Sunday, May 18, 2008

Radio Communications in a Changing World

In the late 1970's, for my 18th Birthday, my parents really surprised me with a unique gift: a Transistorized Multiband Portable Radio. It was similar to the photo below, but the photo is of an older model:

The one my parents bought for me was I think the 1977 or 78 version of the Realistic Model# 12-750, or DX-60 or Patrolman series. The radio that looks the most like it is this vintage Patrolman CB-6 on Youtube.

Mine had little icons next to the bands, an airplane for Aviation, a boat for Marine... if I remember correctly it could receive broadcasts in AM, FM, Shortwave, Mediumwave, Longwave, Weather band, Marine band, Aviation band. I had endless hours of fun with it. I discovered the Atomic Clock in Fort Collins, Co. and it's sister station in Hawaii. Morse code transmissions. Satellite/Aviation beacons, a wide assortment of foreign stations overseas, many broadcasting in languages I didn't know, but many in English too. A whole new big wide world was literally opened up to me.

I took that radio to college with me. When I dropped out and eventually moved to California, it went with me. For a time in San Francisco, I lived in some cockroach infested places. When I was eventually able to move out, the roaches were in my belongings, and I had to spray everything. Unfortunately in the process, some got in the radio, and ruined it.

A few years later, a made an impulse buy at radio shack and got another shortwave radio, a Realistic DX-100:

But I was too impulsive; it wasn't as comprehensive has my old radio, it only did 4 major shortwave bands and AM. It also required a long copper wire outdoor antennae to work well, and that was not easy or convenient to do living in the city. So the radio stayed boxed up for years, all but forgotten.

Almost 30 years later, I find myself living in the Oregon countryside. I realize I still have the SW radio sitting in the bottom of my closet. I unpack it and set it up, and ... nothing. I can't pull in anything, not even the Atomic Time Clock. Very disappointing.

But I had not set up an external antenna. I had a kit to do it, that I had never used. But now I had plenty of space for it, so I set up the long copper wire outside, running from the window to a tree.

This time, the results were much better. I was able to find both Atomic clocks. Several Asian stations, in Chinese and Japanese. Australia and New Zealand Broadcasts. Radio Havana, with their horrible commie news in English. Numerous Spanish speaking stations, and Radio Netherlands, in Dutch and in English. And of course, a bunch of religious broadcasts.

It's been great fun rediscovering some of these things. But something is different. There just seems to be a lot LESS out there on the airwaves. Less morse code. Less shortwave programs. Just... less.

Now it's true, this shortwave radio I have now doesn't have all the bands that my first radio had. So I'm not getting the Marine, Aviation and Weather bands, and not as many shortwave one's either. I'm sure that explains some of it. I've also read that shortwave reception on the West coast isn't as good as elsewhere in the USA.

But what about the BBC? That used to be the easiest to get. Maybe I just haven't tuned in at the right time yet. But now you can get BBC re-broadcasts on regular radio, so do they still do SW for the US?

I've recently been looking at the new radios for sale on and Radio Shack. I've been looking for a multiband radio like the one my parents had bought for me so many years ago. I can't find one like it. But while reading the comments posted by people about the various new radios, I have learned a few things about radio communications in our changing world.

It seems that many countries who used to direct their SW broadcasts to America simply don't bother to do it anymore. The purpose of SW broadcasts, was to get news and information about your country to other countries. But in America, so many people are on the internet, they can get that information without even turning on a radio. In fact, nowadays most Americans are more likely to turn on a computer than a SW radio, so why bother?

Even on the SW stations I have gotten, they often broadcast their website address when they do their station identification. The Web has changed things considerably, making the NEED for shortwave redundant.

HAM radio (Amateur radio) has also been affected by the internet. HAM radio operators used to pass along personal messages and information to members of the armed forces, who were often otherwise inaccessible. Yet in todays world, soldiers often have access to email and telephones for keeping in touch with their families. Ham radio is used less for that purpose than it used to be.

In my search for a multiband radio, I have found that the CB, weather, Marine and Aviation bands are nowadays most often put on devices called Scanners. A scanner can cost as much as a shortwave radio. But if you want all the bands, it seems you have to buy more than one device. I think there may simply be MORE bands now too.

What I've read about CBs (Citizens' band radio) is interesting. In the 70's and 80's Citizen Band radios were all the rage. Available CB bands in the US were expanded from 27 to 40. Yet nowadays, there is much less traffic on the CB bands. That's great for the people who still use them, but why? There are several reasons.

FRS (Family Radio Service) and GMRS (General Mobile Radio Service) frequencies have become very popular along with the new walkie-talkie type devices that use them. They are inexpensive, easy to use and widely available. They also don't have some of the interference problems that CB's can have.

The other thing that has cut into the CB market is cell phones. They are so prevalent today, that they make CB's redundant in many cases. Some CB enthusiasts argue that CB is cheaper because there are no subscription fees involved. But CB broadcasts are not private, and the equipment is bulkier and thus less convenient. And you can't call someone on their phone with your CB. Thus many people consider the CB to be "outdated technology", though it's still useful for situations where a cellphone isn't viable. It's still widely used by truckers in the US, and people who travel the roads a lot say it's a great way to monitor traffic conditions ahead.

While reading about all this, I came across this interesting and detailed site by amateur radio enthusiast Max Summerville. He has noted many of the changes in the world of radio over the years:


[...] I occasionally turn on a Panasonic RF-2200 to listen to shortwave, and sometimes the Sony ICF-2010, but what with the veritable plethora of propagandists, preachers and conspiracy theorists, I can't find much that interests me. I just wish all the old signals were still there.

I am now almost 50 and still an avid enthusiast of the "unusual" on the radio. I am saddened by each disappearance from the radio bands of faithful, comforting sounds never to be heard again. LORAN, marine band ship to shore, the voice-format utility stations, CW pileups, full-quieting AM reception, the woodpecker (don't really miss that one), the BBC, Happy Station, HCJB, and in general... english language SW broadcasts of any entertainment value. I have not heard Radio Tirana, Radio Moscow, Radio South Africa or Deutsche Welle for years, now that I think of it. The internet has killed a lot of the magic of radio. Thank goodness for AM on 75. [...]

So it's not just me, things really have changed, a lot of things aren't on the airwaves anymore. I enjoyed Max's site, he's done a lot of things with radio that I would have liked to have done, but never got around to. I never got past just passive listening.

There is an active Amateur Radio Club in a town near where I live. I thought about joining, but I'm not sure I'd have the time to get into it, not to mention the cost of the equipment. I find the idea appealing, but I'm just not sure what amateur radio is for anymore.

All things considered, it's a different world. Even if I somehow still had my wonderful gift radio of yester-year, I would be tunning in a different world with different needs because of newer technologies. There is that old saying, "You can't go back". I guess this is one of those instances.

But if you can't go back you can still go forward, so maybe I need a radio upgrade! What does newer technology offer for shortwave receivers? I recently got a sample.

I've wanted to buy an emergency hand-crank radio, that didn't rely completely on batteries. So I bought one for under $50.00, that had limited shortwave capabilities My choice was the Kaito KA009R that I posted about recently.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that my new cheap little KA009R was able to receive shortwave stations better than my old Realistic DX-100... even without the benefit of the long copper wire antenna! The emergency radio lacks fine-tuning controls, but it still gets less squelching and interference than the DX-100. It makes me wonder what a newer, more expensive shortwave radio would be like.

This one looks like one I would like to have:

Eton S350DL AM/FM Shortwave Deluxe Radio Receiver (Black)

The S350DL has external antenna jacks, fine tuning knobs, etc. These are all the things I think a good SW radio would need. But then, look at this radio, and the many good reviews it's gotten:

Sony ICF-SW7600GR AM/FM Shortwave World Band Receiver with Single Side Band Reception

It doesn't have all the tuning knobs, but buttons... I don't yet understand all the technology and terminology. All these high tech toys, and too many decisions. So much to learn, so little time. Aren't hobbies fun?


Walker said...

Interesting radio report. My old high school best friend and her husband are coming to dinner this next weekend. He used to be a HAM fan, so I appreciate the update on the status of the hobby.

Chas said...

With the HAM/Amateur radio stuff, I was just scratching the surface. Apparently it's possible to send text messages, graphics and even video. I don't completely understand it yet, it seems like some sort of convergence with the internet. You might want to ask your friend about it.

I guess I'll have to study it more and maybe do another radio post!

Roity said...

Yep, amateur radio certainly seems to be a niche hobby now, but it's still up with the times. New mods like D-star for the sms, graphics etc and Amateur radio has been using the Internet as well to expand. VoiP gateways between systems exist now and since 2001 or so.

Chas said...


D-star, sms, VoiP gateways... all new stuff to me, I'm a real Amature Radio Newbie. I don't even know yet how it interacts with the internet. I've seen HAM radio applications in Linux repositories, but never knew what they were for. I can see I've got a lot of research to do.

Hopefully it will be fun!

Anonymous said...

I'm a little perplexed by your description of the DX-100. It's a general coverage receiver, which means it receives all of the HF frequencies (550 kHz - 30 MHz.) That coverage is divided into 4 bands which overlap. It also receives CW and SSB in addition to AM.

The only FM activity in the HF spectrum will be a few frequencies in the 10 meter amateur band. You aren't missing much of anything by not being able to hear these and any cheap scanner can receive them if you wish.

You're right about the lack of activity (other than amateur radio and government utility stations) on HF these days. Few broadcasters are using shortwave any longer and fewer still are beaming the signals to North America. The exception is religious content. If that's your thing, you've got hundreds of stations to listen to 24/7.

Chas said...

Yes, the DX-100 does do CW and SSB, as well as AM. I can't fault it for not doing FM, because it's not a multi-band radio. That's why I considered my purchase of that radio to be hasty; I really wanted a multi-band to replace my original radio.

I can't remember if my old multi-band transistor radio offered more SW bands than the DX or not. To be fair, I did most of my SW listening with the multi-band radio on the East Coast, which was probably better for reception.

I like the fine tuning controls on the DX-100, but I can't seem to pull in as much as I did with my old radio. It also has a lot of drift and interference, not nice to listen to for very long.

I've just purchased a Sony ICF-SW7600GR AM/FM Shortwave World Band Receiver with Single Side Band Reception. It has more bands than the DX-100.

I've only had it a few days, and am still learning how to use it properly. I miss having a tuning dial instead of buttons. I think I may have to buy or build an external antenna to get better reception here.

I got a book, "Passport to World Band Radio", to help me find stations and the times they broadcast in English. When I get some time to experiment with it, I'll do a post about how that works out.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I have just got the Eton s350dl and it is a great radio, and highly recomend it so go get one lol. As for ham radio there is a new mode called dstar that combines radio with the internet, I personally think ham radio as we know it is in its death throes thanks to the internet, great site btw 73`s to everyone de m0zmo

Chas said...

Hi m0zmo,
Thanks for the recommendation, that radio's on my Wish List. I may get eventually, or a later version. But for now, I bought the Sony ICF-SW&600GR, with single sideband. It's keeping me busy!

D-star does sound interesting, there are lots of exciting new developments happening in Amateur Radio. I'm going to be getting my Ham license soon, perhaps we shall talk someday.


Anonymous said...


Antenna is everything for improving your reception.

Getting outside of a building structure or home - in the clear- is very important.

The size (bigger the better) and height (higher the better) matter greatly in picking up weak shortwave, ham, or other public communications signals.

On can take a very, very expensive quality receiver, transmitter or transceiver with the best filters, and with a poor antenna connected to it, the rig won't do squat.


Chas said...

Thanks Elmer, I've started to see that what you've said really is true. I've also purchased the ARRL's Antenna book for that very purpose.

I'll be sure and give my old DX-100 another chance, when I figure out the best antenna configuration for it.

Anonymous said...

I used my DX100 extensively during the 90's and have to agree, there seems to be less about on the SW bands than I recall.

As with all antenna systems the earth is as important as the "active feed" how have you earthed your DX100? it was always instilled in me that an external (to the building) earth was best.

I've found a few Ham Radio guides on the internet covering modifications for he DX100 one especially I found interesting was the addition of a small heatsink to the transistor under/behind the horizontal dial