WYFR shortwave signing off

Family Radio’s WYFR shortwave service will be ending on June 30, 2013.

WYFR 50 years
WYFR 50 years

Shortwave transmitting is very expensive, and no doubt, competing IP distribution technology and diminishing returns on such investment must play a factor in this decision.  Family radio has been struggling ever since the world did not end as predicted in 2011.

I believe that site has fourteen 100KW HF transmitters and eighteen antennas of various type.  There is a complete photo album here: https://picasaweb.google.com/115519153277489147905/WYFR?noredirect=1#5149450014785168130 courtesy of Kent.

Kind of sad to see them go, I don’t know what their plans are after June 30.

Suppression of ideas

I found this video called Empire of Noise about broadcast radio jamming. It seems to be about ten years old and is a post cold war documentary about the jamming of radio signals by the USSR, Warsaw Pact counties and China.  It is an interesting look into the extent and expense that governments will go to to suppress counter thought and ideas.

The video is quite long, and there are stretches of jamming noise that can be annoying, but perhaps that is the point.  It is worth the time if interested in history and radio broadcasting.  You know what they say about history; those that do not understand history are destined to repeat it.

A few of the highlights:

  • The former Soviet Union had the most extensive jamming network of anyone on Earth.  There were groundwave jamming centers in eighty one Soviet cities which consisted of approximately 10-15 transmitters each in the 5 KW covering the medium and shortwave frequencies.
  • Each groundwave jamming station consisted of a transmitter site and a receiver/control site.  The receiver site possessed lists of frequencies to monitor, when objectionable material was heard, the jamming transmitters were turned on.
  • There was a skywave jamming network consisting of 13 jamming stations with 10 or more 100-200 KW transmitter in each.  There were some transmitters in the 1,000 KW power range.  These were located in Krasnodar, Lvov, Nikolaev, Yerevan, Alma-Ata, Grigoriopol, Sovieck, Novosibrisk, Tashkent, Khanbarovsk, Servdlosk and Moscow (some of these names may have changed).  These operated in a similar fashion to the groundwave jammers.
  • After sign off of government stations, Soviet jammers sent a blanketing signal on the IF frequency (most likely 455 KHz) of receivers to effectively block them from receiving any station while USSR government stations were off the air.
  • Baltic states had 11 jamming stations with approximately 140 transmitters
  • Ukraine had approximately 300 Jamming transmitter.
  • Warsaw Pact countries had extensive medium frequency jamming networks.
  • It is estimated it takes about 20 times the transmitted power to jam any one signal.

The entire jamming network was hugely expensive to equip and operate, costing several tens of millions of dollars per year.

It is interesting that the US position in all of this was:

Everyone has the right to seek, receive and impart information through any media and regardless of frontiers.   Jamming of radio broadcasts is condemned as the denial of the right of persons to be fully informed concerning news, opinions and ideas.

Sounds perfectly reasonable.  The free exchange of ideas and information over the internet is something that should be guarded carefully and should not be restricted or censored.  Perhaps somebody should inform congress.

Shortwave Broadcasting and the free press

WWCR wire rhombic antennas
WWCR wire rhombic antennas

Shortwave broadcasting is often overlooked as a domestic news outlet.  This is by design and is a throw back to the cold war era when shortwave broadcasting was seen as an international propagation outlet, mainly used by the VOA.  In fact, according to the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, the Voice of America is forbidden to broadcast directly to American citizens. The intent of the legislation is to protect the American public from propaganda actions by its own government.  Nice, huh?

WRMI corner reflector
WRMI corner reflector

The way the FCC rules governing shortwave (AKA HF) broadcasting are written, the station needs to be designed and configured to transmit signals to areas outside of the US.  Any coverage within the US is considered incidental.  See also CFR 47 73 part F.

WRMI signal 50 KW 9350 KHz
WRMI signal 50 KW 9950 KHz

That being said, many of the non-VOA HF broadcasters are well received in the US.  There is nothing that is preventing a shortwave station on the west coast beaming it’s signal across the North American continent to Europe, or over the poles, etc.  These stations’ call signs start with a K or W much the same as FM and AM broadcasting stations.  Most of them are religious broadcasters, however, there are a few that offer non-religious programming or a mixture of both.

As Clear Channel lays off more staff and becomes a computer automated shell, I am beginning to think that traditional AM and FM broadcasting is on the way out.  Television news and the 24 hour news cycle has blurred the line between journalism and opinion.  Newspapers have filled the role of government watchdogs and general information sources since this country was founded.  Newspapers have fallen on hard times with many cutting investigative reporters, general reporters and or going out of business.  The internet has become the defacto information source for many people, which is fine so long as users understand its limits.

The big problem with all of this is the internet is a fragile thing, controlled by a few very large companies.  A few keystrokes and a router table is re-written to exclude a site that might have detrimental information.  Distributed Denial of Service attacks have taken down Wikileaks for days.  Collateral Wikileaks related damage occurred to Amazon.com, Visa, Mastercard and Paypal.  A few “persuasive” calls from an important government agency or official to a ISP or server company can easily take a site or multiple sites off line.   Search results can be skewed by search engines, or by large companies like BP did during the Gulf oil spill.

The FCC debates on so called “net neutrality” have yet to produce any meaningful frame work to avoid corporate and search engine censorship.  This also assumes that the government can justly regulate the internet, which, in this day and age is a stretch of the imagination.

All of this is leaving an information void.  As the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum.

Enter Shortwave Radio.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit, there are a lot of strange things that can be heard in the shortwave broadcast band.  However, it one can separate the wheat from the chaff, some rewarding entertainment can be had.   Most of the non-government shortwave stations in the US are religious broadcasters.  There are at least three stations that offer time brokered programs, some religious and some not.  WBCQ is always a good bet.  WRMI is offering more and more non-religious programming.  WWCR also has some general programming.  While government broadcasters like the BBC, CBC and others have greatly curtailed their broadcasts to North America, this is not necessarily a bad thing, as other smaller broadcasters can be heard where the giants once roamed.

As solar cycle 24 heats up, the programming selections on any given day can vary widely. Radio Australia (ABC) has been booming in on 6020 KHz in the mornings around here.  They have an excellent country music program and I have been introduced to several songs and musicians that I would not have otherwise heard.  Today I heard a great show on Radio Australia Today about New Orleans, Ray Nagin, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and lots of things that haven’t aren’t normally heard here in the US.

Key to shortwave listening is the receive antenna.  One particular MF/HF receive antenna is the K9AY loop.  I have had very good luck with that antenna on both standard and international broadcast.  I have to say, I am finding fewer and fewer things to listen to on the AM band.  I have taken the opportunity to make a few circuit boards with a 10-12 dB preamp for controlling the pair of loops used in a K9AY array.  The preamp is based on a common base Norton design, which has low noise and moderate gain.  I use the preamp sparingly, the main reason for it is the 4 way hybrid splitter, which adds 6.2 dB of loss to the antenna output.  Still, I have noticed, especially on narrow bandwidth digital signals, the preamp can mean the difference between decoding a signal or not.

I am making extras, K9AY antenna systems, preamps, receiver splitters and other general shortwave receive systems, which I plan to offer for sale at a later date.  As they say, stay tuned.