Bouncing Through the Night: Shortwave Memories

Arthur Nead Illustration

A vendor at the New orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival  programmed an app named “TuneIn” into my iPhone. “It’s free,” he told me, and with it you can reach 70,000 radio stations around the world. While the free part sounded good, I grinned and told him that I probably didn’t need more that 40,000 radio stations, even on a dull day. He gave me that kind of look of disdain that computer geeks give to people who just don’t get it.

Since then I’ve played with the app several times, though I haven’t yet neared listening to 70 stations, much less 70,000. Nevertheless the experience is fascinating. With a few scrolls of the screen I can reach stations just about anywhere, including Antarctica where whoever runs the radio station on Snow Hill Island apparently likes folk music. I have heard Zouk music on a Martinique station, which didn’t sound too different from the Caribbean music that was being played on a station in Catania, Sicily, one afternoon. (At least they’re both islands.)

Experiencing “TuneIn” reminded me of my old shortwave radio, which now collects dust next to the sofa where I sat when I first used the app. I was never a shortwave fanatic exactly, but there was something intriguing about spending a few minutes on Sunday evenings in effect checking in on the world – as though we were all preparing to start another week together.

Shortwave stations aren’t as easy to pinpoint as modern apps allow. Most of the shortwave operations are on different frequencies at different times of the day depending where in the world they’re trying to reach. Sunday evening was a good time to reach the Americas, so some of the foreign broadcasts were aimed our way.

Listening to shortwave was more fun during the Cold War, when propaganda bounced through the night sky. One time I caught Radio Moscow on which a man and woman, both speaking in a Soviet-tinged English accent like the villains in the James Bond movies, tried to make fun of free world stereotypes of the Russians, “They call us the Russian Bear” the man growled to the woman. She responded with a forced laugh and commented on how intolerant the rest of the world was being. No mention was made of the Berlin Wall.

Most blatant though was Radio Cuba on which a typical newscast would be something like this:

Dateline Havana. Chairman Castro today honored some local students as heroes of the revolution.

Dateline Los Angeles. Three bodies were found in a garbage can.

Dateline Havana. Chairman Castro todays praised the island’s hospitals for advancements in medical technology.

Dateline Chicago. Four people were shot during a fight on a subway.

Turn the dials enough and sooner or later there would be BBC Worldwide where crisp English voices seemed to invariably be giving New Zealand Cricket scores. Rah! Rah! Auckland.

Voice of America, you would think, would counteract with baseball scores, but we weren’t the audience they were trying to reach. “And now,” a neutral sounding American voice would say, “the latest cricket scores from overseas.”

Shortwave has changed since then. The Internet has made it less relevant. Now the broadcasts seem to be mostly a haven for preachers sending their messages across the oceans. There is also the calm dignity of the BBC keeping the former empire informed and Voice of America serving as a mother figure for the world.
Even though I have an app, I still like to turn the dial on the old shortwave radio occasionally as it channels the pulses in the night air. Welcomed are the voices that descend from the heavens.

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