When I was about ten, my grandfather gave me his Zenith shortwave radio. It looked like this.
I think he gave it to me because I’d expressed interest in it at his house, and he was not using it. I remember sitting in the basement, the antenna raised to its limit so it touched the ceiling, tuning in many languages I couldn’t recognize and some I could. (If I’d been smarter, I would have taken it to the attic for better reception.)
I can’t believe I let my parents get rid of it, because I’d love to have it back to indulge my current summertime obsession.
I have a smaller shortwave radio now, and every night for the past couple weeks I’ve been taking it out to the back yard, raising the antenna, and clipping it on to a green electrical wire I’ve rigged to the top of the garage. There, I scroll my thumb up and down until I get something, which isn’t often because I think either the antenna isn’t placed right or I don’t live in the right place.
I can obviously hear plenty of stations online, and I do that every morning and night for my daily dose of French news from Paris.
But knowing that these waves are bouncing directly off the ionosphere, jogging around the planet right now, unmediated by fiber optic cable and whatever else Comcast uses to bring connectivity into my home, gives me a thrill. It’s like I can feel the Earth’s curve, its reality. I move the antenna and something happens – the signal quality changes, and sometimes when I’m lucky it becomes very clear. The eerie tones, crackles, and other “interferences” help make it real, as well as weird and often spooky. It’s unfiltered, like the difference between watching African animals on TV and seeing them live.*
There’s a mystery – an earth-bound mystery – that pulls me out to the yard every night. I stand there listening, creeping out, and marveling at how far these signals can travel.
And I’ve been lately trying to tune in to a signal from North Korea, the planet’s creepiest country. A few nights ago, I heard two military-sounding marches, interspersed with someone speaking a Romance language so faintly I couldn’t tell if it was Italian, Spanish, or what the shortwave guide said should be French at that time if it really were the North Korean station on 1376.
I’m not alone – there’s a whole “SWL” shortwave community who have much fancier equipment and are, I presume, way more into it than I am. This post describes the reasons people listen – including the “sheer magic” of it.
If you don’t have a shortwave radio, you can try one of these:
Or, for really weird recordings of by numbers stations and other mysterious broadcasts, see The Conet Project.
But watch out, you might get addicted.