Shortwave Soapbox

On the Importance of Shortwave Radio


Warning: Recurring Theme!

Shortwave Radio is a topic about which I am passionate, both as a listener and as an advocate. There are a lot of crazy things going on in the world along with numerous boneheaded decisions made by governments daily, but cutting funding for shortwave radio has to be right near the top. Why do I say this? Because radio has been, is, and likely always will be one of the only sure means of getting out information to the world which cannot be censored easily.

Obviously a repressive regime running a national shortwave radio station can control what comes out on the air, but they cannot easily control what comes into their airspace. Democratic nations understood this long ago. I am not talking about propaganda wars, as some so foolishly try to lump all shortwave broadcasts together as such. I am talking about free and easy access to information, however innocuous.

Ask former Soviet Union-controlled countries about the importance of shortwave radio during the “cold war.” Ask the people of Nepal how radio communications helped them during their recent crisis. Ask West Africans of the importance of shortwave radio in dealing with their recent Ebola crisis. And the list goes on. While recent health and welfare concerns highlight the importance of shortwave (and Amateur!) radio, of longer-standing value is the political aspect of shortwave radio. Hopefully those of us in the so-called First World economies have realized by now the Internet, while great, is not as free as we would like to think. (Anyone remember China and the Olympics Internet censorship?)

State-run television, radio, newspapers and Internet gateways ensure unwanted information never reaches the local population. Satellite services help mitigate these effects somewhat, but it cannot begin to match the simplicity, availability, and cost-effectiveness of a simple shortwave radio. (Not to mention the fact that satellite dishes need to be pointed at a satellite, by necessity therefore limiting how much can be received without re-positioning the dish.)

Not to sound too simplistic, but radio signals come in from all over and from every direction. This means a person holding a pocket-sized radio with a basic antenna can hear broadcasts from around the world almost anytime of day or night. With solar-powered radios and/or cranking generators common in emergency radios there is no need even for replaceable batteries. I am an ardent supporter of the charity “Ears To Our World” run by Thomas Witherspoon (of Blog fame). As their website says,  “At ETOW, we believe access to information is access to education. We provide innovative, simple and appropriate technologies to schools and communities in remote, rural and impoverished regions of our world.”

The concept is so simple and yet so brilliant: provide low-cost reliable radios which can be run on batteries, AC power if available, or by cranking a built-in generator. What a worthy cause!

Information is freedom and it can be literally life-saving in times of emergency or natural disaster, and it also provides hope that there is a world out there which can be brought closer to home, even if only for a few hours every day. Music, news, cultural insights and hopefully a good dose of truth is swirling around in the airwaves waiting to be captured by the simplest of radios. We cannot measure the success of shortwave radio through cost/benefit analysis, or by the benefit to advertisers. This is where modern governments are going wrong. VOA, BBC, and other “voices in the night” did not start out looking at revenue streams, and they must not do so now.

The bottom line to me is about meeting a very real global need for health and safety, as well as for checks and balances on all governments. Too many lights to the world have been extinguished already – we need to turn the downward cycle around and return to shortwave radio as a means of reaching the world.


  • Reply Nathan 07/24/2015 at 9:19 am

    You are absolutely right – this is a global need, not just a service. With the billions upon billions of dollars being spent on foreign aid which never gets to the people truly in need, money spent on programming, journalists, production staff and actual transmitting is money that get aid where it is needed. Why does this seem to be so hard for government officials to understand?
    China, Iraq, and Russia seem to understand the value of shortwave radio . . . that alone should give us food for thought.

  • Reply JR 07/31/2015 at 3:50 pm

    China, Iraq, and Russia seem to understand the value of shortwave radio , writes Nathan. I’m not sure about Iraq – do they have plans to rebuild shortwave, possibly something like the former Radio Baghdad International?

    The Chinese understand the importance of shortwave for sure. Their natural disaster provisions, too, include shortwave broadcasting.

    • Reply Nathan 07/31/2015 at 6:44 pm

      Hi JR!
      Actually I should have elaborated on my comment a bit – when I said China, Russia, and Iraq all understand the value of shortwave broadcasts what I was referring to was their efforts to jam incoming shortwave signals. They try to block them, as do other countries in Africa, and if I am not mistaken, at least at one time, Egypt.
      That tells me these countries understand the transformative power of information. And of course China until recently has flooded the airwaves with RCI, as does Radio Havana Cuba (some great music and of course Arnie Coro’s amateur radio show!). Cheers!

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