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Shortwave Radio in the 1980s

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The 1980s and into the early 1990s was an exciting time to listen to shortwave radio.  The average listener likely did not know or care about sunspot cycle #22. This 11 year solar cycle peaked in mid-1989 with its maximum number of sunspots.  This meant that reception on the higher frequencies of shortwave bands was better than it had been in nearly a decade.  Regardless of the somewhat poorer reception of the early 1980s,  international shortwave broadcasting was perhaps at its peak influence at this time, with good reception as the 1980s changed to the 1990s.

Digital Display vs. Analog Tuning and the Role of Interval Signals and Radio Clubs

While radios with the frequency digitally displayed came out in the 1970s,  this only gradually became standard on shortwave radios, largely due to the expense.  In the 1980s. most listeners were still “twisting the dials” on an analog type tuner which was touchy and inexact.  Many stations still used interval signals.  These short musical phrases of folk melodies or national songs, or sometimes birdcalls, bells, or drums, repeated for several minutes prior to the actual program made tuning into the desired station easier.  Interval signals are much less common today.

Most short wave listeners (swls) were interested in the major broadcasters that were easy to hear in English.   There were also dxers, or those more technically inclined, usually with a background in amateur radio.  They tried to hear low powered domestic stations from distant places (or dx), often quite difficult to hear without sophisticated antennas and good receivers.  These stations were usually not in English, but the language of the country in question.   There were likely many more casual swls than dxers, but the dxers drove the hobby by writing the magazine articles and supporting the various radio clubs that existed.  Many radio clubs were sponsored by the international broadcasters, while others were largely regionally based in various states, counties or countries.

My first digital radio was a SONY ICF 2002 obtained about 1984 at a convention of the Ontario DX Association (ODXA) in Toronto.  My wife, at times a DX widow, won it at a raffle.  This radio model was rumored as used in the White House a few years later by President George H. W. Bush.  However,  that might be just an urban legend.

After attending this convention,  I became a member of the ODXA.  Their monthly bulletin was a major source of monthly updated information on broadcasting stations and how and when to hear them. Locally, a small group of friends began the Mohawk Valley Shortwave Listener's Club.  The MVSWLC held low key meetings, and sponsored a DX camp in the Adirondacks for many years in the 1990s and into the 21st century.

The focus here now shifts to just what was heard on shortwave radio in the 1980s.  While there were broadcasts in countless languages, most SWLs to international broadcasters targeting listeners in North America in English.  These broadcasts news, information, and music, very different from domestic radio. Much of the programming was somewhat similar to features heard on news magazine programs of NPR today, though the quality of production and presentation varied considerably.  Even the more casual swl was likely much better informed on the news of the day than the average American.

The Cold War and Shortwave Radio in the 1980s 

Instead of tuning into the TV news, the SWL listened to the radio.  One could hear news and cultural programming from from Radio Nederland, Radio Havana Cuba HCJB (Quito, Ecuador), the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (now Swissinfo), Radio PragueRadio Japan, Radio AustraliaRadio Canada International, and others listed further on. 

In the 1980s, many major broadcasters were largely competing for “international public opinion.”  The West had the Voice of America, BBC, and Duetsche Welle (the Voice of Germany);  the East had Radio Moscow, stations in the Warsaw Pact countries of Eastern Europe, Radio Tirana (Albania), and Radio Peking

With a world crisis of any sort, one would usually tune to the BBC or Voice of America for generally reliable, credible news, though not without its nuances of propaganda.  If one tuned to other countries, especially Russia, China, Albania, Cuba, North Korea,  or Eastern Europe, the propaganda was often more obvious.  The West, perhaps, had a near monopoly on subtlety in propaganda.

The early and mid 1980s were a time when the Cold War was at a peak.  Thus, the news from Moscow or Eastern Europe often focused on perceived American expansionism with missile deployments in Europe. There was much international reporting of the fall of Marcos in the Philippines, sometimes portrayed as being abandoned by the US.  The Korean Airlines Flight 007, mysteriously shot down by the Soviet Union over the Sea of Japan in 1983 generated much  speculation  from the East and the West, sometimes with information recognized only later as outright lies.

The Falklands War in 1982 and the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 were portrayed as “imperialist intervention” by many of broadcasters from Moscow,  Berlin, Peking and Havana. At this time,  BBC, Duetsche Welle, and the VOA were highly critical of the Soviet Union for their continued intractable war in Afghanistan since 1979.  And both East and West looked on, rather helplessly, at the bloody war between Iran and Iraq which followed the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

In this period of heightened international tensions,  Maggie Thatcher, the Prime Minister of England had a world phone in program over the BBC in October 1983.  She answered  uncensored questions from around the world in a live broadcast.  This was a huge event in international radio at the time.

The War in Nicaragua

Much of Central America was in turmoil during the 1980s.  It was possible to hear interesting perspectives from Moscow, Radio Havana Cuba, the Voice of Nicaragua, and HCJB.  They broadcast news, often later found to be credible, that the US would prefer its citizens not know.  This included such items as the mining of coastal harbors in Nicaragua by the US, and other rumors which later proved true as shown by the Iran Contra scandel. 

The Reagan Administration declared the 1984 election in Nicaragua a sham and a fraud.  The BBC, Radio Havana, Radio Nederland and Deutsche Welle, and many other  broadcasters reported otherwise. Despite the war causing horrific conditions for an election, most stations reported it as the fairest election in Central America for 50 years, based on observations of hundreds of international observers.

Chernobyl and the Collapse of Communism in Europe

When the Chernobyl nuclear accident occurred in the Ukraine in the spring of 1986, broadcasts from over 40 countries were heard where the extent of the disaster became known in bits and pieces over several days and weeks. This started with Radio Sweden reporting higher levels of radiation noted by Swedish scientists.  This was soon picked up by the BBC and others. Radio Moscow within a few weeks was forced to acknowledge its seriousness and back track on initial reports that this was a minor accident.  This was later seen as a pivotal event leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In the late 1980s, broadcasters from Eastern Europe shifted their tone from echoing Radio Moscow to a more open recognition of the actual poor state of domestic affairs under Communism.  Radio Budapest, Hungary, was one of the first as Hungary had gradually shifted to a market economy before other Warsaw Pact nations.  As the Berlin Wall fell and more countries had revolutions, these stations began to more openly recognize their social, political, and economic problems with more realism.  Radio Berlin International, which had been the state broadcaster of the German Democratic Republic, ceased to exist with its merger with Deutsche Welle. Radio Bucharest’s change in tone came much more abruptly with the execution of Nicolae Ceausescu on Christmas Day, 1989.  

The First Gulf War

As events were leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, there were other events competing for international attention.  In 1990, there were hints for several weeks on the BBC of an Iraqi build up of forces on the Kuwait border.  This was largely ignored by American media at the time.  The attack on Kuwait in August 1990 came as an almost complete surprise to much of the world, including most Americans.  Extensive monitoring of international broadcasters during the build up of US led coalition forces included much information and diverse views on quickly changing events and their impact on nations involved.  The early days of the war in January and February 1991 were especially revealing with many stations broadcasting details most Americans did not hear.  During this time, broadcasts in English were heard by the author from about 40 countries. This included major broadcasters already mentioned, but also Iran, Dubai, India, Voice of Turkey, Israel, Pakistan, Egypt, and many others.  As in most times of war, these stories often conflicted with what was read in domestic US papers or seen on the evening Network TV news.

The First Gulf War led to a brief surge of interest in shortwave radio.   This was, however, rather short lived.  Rapid advances in other forms of telecommunications occurred. These included the development of the Internet and e-mail, broadcasting over the Internet in Real Audio or Windows Media, nearly universal access in the industrialized world to satellite or cable TV, a lack of clear purpose for many broadcasters (including the Voice of America) with the end of the Cold War, and the huge expense of 250 and 500 kW transmitters.

The Decline of Shortwave Radio

All the developments above in combination led to a rather rapid decline in shortwave broadcasts since the mid 1990s.  But that is another story, and still a work in progress.  Most of the international broadcasters mentioned here have a web site on the Internet, often with many listeners who never tuned in shortwave broadcasts.  

While shortwave radio is not “dead,” this decline has led many radio hobbyists to cut back on their listening or quit the hobby completely. But from shortly after World II until the early 1990s at its peak, shortwave was a great source of information and entertainment.  Listening to international broadcasters was a stimulus to many interests.  It provided insights beyond  those of a parochial nature held by so many Americans. This lead to the development of a more internationalist outlook on the world prior to the days of the ubiquitous Internet.  

For me, and many other swls,  listening has declined in recent years due to changing interests, and advancements in communications as noted above.  But, from time to time, Radio Australia, Spanish National Radio, Radio Prague, or Radio Havana fill the air while reading or writing in my library. Sometimes a dream will float by of stations heard years ago, now lost in the ethereal mists of atmospheric noise and fond memories of an earlier time.

More about this author: Roger Chambers

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