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What is shortwave radio? Everything you need to know

If you’re a fan of radio history (like us), then you probably have a vague idea of where shortwave transmissions began, and how they differ from standard FM/AM radio stations. 

However, most people regard shortwave radio with a sense of confusion. They assume that it’s just another way to listen to top 40s hits or check out their preferred talk stations

Shortwave listening is actually a lot more complex than you’d think. People who listen to shortwave radio are usually seeking unique entertainment and information that you can’t find anywhere else. 

Listeners range from casual users seeking international entertainment and news programs, to hobbyists who just love the technical side of radio. 

So, what is shortwave radio? Who invented it, and what is it good for today?

Read on to find the answers to all of those questions and more. 

What is shortwave radio? 

Let’s start with the most obvious question: “What is shortwave radio?”

Shortwave radio is a frequency that operates somewhere between the FM and AM bands on your standard radio set. Shortwave can travel exceptionally long distances, which makes it an excellent option for anyone hoping to reach a wide audience. 

In Canada, the US, and Europe, local FM/AM broadcasting is freely available. That means that you don’t really need to use shortwave radio. You can even create radio stations on the internet if you prefer. 

However, in many other countries where local broadcasting is less accessible, shortwave still has a massive impact. 

Shortwave stations can deliver a vital link to the rest of the world for people living in remote parts of the world. In a lot of communities, shortwave radio has emerged as a valuable way to reach marginalized communities. 

This has lead to a surge in religious shortwave radio channels. You’ll find a lot of Christian sermons and other faith channels on shortwave. 

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How does shortwave radio work? 

Now we come to the more complicated part of understanding shortwave radio: how it works. 

Shortwave is a radio frequency, just like AM or FM. Radio waves are electromagnetic waves that are projected in certain directions by antennas. By tuning receivers to specific frequencies, you can collect certain signals. 

Shortwave is a radio transmission that uses radio frequencies. There isn’t any official definition of what the band needs to look like.

However, the range always includes all of the high-frequency band and will usually extend from 100 to 10 metres above the mid-frequency band. 

Radio waves within the shortwave band reflect from a layer of the atmosphere named the ionosphere. Short waves direct at an angle into the sky can reflect back to earth at massive distances, often going beyond the horizon. 

This makes shortwave radio an excellent choice for long-distance communication. Shortwave isn’t restricted by the straight lines that other radio waves often travel in.

Over the years, people have relied on shortwave radio for broadcasting voice and news to listeners over massive areas – even spanning continents.

Other uses include over-the-horizon radar, two-way international communication, and diplomatic communication. 

Similar to ham radio, shortwave is also excellent for hobbyists too. 

What is the difference between shortwave and longwave radio?

Radio has always been an influential part of our world, no matter which style or shape it comes in. However, there are a lot of different kinds of radio wave to learn about. 

The term shortwave arose in the early 20th century. At that time, there were three band branches to radio technology: medium wave, shortwave, and longwave. 

Similar to shortwave, longwave doesn’t have a specific definition at the moment. Longwave radios were more popular in maritime communication. 

During the early days of longwave radio, transmissions were commonly used distance communication. Longwave covers a far greater area than FM radio, with a massive variety of power levels. 

Interestingly, longwave radio doesn’t have as many uses as shortwave options. However, it’s still exceedingly popular in Europe. While shortwave can weave around countries and continents, longwave radios still follow a straight line, similar to other traditional radio options. 

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If you’re wondering “Is shortwave radio the same as ham radio,” the answer is no. Shortwave radios broadcast on stations in the shortwave range of the spectrum. These are specific broadcasting stations. 

Ham radios, on the other hand, are two-way communication systems where multiple people can connect with each other. The scope of a ham radio is a lot narrower than a shortwave radio. 

The history of shortwave radio

Who invented shortwave radio? 

The history of shortwave radio begins with pioneer Guglielmo Marconi. With help from his assistant, Charles Samuel Franklin, Marconi engaged in massive studies into the transmission possibilities of short-wavelength waves. 

By rigging up a large antenna in Cornwall, running on 25kW of power, the two men discovered that they could send wireless transmissions that ended up in the Cape Verde Islands. 

During September 1924, Marconi transmitted shortwave radio from Poldhu to a yacht in Beirut. 

Eventually, Franklin and Marconi signed contracts with the General Post Office, to install more high-speed circuits for shortwave telegraphy from London to India, Australia, Canada, and South Africa. 

This created the world’s first Imperial wireless chain. 

In the 1920s, the demand for shortwave communications began growing rapidly. By the time 1928 arrived, more than half of all the long-distance communications we had were conducted by shortwave. 

Groups discovered that shortwave stations were more efficient and cost-effective than the massive longwave solutions already dotted around the globe. 

However, many longwave systems still continued to deliver communication until the 1960s. 

Shortwave is often considered by tech enthusiasts to be the world’s “first internet.” It offered us access to information from all around the globe like never before. Shortwave signals could travel amazing distances – particularly at night. 

What’s more, people had the freedom to tune into broadcasts from other countries. 

Eventually, shortwave radio earned the nickname of “world band radio.” Although the sound quality of a shortwave radio can often vary, it always provided a reliable source of information. 

Unfortunately, the arrival of the real internet meant that many international broadcasters began to scale back and terminate their shortwave programs. Some companies have switched to broadcasting information on the web, while others stopped broadcasting entirely. 

Exploring shortwave radio history

The art of listening to shortwave radio communications began in the 1920s too. Shortwave broadcasters began to appear throughout Europe and the US. 

Audiences learned that international programming was available through shortwave bands that people could access on many consumer receivers. Magazines and listeners clubs began to emerge to help people find the information they wanted. 

Shortwave listening was especially popular in times of conflict. Listeners used inexpensive receivers to access broadcasts from around the globe. 

Shortwave even continued after the rise of the BBC, and other popular stations, giving people an alternative to common stations. Many hobbyists interested in radio still use shortwave radios to source new channels of information today. 

In the 1930s, CBS launched a shortwave listening problem to attract listeners from a new marketplace. CBS captured allied and enemy shortwave conversations from over 60 different international stations using their secretly located receivers. 

Intercepted broadcasts were immediately sent to newspapers across the US.  

Shortwave listeners were also often responsible for notifying families when loved ones were captured as prisoners of war. Studio announcers frequently happened upon prisoner-written messages sent through shortwave. 

During the 1990s Persian Gulf war, many Americans returned to the shortwave broadcasts on their radios. Some electronic retailers even reported an increase in purchases for shortwave receivers at the time. 

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How to listen to shortwave radio

You won’t always get the clearest listening experience with shortwave radio, but with a little practice, you can always find something to listen to. The best way to get started is usually to join a shortwave listening club

Although the number of official clubs is lower today than it once was, you can still find hobbyists to share knowledge with online. 

Once you’ve found a club, visit a radio or electronics store to discover what kind of radio you want. Usually, analog shortwave radios are quite affordable. Amplitude modulation options like AM, are common for many broadcasters. 

However, you can also unlock SSB or single side band modes from the right devices too. 

An alternative option is to buy a digital tuner, otherwise known as a Phased Lock Loop device. These are a lot more expensive than the standard shortwave radios. However, they give you more accuracy when it comes to locking onto a specific frequency. 

These tuners can also memorize specific frequencies, and reduce distortion sounds too. 

Once you’ve got the right equipment:

Improve your reception
Many leading shortwave radio solutions come with an antenna to get you started. However, you’ll probably need a much more advanced SWL antenna to get the best listening experience.

Adding a long length of wire to your existing antenna could be enough to boost your reception in some cases. 

Learn about shortwave bands
There are a lot of different shortwave bands out there, all named things like “49 meters” or “31 meters”. Each of the bands available come with a specific frequency range to discover.

You’ll need to look up some extra information online or check out your shortwave radio manual to find out how to reach specific bands. 

Scan for content
A lot of the process of listening to shortwave radio relies on your patience to scan through bands and search for content. There are publications like the World Radio handbook, which can give you the exact frequencies you need for different broadcasters.

Depending on what you’re looking for, you can also join forums online to get extra insights into new wavebands and frequencies. Some people save shortwave frequencies that they find so they can share them with other hobbyists. 

One option to help you keep track of broadcasts with shortwave radio is to request and collect QSL cards. Essentially, this means that you send your shortwave listener reports to a broadcaster, and they send you a card in return. 

You don’t have to take this step. However, if you provide a broadcaster with some valuable information, then you can get a card that acts as both a keepsake, and a map to certain frequencies. 

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Is shortwave radio dead?

Shortwave isn’t as popular or essential today as it was a few decades ago. However, that doesn’t mean that the practice of listening to shortwave radios is over. 

The technology in shortwave radios makes this technology incredibly impressive. Shortwave radios can send a transmission across thousands of miles with excellent clarity. 

Shortwave signals are unique in the radio landscape because they’re not restricted by laws from the countries that receive the transmissions. Shortwave can therefore stretch across all geographical, political, and economic lines, without any issues. 

You can use shortwave to transcend government restrictions, cultural oppression, and more. 

For those who want to share a specific message, shortwave can also be one of the most cost-effective ways of reaching a massive audience with no access to the internet. People can listen to this content on fairly affordable equipment in every country worldwide. 

If, for instance, a country wasn’t able to listen to news because of the rules of a dictator, then a shortwave radio would be a way to bypass this law. 

The flexibility of shortwave radio means that even today, there are around 350 million people with shortwave radio. That’s just the figure reported by the International Shortwave Club. The chances are that the total number of listeners extends into the billions. 

Some developing countries without access to the internet also rely on shortwave as a way to access regional and local programming. 

Certain parts of Russia and China still transmit domestic channels on shortwave radios to reach people in distant provinces. Shortwave listening is also an excellent tool for many classrooms. 

Another area where shortwave radio listening continues to thrive is in humanitarian movements. Groups like Ears to Our World distribute self-powered shortwave radios to less developed locations around the world. 

This ensures that people in remote environments can get access to more international news, educational programming, and emergency information. 

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The future of shortwave radio 

Many people consider shortwave radio to be a technology of the past. Shortwave transmissions are a lot less popular today than they once were. The rise of the internet means that many broadcasters have eased their shortwave transmissions, and fewer clubs exist. 

Despite this, there’s still a market out there for shortwave radio and its listeners. 

Shortwave listening and radios remains especially popular among technical hobbyists. People who love the unique history of radio appreciate the option to scan through multiple channels and find new sources of information. 

What’s more, as various parts of the world continue to search for access to information without relying on the internet, shortwave radio will have a part to play there.

A large number of remotely controlled shortwave receives around the world are available to users all across the globe. 

If you still have an interest in something like shortwave radio, and you want to find new ways to listen, there are plenty of websites out there still dedicated to the tradition. 

Shortwave radio might not be the next DAB technology, or the kind of radio that you listen to when you’re on the treadmill at the gym. However, shortwave is a crucial technology in our environment, and one of the most valuable solutions every created. 

As a critical element of radio history, shortwave transcends the geographical, political, and social boundaries that no other technology can cross. Because of this, shortwave radio will always have a place in the heart of radio. 

To learn more about radio, check out our blogs here at Radio Fidelity. If you want to get your hands on your own shortwave radio, read our reviews for insights into some of the top-performing systems.

Radio Fidelity: For the love of radio.

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