The Worldband Receiver

In the right time of day and year, and if you're lucky to be at a good location, and more so if sunspot activity is right, shortwave radio signals can travel incredibly far, sometimes all around the globe so that they may even get to you indirectly, ›from behind‹. This is possible because they are then bounced back and forth between the earth's surface and what is called the ›Kennelly-Heaviside layer‹ up in the stratosphere. And still, if some of these parameters are not at their best, radio signals from powerful transmitters — we are talking up to 500.000 Watts — reach much farther than any other type of radio transmission.

Broadcasting far out and listening back home

When this physical effect was discovered in the 1920s, many countries took it as a chance to easily do ›nation building‹ and use radio as a ›unifying national force‹ inside large countries. Setting up individual ›international services‹ — like Britain's ›Empire Service‹ (later ›BBC World Service‹), Germany's ›Deutsche Welle‹ or the USSR's ›Radio Moscow‹ — they also started to use it to link to compatriotes in their colonies or abroad, and to unstoppably expand their political, cultural and sometimes religious influence far beyond their own national borders. (Read more in IP4's contribution) 

All through the Cold War, international services were kept strong, and two types of listeners developed on this ground. One of them I could witness in my father. Wherever my parents traveled, my father took his worldband receiver. In the morning or evening he switched it on to get the latest news from his homeground, in his own language, in the way and style he was used to. He might have understood the news in the language in several of the countries they traveled, but he prefered to get in touch with home.

On a trip to Cuba in 1990 I used a worldband receiver mostly to a different effect. Sometimes I listened to a bit of Deutsche Welle, but by far the most exciting discoverage was a local radio station: ›Radio Reloj‹, Cuba's 24-hour news-cast-only program. Two months of Spanish lessons were enough to let me get the blatantly propagandistic choice and tone of news items. But Radio Reloj taught me not only about Cuba's suppression mechanisms, it also mirrored the people's pride about their achievement of a more equitable society and their upright insurgency against the capitalist countries' tenacious embargo policy. On a flight from Santiago de Cuba to Havanna, the worldband receiver (and nothing else) was stolen from out of my luggage. Apparently, there was a Cuban luggage worker who was longing for unrestricted, multi-perspective news. Or did he/she only want to hear the world from a culturally different perspective, with 'foreign' ears?

Image below: Shortwave transmitter in Issoudun, France

SWLing and DXing

This other, this foreign cultural perspective is allegedly a central motivation for the second type of worldband radio listener. Already in the 1920s, radio amateurs developed the desire to listen far out into the world in order to gain a first-hand understanding of distant cultures, to receive broader political information, to get closer to the origin of events, to get the ›real story‹ — up to the idea of bonding into technology-enabled transnational groups of xenophile ambassadors of supranational understanding, using radio communication codes and tropes as a kind of ›radiophonic esperanto‹.

Due to the far reach of this waveband, shortwave listening (SWLing) developed into the flagship of this venerable ideal. The ideal is still addressed today by International Services. By the end of the Cold War, many had already given up cultural and political propaganda as their driving goal and changed their agenda to supporting people in suppressive systems in their thriving for liberation, mostly by helping them to distribute information on democratic values.  

But shortwave listening also cultivated a sporty allure in the form of long-distance listening, short ›DXing‹. This hobby developed into a highly skilled technical practice involving a set of common activities like ›DXpeditions‹ to remote spots, logging every radio contact and collecting artefacts that were meant to prove successful reception, primarily so-called QSL cards, formal confirmations of reception that turned into collectors items and helped to gain a higher status in the DXer's community. 

Many of these artefacts are not only curious and beautiful, but they can help understand the conceptions of cultural exchange in these practices, like the QSL-Card tradition and different forms of ›radio iconography‹, for instance as found in radiophilatelic items.

Images below: QSL cards and radiophilately collectors items (from online collections)

What can it tell us?

The main interest of the individual project ›Transborder Radio Reception‹ inside the ›Transnational Radio Encounters‹ project is directed towards these transnational listening modes: Currently executed research methods include onsulting shortwave journals and documents on witnesses of different time periods and areas, tracking the use and meaning of iconographic sources like QSL cards and radiophilately, written sources and asking witnesses about their ›ethic‹ of shortwave listening. By 2016, these investigations will offer insight into a history-loaded tale from a lesser known radio tradition.


Meanwhile, shortwave radio transmission has undergone drastic changes. The internet, in distributing written text as well as online radio streams, has questioned the necessity to uphold shortwave radio. Many frequencies have been shut down, and several international services, like Deutsche Welle, have started to shrink their programs considerably. A question that comes up here is whether online radio streams can have similar communicational qualities as shortwave radio appeared to have, whether it can address similar transnational audiences and whether it can convey the same ideal of supranational understanding in a ›radiophonic esperanto‹.