August 18, 2021
This article is an expanded version of the one which ran in the 2021 issue of Be Ready! magazine.
What is Shortwave Radio and Where Did It Come From?
Ask most people under 50 if they know what shortwave radio is, or if they have ever listened to a shortwave radio broadcast, and you will either get a blank stare or a “no”. Shortwave radio has been around since the advent of radio in the late 1800s and is basically long-range radio.
The “Father of Radio”, Guglielmo Marconi, crossed the sea with the first trans-Atlantic radio broadcast on December 12, 1901. 1901! This radio transmission was made in Cornwall, England and was heard in St. Johns, Newfoundland. Long before satellite television of the 1970s, or even television broadcasts of the late 1940s, Americans got their international news directly from where it was occurring, thousands of miles away, and they listened in on shortwave radios.
During WWII, there was no CNN, but Americans could listen in on European government broadcasts and even military radio traffic right in their homes. Ever see a picture of a family in the 1930s or 1940s huddled around a large wooden radio receiver in the living room? Well, that is a shortwave radio which is a true AM receiver that receives broadcasts in the 1900 kHz to 29999 kHz frequency range (or 1.900 to 29.999 MHz). Some of these later radios also had the ability to pick up MW (Medium Wave) as well - you know that as commercial AM radio which receives broadcasts from 520 kHz to 1710 kHz. These radios began being sold commercially in the 1920s when commercial radio stations started broadcast programming which consisted of news, music, dramas, and other programs. Before this time, amateur radio operators, or HAMs as they are commonly known today, built their own equipment to listen in on ocean liners and military transmissions as well as speaking to each other over long distances. Regarding ocean liners, The Wireless Ship Act of 1910 required that all ocean vessels, with a capacity to carry 50 or more people, have radio equipment on board for emergencies. Due to limitations of space, I cannot give a detailed history of the beginnings of shortwave radio, but if you are interested, I highly recommend the book On the Shortwaves, 1923-1945 by Jerome S. Berg.
I started listening to shortwave radio in the early 1970s with my Ukrainian immigrant grandparents. My grandfather, who spoke at least five languages, would listen to broadcasts from all over the world with a portable, late-1960s, Realtone model 2424 radio. All over the world? Yes, all over the world and just with the built-in telescopic antenna, and this is due to the type of radio frequencies that shortwave broadcasts on. Although my grandfather would translate German, Polish, Russian, and other language broadcasts for me, we also listened to Voice of America which was a U.S. government broadcast, in English, to the world.
Commercial Shortwave Broadcasting
In the late 1980s, a federal case was won by WRNO in which the decision allowed shortwave radio to become commercial. That meant that shortwave radio stations could sell commercial airtime and operate like any other AM or FM radio station. Prior to this, private shortwave stations in the U.S. had to be basically “not for profit” and were prohibited from selling commercial advertising. So, the only broadcasts coming out of our country to the world were religious broadcasts, not for profit political group broadcasts, and Voice of America which, as stated previously, was the U.S. government broadcast to the world in order to spread “democracy” (even though the USA is a Republic, not a Democracy, but that’s a subject for another article).
In the early 1990s, in order to counter the left-leaning Clinton administration, as well as leftist mainstream media, many hardcore conservative, and libertarian-leaning, radio talk show hosts on AM began buying airtime on shortwave stations such as WWCR in Nashville, TN. In doing so, they “filled their holes” as if they had broadcasts on say 30 AM (medium wave) radio stations nationwide, but there was no station in Texas that carried their show, Texas residents could listen in via shortwave radio. Remember, there was no internet to speak of during this time, outside of computer bulletin board services which only a very small fraction of the U.S. population used.
By 1993, shows like For the People, Radio Free America, America’s Town Forum, and many others were being broadcast for several hours daily, worldwide, Monday through Friday, covering political topics the mainstream news would not cover. The news about shortwave radio spread like wildfire through political and conservative magazines like Backwoods Home, Media Bypass, American Survival Guide, and through political newsletters and conservative group gatherings. Many of the talk show hosts also promoted their shortwave broadcast and re-broadcasts via their AM shows. People who were sick of left-leaning “news” were flocking into Radio Shack to get their own shortwave radios and soon getting a conservative perspective no matter where they lived as the broadcasts reached from “sea to shining sea”. By the time the mid-1990s came around, there were dozens of programs to listen to which not only covered politics, but also alternative medicine, preparedness, firearms, and other topics interesting to those who were conservative and self-sufficient. Even Larry Pratt, from Gun Owners of America, got his first talk show on shortwave, via WWCR, every Thursday night as the guest host of America’s Town Meeting. The Christian shows also increased with many churches around the country rebroadcasting their Sunday sermons in half-hour or one-hour timeslots.
Of course, the liberals didn’t like it at all. The usual leftist organizations attacked these shows and even one called host Stan Solomon a racist, even though he’s Jewish and his wife is black (the leftists didn’t make any sense back then either). Even President Bill Clinton got into the act denouncing this medium, during a large press conference, by saying that Americans should not be listening to shortwave radio shows. Of course, he would attack shortwave as the liberty-minded programs were becoming very popular, and because of the hundreds of show episodes exposing his extramarital affairs, transfers of U.S. military technology to China, and even his visits to Moscow as a college student during the late 1960s.
Shortwave commercial broadcasting hit its peak in the late 1990s and continued pretty strong until about 2005 when internet web-based “radio” became more widely available. Shortwave radio shows were what the internet is now with conservative and alternative news websites and podcasts. When cell phones advanced into smartphones, to the point where they became an alternative replacement for computers and radios, more of these conservative talk shows made the transition to internet-only podcasts in order to save money on airtime fees, but not all did.
What Can I Listen To?
Alternative News and Talk: Currently, there are over of dozen pro-gun, conservative-, libertarian-type-alternative talk and news shows to listen to. The largest and oldest would be The Alex Jones Show which first hit the shortwaves in the late 1990s and continues on to this day with up to four hours of daily broadcasting. So, if you can’t pick up Jones on a local AM station, you can hear him on 12.160 MHz from 11AM-3PM CST M-F, or on 4.840 MHz every M-F from 9PM-1AM CST (the show also airs on weekends). The Power Hour broadcasts on 7.490 MHz, also on WWCR, from 7AM-9AM CST M-F. This show covers everything from alternative medicine to constitutional political topics, including preparedness, from a libertarian and conservative perspective. If you are looking for conservative political news topics from a Christian view, one show is Call to Decision by Pastor Butch Paugh which airs M-W starting at 10:00PM CST on 3.215 MHz. Another show which covers alternative and herbal medicine is Essentials of Life and Wellness with Dr. William Wong. This show airs Tuesdays from 6:30-7:00PM CST on 6.115 MHz, and on Saturdays from 9:30-10:00PM on 3.215 MHz. For economic collapse information, tune into Financial Survival M-F on 6.115 MHz starting at 7:00PM CST. Even well-known financial expert Dave Ramsey shares his investment advice, with a shortwave re-broadcast of his syndicated AM radio show, on 9.930 MHz weekdays from 1:00PM-4:00PM CST. There are even shows which covers the current state of shortwave broadcasting worldwide with current frequency information. One that has been around for three decades is Glen Houser’s World of Radio which can be heard on 7.780 MHz, via WRMI, on Wednesdays at 4:00PM CST. There are a lot more shows so refer to the program guides on the station’s websites. Amateur Radio Roundtable is another heard via WBCQ, for two hours every Thursday, on 7.490 MHz starting at 4:00PM.
Entertainment: If you like old time radio shows, there are a few programs which play them. Area 61 Old Time Radio airs on WBCQ from 6:00-8:00 PM CST, M-F on 6.160 MHz. This show plays old-time radio programs from the 1930s-1950s like: Gunsmoke, Space Patrol, Amos & Andy, Dragnet, Lone Ranger, Martin & Lewis, and others. Unshackled, is a Christian-produced radio drama which started over 70 years ago has produced over 3,600 episodes. It is aired on a few shortwave stations, at different times, and one time slot is from 4:00-4:30PM CST, every Saturday on 15.825 MHz. There are also old-time music programs like The Lost Discs Radio Show from 9:00-10:00 PM on 6.160 MHz every Saturday. If you’re old enough to know what a 45 record is, then this show may be for you. WTWW broadcasts rock and roll and pop music to the world from the great state of Tennessee on 5.085 MHz from 8:00PM to midnight every day of the week. Like organ music? There’s even something for you with Live Theatre Organ from the Ozarks at 7:30 PM CST every Saturday, also on 5.085 MHz.
Remember, you can listen to these shows almost anywhere in the USA, and in many cases the world, depending on where the radio station is beaming the signal to (also called a target country or target region). I always brought a compact shortwave radio with me on my business travels and often listened to American broadcasts while in Europe. Many of these shows are also broadcast so that our troops can hear them while stationed in the middle east and elsewhere. This was the reason that the late Rush Limbaugh bought shortwave airtime for many years.
Foreign Government Broadcasts: The internet, namely web-based broadcasting, not only negatively affected the amount of shortwave radio shows but also affected the many foreign news broadcasts. Government broadcast powerhouses like The Voice of Russia, Swiss Radio International, and others, stopped broadcasting on shortwave in favor of internet only as far back as 2004. The main reasons were similar to the U.S. talk shows, which was to save money and take advantage of internet podcasts. However, millions of listeners were lost as was the ability to listen in on important news broadcasts or information during a crisis, from those nations. If the internet is out, so is an internet broadcast. However, there are still many government shortwave broadcasts out there. The British Broadcast Corporation (BBC) is a mega news organization which broadcasts 24 hours per day worldwide on about two-dozen frequencies. Sure, the news isn’t right-wing conservative, but the BBC has reporters in almost every country on earth, and during any regional conflict, or global disaster, the BBC will at least give you an idea of what is going on in real time. Radio Educación is an official Mexican broadcast on 6.185 MHz. There are many more programs so refer to the links listed under Live Shortwave Guides. Many countries have leased airtime on WRMI and send their programing to be broadcast. These government broadcasts are: Radio Prague, Radio Slovakia, Radio Argentina, Radio Taiwan International, Radio France International, Israel Radio, and Radio Poland. Although these countries have stopped broadcasting from their own transmitters, they are still reaching many parts of the world via Miami, Florida.
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” – Sun Zhu. China Radio International (CRI) is the most aggressive government shortwave broadcaster which beams programming worldwide 24/7 in over 50 languages. CRI also features Chinese music and “Learn Chinese” language class shows. Of course, all information is from a communist Chinese perspective. Another communist nation, which will most likely be involved in some sort of conflict with the USA, is North Korea and you can hear their communist propaganda broadcast to America every day on 9.435 MHz and 11.710 MHz from 9:00AM-10:00AM CST. And this paragraph would not be complete with good old Cuba. Radio Havana beams in loud and clear with English broadcast programs every day from 7:00PM-11:00PM on 6.000 MHz. If you like Cuban music, you are in for a treat. The radio hosts speak better English than most of my high school teachers, but, yet again, from a communist perspective. In times of conflict, monitoring these broadcasts may give you a better perspective on what is going on with “the other side” than mainstream news would.
Military Transmissions: These consist of USAF Hurricane Hunters, EAMs, FEMA, MARS, and other U.S. military forces transmissions. Can you tune into military broadcasts? Yes, you can, and many are unencrypted. During hurricanes, the USAF will deploy Hurricane Hunters which are specially-equipped aircraft to closely monitor the strength and path of hurricanes as well as weather conditions. It's basically a flying meteorological lab. If you want to know what is going on with this type of severe weather, 11.398 MHz SSB is one frequency you can tune in. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a ton of frequencies allocated to them for disasters, and most of these frequencies are broken up by region. If the grid goes down, and the internet is out, you can listen in to determine what you should do.
Emergency Action Messages (EAM) are the “secret squirrel” of U.S. government transmissions and are connected to the king of all disasters, nuclear war. These transmissions are broadcast during the day at random intervals and usually consists of dialogue, or a close variation to, “K5XL17 stand by. K5XL17 stand by. K5XL17 standby, message follows. K5XL177NA42BSVJ74EXBEWY54U2AEJ [name of base] out.” Of course, the long-coded part can be different with each message and no one knows what it means (well, some government people do). An EAM which starts with “Skyking” attached is a bit different: “Skyking, skyking, do not answer. Tango, lima, papa. Time 30. Authentication uniform papa. This is Andrews, out.” This type of EAM is directed at Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP) assets which are nuclear bombers, nuclear submarines, and military command planes. “Skyking, Skyking, do not answer.” is to inform the contact at the other end not to respond as it may give away its location to the enemy. Some sources state that if the message includes the sentence “Skyking, Skyking, do not answer.”, only one or two times, then it's just a test. I have heard these many times. If this entire sentence is repeated three times, then something may be up, and the following messages will be coded for the purpose of going into a pre-deployment mode for war. If it is stated four times, it may be time to head for your bunker as nuclear “go codes” may follow. With all of the Russian military planes coming close to our airspace near Alaska, and elsewhere in the last few years, you may want to tune to 8.992 MHz and 11.175 MHz now and then. These frequencies are broadcast in single side band (SSB) mode so your shortwave must have this feature to listen – more on that later in the article. Other U.S. military agencies can also be heard such as the National Guard, Army, Navy, etc. during emergencies, foreign militaries as well. Refer to the printable frequencies chart using the QR code later in this article as well as the links below.
HAM Radio Operators: HAM radio operators have been talking to each other, around the world, for well over 100 years. Basically, a HAM radio operator with his/her HAM radio is a licensed, non-commercial, mini-radio broadcast station. During emergencies, such as hurricanes, HAM radio operators “take over” certain radio frequencies and report on developing weather, passing information on the injured to emergency services such as FEMA or local medical services, report power outages, traffic info like evacuation routes, etc. The main frequency is 14.235 MHz in SSB. These emergency “nets” of HAM radio operators can stretch a thousand miles or more, involving hundreds of HAMs, and during large hurricanes, the entire east coast, from Florida to Maine, can be connected even if every land line and internet connection is out. Do not confuse this type of HAM radio with local FM HAM radio. Although the licenses are similar, the long-range HAM transmissions are broadcast over shortwave frequencies. In April of 2020, I listened in on an Italian HAM radio operator who gave reports on the COVID-19 situation from Italy. It was very informative and much of the news he reported was nowhere to be found in the media. HAM radio operators talk to each other every evening (day time as well), and I like to find them on frequencies 3.700-3.999 MHz and 7.1-7.299 MHz. These broadcasts are normally in SSB mode, but some HAMs like to broadcast in AM mode (no SSB required), but this requires more power from their end. One popular AM-mode HAM frequency is 3.880 MHz. Morse code is also heard a lot on shortwave. If you don’t know Morse code, no worries as there are computer programs, as well as decoder devices from companies like MFJ, which can decode the beeps into text.
Ship to Shore Radio: Although large yachts and cargo ships use cell phones, satellite phones, and marine band VHF radios these days for most of their communication needs, most still have radios which broadcast in the shortwave frequency range. Some of these radio frequencies transmissions are also “patched” into common phone lines and that’s how cruise ship passengers made (very expensive) phone calls in decades past. These can still be used in times of emergencies. During a war, you may not think it would be informative to listen into a passenger ship, but if that ship is in the middle of the Atlantic and is reporting military movements of aircraft or naval vessels, it could become very interesting.
CB Radio: CB radio as in “Keep on truck’in?” Yep! I have always said that CB radio is underrated. If you live near a highway or turnpike, tuning into CB channels is a great way to hear information from people who may have been in trouble spots and passing through your area. For hazardous waste spills, riots, bad weather, or other local emergencies, monitoring CB can be almost important as listening to scanner radios. If your shortwave radio covers frequencies all the way up to 29.9999 MHz, then you are in luck as the CB radio range is from 26.965 to 27.405 MHz with over 40 channels allocated (120 channels if you include CB single side band which can legally operate on 12 watts, instead of the four-watt limit of standard citizens band). I would monitor channel 19 which is 27.185 MHz as this is the most popular channel that truckers use, and channel 9 which is the emergency only channel on 27.065 MHz. During the 1980s, channel 7 was allocated by survivalists as “Survival 7” or the “React” channel on 27.035 MHz. Yes, CB radio is actually shortwave, just limited as a low-power, non-licensed transceiver radio medium.
What to Buy and Tuning In
There are two types of shortwave receivers regarding tuning, analog and digital. Analog are the “old style” receivers and easily identified by an indicator reference marker which is moved mechanically over a printed dial of radio frequency numbers. Early radios were initially powered and ran by the use of vacuum tubes which were later replaced by transistors. Although analog shortwave radios are still manufactured today, which are typically less expensive, these radios tend to “drift” off frequency and must be re-tuned. However, there are very high-quality analog radios like the transistor-controlled Panasonic RF-2200 (a radio I acquired which was sold new 40 years ago) and many others. Vacuum-tube shortwaves, such as the one shown manufactured by Hallicrafters 60 years ago, are very sensitive to weak signals and of very good quality. This type of radio has a “secret power” that modern radios do not have because of its vacuum tubes – its ability not to have its electronics fried by electromagnetic pulse (EMP) in the event of an intense solar flare event or tactical nuclear strike. If you find one, there are many restoration companies that work on these as the vacuum tubes usually need to be replaced, and if there’s a bad humming sound coming from the radio, the capacitors need to be refurbished.
Although a $15-$20 pocket-sized analog shortwave radio is a great addition to any bug-out pack, I strongly recommend a compact digital shortwave radio for your main radio as these digitally tune and lock on to shortwave frequencies. Not only that, but you can program them with dozens of your favorite channels. One of my favorite companies is Sangean as this company makes high-quality compact radios which are easy to program. Two Sangean radios I have used for almost two decades are the ATS-505 and ATS-909, although both are discontinued they can be found as low as $100. The new ATS-909X is a great new option. Other companies like C. Crane, Tecsun, and Kaito all have quality, but budget-priced, digital radios from $50 - $100+.
Single Side Band: Be sure to get single sideband (SSB) feature on the radio you purchase. Without getting too technical, SSB is basically where a frequency is modulated on either side of a carrier wave. Confused? Don’t worry, I will walk you through how to tune in. There are two types of sidebands, one lower and one higher. Let’s say you tune into 3.950 MHz, which is located within a HAM radio operator band, and you hear someone talking like a cross between Charlie Brown’s teacher and Donald Duck (the distortion is so bad that you won’t be able to understand it), stop tuning. What you do now is to turn on your SSB switch on the radio and then, using a fine tuner on the radio (which sometimes can also be the main tuning dial), you turn the dial up or down very slowly until you hear the voice become normal. You have just modulated the signal. Sometimes a radio may have separate buttons for lower sideband and upper sideband or just one dial split at the 12 o’clock position with lower sideband on the left and upper sideband on the right. Almost all of your HAM radio broadcasts will be in the lower sideband mode with government in the upper sideband mode (if you tuned into the exact frequency). Without SSB capability, you cannot listen to these signals.
Antennas: As stated earlier, you can listen to shortwave broadcasts from the other side of the world on a cheap radio with just the built-in telescopic antenna it came with, but there is a better way. Because of the way shortwave frequencies travel long distances, you can use a very simple method of increasing signal, and this is to spread out about 30 feet of speaker wire (22-gauge will do), fray one end, and wrap it around your rod antenna. The signal will greatly increase, and this is simply called a “long wire” antenna. Many radios come with wire reel external antennas which wind up into a plastic case and plug into an antenna jack on the radio, so you can use those as well. If you are trying to pull in a weak signal on say 6.015 MHz, you can cut a specific length of which would be ideal for that frequency. This is the mathmatical formula: 468,000 divided by 6015 (this is 6.015 MHz in kHz), the result is 77.8 feet. You will still be able to pick up other frequencies very well, so you could just leave this length antenna up. Recently, I picked up a HAM operator over 1,400 miles away using a 40-foot long wire. If you do run the antenna outside, it's a very good idea to ground it especially if you have it off of the ground by six feet or so. If you live in an apartment, or don’t want to run wire across your back yard, you can get what is called a loop antenna. This loop of wire, along with the electronics that go with it, mimic a long wire antenna so that you can pick up signals using a compact antenna. One of the antennas I use is the MLA 30+ loop antenna which also has a signal booster that is powered by a USB plug.
If you want to listen in your vehicle, it can be done, but you will have to get the antenna outside. A very simple and expedient way is to wrap the stripped end of about 15 feet of speaker wire around your rod antenna (or solder on an 1/8-inch male plug to the speaker wire, then plug into your radio’s antenna jack) and then run the wire outside of your window, tie it off on a luggage rack and let the remainder of the wire flap in the wind. Shortwave radio frequencies have issues getting into and metal-framed vehicles (metal buildings as well) so this will take care of that issue. For almost 15 years, I have used an ICOM R-5 world band receiver/scanner for shortwave listening in my car, but instead of the long wire method, I used a few cable adapters to connect a common magnet-mount CB antenna - the four feet of rod antenna works fantastic. As far as the speaker, you will need to run the audio output from the shortwave into the audio-in jack on your car’s radio. This is important because the biggest drain on any portable radio is the speaker, the louder the volume is the more battery drain. This way, your car’s stereo speakers are powered by the car battery, and you have no battery power loss no matter how loud you turn it up. Also, you cannot connect the shortwave to a 12-volt DC power source from the vehicle as the alternator will completely knock out the shortwave reception, through the power cord, when the car’s engine is running. Regarding interference, also understand that fluorescent lighting, electric motors, power transformers, dimmer switches (set half-way), will cause radio interference on shortwave bands.
A basic idea of when and where to listen on shortwave is as follows: 11 MHz – 29.9999 MHz during daylight, and 2 MHz – 10 MHz during the night time with 7 MHz – 10 MHz heard both day and night. Since this was a beginner’s article, I did not get into shortwave band meter segments, propagation, sun spot cycles, RTTY/radio teletype, packet radio, or other related topics as I wanted to keep it basic and increase your interest so you will get a shortwave for your prepper plans. Those are topics you can research on your own after you get a radio.
Imagine, an electronic technology that is over 120 years old which allows one to listen to radio broadcasts from all over the world with as little as eight inches of telescopic antenna. No satellite dish, cable, or internet required! Better yet, if you are into privacy, no one knows what you are listening to. Order one today for your communication preps.
Shortwave Station Program Guides
Live Worldwide Shortwave Guides (updated by the hour)
Military and Government Shortwave Frequencies Lists
Shortwave Radio Equipment Sources