The Spoken Word

Early on in my teenage years, one good hobby I cultivated was to be aware of technology of the time – shortwave radio.

The sources for news and entertainment in the 1980s were pretty sparse and restricted to Newspapers, Government owned national television and Medium Wave radio broadcasting. The radio was perhaps by far the most popular.

Radios back then from Murphy, Philips and Panasonic among others were widely proudly owned by the majority of the Indian urban and rural population. Much before in the 1970s, in my collection, I also have a booklet which was a license one needed to purchase and own a radio !

The radio was all powerful, not because it was cheap and could tune in to the government Akashwani, but because it could tune in to international broadcasts using Shortwave Technology.

The 1980s was dominated politically, economically, and culturally by the cold war. The communists vs the capitalists. The world population was divided in to two halves after World War II ended.

While the two ideological divides used the arms race and the space race to showcase their superiority; a more powerful weapon outside of these two was at work day and night to do the same as a weapons attack would do. This was the massive propaganda machinery invested in by these cold war regimes to invade the homes of the ordinary citizens to highlight the failings of their competition’s ideology and their own ideology’s prosperity and success. The Communists led by the Soviet union and the “Free world” referring to the capitalist USA and its European and other global allies were pitted in a day and night propaganda warfare on all continents.

And the weapon of choice for unleashing this propaganda was the simple short wave radio broadcast.

Courtesy the technology of Short Wave, 100s and 1000s of kilowatts of shortwave antenna farms installed across the world broadcasted almost half way around the world due to the nature of the radio waves which could bounce off the Earth’s ionosphere and be accessible freely to anyone who owned radio set.

I hooked on early to the shortwave radio set, mostly by accident as the band switch sometime flipped to SW instead of AM/MW and one could hear whistles and screeches as one rolled the manual analogue tuner across the shortwave frequencies. The bandwidth being so narrow it had to be slow and deliberate and suddenly a whistle would clear and hear a radio station. English, Russian, Indian languages, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, German, French, African Languages all came alive at slow, deliberate tuning of the radio.

Almost all countries had a radio station one could tune in to, either broadcasting to their domestic audiences or to international audiences of certain regions as part of their International Services.

I could predominantly always tune in to Radio Moscow USSR, The BBC world service, Voice of America, Radio Japan NHK, Radio Deutsche Welle from West Germany, ABC – Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the Christian Science monitor and so many lesser shorter duration broadcasts from countries like Radio Romania, Radio Austria, France (Radio France International), Radio Luxemberg, Radio Switzerland called Swiss Radio International, Radio Sweden.

A huge and different cult of radio stations were the Christian broadcasting stations spreading the word of Christianity like 7th day Adventists and so many more.

Most of these broadcasting stations were in Guam, Seychelles, Srilanka, Africa, Madagascar as they were convenient to have these antenna farms broadcasting anywhere on any of these continents.

I used to listen to News, Current affairs, economics, world news and also many educational and entertainment programs.

The radio stations also requested listeners to write in to their address to express our thoughts on their programs and how we were able to hear their broadcasts.

This was necessary as shortwave radio waves unlike other forms of Radio tended to fade in and out, could be very faint and feeble. Sometimes due to the nature of intense solar activity and sun spots, the Earth’s magnetic shield would be very disturbed resulting in the northern lights as well as erratic shortwave radio behavior.

I used to write in frequently and give my views as well as a technical assesment of their radio wave quality in the form of SIO.

S = Signal strength (1 to 5)

I = Interference (1 to 5)

[It was common for multiple stations broadcasting on a common shortwave frequency for some or the other region and the waves would bounce over to other parts of the world and interfere in another radio broadcast !]

O = Overall (1 to 5)

The reward was the thrill to hear my letter and comments read out by the broadcaster in their weekly letters program and they used to dispatch an envelope acknowledging my technical report and a picture postcard of their country and some stickers with their Radio symbol on it. This was call a QSL card (from the Ham Radio terminology which means that they acknowledge my courteous request for comments)

Collecting those QSL cards was a rage and I used to spend hours trying to tune in to broadcasts of a particular radio station say Voice of America meant for African region and somehow due to the nature of the day, the broadcasts managed to reach my radio set too.

Shortwave radio was so popular the world over as a hobby that many leading electronic giants like Yaesu, Icon, Philips and Kenwood made World broadcasting receiver radio sets.

Publishing houses brought out weekly and monthly magazines for this hobby in the USA and UK. The most notable being “The Shortwave Radio Magazine” and “Airwaves”

It was a fun hobby and outside my hobby of reading books opened my mind to International news, education programs, art programs or renditions of popular series (like we have netflix series today).

The cold war ended and the internet crept up on the world and became center stage. The motivation for funding such expensive propaganda infrastructure across the globe was lost, funds were diverted to move news and information to new reliable mediums – the internet and satellite broadcasts.

The quality was much better instead of the screeching and whistling noises of Shortwave and much cheaper. Plus it could be both Audio and Video.

One by one the major broadcasts once crowding the shortwave frequencies died down and became silent.

An era came to an end 😦

One could say that a modern agile technological David slayed the older, outdated Goliath.

However my enthusiasm for listening to spoken word never died. It was a part of me and this revived when I discovered podcasts. The internet and the smart phone and the cheap 3G/4G revolution in India made it possible once again for me to “tune in” and listen to radio like pre-recorded shows on the internet.

Long drives to work and back, Daily walks – just like the good old radio, the podcasts have become a part of life again. The old school SW broadcasters have taken up the new media and once again I can hear to Voice of America, Deutsche Welle, Radio Japan, NPR, Christian Science Monitor, ABC Australia and many more for just not news by kind of like talk shows.

As they say change is the only constant and those who evolve with change always stay relevant. The cold war died but the race for superiority made these giant corporations like the BBC and such other broadcasting companies and they evolved.

Today a podcast can be a huge corporation with hundreds of employees making content or programs or it can be a one man show operating from his work desk in his living room giving his views and opinions on anything under the Sun.

Safe to say – truly the age of knowledge is upon us, without any barriers or boundaries. Care to Tune in ?

Notes :

Podcast players on Android phones (Free / paid / subsciption based)

  • Google podcast
  • Spotify
  • Pocket Casts (My personal favorite)
  • Stitcher
  • Podcast addict
Pocket casts app

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