I Become a DXer
It is almost nine o’clock on a Friday night in December. The year is 1972, the sun has been down for hours and a winter storm is brewing outside. I'm a high school sophomore but homework is the farthest thing from my mind. Instead, I'm wedged into a closet that has no clothes but is crammed with shortwave radio equipment.
Hunched over my Allied SX-190 receiver (right), I slowly adjust its tuning knob one way and then the other. The radio’s dial glows in the darkness of the room. I’m listening for an elusive station in the 19-meter band. It’s supposed to be on the frequency of 15,170 kiloHertz but the station’s transmitter has itchy feet and drifts up and down the band. At last some nondescript music fills my headphones and after a brief but agonizing silence my efforts are rewarded. A solemn man announces in French, “Ici Papeete,” followed by a much happier Polynesian voice that cried, “O Radio Tahiti!”. Traditional South Pacific drums pound and I am in DX heaven. Here's what it sounded like, thanks to a recording by a DXer friend of mine, John Herkimer, made on August 14th, 1972:
Like John, I am a "DXer". Who in their right mind would deliberately listen to far off radio stations that you can barely hear? A DXer, a term coined by early radio pioneers. They borrowed it from wire telegraphers who shortened “distance” to “DX”.
Most people thought the idea was pretty weird when I got started in the hobby forty years ago but at least a few had some idea of what I was talking about. Only a couple of generations before, everyone with a radio set had been a DXer. But the concept is completely foreign to people today, particularly those under the age of fifty. Some younger people won’t listen to the radio station across town, let alone one on the other side of the planet. Those few who are interested can choose from thousands of foreign stations that stream digitally on the Web. Why bother straining to hear voices and music through static and interference? Young people today command communication technology that would have amazed NASA in the 1970’s but it denies them a sense of mystery. A computer on the Internet is like a toaster – very useful but short on romance. A shortwave receiver has romance to burn. It can give you, as the computer does not, the thrill of faintly hearing a haunting “local composition for violin and tampura” traveling through space to your ears. It's the tuning signal of Bangladesh Betar or Radio Bangladesh and it reached me in 1973 from the other side of the earth without help from servers, networks and ISP’s. It was the music of the heavens and I haven’t forgotten the electric charge it sent down my spine. Here's a recording of it made in 2012 by John Herkimer. Listen and you'll probably like it as much as I do.
But, to begin this story, we must jump back four years before I went to Tahiti without leaving my room. Nineteen Sixty-eight was a big year for me. I turned 12 while our rented house burned up and the nation’s cities burned down. It was the year of the Tet offensive in Vietnam. And it was the year I fell in love with radio thanks to that little transistor set given me by my aunt. It brought me, among other things, the Rolling Stones and Satisfaction – the first pop song I can recall by title – on local AM rocker WKMI. Then, one night, it dawned on me that its dial became crowded with strange stations after sunset. That was my first encounter with the ionosphere, that mysterious place above the sky that reflects radio waves at certain frequencies back to earth hundreds or thousands of miles from where they started. I listened to stations from all over the eastern half of the country, stations with grand old three-letter calls from the early days of broadcasting like WBZ iBoston, WSM Nashville, and WWL in New Orleans. I heard KDKA in Pittsburgh, the station that proclaims itself the nation’s first radio broadcaster, conveniently ignoring earlier experimental transmissions by other stations like WWJ in Detroit, then known as 8MK. I would have entered these and stations in a DX logbook if I'd had one, which I didn’t. The idea of keeping a log, like the term “DX”, was then unknown to me. But I was learning.
My father was also fascinated by radio and encouraged me. According to family legend, dad helped a school friend beat the Army Air Force to a crashed B-25 bomber in 1943 in order to salvage its radio receiver. His friend, a ham radio and DX nut, may have gone to such extraordinary lengths because it was nearly impossible for civilians to buy shortwave gear during the Second World War. Years later, when I was still small, my father had an old Hallicrafters “S-Line” receiver on his nightstand so he could listen to shortwave broadcasts at night. He had to use headphones because my mother didn’t like “all that static”.
Dad may have had this in mind in 1969 when he presented me with a large multi-band portable shortwave receiver from Radio Shack (they actually sold radios then). All black and chrome, it also covered the police and aviation frequencies. It wasn’t an especially good radio. The pointer dial indicated the frequency you were tuned to only in the most general terms but it was beautiful to me. I lost no time exploring the shortwave bands with it. My father gave me a lot of nice things over the years but that radio was the one I remember most fondly.
A year or two later we bought and jointly assembled a Heathkit GR-78 “general coverage” shortwave receiver (left). This involved a road trip to the company’s factory and showroom in Saint, Joseph, Michigan, about an hour away. The GR-78 wasn’t a great radio either but it was a step up from the portable and – another big plus in my eyes - I put it together more or less with my own hands.
In short order, receiver followed receiver as I climbed the ladder of quality as quickly as my limited teenage budget would allow.
I was still in high school when I acquired the first in a series of “boat anchors”. These older vacuum-tube rigs were big and heavy, hence the name. They were superb receivers if they had been treated with care and some could be champions even after years of neglect and abuse. My rotating radio menagerie included such monsters as a Hammarlund SP-600JX, which weighed about ninety pounds, and a Hallicrafters SX-28A “Super Skyrider” that dated from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Hallicrafters looked great but its innards were worn out and it was not a very good performer.
My all-time favorite was a Collins 51J-4, known to the U.S. military as the R-388 (right). I found it languishing on the kitchen counter of a fellow radio nut in town. Its front panel partially covered in wax from a candle he’d stuck on one corner during a power black out. Even worse, he only used this great shortwave receiver to listen to local AM stations. That was like driving a vintage Jaguar to get groceries at the corner market. Sensing an opportunity that might not come again, I indicated a willingness to take the set off of his hands. Although $250 was Big Money to me then, I got that radio out of Purgatory and into my “shack”. The alignment was out of whack and it looked bedraggled but visions of “Hot DX” filled my head and I didn’t care. The yellow glow of its tuning dial was matched by the mellow tone of the audio that filled my headphones. After a few years I reluctantly parted with the 51J-4 to buy the receiver Collins designed as its successor, the R-390A. This Sherman tank of a radio weighed in at something like a hundred pounds and threatened to crush the folding table I used as a desk. It had about forty vacuum tubes and was then the ne plus ultra of DX receivers. The ‘390 threw off as much heat as a space heater and kept my room quite comfortable on chilly winter nights.
By the mid-1970’s I was far enough along in the shortwave DX hobby to care about the opinion of guys who had been in it a lot longer, decades longer in some cases. They were almost exclusively male, too. DXing wasn’t officially a “boys only” tree house but it might as well have been. Most girls I knew thought it was only fit for lunatics or nerds and they probably right on both counts.
Shortwave Radio and the Male Psyche
It is a curious feature of the male mind that it craves the respect of peers. This respect must be earned, however. In the 1970's most of the Alpha Male shortwave DXers I wanted to impress were members of NASWA, the North American Shortwave Association. It had a reputation as the place to be if you pursued the hobby seriously. “Serious” DXing meant ignoring easy-to-hear stations like the Voice of America and Radio Moscow. Instead, you concentrated on what were known as the “tropical bands” in the lower reaches of the shortwave spectrum. The 120-, 90- and 60-meter bands were then home to many low-powered broadcasters in exotic places like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Peru and Mozambique, and they were a lot harder to hear than the international stations. The “Big Boys” used powerful transmitters and directional antennas to blanket their target areas with huge signals. They spoke in the languages used by their intended audience. Tropical band stations did neither. They had dinky transmitters and simple aerials because most wanted only to serve listeners in their own countries. To receive lots of these stations was good; to get “QSL” cards or letters from them was even better. QSL is another old Morse telegrapher’s term meaning to confirm or verify; in this case that the DXer’s reception report was correct. Having a big pile of QSLs “proved” that you were part of the elite. I cared about such things then even though it sounds rather silly now.. But I still treasure my yellowing collection of verifications, as you'll see.
The “new” 51J-4, my senior in age by four years, allowed me to play in the major leagues. I accumulated a modest but respectable pile of QSLs from tropical band stations but to clinch admission to the inner DX circle in my own mind I needed to bag a really good one. The Collins didn’t let me down.
Late on Christmas Eve 1978 I had a rarely heard South Pacific broadcaster in my sights. I probably thought Santa would give me an early present. He did.
Radio Cook Islands was far from the biggest signal on 60 meters that night but it was loud enough that I could identify the station and get enough details for a decent reception report. A month or two later the mailman brought the treasured card that “proved” that I had heard this 500-watt flea of a station so many thousands of miles away.
The QSL Game
Getting a QSL could be as much of a challenge as hearing the station in the first place. Most “rare DX” stations were small operations in poor countries with few employees and little cash. They might not understand what foreign listeners wanted, particularly if the request came in the DXer's language instead of theirs. Some stations did understand but still refused to answer DX reports. To them there didn't seem to be any compelling reason to help a guy overseas wasting his time trying to hear distant stations like theirs. This forced gung-ho DXers to get creative. They wrote reception reports in the broadcaster's language and enclosed unused “mint” stamps of the station’s country to cover the cost of return postage. Putting a few U.S. greenbacks in the envelope could also yield dramatic results. For really hard cases, a few enterprising DXers got friends traveling overseas to deliver their reports in person.
QSL hunting could be an obsession but it didn't afflict everyone in the hobby. Some shortwave listeners were interested in program content rather than paper souvenirs. But many of those who did pursue QSLs seriously learned about life in other countries and cultures in their own way. Some became experts in the music and culture of the places they listened to. They could tell the difference between the “Andean” music of Peru and neighboring Bolivia, or learned the linguistic etiquette required to pry a card out of a tiny station in rural Indonesia. My QSL collection is quite modest compared to most. But the hobby taught me things that came in handy at school, such as the locations of lobscure countries and the names of their capital cities.
Radio verifications have now become "collectibles" and there is an effort to prevent them from disappearing when their owners die or lose interest. The Committee to Preserve Radio Verifications makes sure vintage beauties like the QSL sent by station XGOA in Chungking in China during World War Two don't go the way of most paper ephermera. The CPRV site has an impressive gallery of QSLs from decades past. There are also links to more information about the history of shortwave broadcasting and DXing. Committee Chairman Jerome S. Berg, himself a long-time shortwave DXer, has written three comprehensive volumes about this. These books - On the Short Waves, 1923-1945; Listening on the Short Waves, 1945 to Today; and Broadcasting on the Short Waves, 1945 to Today - have no competition in the field. I have to admit tha itt was a bit of a thrill to discover that I'm briefly mentioned in the second book because of my time as a sub-editor for FRENDX, the monthly bulltin of the North American Shortwave Association. At various times I handled parts of the monthly loggings section that let members know what everyone was hearing. During the mid 1980's I also briefly edited the "Contact" column in which club members could sound off about one thing or another.
DXing Paradise: Shortwave Radio in the Pacific
No bribe or gift would work if your reception report was vague and the station was a stickler for accuracy. Some fakers tried to scam verifications by sending bogus reports. Those guys were usually run out of the hobby and got few “veries” from the likes of VQO4, the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service; YJB4 Radio Vila in the New Hebrides; or VL9BR Radio Rabaul on the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea. Cards from SIBS and Radio Vila are still among my prized possessions. I love maps and have always appreciated stations that worked them into the design of their QSLs. The Radio Vila card was a bi-fold affair like a greeting card. Hearing that station was almost as difficult as logging Radio Cook Islands and SIBS wasn’t much easier. You had to get up well before sunrise to snag the Pacific and Asian stations and hope that you got what you needed before they faded out as the sky got light.
Radio Rabaul was a special case. Its engineers were known to have very high standards when reading DX reports. I heard the station one morning before rushing off to school. I wasn’t sure if I had enough program details to convince them, so I included an off-air recording on a tiny reel of quarter-inch tape with my written report (at that time few Third World stations had cassette tape players). I got my mother to drive me to the post office the following Saturday to send my report and a few months later I received a verification that is also among my favorites.
The Australian Broadcasting Commission operated VLT-4 in Port Moresby, one of the main stations in Papua New Guinea before that nation achieved independence.
In the early 1970's I considered the Papua New Guinea stations to be the supreme DX challenge.
As mentioned eaerlier, ORTF Radio Tahiti was always a sentimental favorite of mine. The French programming was staid and boring but the Tahitian shows were something else entirely. The Tahitian programs came on at 0200 GMT (now UTC) or 9 p.m. EST. Radio Tahiti was heard best on that drifting 20-kilowatt transmitter on 15,170 kHz in the 19-meter band. The QSL card above comes from the 1971 issue of the Communications Handbook issued annually by Popular Electronics. Its design quickened the male adolescent pulse for reasons having nothing to do with radio. My own card for reception of Radio Tahiti's 25-meter band transmitter (below) was not as stimulating but I still like it.
Radio New Zealand had one of the classic "old school" QSL designs.
DX South of the Border
One of the nicest - and biggest - QSL cards in my collection came from a station much closer to home. Radio Belize in what was then called British Honduras in Central America had a big QSL card that definitely expressed a sense of place!
Some Latin American stations sent really lavish and friendly responses. ZYG862 Radio São Carlos in Brazil responded with a very nice letter, postcards, and a photo after I reported hearing its puny 500-watt 120-meter-band transmitter. Not quite as difficult, but still a nice catch, was HCVG8 La Voz de la Galapagos off the coast of Ecuador. Their letterhead is pretty snazzy and the postcard of the tortoise was a nice touch.
Unlike some other U.S. DXers, I wasn't a great hound for Latin American verifications. Familiarity breeds contempt, I suppose. Stations from Central and South America were all over the 120-, 90- and 60-meter "tropical" bands at night. Some were tough to catch like Radio São Carlos but others were usually as clear as the proverbial bell, such as YVMQ Radio Barquisimeto in Venezuela. Radio Nacional de Colombia was a relatively easy catch too.
Much closer to the "rare DX" edge of the spectrum for me was CP75 Radio La Cruz del Sur in La Paz, Bolivia. It was one of a large number of church-affiliated broadcasters in Latin America.
Hands down my best South American verification was Radio Apintie in the former Dutch colony of Surinam. Its 50-watt transmitter put out an incredibly good signal on 60 meters and the station was friendly and prompt in answering DX reports.
Peru was a tropical band paradise with a plethora of small stations that fascinated many DXers. Unfortunately, I managed to QSL just one: OAZ4L Radio del Pacifico in the capital city Lima. The station included a small cloth pennant with the card.
At one time, Guatemala had a large number of small SW stations for such a small country. Here's the card from one of them: TGVN La Voz de Nahuala.
Honduras also had a fair number of stations on shortwave in the 1970's. HRQ Radio Suyapa "La Cariñosa" was a typical example. HRVC La Voz Evangelica was another U.S. funded religious outlet.
There was really only one shortwave DX target in El Salvador: YSS Radio Nacional in the capital city, San Salvador. There was at least one other station listed but it was never on. YSS operated sporadically in the crowded 31-meter band where it was severely buffeted by interference on all sides. Its QSL card was attractive with a design that harked back to the 1930's and 40's.
Caribbean QSL Party
The glory days of shortwave broadcasting in the Caribbean were over long before I started listening. The Big Feet were relay stations on Antigua (BBC) and Bonaire (Radio Nederland). This card for Radio Nederland's Bonaire transmitter was my first QSL.
By the 1970's there were only two English-language domestic SW stations in the Caribbean. VSI Radio Turks and Caicos south of the Bahamas had a very low-power transmitter. It QSL'ed my report with a friendly typewritten letter on pink paper with a green mimeographed sheet of information about the station. The other one was Radio Grenada, previously known as the more romantic-sounding Windward Islands Broadcasting Service. The station suffered serious damage during the U.S. invasion in 1983. Its card was about as plain as they came.
Francophone ORTF Radio Martinique had a more attractive verification card, in the Gallic tradition.
Most of these stations are long gone, unfortunately. The monthly magazine Popular Communications had an article about the emptying of the shortwave broadcast band in its August 2012 issue. It was appropriately subtitled A Gathering Silence.
Here's a selection of cards from a few of the African stations I heard and verified. One of the rarer stations for U.S. DXers was Radiodiffusion de la République Rwandaise in the "halcyon" years before the genocide.
The Somali Broadcasting Service in Somalia was even harder to hear. That was back when the country on the Horn of Africa had a functioning government.
The Lesotho National Broadcasting Service wasn't easy to find either, having to share a 60-meter channel with Latin American stations that were a lot closer and louder.
The South African Broadcasting Corporation came in two DX flavors. During the apartheid era it had a big international service in many languages called Radio RSA. Its programs were lively and its QSL cards colorful but it was all about defending a social and political system that was indefensible. Radio RSA's transmittting station was named for the politician who led the country into apartheid. The SABC's other shortwave service was the commercial Springbok Radio. It used frequencies in the 90-, 60-, and 49-meter bands to reach listeners way out in the bush.
Radio Mauritanie in far West Africa had music that was exotic to American ears as well as a fairly strong signal that allowed you to enjoy it.
Compared to Asia, Africa was a tempting and somewhat more realistic DX target for listeners like me who lived closer to the Atlantic than the Pacific. The situation was reversed for West Coast listeners. Radio Botswana was among the more difficult southern African stations to log. It was even harder to get them to send you a QSL card. If one arrived, you got a no frills verification without any details. You took what you could get.
Here's the card from the Southern Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation during the days before the end of white minority rule and the country's adoption of a new and ancient name: Zimbabwe.
East African stations were usually the most difficult to hear. Radio Tanzania was no exception even though it used decent power.
Radio Clube de Moçambique was not only a nice DX catch; it was also one of the oldest African shortwave broadcasters.
The Voice of Kenya in Nairobi and the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation both used aerogram QSL forms. Neither was easy to hear in Michigan, although Kampala became less difficult after it replaced is original 7.5 kilowatt units with modern 250 kilowatters.
Radiodiffusion Nationale Tchadienne in central Africa had a nice oversized card.
Stations in France's former African colonies had a cooperative organization that, among other things, provided a generic QSL card design. Radiodiffusion Nationale du Mali and Radiodiffusion Télévision Gabonaise used the same card, the only difference being the station's name.
Fortunately for the QSL hunter, some Francophone African stations designed their own verification cards. They included Radio Togo. It usually had a strong signal on 60 meters around sunset.
The external service of the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation was easy to log. Getting rid of the scamster "pen pals" in the Ghanaian Post Office who wrote you afterwards asking for money, presents and even sponsorship for emigration to the U.S. wasn't so easy.
The card from L'Office de Radiodiffusion et Télévision du Bénin provided a welcome splash of color.
Four evangelical Christian broadcasters called Africa home in the 1970's: ELWA in Monrovia, Liberia, and ETLF Radio Voice of the Gospel in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, had the misfortune of being in countries that were later wracked by civil wars. FEBA, the Far East Broadcasting Association, was in the Seychelles, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean. Trans World Radio opened a station in Swaziland tin the 1980's. Swaziland, like Lesotho, is entirely surrounded by South Africa.
The Not-So-Silky Road to Asian DX
With a few notable exceptions, Asian stations took more effort and luck to log than those in most in other parts of the world if your "shack" was in Michigan. To reach me, signals from much of the region had to pass near or through the auroral area surrounding the north pole. This often caused a peculiar kind of fading that listeners called "flutter" because it was so rapid. Reception could be wiped out completely if the sun was being cranky.
Radio Afghanistan had an overseas service aimed at Europe that included some English programs but it was heard very poorly in the U.S. The Soviet invasion, the Taliban era, and the subsequent U.S. military involvement were all in the future when this verification was issued. The large statue of the Buddha shown on the card was destroyed by the Taliban.
Three ultra-rare subcontinental stations successfully eluded me: Radio Nepal, Radio NYAB in the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, and Radio Maldives from that scattered chain of islands in the Indian Ocean. I never heard any of the regional stations of All India Radio either. However, AIR's overseas service to Europe was a regular visitor. When nothing else was happening in the late afternoon, I often parked the receiver on 11,620 kHz and savored AIR's programs of classical Indian music, for which I have a fatal weakness. Rival Radio Pakistan, then known as the Overseas Service of the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation, wasn't as easy to hear.
Radio Bangladesh began broadcasting right after that country won its independence from Pakistan in the early 1970's. It used the haunting "interval signal" mentioned earlier. Note the continued use of Pakistani postage stamps.
I heard the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation not long before the country adopted the new name Sri Lanka. It was a regular, thanks to fairly high transmitter power and a favorable frequency in the 19-meter band.
Radio Thailand was a much tougher nut to crack despite having an English language transmission allegedly intended for U.S. listeners.
Radio Singapore wasn't logged easily either. But, to be fair, it wasn't beaming my way.
The Voice of Indonesia, the overseas service of Radio Republik Indonesia (RRI), was another Asian station that didn't bowl listeners in the eastern U.S. over with strong signals either.
The Philippine stations most commonly heard in Michigan in the 1970's were both religious operations. The Far East Broadcasting Company was the Protestant contender. The same company also operated shortwave station KGEI in San Francisco. Radio Veritas Asia flew the Roman Catholic banner in Manila.
North Korea's Radio Pyongyang was fairly easy to hear but excruciating to listen to. It tended to use frequencies outside the official shortwave broadcasting bands. It was also notorious for ignoring reception reports from the U.S. I have no idea why it answered mine.
Pyongyang's radio opposition in Seoul, South Korea, the Voice of Free Korea, also came in pretty well and had a more vibrant QSL
During the 1970's there were three shortwave broadcasters in Japan. The state-run network, Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK), had several very low-power SW stations that I never heard, much to my regret. They were prime DX targets for North American listeners. NHK's Big Voice on shortwave was Radio Japan. It favored listeners with a constantly changing array of pretty QSL cards. It took considerably more effort to add NSB, the Nihon Short-Wave Broadcasting Company, to my logbook. This dealt mainly in stock market reports and other information for business professionals. Why the station used shortwave rather than regular AM or FM is a good question. It still exists under a different name. NSB was known for the lighthearted tone of its verification cards.
The third Japanese SW station was run by the U.S. military and was a lingering relic of the Second World War. The Far East Network fed programs to American Forces Network AM and FM stations in Asia as well as ships at sea. It disappeared when satellite feeds came along.
Two mutually hostile stations claimed to speak for China on shortwave. Radio Peking was the voice of Mao Tse-Tung's communist regime. It wasn't Radio Beijing yet since the old Wade-Giles romanization system hadn't given way to pinyin. Radio Peking always began its broadcasts with a tune called The East is Red. Add some polar flutter and it sounded rather exotic but it was by far the best part of the program because the English-language service to North America was deadly dull. The station also irritated QSL hunters by issuing no-detail "non-verification" verifications that basically just a thanked you for your report. The situation improved considerably after it became Radio Beijing and later still China Radio International.
The other Chinese station was the Voice of Free China based in Taipei. It carried the flame of the Kuomintang regime that decamped to Taiwan when the communists took over the mainland in 1949. VOFC also broadcast in English to North America but its signal was nowhere near as strong and omnipresent as Radio Peking's. It's programs were more entertaining, though, and the card it issued was a bona fide QSL.
The war in Vietnam was winding down for U.S forces by the time I was deeply involved with the shortwave listening hobby. Even so, the north's overseas radio service, the Voice of Vietnam, reached out to the rest of the world in a variety of languages including English. However, Hanoi's beam to the U.S. wasn't heard very well in eastern North America. although in later years it arranged relays from stations a lot closer to the U.S. like Radio Habana Cuba and it became hard to miss. VoV's verification was a no-nonsense affair but the person who sent mine neglected to fill in all the blanks!
Sadly, South Vietnam's shortwave operation was toast by the time I hit my stride. I spent hours trying to hear VTVN but, alas, never did. The mediocre receivers and antennas I had at the time just weren't up to it.
Radio Ulanbator in Mongolia was just as exotic and difficult to hear as the name suggests. Nice card too!
The small nation of Brunei shares the island of Borneo with Malaysia. Its shortwave station - Radio Talivishen Brunei - was not an easy catch for me. You'll note that the word for "television" is spelled differently on the front and back of the QSL.
Radio Tashkent was the external radio service of the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, now Uzbekistan. Many of the nominally "independent" countries in the former Soviet Union had such stations and most were not too difficult to hear. Radio Tashkent was different from the rest because it broadcast only from transmitters within Uzbekistan. The others could come from anywhere in the USSR's vast territory. When I showed this card to my father, he smiled and his eyes lit up. He'd always thought of Tashkent, astride the "Silk Road" from China to the West, as one of the most romantic and exotic places on earth. The real Tashkent may not be that but it was still a nice moment for me.
During the 1980's there was a craze among Japanese teenagers for what they called the "BCL" (broadcast listener") hobby. With so many young Japanese tuned into shortwave, investors in the U.S. sensed an opportunity. They would set up a station on the island of Saipan in the Marianas to beam rock music and commercials to Japan. Unfortunately for their business model, the fad flamed out before KYOI got on the air and it didn't last very long. Its QSL card was cute, though.
Touring Europe by Radio
Most European shortwave broadcasters beamed English-language programs toward North America in the 1970's. Most were hard to miss but not all. Polskie Radio in Warsaw and Radio Bucharest in Romania had North American services but they came off second-best in the interference arena. For DXers the most interesting stations used much lower power than the internationals. These included Radio Andorra in the principality of that name between France and Spain in the Pyranees.
Also tempting were several regional stations in West Germany, as it was before reunification. These stations went on the air not too many years after the Second World War ended and most were still on shortwave in the 1970's. Logging them in the U.S. was tricky since they were usually smothered by their bigger neighbors. One of these was Südwestfunk on 41-meters.
Speaking of the Berlin Wall, the former East Germany had its own shortwave voice called Radio Berlin International. West Germany's international service was Deutsche Welle, still going in much reduced form for the reunified country. RBI was an outdated relic of the Cold War that disappeared once the two Germanies got back together.
Italy offered another nice catch. The overseas service of Radiotelevizione Italiana from Rome was easy to hear, though thuddingly dull, which is a surprise given the vitality of that country. Much harder to log but considerably more interesting was RAI's small transmitter at Caltanisetta in Sicily. It carried an overnight music show called Notturno dall'Italia for the benefit of fishermen and others around the Mediterranean. RAI's verification cards drew on Italy's rich heritage in the visual arts. with spectacular results.
Also on the Italian peninsula, though not part of Italy politically, is the temporal home of the Roman Catholic Church. Vatican Radio broadcast to all parts of the world in many languages and was quite easy to find. As far as I know, it was the only international shortwave station offering programs in Latin.
Iceland's state broadcaster Rikisutvarpid got on shortwave through the "back door". It used the radio-telephone "utility" station run by the Icelandic Post Office to relay programs to the country's fishing fleet. This QSL is for a regular utility transmission.
Shortwave Crossroads: the Middle East
Nothing stirred up shortwave activity like conflict, of which this region has far too much. Even so, U.S. listeners could find the Middle East to be a challenge in the 1970's, especially if they wanted English-language programs. Most stations had English services for Europe but they were at times and on frequencies that didn't work well for North America. This was true even of Kol Israel, the external service of the Irsael Broadcasting Authority. It's English transmission at 3 p.m. EST was on the odd frequency of 9,009 kHz with a modest power of 50 kilowatts. The callsign 4XB31 was never announced on air.
Later on, Israel added a large number of very high-power SW transmitters and an English service for North American listeners that was usually "armchair copy".
The biggest voice in the Arab world was Radio Cairo in Egypt. However, the station's English beam to North America was usually unintelligible because of poor (sometimes non-existent) modulation. Nice QSL, though.
Israel's other immediate neighbors were also on shortwave. Radio Lebanon, the Syrian Broadcasting and TV Service, and Radio Jordan were somwhat more difficult to catch in the Seventies.
Iraq's Radio Baghdad (pre-Saddam Hussein) and People's Democratic Republic of Yemen Broadcasting Service in Aden were also on the air. In the days before the two Yemens were united, the southern part had a station in Sana'a that was heard somewhat better than Aden but seldom replied to reports.
Iraq's perrenial adversary Iran had a better than average shortwave presence. The Farsi service of National Iranian Radio and Television on 15,084 kHz often boomed in with great classical Persian music. The English service on 9,022 kHz was a different story. This was in the days before the Shah was deposed.
Generally good signals could also be expected from Turkish Radio and Television and Radio Kuwait.
Some if the emirates in the Gulf used shortwave to a greater or lesser extent, including Dubai Radio and Colour Television and the Qatar Broadcasting Service. The Dubai station stiffed me with postage due!
The Cyprus Broadcasting Service had an advantage that most other stations didn't enjoy: it didn't need its own SW transmitters. It used the BBC World Service's relay station at Limassol instead.
Home Sweet Home: DXing North America
Living in Michigan as I do, Canada wasn't the first country I thought would provide a DX challenge. The country's international service, Radio Canada International, had great programs, especially when it relayed CBC domestic programs like As It Happens and the World At Six. But rare DX it was not. However, Radio Canada International wasn't the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's only foray into shortwave. The public broadcaster also used tiny transmitters on the 49-meter band to relay its AM stations in Saint John's, Newfoundland (300-watt CKZN) and Vancouver, British Columbia (500-watt CKZU). The former was slightly easier to hear in Michigan but not by a wide margin.
Several commercial AM stations in Canada also maintained low-powered shortwave transmitters for the benefit of listeners who were literally in the bush. I managed to log all but two of them, and one of those was on the air rarely, if at all. I did catch the ten-watt transmitter of CKFX in Vancouver. By far the easiest to hear was CFRX on 6,070 kHz, relaying CFRB "Radio Ten-Ten" in Toronto. It's elderly, custom-built, one-kilowatt transmitter is still on the air with news-talk programming. To the east, CFCF-AM in Montreal had a 500-watt SW relay on 6,005 kHz that was considerably more of a challenge. CFCX was very weak during the day and blown away by interference at night. Its parent station was one of the pioneer AM broadcasters in Canada. Another small but venerable Canadian shortwaver was CHNX in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I could hear it occasionally during a narrow window around dawn when there was less interference on 6,130 kHz.
In the early '70's the U.S. government's official Voice of America didn't have much SW competition on the home front. There were just three privately owned stations. WNYW Radio New York Worldwide was the direct descendent of WRUL in Boston. It went on the air before World War Two as an educational station. When the studios moved to the Big Apple the transmitters stayed in Scituate, Massachusetts. Later on, religious broadcaster Family Radio bought WNYW and it became WYFR. KGEI in San Francisco also dated back to the War. In the 1970's it was run by the Far East Broadcasting Company. Despite that name and the design of its QSL card, the station called itself "La Voz de la Amistad" and beamed religious programming in Spanish to Latin America. The third private station was also the most controversial. WINB in Red Lion, Pennsylvania, aired religious fare that was well to the right of center politically. This prompted the Federal Communications Commission to issue a moratorium on further shortwave broadcasting licenses in the 1960's. At the time there wasn't much demand for them so few noticed. The FCC lifted the freeze eventually and more stations began appearing. One was KNLS "The New Life Station", a religious outfit in Alaska. There are still a number of private shortwave broadcasters in the U.S. Ironically, most get by airing a mixture of religion and right-wing politics.
Radio on the Wild Side: Clandestines & Pirates
Most stations are at least nominally legitimate because they either have government licenses or are the government. But others are decidedly unofficial. they're the “clandestine” and “pirate” stations that excite DXers precisely because they aren’t on the air legally. The difference between the two is a matter of intent and the dividing line can get fuzzy..
Pirates generally shied away from politics in favor of music in Europe and a mix of music and comedy in the U.S. They were operated by people who either wanted a broadcasting license and couldn’t get one or didn’t give a damn.
In contrast, clandestine stations exist to make political points. Some are operated by exile groups or organizations on the political fringe; others, the so-called “black” clandestines, are secretly sponsored by governments to make trouble for their enemies. Stations in the former category included Radio España Independiente. It claimed to be the voice of the Spanish Communist Party opposed to dictator Francisco Franco and broadcast from several Eastern European countries. REI and its big Russian-made transmitters weren't especially hard to hear but I sent away for its card anyway because it featured artwork created for the station by Pablo Picasso.
The other Iberian clandestine of the 1970’s didn’t have Great Power support. Radio Euzkadi supported the Basque separatist group ETA and claimed – as implied by its QSL card below – to operate from a secret valley high up in the Pyrenees on the Spanish-French border. The station's true location was a lot less romantic. It actually transmitted from a site near Caracas, Venezuela, safely on the other side of the Atlantic. All correspondence was handled by an office in Paris, France.
Cuba and Central America were also magnets for clandestine radio activity (the image at left is a collage from FRENDX, the monthly bulletin of the North American Shortwave Association). I logged "Radio Cuba Libre", an anti-Castro station run by the Frente Cubana Revolucionaria, as far back as May 1975. The transmitter on 7,085 kHz was most likely in the Miami, Florida, area. In January 1988, I recorded broadcasts from three other clandestines opposed to communist rule in Cuba. La Voz de Alpha 66 was heard from 0206 to 0237 UTC on January 20th on 6,668 kHz. The mobile SW transmitter was reportedly inside a van driven to various locations in and around Miami. The Alpha 66 organization also bought time on legal stations for its programs
The location of the Radio Caiman transmitter was unknown except to its operators. The Clandestine Radio Web page says the station was run by the "Comite Pro Libertad de Cuba, which is an unknown opposition group whose only public effort was Radio Caiman. The station was well-known to be a covert CIA operation that targeted the Cuban youth." In other words, it was a classic example of a "black" clandestine. I recorded Radio Caiman on 9,960 kHz between 1335 and 1420 UTC (8:35 to 9:20 a.m. EST) on January 20th:
The third anti-Castro clandestine recorded that week was La Voz del CID (Cuba Independiente y Democratica). According to Clandestine Radio.com the station was operated by "a Miami-based exile group that had powerful Washington connections during the 1980's, with support from the CIA (1983-1996)...(the) station broadcast from various sites throughout the Caribbean during the 1980's, including via Radio Rumbos in Venezuela and Radio Clarín in the Dominican Republic. Eventually, CID found a home in El Salvador, where it broadcast via high-powered transmitters from the early 1990's until mid-1997 when covert aid from the U.S. was either pulled or tightened." When I recorded La Voz del CID on January 20th, 1988, it reportedly had a transmitter in Honduras. This broadcast was on 9,940 kHz between 1945 to 2030 UTC (2:45 to 3:30 p.m. EST). Like Alpha 66, the group also bought airtime on legitimate stations like WRMI in Miami.
El Salvador and Nicraragua had their share of clandestine radio activity in the 1980's too. There were two stations representing competing factions in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) that opposed the government of El Salvador. Radio Farabundo Martí was the shortwave voice of the Frente Popular de Liberación. It used a low-power, mobile transmitter in El Salvador's province of Chalatenango and later went on the air legally with a license from the Salvadoran government. This recording is of a clandestine transmission on January 22nd, 1988, between 2325 and 2345 UTC (6:25 to 6:45 p.m. EST). The transmitter had horrible frequency stability and drifted, sometimes quite rapidly, between 6,639 kHz and 6,687 kHz.
The other FMLN faction, the "People's Revolutionary Army", ran Radio Venceremos. It also used mobile transmitters inside El Salvador. Though primarily a shortwave operation, the Clandestine Radio site says it also tried using FM transmitters, one of which scored a military victory: "One such FM transmitter was booby-trapped with a bomb that exploded after it was captured in 1984 by the government's leading combat commander, Col. Domingo Monterrosa, blowing up his helicopter and killing all on board." I recorded Radio Venceremos on 6,600 kHz (variable) between 0000 and 0045 UTC (7 to 7:45 p.m. EST) on January 21st, 1988:
Radio Liberación-Sistema Radial de la Resistencia Nicaragüense spoke for the "Contra" groups opposed to the Sandinista regime in Managua. In a column in the monthly Popular Communications, veteran DXer Gerry Dexter reported that the station did receive U.S. government support despite statements to the contrary. The station's 50-kilowatt transmitter was reportedly in Honduras. It was on 5,929.3 kHz in the crowded 49-meter band, a frequency that suffered severe interference from much stronger European stations. This transmission was recorded on January 20th, 1988, between 0240 and 0330 UTC (9:40 to 10:30 p.m. EST):
Radio Enoch in England was a hybrid pirate-clandestine. It intermittently broadcast music along with commentary hostile to foreign immigrants in the United Kingdom. Critics called it racist. The station was named for ultra-conservative Tory MP Enoch Powell who made waves in the 1960’s and 70’s speaking against non-white migrants, although he disclaimed any connection with the station. I heard Radio Enoch during a week-long stay in London in 1979 along with my friend and fellow DXer Bill Whitacre. We spent several exciting hours one weekend at the home of British DXer Gordon Pilling in Hounslow near Heathrow airport. Bill connected a cassette recorder to Gordon's Collins R-390A receiver and recorded a bunch of the pirates we heard. He later did a compilation of these recordings for a gathering of DXers in Ontario, Canada. My thanks to John Herkimer of the Committee to Preserve Radio Verifications who rescued this from oblivion and made these historic recordings available again. Here's a clip of Radio Enoch with Bill's introduction. The audio quality is pretty bad but there is a clear station identification at the end:
A reception report sent after I got home eventually produced the verification below that is probably the rarest in my collection. We lheard later that Radio Enoch seldom replied to letters from listeners. The operators must have been tickled to get one from a Yank and broke with tradition. The DXer was grateful for the QSL but the rest of me found the station’s political and social views abhorrent.
Some DXers spent almost all of their time chasing radio pirates in the U.S. and Europe. That wasn’t really my thing but I did log a few here and there, including a bunch from the British Isles and Western Europe while I was studying in Ireland in 1977. These included European Music Radio and Radio Solent City International, both in the United Kingdom. During this era some European pirates reportedly built small, disposable transmitters and planted them in remote locations with simple longwire antennas. That way they'd lose only some easily replaceable equipment if it was discovered by the authorities.
Here's a brief audio clip from Radio Solent City International recorded in London in 1979 by Bill Whitacre. This was just two years after I had heard Solent City from Ireland and the announcer mentions that the station had come back on the air only a short time before.
Bill and I also caught European Music Radio. In this clip the announcer asks listeners seeking QSL cards to send return postage.
Skipping back to 1977, ABC England was one of the other pirates I logged in Ireland. Unfortunately I didn't take a recorder.
The three other English pirates I heard in Ireland were Radio Zodiac International, Radio Gemini, and Radio Maniac.
Radio Enoch wasn't the only pirate Bill and I heard during that 1979 trip to London. There were lots of others on shortwave and mediumwave in and around the city at that time. Reports to several yielded interesting and friendly verification letters from Radio Jackie, Radio City, North London Radio, and Edge City Radio. Radio Jackie claimed to operate from the Netherlands but the strength of its signal suggested that it was a lot closer. Bill Whitacre recorded Radio Jackie using its own 48-meter transmitter as well as a relay of the station by European Music Radio:
Here's a short sample of how Radio City sounded on March 25th, 1979:
Listen to this clip of North London Radio, or "NLR", recorded on March 25th, 1979:
In the introduction to his pirate radio compilation, Bill Whitacre mentions that he and I heard and sent reports to nearly 15 illicit stations during that DX session on March 25th, 1979. One station that didn't answer was Radio Amy, a self-styled "community access" pirate. If you listen to this audio clip you'll understand why. Responding to a listener's letter that was midly critical of Radio Amy's attitude toward mere music pirates, the announcer proceeded to deliver an amusing jeremiad against DXers and DXing. You decide if he was right or not:
Back home in Michigan the following year, I logged high-profile Irish pirate Radio Dublin International, one of the few Euro-pirates that routinely made it across the Atlantic.
Even before that I heard Radio Northsea International, one of the last of the ship-based offshore commercial pirates in Europe.Its mediumwave, FM and shortwave signals came from the M/V Mebo II, the vessel pictured on the station's QSL card.
Whether run by amateurs or professionals, the European pirates usually had a much slicker sound than their North American cousins which were often rather crude affairs technically. One of the exceptions was the legendary Radio Clandestine with its clever parodies of pop music announced by “R.F. Burns” (the name is an inside radio techie joke). Here's an edited Radio Clandestine broadcast recorded on the afternoon of November 23rd, 1980, on 11,835 kHz between 1720 and 1742 UTC (12:20 to 12:42 p.m. EST):
Radio Clandestine was also unusual because it used frequencies inside the regular shortwave broadcast bands. I also recorded broadcasts by three other prominent U.S. pirates of the early 1980's: Radio Confusion, KVHF, and Jolly Roger Radio. The last two were both heard on November 9th, 1980. KVHF was one of the few shortwave pirates on the West Coast and when the FCC busted it in late 1980 or early 1981 its location turned out to be in Santa Ana, California. Here's a short clip of the KVHF broadcast on 6,420 kHz beginning at 0615 UTC (1:15 a.m. EST):
Jolly Roger Radio evidently had a death wish because it was on for hours non-stop the night I heard it and even announced the number of a pay phone where one of the "Pirate Band" stood by to take listener calls. The person or persons behind the operation also had a penchant for British and American folk music. Inevitably it was raided by the FCC and shutdown. Jolly Roger Radio hinted that it was located in Indiana and that turned out to be true when the "bust" went down in the college town of Bloomington. I recorded the broadcast on 6,210 kHz between 2300 and 0200 GMT (6 to 9 p.m. EST). This short excerpt gives the flavor of the program:
Radio Confusion was a typical rock music pirate. In this case the operators may have suffered from delusions of grandeur since their broadcast on October 20th, 1980, was billed as the station's "World Service". On the other hand, its frequency - 13,992 kHz, just below the 20-meter amateur band - was high for a pirate and got out well. This recording was made beginning at 0100 GMT (8 p.m. EST). Radio Confusion was lucky: it was never busted by the feds.
The best published account of U.S. pirate radio is Andrew Yoder's Pirate Radio Stations: Tuning In to Underground Broadcasts in the Air and Online (McGraw-Hill, second edition, 2002), now unfortunately out-of-print. It is well worth picking up if found on the second-hand market, especially if it still has the CD in the pocket on the inside of the back cover. This has brief audio clips from nearly 70 U.S. and European pirate stations recorded between the late 1960's and the early 2000's.
Most pirates hovered just above and below the 49- and 41-meter bands used by regular broadcasters so their under-powered signals wouldn’t be stomped on. American pirates preferred converted amateur radio gear of somewhat higher wattage than that used across the Atlantic but with inferior audio quality. That was particularly true of pirates that transmitted in single-sideband, the same mode used by amateur radio operators. SSB takes careful tuning by the listener to get right and even then doesn't sound very good for music.
U.S.pirares could get away with it if they kept programs short and transmissions random. But even then a raid could never be ruled out as the FCC blew hot and cold over illicit broadcasting. Pirates in the regular AM and FM bands were most likely to hear a knock on the door but plenty of shortwave buccaneers met the same fate. It seems that the decision by Congress ordering the FCC to approve legal Low-Power FM (LPFM) stations has taken some wind out of pirate sails in more recent years.
For some reason I wasn't especially gung-ho about collecting verifications from U.S. pirates. But I did get cards from the Voice of Venus MPRS ("Minnesota Pirate Radio System") and WDAB.
Things That Go Beep in the Night
A special kind of shortwave station has a "program" as boring as it is vital. They are the time and frequency standard stations. They tick, announce the time in sync with super-accurate atomic clocks, and maintain their carrier frequencies exactly. If you have one of those "atomic clocks" in your house and you live in the U.S. or Canada, it gets its accuracy from WWVB on 60 kHz. Its shortwave cousins are WWV in Fort Collins, Colorado, and WWVH in Hawaii. They were operated by the U.S. National Bureau of Standards now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Both stations are still on the air.
Canada also had a similar station in CHU at Ottawa, Ontario.
Japan's counterpart was JJY. Like all Japanese shortwave stations, it had a colorful QSL card.