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.

Solar Cycle 24 brings better Shortwave Listening

Because of the utterly depressing selection of programming available on the standard broadcast (AM) band, lately I have been getting my radio fixes on higher frequencies.  Shortwave Listening can be a fun way to hear all sorts of things, from the very retro Voice of Russia interval music, which makes me want to go check on my survival bunker, to the almost comical Radio Havana, “Broadcasting from the free Americas,” depending on what your definition of free is, the number and type of programs are almost limitless.  Whether or not one believes the conspiracy theories posed by Alex Jones, listening to that program can give you the hebegebees (see above note about survival bunker).

Most of the shortwave broadcasts in this country are religious shows.  One can listen to Catholic Mass every morning at 8 am on WEWN, if so inclined.  I don’t think it actually counts as going to church, though.  There are several other shows on US shortwave, like Le Show, which appears to have a copyrighted on the phrase “this is a copyrighted feature of this broadcast,” but you have to hunt around for them.  WBCQ offers a variety of programs, likely the the lowest ratio of religious programs on any privately owned shortwave station in the US.

Don’t expect to find the old stalwarts, the VOA or the BBC to have very good signals in the US.  Both those agencies severely curtailed shortwave broadcast to the US starting around 2000 or so.

There is also a smattering of shortwave pirate broadcasters clustered around 6.925 KHz, which can be entertaining in their own way.

A good website that lists all the shows in English by hour and frequency, is short-wave.info.

Solar Cycle 24 is heating up, with excellent propagation last week and continuing on this week, I was able to hear some pretty rare stations.  Even better, we are in the early stages with the peak predicted sometime around 2013.  I even heard one wag predicting that the coming solar cycle jives with the recently popular “The world will end in 2012” theme.  With the long winter months ahead, I have been tuning up the shortwave listening post in my house.

I am going to be doing a multi-part post on how to set up a good shortwave listening post, how to get around local electrical noise issues, antennas, grounding, receiver selection and so forth.

WBCQ The Planet

File under: What I wish I could do, if I had the money.

img04Imagine, as an engineer, owning and running your very own radio station.  Not just any radio station, but a 50,000 watt flame thrower heard over most of the eastern US.  Dude!  Only one minor detail, it is a Shortwave station, which, by FCC regulation is only supposed to be listened to outside of the US, hence the official FCC name, International Broadcasting.  As I said, minor detail.

Anyway, WBCQ is heard at various times on 5110, 7415, 9330, and 15420 kHz both in and outside of the US.  Their full schedule here.  Last night I was treated to the Lost Discs radio show, featuring rare tracks not often found or heard anywhere.  It sounded like they were having a lot of fun and it was entertaining, which is why I continued to listen for well over an hour.  Besides which, they played a cover of one of my favorite songs, Wish you were here, as played by Kris McKay.

I put up the video for the song that was in it, and, no, I don’t know who those grainy people are.

It seems that the owner, Mr. Weiner is a fellow radio engineer and long time radio enthusiast.  He was and still is a strong proponent of radio for the good of the public.  Most of his earlier attempts to own radio station fell on the other side of the legal line, being not quite sanctioned by any government authority.  At first, he did attempt to obtain a license and was turned down by the FCC, prompting him to write this reply (shamelessly lifted from Wikipedia):

…we went about a year ago … to apply for a license. Our attempt proved quite humorous to your employees, who sent us away with word of “Forget it.” Further investigations showed us why our attempt was then so comical. Licenses were so expensive and hard to get that even small stations were being sold for millions. Broadcasting was reserved for power men.
…We are not disputing, however, your right to assign channels and set aside bands for the prevention of interference. We certainly, however, are disputing your right to reserve broadcasting for the well-to-do only.

So, I applaud Allan Weiner and his never say never attitude.  Perhaps one day, I’ll apply for an international broadcasting license and do something similar.  I wonder if he gets many RFI complaints from people living around his transmitter site.  I once had one from somebody who was receiving the radio station on the outlets in their kitchen.  Seems Larry King was not their thing…