Shortwave radio memories: BBC World Service turns 80

On this day in 1932, the BBC World Service started shortwave radio broadcasts.

It was a different world back then. Television was an experimental curiosity, satellites and the Internet were unknown, and so the only way to get news around the world instantly was via shortwave radio. Shortwave radio waves bounce off the ionosphere in our upper atmosphere to return to Earth hundreds or even thousands of miles away. While FM only transmits to spots within the line of sight of the transmitter, a shortwave broadcast can easily cross the Atlantic.

This was especially useful for the BBC, which transmitted news to the far-flung corners of the British Empire. They soon became the leaders of the shortwave radio scene and their broadcasts continue to be of the highest quality.

For most of us these days, shortwave radio is a quaint product of a different age, a bit like the aerogramme. There was a time, though, when shortwave was king, and it’s still vitally important to people in remote and developing regions, and to adventure travelers. This article on BBC interviews four people who still use shortwave to listen to BBC.

I used to love shortwave radio. As a bored child of the Eighties living in the middle of nowhere, it gave me a window on the world. With my clunky old radio I could listen to broadcasts from just about anywhere. Most of the national radio services had broadcasts in English, so I tuned in to news and programs from my favorite stations: Radio Damascus, Deutsche Welle (Germany), Radio Beijing, Radio Moscow (the Soviet Union), Radio Quito (Ecuador) and of course the BBC.

The BBC was my favorite. While not as exotic as Radio Pyongyang or the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Service, the signal was always strong and they had programming on an endless number of topics.

Shortwave radio also gave me an insight into the world that the TV networks couldn’t, or wouldn’t. When the Iran-Iraq War was raging, I listened to both Radio Baghdad and Radio Tehran. It was like they were talking about different wars. Each side claimed crushing victories, often on the same day, and both upheld their cause as just. Comparing the Voice of America and Radio Moscow, I realized it wasn’t just nasty Third World dictatorships that played that game.
There were also the challenges of hunting rare and unusual stations–the pirate stations, or offshore protest stations like The Voice of Peace, and low-power stations from small countries. One I could never track down was Radio Nepal. I still remember the frequency, 5005 khz. No matter what the time of day or night and no matter how favorable the conditions, I could never pick up its signal in North America.

It was fitting, then, that when I first visited Nepal in 1994, I was greeted at the border by a Nepali soldier with his ear glued to a small handheld shortwave set.

“Nixon?” he asked.

“Um, yes,” I replied, not quite knowing what he meant.

“Dead,” he said.

Through the Nepali chatter on his radio I recognized the former president’s name.

“Oh,” I said.

He held out his hand.

“Passport, please.”

In my backpack I was carrying a shortwave set. I hadn’t turned it on that day or I would have known about Nixon. I did use it regularly, though, all that wonderful year as I journeyed overland across Asia visiting some of the countries whose radio stations I’d been listening to since I was a kid. I discovered a lot of strange local stations, but time and again I’d go back to my old favorite, the BBC World Service.

I don’t use shortwave much these days, only when I’m working in remote areas like Ethiopia. Even there satellite television is beginning to take over. For me, like most people in the West, shortwave radio has been displaced by the Internet. That’s not a bad thing, I guess. Still, it’s nice to know you can pick up a radio and hear the other side of the world. I think I’ll tune in today.