Propaganda, Pirates and Preachers: The Weird Wide Web Of Shortwave Radio

Tales From The Dork Web #18

The world of Shortwave is a world of state-backed propaganda, cults, pirates, and spies. You'll find every form of freakery and geekery on air. Digital, analogue, even stuff where you can’t tell if it’s digital, analogue, bad music or interference.

In a world of constant connections Shortwave radio may seem anachronistic. But there’s something special in Shortwave and I’d like to show it to you. With a tiny bit of effort and at zero cost you can explore this world from the comfort of your own home.

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This issue’s music is by an obscure californian band called Lace. An old testament-driven pirate radio station YHWH (YaHWeH) used this for their intro. YHWH’s owner was ordered to cease broadcasting in 2015. He still pops up now and again on the air preaching the old testament. The singer is allegedly his ex-girlfriend, but nobody knows for sure. Give it a play, but… don’t expect high production quality.

How Shortwave Shaped Lives

Of all the things I expected to get into, Shortwave radio wasn’t one of them. As a kid I’d listen to my dad’s old valve radio. Strange voices from distant lands floated through the air. Shortwave's audio quality was terrible even by early 80s standards. There was something magical in hearing distant voices from across Europe and beyond.

I got back into Shortwave listening earlier in the UK lockdown period. Over the past few months I’ve heard stations from as far as Florida, Cuba, Botswana, North Korea and China. I’ve heard signals broadcast from Ascension island in the Atlantic to Tinian island in the Pacific.

Some people will tell you that Shortwave is dead. While it’s passed a 20th century peak there’s plenty happening. In 2002 the National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters estimated that hundreds of millions of households around the world had Shortwave-capable receivers.

Picture above from users Kf4yd, Noldoaran, Augiasstallputzer~commonswiki on Wikipedia.

Shortwave covers frequencies from around 3-30Mhz and has some unique properties. Most frequencies used in commercial radio frequencies broadcast in straight lines. The signals penetrate the atmosphere and head into space. There is an occasional troposphoric effect that reflects signals but this isn't reliable. The atmosphere's upper layers reflect Shortwave frequencies back to earth as shown above. This allows Shortwave signals to bounce around the Earth.

DX Commander has a very personable 10 minute video on radio propagation. If you’d prefer something more arid but in-depth, the Military HF Radio channel has a deep-dive series on military RF Theory and practice.

Shortwave broadcasting really took off during and after World War II. Stations would beam news and propaganda around the world.

For many behind the Iron curtain, shortwave radio was a window into what was happening at home as well as abroad. During the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, crowds swarmed around Radio Prague's building. They knew once the troops went in the news would be censored. Many Radio Prague operators fled into the crowds. Within hours the clandestine Radio Free Prague network was up and running. You can hear a broadcast from Radio Free Prague in the video above. Don Moore wrote about the role of Radio in the invasion and resistance.

As well as through clandestine networks at home, foreign services broadcast into the Soviet Union. In response the USSR jammed BBC and Voice of America frequencies. Overcoming these jamming attempts was a personal protest against the restrictions. The BBC Russian service broadcast Russian-language radio into the USSR when it could. One of the most popular radio shows broadcast to Russia was Seva Novgorodsev’s Рок-посевы (“Rock Posevy”). Kristin Roth-Ey’s Listening Out, Listening For, Listening In, talks about listeners' jamming experiences.

That jamming shaped the “Rok-posevy” experience is clear from the many letters that mention it and its prominence thematically on the show. Listeners described jamming as an elemental force, unpredictable and mighty. A “storm suddenly erupted on air,” and “they jam by turning on some kind of hellish machine.” It was “as if the devil had been let loose on the earth, or Jesus Christ had risen from the dead,” they wrote.

Recordings of Seva’s shows going back to the 70s are available online today. It’s a very different way to listen to classic rock, and well worth a try. The archives have full transcripts for piping through translation services. Seva drops familiar names regularly enough for you to keep up between songs. The files are all available as MP3s. This would make for an amazing podcast.

Jamming wasn’t limited to the Soviet Union. China built huge transmitters to jam non-Chinese signals. Instead of hellish noise they broadcast a continuous loop of patriotic Chinese songs. Then again, listening to it repeatedly could be quite hellish.

Prepping For A Shortwave Safari

I’m going to show you some of the more easily accessible things on Shortwave radio. You could spend a fortune on technical kit, or you can spend nothing and use a remote SDR. I’d start with remote SDRs as they’re a click away.

Tech Minds shows you the different ways to get access to remote radios around the world. This is handy if you want to have a quick listen. If you want to get your own radio, I’ve a few options for you. Do try the remote SDR route first though.

You can buy all kinds of radios from tiny handhelds to massive “boat anchors”. For most people looking to explore Shortwave, an SDR is your best bet. SDR software's waterfall view lets you see a large part of the band at once. You can then zoom in on a single element. SDRs also have wider bandwidth than normal radios. This lets you to sometimes record whole bands at once.

The RTLSDRv3 dongle is by far the best bang for buck of any radio I could possibly imagine. There are fakes going around so make sure you get a genuine one from here if you decide this is for you. There are better SDRs out there, but there aren’t better SDRs at this price point. OfficialSWLChannel walks through receiving Shortwave with an RTLSDRv3 dongle above.

I use an Airspy HF+ Discovery, which is by far the best performing HF SDR I own. I also have an Airspy R2 and Spyverter, which lets me record a whopping 10Mhz of bandwidth at once. I can record 3-13mhz all night and inspect individual frequencies later. Expect to spend a few hundred dollars here, so try the RTL-SDRv3 first.

The best value portable radio I’ve used is the Tecsun PL-380*. It’s an incredible radio for £45. It pulls things out of the air I’d normally need to break out the Airspy HF+ Discovery to reach. The only downside is it doesn’t do Single Side Band (used in amateur bands and some numbers stations). There are other radios such as Sangean’s ATS-909X, Retekess v115 and the XHData D-808 but I haven’t used them. With the PL-380 I haven’t needed to. OfficialSWLChannel's review tells you everything you need to know.

I have a slightly broken Sony ICF-SW7600GR. Some of the buttons don’t work and the volume control is a little squiffy but that aside it’s a great radio.

You’ll pull more signals in with a decent antenna, and there are two that I use in particular. The Airspy Youloop is an amazing passive loop antenna for the price. It can't be beat in its category for hunting down distant decibels and folds into a small bag. I also have a Wellbrook FLX1530LN. The Wellbrook is an order of magnitude better than the Youloop but it's much more expensive. You have to provide your own cable for the loop. I use LMR-600 which is bulky, heavy and not so portable but almost zero loss. You could get away with something like LMR-400 or RG213 instead. Frugal Radio reviews the Youloop below.

Start with a remote WebSDR to try things out. Once you want to go physical, it’s hard to go wrong with an RTLSDRv3 stick and Youloop. If you want something on the go a Tecsun PL-380 is great unless you need SSB or active antenna sockets.

With that out of the way, lets find out what’s on the air!

Shortwave Safari Tiem!

Missionaries have long used radio to evangelise. As well as the Catholic Church, Shortwave attracts its own brands of preacher. Brother Stair runs the Overcomer Ministry. It's an online and worldwide campaign to spread his apocalyptic vision.

The online schedule shows when and on what frequencies he’ll be on air. I normally try to catch him on WRMI at 7780khz when I’m trying to pick up Shortwave Radiogram on 7730khz.

Of course, Brother Stair doesn’t have a monopoly on apocalyptic broadcasting. World’s Last Chance radio is the slickest end-times broadcaster on Shortwave. It’s broadcast from Monticello, Maine, USA on WBCQ. On first listen, World’s Last Chance sounds almost like a fairly normal station. At least until you pay attention to the words.

To be fair, I once presented a slide deck on why the world is flat but that was a parody. I don’t believe for one second the world is flat. These guys? Well, listen for yourself. Just to be clear, the presenters are discussing whether or not the Earth is flat using technology functionally dependent upon the Earth being round.

China's Firedrake jammer used huge transmitters. While the original Firedrake broadcasts are gone, Chinese broadcasts spam Shortwave. Chinese spam programmes in languages from English to Hungarian spam entire bands. Content varies from Firedrake-style music to genuine news and culture. Then you get downright weird stuff like this guy above. Give it a listen. Really. I promise you it will be the most random thing about the joy of washing while being covered in excrement you'll hear all day.

I hear this guy on Shortwave all the time. Every now and again he breaks down into word salad. He can go for a good 15 minutes without forming a coherent paragraph. Other subjects I’ve heard from him include why Chinese people do not need more than one shirt, how the Chinese spirit is innate and unconquerable and of course, how western minds are poisoned from birth. The more you know.

Believe it or not China Radio International does also put out actual news. Here’s a tour of one of their Beijing news studios. China isn’t the only station broadcasting propaganda. The Voice of America and BBC World Service have been broadcasting for decades. Many nations attempt to emulate them with more 'relaxed' approaches to editorial independence. On Shortwave you’ll hear developing nations praising their acheivements, cultural, technical or just made up.

One of my favourite pirate stations is Germany’s Charleston Radio. You can listen to it live in a web browser here or here, or on the Airspy network. It plays old fashioned big band music in English and German. It’s one of my favourite weak signals to target from the south of England. My hacklab has too much interference to pick this up well. On a good day I can catch it on the Sony or Tecsun from Watership down.

As well as regular audio, there are digital broadcasts too. I’ve covered my favourite show - Shortwave Radiogram - here before. There’s also This Is A Music Show mixing music and data, and the odd minute of MFSK on The Mighty KBC.

On Amateur bands I’ve particularly enjoyed a digital mode called FT-8. I can reach from the east coast of the US to Asiatic Russia with under 5 Watts of transmission power. I've received signals from as far away as Indonesia. You probably won’t need a licence if you just want to listen. Modern Ham shows you how to get up and running with remote SDRs in case you want to give it a go.

As well as the usual morse code, MFSK broadcasts and FT-8, there’s also other digital professional broadcasting. Deutsche Wetterdienst broadcasts weather information across Short, Medium and Long Wave.

They also broadcast weather information via WeFAX. Yes, that’s fax over radio. It was originally designed for people hooking up physical fax machines to radios. Lots of stations around the world use WeFAX for weather information. You might also pick up Kyodo News agency’s broadcast of whole newspapers in Japanese and English.

You might’ve seen coded messages with groups of 5 numbers in spy shows and movies. Most nations use coded messages sent over Short wave. "Numbers" stations broadcast mechanical voices repeating number groups, often on a regular schedule. In the modern age they use morse and digital modes too. You can hear them on a Shortwave radio, with an SDR or more easily via web-based SDRs a click away thanks to Priyom. Tracking the Lincolnshire Poacher above is a documentary about these stations. Give it a watch when you have time.

In case you’d like to listen, my favourite numbers stations are:

You can download historical numbers station recordings from archive.org’s Conet project mirror. I have a mild interest in cryptanalysis and decided to have a play with numbers stations. I’ll cover them in a lot more depth in a future issue.

There is so much more on Shortwave and it’s never been easier to get access thanks to online SDRs. The best Shortwave guides I’ve found are SWLing and their amazing blog. Eibispace, Shortwave Info, and Shortwave Schedule are great for listings and locations. The OfficialSWLChannel, Oxford Shortwave Log and London Shortwave Youtube channels are worth visiting. Don’t forget to check out the excellent Shortwave subreddit and HF Underground communities. There’s more out there but as always, Tales From The Dork Web is constrained by space. If there’s something you think I’ve missed, let me know and I’ll mention it in a future issue.

When exploring Shortwave I sometimes want to know more about a signal. I work through bands from low to high frequencies. Once I find a frequency of interest I’ll see if it’s broadcast in LSB, USB or AM and try to listen in. If it’s a digital signal, I look for it in the Sigidwiki. I record using SDRSharp's audio recorder. I’ll also check the current frequency against Eibispace, Shortwave Info and Shortwave Schedule. This usually lists the transmission source.

If I’m still unsure, I’ll try to narrow down the source. I use the SpyServer network in SDR Sharp for this. I test different locations and check signal strength at each, narrowing the source down to a single country. I used this method to locate Charleston Radio broadcasts in Germany. It takes 5-15 minutes once you’ve done it a couple of times.

I can’t let this issue go out without showing you one of my favourite stations to listen to, Helliniki Radiophonia. It broadcasts mostly in Greek, but has some really lovely traditional Greek music on, as well as acts you just don’t get to hear in the Anglosphere. In the video above it’s received as far away as the United States, but of course you can listen to it via an online SDR if you can’t pick it up locally.

Things You May Have Missed

Like many US state-backed services, Voice of America is in real trouble right now. Hopefully this time next year they’ll be in a better place, rather than a worse one.

The unique propagation properties of Shortwave make it ideal for communications where speed is an issue. Sniper in Mahwah & Friends dug into a mystery involving High-Frequency Trading and HF radios.

One of the things that’ll affect your ability to receive on Shortwave is interference from electrical equipment. My home is as you might expect terrible for this. It’s not as bad as this village where broadband was cut off from 7am each day due to a rogue TV.

Jay Doscher updated his Cyberdeck project with an easier build.

Ars Technica writes about in-person user groups as though they’re a thing of the past. COVID may have put them on hold but they still exist.

Grimmware did an epic talk about BBC Micro repair and BBC BASIC software necromancy after destroying his BBC Micro while trying to summon satan through occult sigils. Happens to the best of us.

Daniel Estevez is part of a rag-tag bunch of super-cool satcom hackers monitoring Mars missions from earth. Daniel wrote an awesome piece about decoding Mars 2020 space probe signals.

I started the Cyberdeck issue with Giorgio Moroder’s classic song Chase, and a reader from the United States kindly pointed out that this was also the opening music for the sadly departed Art Bell’s late night Coast to Coast AM radio show. I grew up in England so I never experienced the joys of Art Bell. Coast to Coast AM still broadcasts today and they have an Art Bell vault, sadly incompatible with my ad filtering. Still, I’ve been listening to plenty of recordings on Archive.org.

On the subject of weird alien contacts and radio, John Shepherd runs Project S.T.R.A.T. - a one-man inverted SETI-type operation to beam signals out into space to try and lure UFOs into his local area. The video above is pretty wild and definitely worth a look. If you want to find out more about John’s mission and life, John Was Trying To Contact Aliens is a short documentary available on Netflix.

Do you like magical internet money and old graphing calculators? Why not combine the two with this TI-Basic Bitcoin miner!

Brothertiger’s Found is a beautiful piece of music from his new album Paradise Lost. Have a listen, and if you like it consider buying it on bandcamp.

I thought I’d end with a beautiful haiku I saw from K2DLS:

I always loved to

search for those distant signals

admist the static.

I really hope you liked this issue. If you’ve enjoyed it please share it with your friends. I’ll return in two weeks with more Tales From The Dork Web. If you’d like it in your inbox when it’s ready, you can sign up below.