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Big Stories, Shortwaves

One man’s quest to get his news unfiltered.
Music & Audio, Cassandra Roos, Emerson College, Feb. 28, 2006

One man’s quest to get his news unfiltered.

By Cassandra Roos, Emerson College

We’ve all had moments of aggravation with the news offerings in this country, particularly as the mainstream media landscape becomes ever more consolidated.

Even when you flip through reputable papers like the New York Times do you get the sense that you are only getting America’s point of view? Are you curious about what international news our mainstream media skips altogether or how the same news events might be covered half way across the globe? Well you aren’t alone…

Big Stories, ShortwavesProgressives and curious people around the country want to get foreign news unfiltered. So how can ordinary people do this on the cheap? One option is shortwave radio. Until recently, I’d never heard of shortwave myself. When I think of radio, I mostly think of NPR, a smattering of great indie college stations, and then the drivel of right-wing talk radio and homogenous corporate rock stations. (Check out the Campus Progress crib sheet on Payola)

But shortwave radio is sort of like the wild west of the dial. You can find anything on it. In addition to finding plenty of mountain-dwelling conspiracy theorists, American evangelist programming, static, and weird beeping sounds, you can pick up the widest range of global programming available in any medium. You can listen to everything from BBC World Service, Channel Africa, China Radio International, Kol Israel (Voice of Israel), Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, Laser Radio Latvia, Radio Afghanistan, Radio Cairo, Radio Finland, Radio Free Iraq, Radio Havana, Voice of Mongolia, Vatican Radio, BBC World Radio and Voice of America, the official broadcasting service of the U.S. government.

To figure out where to start, check out OutfarPress: a short, summarized audio compilation of snippets of news from radio stations around the world. The programs are a mixed bag. Though our intrepid and discriminating readers will come across detritus like a Cuban broadcast about the need for the world to rise up against American imperialism, the offerings are eclectic and fascinating. is the project of Dan Roberts. Dan lives in a cabin which uses only solar energy in Mendocino County, California. He runs 65 feet of wire from one end of his house to the other and it is connected to a $1500 shortwave radio which can pick up stations from around the world.  Some, like Radio Havana Cuba, are not available in the U.S. on the internet or through any other form at all. 

Roberts has elaborate audio equipment in his cabin that allows him to record international broadcasts, edit them together and create his weekly rebroadcast.

Roberts has been creating his shortwave reports for about eight years now and he has elaborate audio equipment in his cabin that allows him to record international broadcasts, edit them together and create his weekly rebroadcast called the Dan Roberts Shortwave radio report. His report is currently run on 50 licensed US radio stations, not including illegal pirate stations or international stations.

Roberts explains “basically most radical big international voices aren’t on the internet… the American population think[s] shortwave is something that happened a long time ago [but] shortwave has stayed popular in other countries.”

One of the reasons that shortwave radio has remained so popular outside of the U.S. is because, unlike the internet, it can be listened to with a cheap, compact and portable receiver (around $50) in rural areas, on the ocean, and in regions that have no internet access at all. Many Americans, if they are aware of shortwave radio at all, tend to think of it as a medium favored for homespun, inflammatory right-wing programming. Certainly, some stations do offer bizarre racist, anti-gay, survivalist programming. Southern Poverty Law Center reported on “United Patriot Radio,” an illegal shortwave station in the hills of Tennessee that hosts a feature called “Weapons Wednesday” and often threatens the federal government.

But what exactly is shortwave radio? Shortwave radio signals are sent out differently from regular radio signals running on FM and AM. Shortwave signals are sent up into the Earth’s ionosphere and bounce back skipping around the planet enabling people like Roberts to pick up broadcasts from thousands of miles away.

Major uses of shortwave radio include amateur radio programs, utility stations transmitting information not intended for the public like weather reports for ships, international news broadcasting, domestic broadcasting in countries with widely dispersed populations, specialized naval or military broadcasts or so-called number stations. No one quite knows where number stations come from, but they are streams of seemingly random numbers, words or sounds. Some hobbyists believe that they are used by intelligence agencies to communicate with their agents.

The shortwave radio form has inspired musicians like Stereolab and Wilco. The title of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, a recent Wilco album that samples from shortwave broadcasts, came from one of those shortwave broadcasts of random strings of numbers and words. The broadcasts that inspired Jeff Tweedy were culled from the Conet Project recordings, a four-hour long collection of recordings from numbers stations.

But Roberts’ passion isn’t music but collecting international news stories that are making waves on other continents. For instance, we discussed a series of non-American stories his site on how Argentina and Brazil completely paid back their debts to the International Monetary Fund, and in turn disengaged completely from the organization. He feels that this story is just one example of how vital news, especially from countries that are geographically close, is downplayed in America. He commented that it is a “bummer to me that our media is acting like it is insignificant…really amazing stuff is happening in South America and Latin America.”

Roberts also noted that many of the international stations he listens to may be biased due to governmental censorship or ownership. I asked Roberts whether this situation ever made him hesitate about airing his shortwave report in the U.S. He said he finds that it is still important to get another country’s perspective, to hear what foreigners hear inside their countries, how stories are being presented, and what types of feelings these may generate towards Americans. As he puts it, “you can’t really think globally if you only get media from the U.S.” Roberts started the show concerned that, in recent years, pressing international news has been replaced by more sensational, tabloid-style news that brings in higher ratings. Domestic news organizations, guided at times by commercial interests, worry, Roberts says, about “what the corporation is going to say about this?” when debating whether or not to run a story.

Roberts says that learning to listen to shortwave from around the world takes time: “you have to stay more focused to listen through the distortion and background noise” that can distract a listener. If you have the time and energy you can try this yourself. Roberts suggests just buying any shortwave radio from $50-$500, like some of the Grunding models recommends and then pick up a book for beginners and get at least a 12ft any kind of wire (that doesn’t have a metal casing) to attach to the radio antenna for better reception. It is harder to get shortwave signals with any electromagnetic interference from electronically charged equipment such as florescent lights, computers, and refrigerators. Of course, Roberts doesn’t have a problem with electrical interference since he has no household appliances running on standard electricity.

In January 2001, Groupe France Telecom estimated that 2.5 billion people worldwide listen to shortwave radio, with more than 200 million listing at any moment. Still, shortwave radio is considered a dying or oddball media form in America. But listening to shortwave radio can be an enjoyably nostalgic, low-tech experience. One can be so obsessed with complex technology and innovation that it is easy to forget there are simple ways to connect with someone, somewhere, even very far away.


Illustration: Matt Bors

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