Beginners Guide to Shortwave Listening
The following is a distillation of my experience of being an SWL and Amateur Radio Operator over a number of years. I started shortwave listening when I was 14, having built my first short wave radio. This was a simple TRF design using one valve (or tube). Back in the early seventies, there were 1000’s of stations on the air and even a simple receiver pulled in many hundreds. So I was ‘hooked’ for life. There have been a number times when I have had to give up the hobby due to family, work etc., but I have always returned! Be aware, shortwave listening becomes a life-long passion! The following is by no means exhaustive, but it should give you a start.
Where to start
So where does one start in the hobby of shortwave listening? There are a number of ways and as in most hobbies, it can be reasonably cheap or expensive. The least expensive route is to purchase one of the many capable and inexpensive portable receivers which incorporate shortwave bands on them. There are a number to choose from, with the better ones coming from Tecsun, Sony, Eton and Grundig. In the case of the Tecsuns, these can be purchased directly from China at very reasonable cost, or you may find good second hand models on the internet. If you aren’t bothered about a portable receiver, then many of the older communications receivers can be bought at reasonable cost from Ebay or other outlets. Models from Yaesu (FRG-7, FRG-7000), Trio/Kenwood (R600, R1000) and a number of others are all worth having. But to work well, these receivers require an external antenna, so this may affect your choice.
The other part to starting out is reading. Read as much as you can about listening and logging stations, what frequency bands there are, the best times for listening etc. There are numerous websites, Facebook, and Yahoo groups which have information covering these topics and more, along with very knowledgeable people who can guide you as well. Remember, there is no such thing as a stupid question! There is a list at the end of this article giving links to some of these places.
If you already have a small portable radio with shortwave bands on it, extend the telescopic antenna and get listening! The higher frequency bands tend to be better during the day, with those lower being better at night. Details of the bands will covered later in this article. Be patient, you may not hear anything straight away, or what hear may not be in a language you can understand. But after a while, it will start to make sense and you will realise that there are broadcasters with big signals on at the same time each day, which are easily logged. If your first language is English, then there are many of these to choose from such as the BBC, VOA (Voice of America), DWL and RRI (Radio Romania International) to name a few. After a while, you will learn to hear the sounds of other languages and be able to log these too.
The Shortwave Bands – where are they and what are they
The High Frequency (HF) extend between 1800 khz and 30000 Khz. Within this range of frequencies there are allocations, or ranges of frequencies, for various services. So if we look at the International Broadcast allocations these are as follows:
120m band – 2300 – 2495 Khz
90m band – 3200 – 3400 Khz
75m band – 3900 -4000 Khz
60m band – 4750 – 5060 Khz
These four bands are known as the Tropical Bands are they are used by a number of low-power stations within the Tropical regions, including South America and Africa. Recption on these bands is best at night time and during the winter. Most of the stations on these bands do not use English but will be in the local language as they serve a relatively small area near the transmitters. Some listeners dedicate their listening to logging these stations.
49m band – 5900 – 6200 Khz
41m band – 7200 – 7450 Khz
31m band – 9300 – 9900 Khz
On these 3 bands between day and night time you will be able to log stations from the major broadcasters from all over the world. 31M is the most heavily used especially during the day. The 49 and 41m band tend to be better at night.
25m band – 11600 – 12100 Khz
22m band – 13570 – 13870 Khz
19m band – 15100 – 15800 Khz
16m band – 17480 – 17900 Khz
15m band – 18900 – 19020 Khz
13m band – 21450 – 21850 Khz
11m band – 25600 – 26100 Khz
All this set of bands gives better listening during the day, and for the last four, especially in summer. The 11m band, unfortunately, is seldom used, which is a shame as it could give world-wide listening during certain times.
Interspersed with these broadcast bands are a whole host of other allocations for Governments, Aircraft Communications and Amateur Radio. Amateur radio consists of enthusiasts who buy or build their own equipment and, after passing a test and being issued with a unique callsign, can use their equipment to chat to each other. Most Amateurs (or Hams) use SSB or CW rather than AM. It is possible, to hear hams from all over the world, even though relative to the commercial broadcast stations, their power output is low. Amateurs are allocated a dedicated set of bands as follows:
160m band – 1800 – 2000 Khz – not heavily used within the UK and communications are restricted to local mainly. During certain conditions world-wide communications are possible.
80m band – In the UK this is 3500 – 3800 Khz, in the US it is 3500 – 4000 Khz. Again used mainly for inter-country contacts but can give world-wide communications under the right conditions.
60m band – 5258 – 5403 Khz in the UK. Other countries have slightly different allocations.
40m band – 7000 – 7200 Khz in the UK, in other countries this extends to 7300 Khz
30m band – 10100 – 10150. This is restricted to CW (Morse) only. Can provide world-wide communications
20m band – 14000 – 14350 Khz. This is known as the ‘DX’ band as it supports world-wide communications both day and night. (DX is a short-hand for long distance or unusual contacts).
17m band – 18068 – 18168 Khz
15m band – 21000 – 21450 Khz Again another good DX band when conditions allow
12m band – 24890 – 24990 Khz
10m band – 28000 – 29700 – The largest Amateur band allocation at nearly 2000 Khz. This is an interesting band as it is on the edge of the HF spectrum and therefore can exhibit all sorts of conditions. Sometimes this band operates more like a VHF (i.e. local) band, at other times it supports world-wide communications.
Radio amateurs can use a plethora of operating modes which include CW (Morse), SSB, Data, Television and many more.
This guide has by no means been exhaustive but I wished to give some basic introductory information to get the user started. Shortwave listening is a fascinating hobby with a multitude of facets. No ‘Beginners Guide’ can ever hope to cover every aspect but I hope this has given a start and a flavour of what can be heard. There is no substitute for listening, listening and more listening. Soon you will get used to how the bands operate, what is best for day-time or night-time listenign etc. You will probably find some favourite stations you listen to regularly and build up a rapor with that station.
Alternatively, you may find your interests are more for the Amateur radio side, and all the fascinating aspects of that form of communication.
Links to information
If you prefer getting data and information from a book, the you can do no better than the World Radio and TV Handbook. This is available from a number of outlets including WRTH themselves. It gives full listings of all the International Broadcasters from around the world, along with schedules, contact details etc. It really is the ‘Bible’ of Shortwave listening.
There are a number of Facebook and Yahoo groups as mentioned earlier:
ODXA – The Ontario DX Association. Although Canadian based, they have members world-wide. Some very experienced and knowledgeable people on here and you will always get a friendly reception.
Shortwave Listeners Worldwide
On Yahoo there is SWSKEDS which has schedules for world-wide broadcast bands. This is updated on at least a daily basis and a downloadable excel list is available. This is an extremely useful document which I use all the time.
Other information links:
HCDX – Hard Core DX. They have a weekly newsletter with logs. – http://www.hard-core-dx.com/
SWLing Post – for news and information – http://swling.com/blog/
There are of course many number of forums etc on the internet devoted to Shortwave Listening. Google is your friend!
Clubs and Societies
RSGB – UK organisation for Amateur Radio
ARRL – Ditto for the US
ISWL – International Shortwave League – the only society which embraces Broadcast Band listening as well as Amateur.
Have great fun with your shortwave listening. With everything that goes on on the bands there is always something to listen to. Good Luck!!