toward the United States.

Shortwave radio signals travel extremely long distances by bouncing back and forth off the upper atmosphere and the earth's surface until they reach your radio's antenna. Therefore all of the following factors have an impact on the clarity of a distant radio station:
  1. The total distance between your antenna and the broadcasting radio station.
  2. The month of the year (seasonal weather fluctuations).
  3. The time of day (day or night).
  4. Space conditions (solar flares, etc.).
  5. Atmospheric conditions close to the Earth (bad weather significantly reduces reception).
  6. Nearby tall buildings or mountains (they interfere with reception from distant radio stations in those directions).
Many people become frustrated with their shortwave radios because they do not know about the above. Their shortwave radio may have more than a thousand frequencies to select from but they can't seem to find a frequency that yields great reception all the time. Therefore they conclude there is something wrong with their specific shortwave radio, or they assume they live in an area where shortwave reception is very poor.

The following very brief list of frequencies may help you to get the most enjoyment out of your shortwave radio:

Night Frequencies:
Shortwave frequencies between 5,950 to 6,200 KHz are usually pretty good at night.
Shortwave frequencies between 9,200 to 9,900 KHz and between 11,600 to 12,200 KHz are usually average at night.
Shortwave frequencies between 7,100 to 7,600 KHz are usually average at night in the Eastern United States.

Day Frequencies:
Shortwave frequencies between 15,100 to 15,800 KHz are usually pretty good during the day.
Shortwave frequencies between 13,570 to 13,870 KHz and between 17,480 to 17,900 KHz are usually average during the day.

How to Maximize the Reception of a Shortwave Radio:
  1. Your radio needs to be operating on maximum power. Therefore your radio batteries should be fully charged or you should be using AC power.
  2. To avoid electrical interference, do not place your radio near electrical equipment such as televisions, stereo equipment, computers, microwave ovens, or any other electrical appliance.
  3. Reception is weakest inside steel framed and concrete buildings.
  4. Reception is usually best near a window.
  5. Try moving your radio to different locations inside your home to improve its reception. If possible put your radio near a southern window, a northern window, an eastern window, or a western window, depending on the location of the foreign country's broadcast you wish to listen to.
  6. Change the direction in which you have your telescoping antenna pointed to see if it improves the reception of a weak radio signal. Take your hand off the antenna to test it.
  7. If you find a station you wish to listen to but another station's signal is also being received then try changing the length of your telescoping antenna to see if you can isolate the reception of the station you desire. Sometimes increasing or decreasing the length of your telescoping antenna can minimize the interference from a secondary radio signal and improve the reception of a desired radio signal.
  8. A longer antenna is usually better than a shorter antenna. A good antenna may be made from a few feet of insulated copper wire. Allow one end of the wire to hang outside of a window. Wrap the other end of the wire to the bottom of your radio's current telescoping antenna.
  9. An ear phone or a headphone can sometimes improve your ability to hear a weak signal from a distant radio station.
Number of Shortwave Radio Stations: At the current time there are not as many shortwave radio stations still in operation when compared to just a few years ago. This is most likely due to the popularity of the internet, and satellite TV and satellite radio, and iPods and other handheld electrical devices. However, there may be a dramatic renewal in the number of shortwave broadcasting stations in the event of a serious worldwide hard times event, or in the event of serious censorship of the radio stations within a nation's borders.

Safety Warning: Always disconnect your radio from any outside antenna when you are not listening to it, and also during any rain storms to avoid a static electricity shock from traveling down your antenna and destroying your radio. During bad weather you may still listen to your radio using batteries and its internal telescoping antenna but not an outside antenna. Therefore during bad weather you will probably be limited to local radio stations.

A Simple External Outdoor Antenna

You can normally make a significant improvement to your radio's reception of shortwave broadcasts by doing both of the following:
  1. Ground Wire: Attach one end of an insulated copper wire to the grounding terminal of your radio (after removing about 3/4 inch of insulation) and then attach the other end of that copper wire to a metal object and bury that metal object at least 12 inches below the ground. (Or you may use a standard grounding rod.) The ground wire will normally improve your radio's reception of AM, FM, and Shortwave broadcasts.
  2. Antenna Wire: Purchase between 30 to 40 feet of insulated stranded 14 gauge (or 16 gauge) copper wire and install that wire in a straight line somewhere outside your residence. Then remove the insulation from approximately 3/4 inch off the end of the wire and attach the bare wire end to the external FM/Shortwave antenna terminal of your radio.

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