RADIO NOSTALGIA

Radio. Now there’s magic in the air. Imagine a device encased in wood, plastic or metal, composed of minute electronic components, tweaked and tuned to  pull sound from something totally invisible to the eye.  In a mere instant we can hear every genre of music, multiple events shaping history and the lives of others, in practically every language of the world. Think about it for a moment. Is it not just as fantastic as a magician who by sleight of hand produces out of thin air a bouquet of flowers, a flock of doves, a trove of trinkets? That’s the magic of radio. 

Channel Master 6505 AM radio
It has held me spellbound for much of my life. How and why, is just as much a mystery to me. Even now in this age of satellite radio, cable television and the Internet, radio still fascinates me. I suppose seeing my grand-dad with his Philco pocket transistor radio, listening to a baseball game or hockey match had something to do with this curiosity. My interest in constructing rudimentary radio receivers and transmitters might be related to my dad’s tinkering with junked Japanese transistor radios when he studied electronics. Whatever the reason, my earliest recollections are those as boy lying awake at night, listening to a  Channel Master AM radio. 

AM Radio in the 1960s
It was in the early Sixties, during the JFK years. My family and I lived in Little Rock, Arkansas. AM radio ruled the airwaves. I would often sit up at night, long past my bedtime, scanning the dial for distant cities across the US, Canada and Mexico.  I would hear many regional and Clear-channel stations like KVOO in Tulsa, KOMA in Oklahoma City, KRLD in Dallas, KMOX in St. Louis, WSM in Nashville, WWL in New Orleans,  KFAB in Omaha, WHO in Des Moines, WLS in Chicago and WCCO in St. Paul-Minneapolis. For a boy who had never travelled to these ‘faraway’ cities, it was a fantastic journey, an adventure, to be virtually there, hearing different American accents, music and local advertisements for products foreign to me. In between the fading and overlapping of stations, these sounds would conjure images of something seemingly exotic. For hours it would entertain me, until  I tired and fell asleep, sometimes with the radio still playing, only to discover in the morning that the batteries were dead and the radio silent.

QSL card from 990 CBW Winnipeg
Once new batteries were installed in the transistor radio I was ready for another night. Up and down the AM dial, from 540 to 1610 kHz, I would search for new stations, some beyond the borders of the continental US. If the propagation and time was right, I might catch broadcasts from Canada and Mexico. One powerhouse border station was XERF in Ciudad Acuna, Mexico. With 250 kilowatts — five times the power of most major US broadcasters — the growling voice of Wolfman Jack was unmistakable. So too were the religious programmes from evangelists like Herbert W. Armstrong and his World Tomorrow. Whenever an American station was about to conclude its transmission with the Star Spangled Banner, I took it as my cue to stay tuned. Viola! The abandoned frequency would often reveal weaker or more distant stations, including a few 50 kilowatt stations in Canada: CBK in Regina, Saskatchewan, CBR in Calgary, Alberta and CBW in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Winter usually proved to be the best season for these stations. Broadcasts were generally commercial free and featured CBC programmes, which differed significantly from the American Top 40 and Country & Western formats I was accustomed to hearing.

Daytime radio, by virtue of ground-wave propagation, yielded mostly broadcasts in Little Rock and the vicinity. Two AM stations I vividly recall hearing were KLRA and KOKY. Like most Arkansans of the time, my parents  listened to morning DJ Hal Webber, a.k.a. Brother Hal, on KLRA. His show’s signature tune was Floyd Kramer’s Last Date.  Between homespun tales and current events, he played a mix of Country & Western hits, including  Jimmy Dean’s Big Bad John, Johnny Horton’s Sink the Bismarck and Marty Robbin’s Ribbon of Darkness.  At the other end of the spectrum was KOKY 1440, the first station in Arkansas to target the African-American community. Air play included Motown hits and on Sundays, religious services from the African-American churches in the city. 

By the mid-Sixties our family had settled in Grand Junction, Colorado.  AM radio reception in the Grand Valley proved to be daunting to say the least.  The mountains surrounding the town practically blocked all reception east of the Continental Divide. Most of the stations heard were within the West Slope of Colorado — Delta-Montrose and KREX and KSTAR in Grand Junction. At night, for the first time I was logging AM stations west of the Divide, including KNX in Los Angeles, KSL in Salt Lake City and KOB in Albuquerque. To improve reception for stations east of the Rocky Mountains, I erected a crude random wire aerial I had striped from a power transformer and connected it to the tuning capacitor. As if by magic, signals from KOA in Denver and KFAB in Omaha improved a few decibels. Even KOMO in Oklahoma City could be heard loud and clear, beating the Top 40 Rock format of the time. 

Short-wave Radio in the Late 1960s
About this period I happened to peruse a few issues of my dad’s magazine subscription to Popular Electronics. It was here I discovered an array of antennas, amateur radios and the ultimate tabletop receivers — Heathkit, Hallicrafters, Lafayette and Hammerlund,  These rigs tuned not just the AM band, but the world via short-wave. From that moment on I was smitten with the idea that I had to own a short-wave radio.  

Cadaux 718
I poured over the  Spiegel mail-order catalogue from Chicago admiring the portable short-wave radios by Zenith, General Electric and Westinghouse. Finally, on Christmas 1967, my parents gifted me a Cadaux 718, a Japanese-made 4-band (FM / AM / SW1 / SW2) portable radio. It drifted badly, but I had the world at my fingertips -- Radio South Africa in Johannesburg, Radio Havana Cuba, Radio Nederland in Hilversum, Radio Sweden in Stockholm, BBC in London, CBC in Montreal, VOA in Washington DC, Radio Moscow, Swiss Broadcasting Corporation in Berne, Deutsche Welle in Cologne and Radio Japan in Tokyo.  It was another moment, neigh hours and hours, of radio magic.

Not long after, I realised the short-wave radio format focused on special programmes, not commercials and Top 40 music heard on American AM radio. Most international short-wave broadcasters featured informative programmes on their country and the lifestyle its citizens enjoyed. Among the offering was Radio Moscow‘s Moscow Mailbag that highlighted listeners’ questions about the Communist way of life in the USSR. On Deutsche Welle, Larry Wayne’s Random Selection: Living in Germany took an American, albeit tongue-in-cheek, perspective on the weekly activities and events in West Germany. The Happy Station Show  from Radio Nederland hosted by Tom Meijer, aired on Sunday evenings in North America,  gave listeners an educational travelogue on Holland and the Dutch. Voice of America showcased Jazz America with Willis Conover and Words and Their Stories in "Special English’ for listeners wanting to learn American accented English. 

My favourite programmes dealt with short-wave radio listening. These shows provided short-wave hobbyists like myself with DX information and tips. Often after receiving QSL cards verifying the reception reports of easily heard short-wave broadcasts, programmes like Glenn Hauser’s DX Listening Digest, hosted by Ian McFarland, on CBC proved to be an invaluable source when searching for new stations. DX Juke Box on Radio Nederland with Derek Jordan and Jim Vastenhoud also offered insightful receiver reviews and propagation reports, along with DX reports of clandestine and international short-wave broadcasters. So too did DX Partyline on HCJB in Ecuador and Radio Budapest Short-wave Club in Hungary. At one time, I was even a club member of these and other short-wave listener associations. I was also added to the mailing database of many stations and dutifully received programme schedules from them for many years. Suddenly I — a mere lad in his early teens — was getting mail from 'overseas'. I thought it was pretty cool!

QSL card from Radio Warsaw, Poland
Much of my DXing and correspondence occurred during the Cold War era. Many East European stations were a challenge to pick up in  Colorado. Nevertheless, with diligence and a keen ear to the radio speaker, I managed to filter out the static and modulation to QSL Radio Berlin International in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik, Radio Budapest in Hungary and Radio Prague in Czechoslovakia. In the summer of 1968, during the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, I attempted on many nights to catch Radio Prague, but to no avail. Radio Free Europe was also impossible to receive, often due to jamming. The more elusive stations to capture were Radio Sofia in Bulgaria, Radio Warsaw in Poland, Radio Tirana in Albania and Radio Belgrade in Yugoslavia, all of which I did eventually QSL. The grand-daddy of them all, and widely heard across all short-wave bands, was Radio Moscow and its satellite Soviet stations, e.g. Radio Vilnius, Radio Minsk, Radio Peace and Progress. Curiously, most Communist-era stations identified themselves by their city, e.g. Radio Tashkent.

DXing in the 1970s
By 1970, my ability to receive stations outside of Europe improved dramatically with a ‘new’ tabletop radio. It was a second-hand Zenith Trans-Oceanic H-500, originally manufactured between 1951 through 1953. My dad picked up this 5-tube behemoth at a neighbourhood Radio Shack for US$10. What a marvellous radio it was too! The moment the tubes glowed, the meter band was punched in and the dial rotated, the magic of radio struck again. New and ever more exotic stations appeared on the short-wave and AM bands.
Zenith Trans-Oceanic H-500

Many low-powered or infrequently heard stations, under the right atmospheric conditions, materialised for a few days, sometimes for just an hour or less.  On snowy days in Denver,  propagation played an important role, especially in muting static. On one December afternoon — and only once — I logged, clearly and loudly,  the evangelical station  FEBA in Victoria, Seychelles. A few days later under the same conditions I heard the 10 kilowatt transmitter of the Windward Islands Broadcasting Corporation (WIBS) in St. George, Grenada telling workers to report for work at a banana estate. Another unusual catch was the evangelical station,  4VEH in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. On a regular basis, but again under proper conditions, the 7.5 kilowatt transmitter of Radio New Zealand in Wellington, with its distinctive Bellbird interval signal, could be heard well after midnight.

For the uninitiated, the interval signal was and remains a distinctive sound or musical phrase used to identify a specific short-wave station. It is played before a station commences its scheduled programming. In some cases it is used between breaks in the transmission when a station switches to programming in another language. In the Seventies, Radio Japan (NHK) in Tokyo alerted its listeners with the Kazoe-uta  (Counting Song). Radio Peking regaled the international short-waves with The East is Red. Radio Australia signed on with the national tune Waltzing Matilda, followed by the cackle of a kookaburra.  La Voz de Chile in Santiago hummed along to a lively strummed Spanish guitar. Radio Abidjan in the Ivory Coast took the path of a different drummer and resonated with a drumbeat. Radio Luxembourg titillated the airwaves with a tinkling music box.  These unique national IDs in themselves had a mesmerising affect and  impelled me to scan the dial for more unusual sounds.

To improve my short-wave quest, I resolved to acquire a new receiver in 1975. I had good cause. By this time the old Zenith had glowed its last light. Many of the electronic components in the radio needed to be replaced. Rather than make costly repairs, I purchased a Realistic DX-160. It fit my budget and had the “bells and whistles” I had long wanted in a receiver: Excellent sensitivity. Better frequency separation. Clean sound.  Signal meter. BFO to hear amateur radio operators.

Realistic DX-160
Needless to say once the Realistic DX-160 (with LW / AM / SW1 / SW2 bands) was coupled to an external antenna and powered up, it worked like a charm. My radio passport on the world soon transported me to new frontiers. Much sought-after European stations like Radio Belgium in Brussels and Radio Luxembourg’s renowned rock music format were eked out of what were once shrouded in pops, hisses and over-modulation on previous radios.

QSL Card from NBC,  Papua New Guinea
Even with the Realistic DX-160, far-flung broadcasters in the Asia-Pacific region proved to be just as hard to hear, but not altogether impossible to catch. It was a bit like fly fishing. To snag these rarities involved a lot of patience and many tedious hours of scanning the dial or checking a known broadcast frequency, until through static-filled headphones, the whisper of music or a weak voice exposed the treasured station’s identity.  One such gem was the pidgin English programming of the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Another was the Polynesian music heard nightly over Radio Tahiti in Papeete, which conjured images of blissful tranquillity on a tropical isle. Equally valued were the faintly heard broadcasts of Overseas Radiodiffusion Television Francaise (ORTF) in Nouméa, New Caledonia and Radio Malaysia (RTM) in Kuala Lumpur.

Correspondence with overseas stations often yielded pleasantly surprising mementos too.  Upon delivery of a prized QSL, the public relations people at a station would send an item or two reflective of their country. This could be anything from tourist brochures, national flags, station pennants to calendars. From Radio Kiev I received two wallet-size calendars with a traditional Ukrainian floral motif on the reverse side, one of which I eventually gave to an old Ukrainian-American gentleman I met one day while waiting for a bus in Denver. The  Voice of Turkey sent me a lovely wall calendar of a brightly coloured Ottoman-era print. The National Radio of Spain posted brochures of their country and cuisine.

Probably the most unexpected mail was a scam letter I received from a Ghanaian after contacting the Ghana Broadcasting Corporation in Accra. Based on communication with other short-wave listeners — a few who were pen-pals — the guy had the temerity to solicit us for funds to cover some mishap he had purportedly suffered.

AM and FM Formats in the 1970s
Not all of my radio correspondence and listening was confined exclusively to short-wave broadcasts. I discovered the Realistic DX-160 was a superior performer to any AM radio I had previously owned. In the wee hours of the night from Denver, I could detect sports talk radio WLW in Cincinnati and WRVA in Richmond (Virginia). Even Trans World Radio in Bonaire, Netherland Antilles could be heard at 800 kHz, competing head-to-head with the 150 kilowatt powerhouse XELO in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico. Needless to say this reinvigorated my interest in exploring the AM band, and I subsequently QSLed many stations in the continental US, Canada and Mexico.

A question perhaps arises at this point. Did I actually ‘listen’ to any of these AM stations? Indeed, a few programmes did pique my curiosity. Aside from the Rock standards of the time, I occasionally tuned into the CBS Mystery Theatre hosted by E.G. Marshall. By the late Seventies, as talk radio came into its own, Larry King’s nationwide interview/caller phone-in programme Open Phone America, caught my ear. And how could I forget Art Bell‘s paranormal and conspiracy theory talk show, Coast to Coast. Another controversial talk radio DJ, notable in the Denver metropolitan area,  was the gruff voiced, and equally brash personality, Alan Berg heard over KOA in the afternoon. While this ex-lawyer from Chicago could be rude to his callers, amusing to others and at times self-deprecating, he was certainly never dull.

When I tired of all the late night chatter, I would flip the dial to the ‘easy listening’ sounds of Tony Oren’s Music & Musings over KMOX in St. Louis. I would characterise it as elevator muzak, the middle-of-the-road stuff my parents enjoyed. What? Moi listening to this? Oddly enough it did appeal to — let us just say — the quirky 'dark side' of me. Tony’s dry baritone voice and suave style segued well with the musical arrangements of Mantovani, 101 Strings, Andre Kostelanetz, Nat King Cole and similar artists of this genre. His show had a contemporary jazz feel that soothed any weariness, including my own angst.

Renaissance
Needless to say my musical tastes ran the gamut and were quite eclectic for a teenager. Much of the exposure I attribute to Denver‘s FM programming. In the early Seventies, AM Top 40 Rock had become less music, more advertising and more DJ frothing-at-the-mouth oriented. FM radio was different. In its heyday ‘free-form’ stations operated virtually commercial free and played long segments of music uninterrupted, just long enough to comply with the FCC ruling on announcing the station’s call letters. KFML was at the top of the ‘free-form‘ format in the Denver-Boulder area. Some of the DJs sounded like ‘stoners’, and probably were under the influence, but the music was truly unique. In 30 minutes a play-list might consist of Tangerine Dream, Renaissance, Yes, The Strawbs, New Rider’s of the Purple Sage, The Flying Burrito Brothers and Led Zeppelin.  A DJ might also sample whole or partial albums in one listening. It was revolutionary!

The FM band was not limited solely to free-form music. Very few stations actually broadcast on the band.  In some rural areas of the US only static filled the airwaves. Aside from KFML,  another great station was KVOD.  With its transmitter located high atop Ruby Hill in Denver, announcers John Wolfe and Gene Amole introduced me to the classical music world of Mozart, Beethoven, Wagner, Rossini et al. I remember especially well Amole broadcasting in Larimer Square. He called his segment In The Square at Café Promenade and birds twittered in the background while he chatted up his audience. One of his oft-played songs was Mannheim Steamroller’s Toota Lute, which while not classical music per se, certainly complemented the format. These guys had panache, and were just as classy as the music they played for their listeners.

In the Seventies, both AM and FM radio listeners in Denver had a choice of non-English speaking stations too. The city’s diverse ethnic demographics created a niche radio market for Spanish, Greek and German programming. Daily broadcasts over KBNO, Denver’s first Spanish language station, served a sizeable Hispanic community and provided a voice for Hispanic music artists. On Sundays, an hourly Greek language programme opened and closed its show with a lively bouzouki rendition of Zorba the Greek. Aside from topics of interest to the Hellenic community, listeners heard Greek pop music and commercials for The Athenian restaurant. Gunter Auerbach hosted Musical Greetings from Germany on Sundays as well. One of his most memorable shows was during Christmastime when he played a recording of church bells tolling from towns across Germany. As the distinctive bells of each church rang out and the towns were announced, he dissolved into a selection of traditional German Christmas songs, one after another. It was a magical time indeed to hear such cultural diversity.

Radio in the 1980s 
As the Eighties approached, I set about designating a special area as my DX corner. Displayed on one of my bedroom walls was a world map. Tacked on opposite ends of it were over 70 QSL cards from international short-wave and North American AM stations. Below this sat the Realistic DX-160 and a portable cassette tape recorder. What? You thought maybe Farah Fawcet or an American muscle car poster? Nada. It looked like the typical DX corner I’d seen in innumerable Ham and short-wave listener publications.

Although displayed for show and tell, radio was actually beginning to lose some of its pizzazz for me. I was in college, and this left very little time for listening. New short-wave stations were increasingly difficult to log. In fact I can’t really recall any correspondence with stations in the early Eighties. I became more of an FM radio listener about this time.

Dr. Demento
A particularly zany and off-the-wall programme that appealed to my alter ego was Dr. Demento, a syndicated show produced by Barret Eugene Hansen a.k.a. Dr.Demento. Heard on one of the major FM stations in Denver, my Sunday evening was not complete unless I had a dose of  irreverence, mad-cap songs and crazy comedy from the good ‘Doctor‘. He would spin parodies like “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Yoda, set to the melody of the Kinks classic hit Lola. Novelty hits from the 1950s and 1960s — scarcely heard on mainstream radio — including Alley Oop by the Hollywood Argyles,  Monster Mash by Bobby "Boris" Pickett, Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah (A Letter from Camp) by Allen Sherman and They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Ha by Napoleon XIV were airplay standards. Dr. Demento also featured innuendo songs such as 1940s Borscht Belt comedian Benny Bell, particularly his signature tune, Shaving Cream. He introduced the manic big-band parodies of Spike Jones, the musical black humour of Tom Lehrer, and the many novelty records recorded by satirist Stan Freberg in the 1950s. Another frequently highlighted artist was Frank Zappa who appeared several times as a guest before his passing. Comedy in any form was essentially welcomed.

That was one of the reasons my FM dial was pretty much stuck on 90.1 KCFR for National Public Radio. NPR in some ways was like ’free-form’ radio. It had comedy, informative programmes and no commercials, thanks to regular listener-sponsored donations to keep the station and programming on the air. Among my favourite shows on KCFR, in collaboration with the Minnesota Public Radio, was A Prairie Home Companion hosted by Garrison Keillor. It was heard every Saturday afternoon. Between a mix of bluegrass and folk music, he would spin homespun monologues about a mythical town in Minnesota called Lake Woebegone. It was home to: Bertha's Kitty Boutique "for persons who care about cats";  The Chatterbox Café, "The place to go that's just like home"; The Herald Star, the town newspaper run by Harold Star; The Sons of Knute Temple, a Norwegian fraternal organisation; the Whippets, the town’s baseball team; and the Farmer's Union Grain Elevator. In many ways Lake Woebegone reminded me of all the small towns in Midwestern America I had visited, or to more aptly quote Garrison, a place where  "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." In any case,  his dry humour brought the magic of radio back to me, and something reminiscent of radio’s infancy.

For those generations who grew up with radio between the 1920s and 1950s, Garrison Keillor’s radio show harkened back to the golden days of Burns & Allen, The Inner Sanctum, The Lone Ranger and The Grand O’le Opry. He entertained and captivated the imagination. Garrison was by no means the only radio personality to do this. In Denver, another announcer who took up the mantle of nostalgia radio was Larry Cox and his dog Wilbur. On Saturday nights over KCFR, following A Prairie Home Companion, he hosted The National Recovery Act (a name borrowed from the New Deal agency established by US President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933). For a few hours Larry conjured an atmosphere of news reels, commercials, automobiles and ballrooms filled with  big-band music from the 1930s and 1940s.

By the mid-Eighties Larry had moved over to KOA at 850 AM. I too had made a career move to Houston, Texas. And yet, fortunately for me, a bit of Denver was still within earshot. I was able to catch Larry and Wilbur’s weekly make-believe era on Clear-channel KOA in the late evening. Suffice it to say, this was a cure-all of sorts for some of the homesickness I occasionally felt.

As I became more involved in an advertising career, I had less time to devote to the hobby, and consequently, the interest  waned. I listened mostly to Public Radio stations in Houston, and its varied cultural programming, including Hindi and Arabic music for the respective ethnicities living in Houston. The New Age music of Mike Oldfield,  George Winston and similar artists, as well as the ‘sub-cultural’ campus radio format out of Rice University and the University of Houston filled my leisure hours. It wasn’t actually until I left Houston in 1988 that I gradually eased into listening to the short-wave band again.

Radio Listening in Malaysia
By this time I had settled in Malaysia, married and begun a family. To keep in touch with events in the United States, I acquired a JVC portable stereo with a cassette tape player and digital frequency tuner capable of keying-in a specific AM / FM / SW frequency. It was a straightforward, no-fuss radio. I recall rather humorously the Chinese-Malaysian salesgirl at the department store Riches, in the town of Klang, who sold the radio to me. She cranked up the volume, thinking I wanted an extremely loud stereo, when all I really wanted was a radio to update me on happenings in the States and the world.

The Voice of America (VOA), Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) provided a ready source of information in these early years. The VOA and ABC kept me inundated with current events in the morning hours, and the BBC was a constant companion in the evening hours. Suddenly short-wave radio listening took on a new and different magic for me.

It must be understood in the late Eighties and early Nineties, radio formats in Malaysia were not only limited in variety, they were also lackadaisical and uninspiring, at least when compared to my previous programming exposure. Six FM stations broadcast in the Klang Valley and were identified numerically, e.g. Radio 1, Radio 2 and so forth. Radio 1 was Ibu Kota, the main Malay language station which broadcast around-the-clock. Radios 2 through 6 offered programmes in either English, Tamil or Chinese (Hokkien and Cantonese).

RTM studios 
My wife and I listened regularly to Radio 4. It was what the DJ called and I quote “evergreen classics”, a mix of Rock-n-Roll and Pop standards from the 1950s and early 1960s. To my way of thinking the songs were so evergreen they brought new meaning to the phrase "mouldy oldies". Late in the evenings until the national anthem, Negaraku (My Country) concluded transmission for the day, we would listen, sing along and tape selected songs for playback. One particularly cheesy tune was Hotel Loneliness, which even to this day we remember with fond disdain.

The AM band — set in 9 kHz rather than 10 kHz frequency increments — was worse. It was similar to rural America in the western  states. In the daytime it was virtually ‘dead air’, except for a lone station in Malaysia and VOA (relay transmitter in south Thailand) on 1575 kHz.  Night time broadcasts were comparatively uncluttered to the AM band in North America. Only stations in neighbouring countries were received and never in English; only Thai, Indonesian and Chinese speaking stations occupied the band. This necessitated my return to short-wave listening.

Short-wave broadcasts proved especially invaluable during the Persian Gulf War in 1990. I followed the  events daily over VOA and BBC. The nightly media briefing of General Norman Schwartzkopf over the VOA became routine. For additional insight, I listened to the BBC and other international broadcasters. Quite frankly, I was not any more interested in the Allied point of view than I was the TV perspective from Al Jazeera. I merely felt some vulnerability as an expatriate in a predominately Muslim country and the need to be reassured. As it turned out, this was an unfounded fear since the majority of Malaysians, both Muslim and non-Muslim,  supported the Allied forces.

Around early 1992 I happened to flip through an issue of the Tatler magazine and noticed the advertisements for portable short-wave radios offered by Sony, Panasonic and Roberts. I was amazed to discover the compactness, the number of stored memories available and smart-looking digital LCDs. Sold on the advertisements, I subsequently purchased a Panasonic RF-B45 at Yaohan‘s, a now defunct Japanese department store. This was my first digital Phase Lock Loop (PLL) radio as opposed to the old super heterodyne. It covered the FM/LW/AM/SW bands, featured a total of 32 short-wave memories, fine tuning and SSB. For its size, it was a venerable performer, equal in some ways to my Realistic DX-160.

Panasonic RF-B45
I was in awe of how a radio this compact could sound so good and receive so well. With the Panasonic RF-B45 I heard many familiar short-wave stations of my youth and, best of all, new and evermore exotic ones. Among the changes in my absence was a new international short-wave band — 21 meters. Swiss Radio International (SRI) was heard regularly, loud and clear, on this band until its short-wave service ceased in 2004. On the 19 meter band, I heard many Arabic language and Middle Eastern stations, more clearly than I did previously in the States. Islamic programming in English, out of Dubai was a rare and unique discovery, in addition to broadcasts of the Quran being read from the Broadcasting Service of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (BSKSA) in Riyadh.

Any doubt about the performance of the Panasonic RF-B45 was dispelled in 1995. On my return to the States with my family, I tested its reception capability at my parents home in southwest Missouri. After stringing up a random wire antenna, I pressed on the power button and to my surprise, after scanning the AM and short-wave bands, I observed it netted as many stations as the Realistic DX-160.

Back in Malaysia, and along about 1996, a new English language station appeared on the FM band -- Time Highway Radio (THR). With its witty and personable DJ, Fly Guy a.k.a. Saufian Mokhtar, the station was instrumental in transforming the nation’s FM format. For the first time FM radio in Malaysia had a DJ producing comedy skits, joking in a listener-friendly manner and announcing a show in American-accented English — a by-product of his education in broadcasting and marketing at Western Michigan University. From this point onward, practically every FM station adopted the format and style.

During this period a relative novelty — the Internet — caught my attention and pretty much everyone else. Radios were all but superseded. My own Panasonic RF-B45 literally sat in a cabinet drawer. Live streaming of international short-wave broadcasters and American AM/FM stations (before the US government restricted it) was the way to go. No static. No interference. Clear and strong reception. News, music and information were instantly available, so long as I knew the http address, had a fast modem and a reliable server connection. After toying around with the computer for a few years I realised there was no sport in "surfing the net" for stations; it was a little like a hunter who considers hunting with  bow and arrow more of a challenge than a rifle. I felt the same way about the radio; there was something still magical about it.

In all fairness to the Internet and satellite television, both complemented my radio listening. This was especially true on 11 September 2001. As terrorists struck The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, I watched CNN broadcast live footage. Captivated by the tragic events unfolding I logged onto the Voice of America on-line. Simultaneously I turned on the short-wave and keyed in the frequencies for the BBC and VOA broadcasts. In subsequent days, I listened to NPR and its insightful programmes on the Internet.

Acquisition of New Radios
Around 2006 my Panasonic RF-B45 began to malfunction. Of course, it was nothing like the Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl halftime show two years earlier. Contraire, the LCD screen suffered some bleeding and the lower FM frequencies were inoperative. Rather that discard an otherwise workable radio, I contacted Panasonic Malaysia to make the necessary repairs. Customer Service promptly informed me that replacement parts were no longer in stock. This prompted a storewide search for an affordable, yet adequate short-wave radio. To my discovery, Panasonic had abandoned the sale and marketing of short-wave radios; Sony sold only the ICF-SW7600GR and ICF-SW35;  and Sangean offered its flagship ATS-909 and ATS-606. The tabletop models from  AOR, Icom, Kenwood, Palstar, NRD and Yaesu looked immensely attractive from a performance level, but far from portability, and definitely more expensive.

With declining sales in Western countries (where short-wave radios once held significant retail value), Chinese manufacturers filled the market that the Japanese once reigned supreme over. Resigned to this reality, I read numerous customer reviews on the Internet and discovered eBay had many portable short-wave radios to select from, old and new models. Eventually I short-listed it to the Degen DE-1102 and Degen DE-1103, ultimately deciding my budget designated the DE-1102 as the logical choice.

Degen DE-1102
About a month later, the Degen DE-1102 (badged as Kaito KA-1102 in the US market) arrived in the mail from Hong Kong. As I unpacked it, I was slightly disheartened. I wondered how a tiny, near palm-size short-wave radio could even begin to compete with the Panasonic RF-B45. I had my doubts. Once I mastered its cell phone type functionality assigned to each button, I found its SSB on the amateur bands and Narrow/Wide filters performed commendably. It stored a whopping 190 station memories compared to the Panasonic’s paltry 32. More importantly, its sensitivity to eliminate noise and receive weaker stations was superior.

This ignited the old magic I had experienced as a kid. In a short time I resumed correspondence with old and new short-wave stations. I QSLed Radio Ethiopia, Radio Sweden, Oesterreichischer Rundfunk and the Voice of Turkey within the year. One of the more fascinating stations it received was Denge Mezptamya (Voice of Mesopotamia), a clandestine station transmitting from the Ukraine and broadcasting Kurdish music and information. At first I believed the station to be located in Turkey, given the similarity in music, but a Turkish friend later identified it as Kurdish.

Tecsun BCL-3000
When I first received the Degen DE-1102, I showed it to another friend from China. A few years later, aware of my keen fascination in radios, I expressed to him the wish to obtain a Redsun RP3100, a PLL prototype radio reportedly in limited production for the domestic (China) market. On his return to Malaysia, he produced not the Redsun but a Chinese lettered Tecsun BCL-3000 (Grundig/Eton S-350DL). It was an easy mistake to make. The styling and casing was similar.

Grateful nevertheless, the Tecsun BCL-3000  had some characteristics the DE-1102 did not possess. Most notable was a vernier dial, not the push button type, which allowed for a rotary sweep of the bandwidth in fast or slow turns simultaneously. And while this analogue radio’s digital frequency read out was no super powered rig, had no memory capability and featured no SSB, the AF gain and 4 inch speaker produced a remarkably loud and warm sound.  In days to come I discovered it was also a credible DX machine, if one did not mind the occasional 1 kHz drift off frequency. Despite this, the Tecsun BCL-3000 helped me QSL  Trans World Radio in Swaziland,  Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation in Colombo,  the Voice of Korea in Pyongyang,  the Voice of Vietnam in Hanoi and the Voice of Mongolia in Ulan Bator.

Tescun S-2000 
With my short-wave pastime sufficiently piqued, along with ample time on my hands upon retirement, I purchased two new short-wave radios in 2010: the Taiwanese-made Sangean ATS-909W and the Chinese-made Tecsun S-2000 (Grundig/Eton Satellite 750). Both proved to be superb receivers, equal in price and performance. The Sangean ATS-909W (FM-Stereo / MW / LW / SW) PLL synthesised receiver was equipped with Radio Data System (RDS) for FM radio broadcasts, FM coverage from 76-108 MHz, USB / LSB 40Hz fine tuning on Single Side Band, band tuning via dial and/or push-button in 1 kHz, 5 kHz or 10 kHz increments,  dual clocks, 307 memories covering 26 stored pages and alphanumeric labelling for each page. The Tescun S-2000 (LW  MW / SW / FM-STEREO / AIR) PLL synthesised receiver on the other hand featured an astonishing 1000 memories, USB / LSB settings on Single Side Band,  band tuning via dial and/or push-button in 1 kHz, 5 kHz, 10 kHz or 100 kHz increments and multiple antenna jacks. From a performance perspective, the Sangean had superior noise reduction and frequency filtering below 41 meters; whereas the Tecsun seemed to ferret out signals best above the 21 meter band.

Sangean ATS-909W
Between the two sets, I logged over 60 countries in just one year, many of them newfound stations. Much to my surprise I tracked down Radio Nacional da Amazonia in Brazil, Radio Telefís Éireann (RTE) in Dublin, Radio Pridnestrovie in Moldova, Radiodiffusion Télévision Tunisienne in Tunis, SNRT in Morocco, Afia Darfur, Sudan Radio Service in South Sudan, Radiodiffusion Nationale Tchadienne (RNT) in Chad, SW Radio Africa  in Zimbabwe, the Voice of Nigeria, the Voice of Broad Masses of Eritrea, Radio Kuwait, Radio Damascus in Syria, Galei Zahal in Israel, Radio Azadi (Radio Free Afghanistan) in Afghanistan, Radio Myanmar, Adventist World Radio (KSDA) in Guam, World Harvest Radio International (T8WH) in Pulau and the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation in Honiara.

While these formidable radios performed the hard task of rooting out these rare and some times faintly heard stations, the Internet proved indispensable in my quest too. Several websites dedicated exclusively to the short-wave hobby  often assisted in pinpointing the frequency, time and mailing/e-mail address of a station. To the World Wide Web’s credit, it has become an invaluable source of information, much like the short-wave DX programmes of yore.

Future Prospect of Short-wave Radio
On the other hand the Internet, along with the advent of newer technologies, has sounded the death toll for once prominent short-wave broadcasters. Each year since the end of the Cold War era,  these long-established stations have either scaled back their broadcast time and transmission zones, or they have eliminated their service altogether, in favour of on-line Internet broadcasts, satellite transmission or Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM). Gone from the dial are once familiar broadcast giants: Swiss Radio International (SRI), Radio Hungary, the Voice of Africa in Libya, Radio Sweden, Radio Prague in the Czech Republic and Radio Slovakia. Even the ubiquitous BBC World Service at one point planned to discontinue its service to Europe, North America, Australiasia and the Caribbean, but listener protests soon dissuaded this possibility.

e-QSL from Radio Pridnestrovie,  Moldova
While many world-renown broadcasters continue to reduce their analogue short-wave service or phase them out entirely, short-wave still plays a vital role in Developing Nations. In parts of Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Pacific rim where limited computers and/or Internet service providers exist, short-wave radio — AM/FM radio in general — remains a cost-effective means to disseminate information to its populace. Regrettably with these budgetary considerations at play, some stations decline to QSL reception reports from international listeners, even with International Reply Coupons (IRC) or small monetary denominations to cover postage. In all fairness to stations in Developing Nations, the BBC also currently refuses to acknowledge reports with either an e-QSL or traditional QSL card.

Another cost-cutting measure for some international short-wave broadcasters is Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM). With the use of DRM to cover the same geographic area at a lower transmitting power — roughly one fifth the power — than traditional AM mode broadcasts, short-wave broadcasters like the BBC, Deutsche Welle, Polskie Radio, Radio Romania International or Radio Luxembourg can significantly reduce their electricity cost to operate. This is quite beneficial when one takes into account that the average AM (analogue) international short-wave station operates from 50 kilowatts to as much as one million watts per transmitter, with typical power levels in the 50 to 500 kilowatt range. In addition, a DRM broadcast rivals FM mono quality. It also has the capability to transmit graphic images and web pages via a separate information channel, including the listener’s ability to e-mail computer screen shots of reception reports for a QSL card.

While these innovative technologies appear to be gradually replacing the average short-wave receiver, ironically radio hobbyists have adapted to these advancements in creative ways. They control the new mediums, not necessarily the on-line multimedia services of international broadcasters. One may come across enterprising devotees who have designed DRM hardware and software for sale on the Internet. Old time radio broadcasts with audio clips of radio personalities and their shows pop up on many websites. Some short-wave aficionados have posted their collection of old QSL cards and interval signals. Blog sites dedicated to atmospheric propagation, short-wave broadcast schedules, antenna tips and radio designs are readily available too. It is also possible to find an on-line short-wave radio or GlobeTuners with a software-activated programme to tune any frequency in a given region, then hear broadcasts for a few seconds.

Where all of this, and more precisely where radio, will end up is a journey in itself. Perhaps it is no different than my own excursions. Radio to me was always like a good drive, especially those with no particular destination, just freewheeling along. While moving across the dial, beyond the RF buzz and crackle, I would tune into new towns, meet people different than myself and listen to their outlook on life. The trip had a magical power of helping me, of putting my own life in perspective and of plotting a course for my next journey. I suppose radio will evolve along similar paths. The frequency and the station is not altogether clear yet, but as it and I get nearer to our destination on the horizon, we will settle down for a while, listen to something quaint, something not too far remote from our past, and be happily spellbound in a sort of Shangri-la.

Copyright T.L. Breyel, 2011.