Shortwave Radios Keep Up With Tech

Screenshot of SDR shortwave receiver with broadcast signals and amateur radio signals.
Screenshot of SDR shortwave receiver with broadcast signals and amateur radio signals.

Surprise! Shortwave radio as a broadcast has survived, despite the Internet invasion, cuts to broadcasts by major broadcasters such as the BBC World Service and the Voice of America, and the abandonment of SW tapes by other state-owned broadcasters.

Meanwhile, the ways in which people listen to SW radio broadcasts are evolving because manufacturers of SW receivers are keeping pace with technological times.

To stay alive

There is no doubt that the variety of stations in the SW bands has diminished due to the end of the Cold War – whose propaganda war propelled the media in the 1950s and 1960s – and the advent of the Internet.

Nevertheless, “Even with long-lost stations, there’s still plenty to listen to on SW radio,” said Gilles Letourneau, host of OfficialSWLchannel on YouTube (25,600 subscribers) and editor of the CIDX Messenger column, “The World of Utilities.” “.

“You have stations like Radio Romania, Voice of Turkey, Radio Prague, Radio Slovakia and Radio Tirana, Albania, while WRMI in Miami has popular listener-created programs like Voice of the Week Report,” he said.

“The big TV operators are also there, but they are no longer targeting North America. However, I get my share of the BBC World Service, Radio France International, Voice of America and Vatican Radio, which focus mainly on Africa, the Middle East and Asia, but are still heard here at certain times of the day.

“There’s still a lot to listen to,” said Jeff White, general manager of WRMI and chairman of the Conference on High Frequency Coordination.

Most of the stations that left shortwave, he said, were government or operating services such as Radio Canada International, Channel Africa, Radio Portugal, Voice of Russia and Radio Australia. But others remain on the air with reduced services, languages ​​or target areas, including VOA, Deutsche Welle (Voice of Germany), Radio France International, Radio Exterior de España and All India Radio.

“Others work at almost normal levels, such as Radio Japan, Radio Korea, Radio Romania International, Radio Havana Cuba, Voice of Turkey, Radio Taiwan International and many others,” White continued.

“Some stations do not use shortwave transmitters in their own country, but use relays abroad, including Radio Prague International, Radio Slovakia International, RAE Argentina to the world and Radio Tirana.”

In addition, many former state-owned shortwave broadcasters – such as Radio Holland in Madagascar and sites previously operated by the BBC, Radio France International and Deutsche Welle – have been privatized and sell airtime to private religious, commercial and cultural television stations. .

SW tapes are still alive with content.

Software defined radio stations

From a technological point of view, the big trend in SW radios is the ongoing transition to software-defined radio stations.

SDRs use the processing power of personal computers to perform most of their settings, visual display and audio playback. All that is added is part of the built-in hardware that contains the specific hardware for the radio, and a connection to an outboard antenna of the user’s choice.

Because SDRs use the power of consumer computers, they can do much more than conventional standalone SW radios and at a much lower cost.

“Software-defined receivers have had a really big impact on the hobby of shortwave listening,” says Letourneau.

“The $ 200 SDR can compete with a much more expensive desktop receiver in terms of performance. Add the flexibility of watching a large bandwidth in real time on your computer screen and all this adds to the listening experience. You can see where the signal appeared and just click to listen. “

White agrees. “I think SD SWRs are a major trend that seems to be growing every year. Since most people have personal computers nowadays, this is a more practical option and at a fairly reasonable price. In addition, SDRs have made dozens of online SDRs possible with remote controls around the world, allowing listeners to tune shortwave mid-world receivers to their computers or phones and hear shortwave stations they can’t normally hear on their own. area.

Like stand-alone shortwave receivers, the SDV shortwave market offers a number of models to choose from at different price points.

They can be anything as compact as a dongle-based USB radio to a more self-sufficient Kiwi WebSDR, which is not only a broadband receiver but also a Linux-based backbone processor called the Beagle Bone. “Which is very similar to the Raspberry Pi,” says Colin Newell, editor / creator of the website.

“The Kiwi radio is not only 10 kHz to 30 MHz, but is also remotely accessible and controlled on the Internet. There can be up to eight listeners who tune it remotely, so in practice these are eight radio stations in one. “

Meanwhile, the SDR Perseus line can actually capture and record large portions of the SW spectrum simultaneously.

“Like the old VCRs, ‘spectrum capture’ now ‘records’ the entire spectrum over time for later listening and revealing exotic targets,” Newell said.

SDRs can also provide active noise reduction to eliminate problems with local noise sources from electronics, and support co-removal of channels to obtain a weaker station, completely overlapped and buried under another stronger station.

The cost of starting SDR levels can be ridiculously low. For example, the RTL-SDR Blog 3 turnkey radio is a reliable SDR SW receiver and costs $ 25.

Carl Laufer, the company’s owner, says: “The RTL-SDR Blog V3 is one of the cheapest but most versatile SDRs on the market. It is basically an RTL-SDR, which has been heavily modified for better performance and additional features. One of the features is the ability to be easily activated in the software “direct sampling mode”, which allows users to receive SW radio frequencies without the need for an up converter, which would be needed for other RTL-SDRs. Of course, the efficiency of direct sampling is not nearly comparable to the high-cost, more expensive SDRs, but it can be a very inexpensive way to obtain a SW.

Conventional radio stations remain popular

The SDR trend is definitely changing the way many people listen to SW radio. However, the complexity of these devices for non-technical people and the fact that they must be connected to computers have kept many SW fans tuned to stand-alone radios.

In this area, portable SW radios are the most popular, as the computer technology that made SDRs possible also supports the production of sensitive, precise portable radios at very affordable prices.

“It’s never been so cheap to get a decent radio that gets most of what you want in the tapes,” Letourne said. “The trend is for DSP-based receivers because they are cheap to build and perform quite well. One hundred dollar radios perform better today than expensive radios in the past. “

The power of DSP and other digital technologies is at the heart of the Sangean ATS-909X2’s new portable SW receiver. At $ 449.99 the ATS-909X2 is priced below a premium desktop receiver. And yet he does everything a desktop receiver can do, and more.

Portable shortwave receiver of Sangean ATS-909X2.
The Sangean ATS-909X2 portable shortwave receiver retails for $ 449.99 and is highly featured.

“The ATS-909X2 is the next generation of its predecessor, the ATS-909X, which has been Sangean’s flagship model for the past 10 years,” said Vince Marseille, Sangean America’s sales and marketing manager. “A lot of improvements have been made to this new model.”

These include a larger LCD screen, better reception, air band for certain regions and 1674 preset stations with three separate memory banks.

For long-distance listeners, very excellent DXing digital receivers can be purchased below this price, which puts the reception of remote SW stations within the reach of most listeners.

“Meanwhile, many of the cheaper Chinese radios, often with analog dials, are available in popular markets in Africa and other parts of the world for just three dollars,” White said. “Built-in telescopic whip antennas on portable shortwave receivers are now often very good, making external antennas less important.”

Shortwave portable in the Gilles Letourneau collection
The shortwave laptops in the Gilles Letourneau collection include, on the left, the Tecsun PL-990x, Eton Grundig Edition Traveler III (front), Radiowow R-108, Tecsun PL-680 and PL-330, XHDATA D808, C. CC Skywave SSB crane, Eton Grundig Executive SSB and Tecsun PL-380.

Some high-performance desktop SW receivers are still in production, “but only for those who can afford them,” Letourne said. “They offer a slight advantage in their capabilities and flexibility, but for most people shortwave works well on a cheap laptop that is very surprisingly good in sensitivity.”

And for those who long for the elegant old SW countertops?

Thanks to the durability of this technology, much older models are still available for purchase.

“The retro radio market is very large, from used desktop models such as Yaesu, Kenwood, Icom, Drake and used portable devices from Sony, Panasonic and Grundig,” Letourneau told RW. “Old tubular receivers are also very relevant at the moment, such as the old Hallicrafters.”

“Radio sales in general, including SW radio stations, have jumped in sales since COVID-19,” Marseille said. “People who work and stay at home crave some form of relationship more than ever. Turning on the radio is the easiest way to connect with your favorite music, sports, news and more. “