Even before war began in the Persian Gulf, American troops in Saudi Arabia were hearing the propaganda broadcasts of "Baghdad Betty," a female announcer on Iraqi Radio who warned soldiers their girlfriends back home were dating celebrities such as Tom Selleck, Paul Newman and Bart Simpson.
"It's like listening to a low-rent Tokyo Rose," says Ned Rubin. "It's really very, very dull."
Remarkably, however, Mr. Rubin has been listening to Baghdad Betty in his Baltimore County home, via international shortwave radio broadcasts.
"That's the value of listening to it, to hear the editorial opinion," says Mr. Rubin, a mental health professional in Pikesville and a longtime amateur radio buff. He says it's easy to get hooked on scanning the shortwave bands for broadcasts originating from the scene of the news.
And the escalation of hostilities in the Middle East, as well as the Soviet crackdown on the Baltic states, has stimulated brisk local sales of shortwave receivers to buyers eager to tune in foreign reports, according to electronics dealers throughout the area.
Some receivers are little more than palm-sized, operate on penlight batteries and require neither specialized training nor communications licenses, such as are needed by "ham" radio buffs who operate two-way transmitters.
For as little as $50, you can buy a portable radio capable of receiving regularly scheduled English-language broadcasts from Iraq, Kuwait, Israel and other Middle East nations, as well as the Soviet Union and especially England, whose British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) news operation is the world's largest.
"We're selling out of them here. People are talking about wanting to hear things from over there," says Ernie Dobos, owner of the Amateur Radio Center on West 36th Street.
"I used to sell maybe one to five [such radios] a month, but now it's up to a good 20 to 25," says manager David Reamer of the Poptronics store on Light Street.
And at the Maryland Radio Center in Laurel, which deals in higher-priced equipment for serious hobbyists, employee Jim Reid says he has been referring many callers seeking shortwave units to chains such as Radio Shack, which carry less costly models.
Also in demand are a pair of annually published books which list radio frequencies and broadcast times around the world: "World Radio TV Handbook" and "Passport to World Band Radio."
"If you know how to operate a touch-tone telephone you can operate a shortwave radio. All the little hand-helds will do the job, for the signals are very strong," says Dick Robinson, president of the Electronic Equipment Bank in Vienna, Va., the country's largest catalog store for shortwave equipment.
In older days international broadcast reception required large tabletop radios and outdoor antennas. But modern chip technology, especially digital frequency tuning, has made the hobby much more accessible. While enthusiasts can spend thousands of dollars for large models with great power and the most sophisticated tuning, the least expensive shirt-pocket units can receive stations from around the world.
What can you hear on a shortwave radio?
At the Maryland Radio Center in Laurel the other day, says Reid, he and other employees tuned into what seemed to be air-to-ground communications between pilots and controllers of British military supply aircraft operating in the Middle East.
"Obviously, the real interesting tactical stuff you wouldn't be able to hear," he adds.
Most military communications are encrypted and transmitted by satellite or microwave and thus cannot be received by shortwave radio listeners, Mr. Rubin explains. But commercial air traffic communications can be heard, sometimes including even the president's Air Force One.
(Radios which monitor police and fire transmissions, known as "scanners," are a different technology altogether and use different frequencies than shortwave.)
"We also forget in this country that everybody else in the world listens to shortwave radio," says Mr. Rubin. He adds that Soviet Union news reports on the Middle East which he has heard "seem to be relatively unbiased."
"In the evenings I usually listen to the BBC for their slant on things," says Mr. Reid.
And Mr. Robinson adds, "you really can get a lot of their [other nations'] culture" by listening in to domestic music and other programming.
Most nations broadcast a variety of news, entertainment and other programming, often in a variety of languages, on shortwave.
The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, for example, are well-known Western services created to provide alternatives to government-controlled services in Communist nations.
Technically speaking, shortwave signals are higher frequency sound waves than those carried by the familiar FM broadcast band. As a consequence, shortwave bands can be received literally from the other side of the world. However, they are subject to a variety of interference factors, such as solar activity, weather conditions and time of day.