Shortwave radios give users an ear to world

Variety: Depending on your price range, an array of products can deliver clear sound. Shortwave radios providing users with an ear to countries

October 01, 2001|By Bill Husted | Bill Husted,COX NEWS SERVICE

Last night, I listened to "The Star-Spangled Banner." I heard static crashes in the background, and then the sound of a French announcer speaking words I couldn't translate but that my heart understood.

I was listening to a French commercial shortwave station. With a slight twist of the tuning knob, I could hear the news from stations in almost any spot on the globe. The news was all about America's crisis.

Because I have a shortwave receiver, I can easily hear - directly from the source, unfiltered by American editors and producers - what the rest of the world is saying. Broadcasters and newspapers routinely relay the world's comments, but there is something profoundly different about going directly to the source.

For some people, the idea of shortwave listening seems technical and difficult. But today's radios have made listening to the world easier than ever before.

It hasn't always been the case. My first shortwave receiver weighed more than an Irish setter and was nearly as big. The front panel was filled with toggle switches and knobs. Tuning it - even to a strong station - took as much skill as tuning a piano. And even when it was tuned to the right station, the heat of the vacuum tubes made the radio unstable, and it would slowly drift away from the right frequency, making constant retuning necessary.

But today's shortwave receivers use solid-state circuitry and do not drift. Tuning is digital. Just punch in the right frequency, no special skill required.

Unfortunately, in the days to come, there almost certainly will be more reason than ever to monitor news from around the world. And a shortwave receiver that can cost as little as $100 will carry you across the globe at the flick of a switch.

While operating a shortwave receiver is simple, knowing enough to purchase one that is both affordable and powerful can be difficult. I feel comfortable offering you that kind of advice. Shortwave radios and I have been constant companions since I was 13 and a newly licensed ham radio operator.

Today, I'm still a licensed ham radio operator - KQ4YA - and the basement of my home is filled with high-tech receiving and transmitting equipment, and tubular aluminum antennas offer a punctuation mark for the landscaping in my yard. I feel easy talking about shortwave radios.

For starters, make sure the radio you select has digital tuning. Some of the cheapest shortwaves still use old-fashioned analog tuning. With those radios, the frequency you see on the dial has only a rough relationship to the actual frequency. Generally speaking, you'll have to spend about $100 to get a shortwave radio that will provide satisfaction.

Since the idea is to help you listen to world shortwave stations, not turn you into a shortwave hobbyist, I'll skip the technical talk and direct you toward some specific radios. For those of you who want to learn more and make your own decisions, the best money you can spend is investing $19.95 in a book called Passport to World Band Radio.

It offers two things that will make your job easier. The book contains extensive, hard-nosed reviews of almost every shortwave receiver made.

More important, it lists the operating hours and frequencies for almost every station in the world. That's really important because the signals that you hear (with some exceptions) are not relayed by satellite, not transmitted over fiber optic cable. The frequencies needed for worldwide communication vary according to the time of the day and season of the year. Without a schedule that takes that into account, you'll have trouble finding a specific station.

You should be able to find Passport to World Band Radio at most major bookstores. You can use the reviews in it to make your own decision about what radio to buy.

Here are my own recommendations. I've tried to stick with brand-name radios that you can find easily online (just do a Web search using the name and model number) and that are carried by many retailers.

Since I can't know how much you are willing to spend, I'll list radios in three price categories. As is true with most any purchase, the more expensive models offer better performance and more features. But any of my recommendations will provide you with reliability and satisfaction.

In the $100 range, consider these radios: The Sony ICF-SW30 (about $90) and the Sangean ATS 404 (about $100). In the under-$200 range, I recommend the Grundig G2000A Porsche Design for about $150.

If money is not a great concern, look to the Sony 2010 (about $360), and if you typically drive down the street scattering $20 bills in your wake, the Drake R8B ($1,199) is marvelous.

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