New Directions Radio: Shortwave Radio Receivers

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Shortwave radio enthusiast Copthorne Macdonald is also the inventor of slow-scan television, a method of amateur radio transmission that allows ham operators to both hear and see each other during shortwave broadcasts.

Shortwave radio is really buzzing with activity these days. The entire spectrum between 3 and 30 MHz bristles with signals from distant hams, CB-ers, shortwave broadcasters, ships, planes, government installations, and the world press.

These various types of signals, as you probably know, are segregated into slices of the spectrum called “bands.” There are, for example, international broadcast bands, amateur radio bands, and, of course, the citizens’ band. In recent years manufacturers have shown a growing tendency toward the production of specialized equipment that centers upon just one specific type of these many radio services. Store shelves are packed with CB rigs, ham-band-only receivers, shortwave broadcast receivers, and other “limited use” equipment.

Often, however, a newcomer to the shortwave scene would like to sample a variety of goings-on—to listen not only to foreign broadcasts, for instance, but to time signals and ham operators too. Fortunately, there are some excellent “general coverage” receivers available today, and they do a decent job of bringing in this wide assortment of signals.

A “Versatile” Receiver

The Sony ICF-5900W, for instance, is a battery (or AC) operated portable and sells for as little as $150 in the United States. It’s one of the best buys available for the serious shortwave listener whose main interest is monitoring international broadcasts, but who would also like to tune in on ham conversations once in a while. This highly sensitive set covers the most widely used bands and has two essential features that aren’t usually found on low-priced sets.

The first of these “extra” features is a built-in crystal marker calibration system, which allows receiver tuning to be set to an accuracy of 10 kHz or better. (This ability to go directly to a particular radio station’s “address” will be a help in avoiding the frustration that usually accompanies a hit-or-miss search with a poorly calibrated receiver.)

The Sony’s second “bonus” is its beat frequency oscillator (BFO), which makes code signals audible and single-sideband (SSB) signals intelligible. Virtually all hams, most point-to-point government stations, and even some international broadcasters now use the SSB mode for all voice transmissions, so a BFO is “necessary equipment” for any multi use receiver. You can check out the ICF5900W at most any Sony retail dealer.

Required Reading

When using well-calibrated receivers like the Sony, reference books that list the operating frequencies of specific stations suddenly become very useful. The World Radio TV Handbook lists these frequencies and some program data for most of the planet’s shortwave broadcast stations. On the other hand, Gilfer Associates’ Confidential Frequency List covers the non-ham, non-broadcast field quite well, listing stations operated by such varied groups as Interpol (the international police organization), Antarctic research bases, and embassies that want to maintain radio contact with their home countries. Both of these books will be out in new editions soon (probably at increased prices, so you just might be able to “cop a bargain” on this year’s versions). You can get the facts about these and a variety of other items for shortwave listeners from Gilfer Shortwave.

While I’m on the subject of information sources, I should mention that I get a considerable number of letters from MOTHER EARTH NEWS readers who are interested in finding out more about ham radio. I usually suggest that they write to the American Radio Relay League to request one of the League’s free ham radio information packets in addition to a list of its publications. One of these volumes, the ARRL License Manual (priced at $3.00 postpaid), provides full details on amateur licensing in the United States, as well as pertinent FCC rules, examination procedures and schedules, and study material designed to help novices prepare for their written tests.

The League also publishes The Radio Amateur’s Handbook: the technical “bible” of ham radio. (Check your public library for a copy.) A fair percentage of the Handbook’s content is highly specialized, but it can provide you with a good overview of ham radio if you don’t let yourself get bogged down in the incomprehensible (to a beginner) technical details.

Another tip: New Direction Radio’s own Larry Kahaner (WB2NEL) recently wrote a concise, well-illustrated, nontechnical introduction to ham radio called A Guide to Ham Radio. Kahaner’s book is available where radio books are sold.

I’d like to close for this issue with a story that Cliff Buttschardt (W6HD0) passed along to me. Seems that Cliff and Jonny Klein (W7JK) were restoring some large telephone type, lead-acid batteries for use in wind and solar power systems. One evening, after downing several glasses of good California wine, Cliff decided to check the acid level in some cells that he’d just acquired. (This is accomplished by peering down through a one inch hole in the top of the cell.)

As Cliff put it, “All went well for the first few cells. Then, upon removing one of the vent caps, 1 saw a pretty, smiling, oriental face-complete with almond eyes-looking straight up into my very occidental, Zinfandel-ed, and bemused eyeball!” Cliff, as you’d expect, rebounded in surprise, ending up, as he told me, “with my center tap becoming grounded on the floor. Some youngster either in this life or the next must be roaring with laughter, because the object in that battery was a tiny plastic doll just under an inch in diameter!”


Cop Macdonald (VE1 BFL)

New Directions Radio is an international network of radio amateurs concerned with those ways of using ham radio (and related modes of communicating) that promote our own growth as individuals, and which we perceive as helping to create a more aware, more caring, and more responsible human society. We encourage all who share these interests to work with us.