Shortwave radio advice please
July 1, 2011 9:36 AM   Subscribe

How can I get the most enjoyment out of my shortwave radio?

Today I bought a Sony ICF-SW11 shortwave radio. I'd appreciate any links/references to good sources of general information about shortwave radio. I'd also appreciate advice on any of the following questions:

* What are some cool things that I can do with my radio (e.g. listening to numbers stations)?
* Are there any cheap ways to improve the reception on my radio?
* How do I identify stations that I find while browsing the airwaves? For example, I'm currently (1614 GMT) listening to a French news programme discussing the Dominique Strauss-Kahn trial at about 15.35 MHz -- how do I find out which station this is?
* What are some of the most distant stations that I could expect to pick up on my radio in the UK?

Apologies for the plethora of questions, but there has not been a good general thread about shortwave radio on Ask MetaFilter before, so any general comments would be much appreciated.
posted by mattn to Technology (7 answers total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
My go-to resource for the interesting stuff on SW was Monitoring Times, particularly for the schedules and propagation forecasts. As a reference, the standard for a long time was The World Radio and Television Handbook, which is highly useful for station identifications.

For myself, I got to be more interested in finding 'utility' stations and broadcasters - low-powered beacons, transoceanic flights, ships at sea, and so on. There are also several spots on the dial where pirate stations tend to broadcast, and their (usually) unpredictable schedules make them fun to track down.

You can also make a game of sending in reception reports to various stations (large and small) in the hopes of a QSL card, which is a sort of 'record of reception'. Hams and SWLs go to great lengths to obtain these from distant and hard-to-reach stations.
posted by jquinby at 10:02 AM on July 1, 2011

Glenn Hauser's World of Radio (sorry about the poor site design, but the info's good). Also related: Monitoring Times magazine. Specifically, the Shortwave Central Blog. The magazine itself has a list each month of what's on when.
posted by JanetLand at 10:04 AM on July 1, 2011

Due to complicated atmospheric science, generally you'll get better reception on the lower frequencies (south of 7-8 MHz or so) at night, and on the higher frequencies during the day. Those low frequencies are called the "tropical bands" and are probably your best bet for hearing stuff bouncing off the ionosphere from thousands of miles away.

It doesn't look like that radio has a single side band switch, which means you won't be able to listen to hams, so we can skip that lesson. The analog dial might also make it harder to record specific frequencies, which is usually how I figure out what I'm listening to -- that is, if I'm getting something Spanish at 4915 KHz, I google "spanish 4915" or "4915 khz shortwave" or the like. There are plenty of shortwave schedules online but they're universally unreliable and difficult to use.

You can get a good idea of what's going on in DXing by reading the weekly Glenn Hauser report, which has been lovingly published in 70-character-width .txt file format since the Dark Ages. Sample quote:

** NORTH AMERICA. [Pirate]. 6925.07, Metro Radio International, 2330-
2350, June 27, IDs. Talk by man and woman. Music by Devo and Iggy Pop
(Brian Alexander, PA, DX Listening Digest)

or, rather more interesting:

** ANTARCTICA [non]. Re 11-25: 5950 *2130-2200* 21.06, BBC WS, via
Skelton UK. English. Annual Midwinter Special to Antarctica. Greetings
from family members and BBC Director, 54554 (Anker Petersen, around
summer solstice done on my AOR AR7030PLUS with 28 metres of longwire
in Skovlunde, Denmark, via Dario Monferini, playdx yg via DXLD)

Note that shortwave frequencies are almost always given in KHz (i.e., your French radio was ~15350), not MHz.

Number stations are tough. They usually broadcast on random frequencies and only last for five or ten minutes. You're probably not going to run across one for a while, but that just makes it all the more creepy and thrilling when it finally does pop up.
posted by theodolite at 10:06 AM on July 1, 2011

Oh, and this might answer your question about what you're listening to right now.
posted by JanetLand at 10:06 AM on July 1, 2011

I think you're a bit hamstrung for better reception, as the SW11 hasn't got an external antenna jack. If it had, you could rig up a SWL antenna.

QSL cards are kind of on their way out, as online services such as and QRZ.COM provide the same service for free, and take mere seconds (as opposed to months or years that QSL bureaux might take). I've received a QSL from a SWL in the Netherlands.
posted by scruss at 11:00 AM on July 1, 2011

Improving performance without changing your radio means one of two things:
1. Improving your antenna
2. Reducing noise near the receiver.

Improving your antenna can take a number of forms; something as simple as attaching ten meters of wire to the end of the existing whip can improve reception but it's certainly no guarantee. The problem here is that almost all antennas have some notion of frequency response, that is, they will be more sensitive on certain frequencies. For instance, ten meters of wire, stretched out straight, will (somewhat predictably) perform fairly well on the 10m band (30MHz), the 20m band (15MHz) and the 40m band (7.5MHz) because it is resonant at those frequencies. There is a very, very deep rabbit hole you can go down in the antenna design and construction arena. Here is a door step for that rabbit hole. I built a smallish loop (about 1m diameter) out of copper pipe and the adjustable capacitor from an old radio, and while it did significantly improve listening, I got tired of fiddling with the capacitor every time I changed frequency.
Some rules of thumb about antennas in general: Higher up is better, outside is better than inside, and learn from the experiences of other people.

Noise comes from just about anything electrical. Transformers nearby, appliances, computers, televisions, car engines, etc. Digital items tend to be worse. The farther away you get from the noise source, the better your reception will be. Some antenna designs can help with the noise by virtue of being directional (that is, more sensitive in certain directions). Sometimes it can be helpful to sweep the area with the radio to figure out where the noise is coming from, then you can turn off the offending source or move away. If there is a thunderstorm nearby (i.e. within 200 miles) you'll likely hear it. If it's very close you won't hear anything.

Shortwave propagation (how signals get to you from far away) is a complex and baffling subject. In essence, the radio signals bounce off the ionosphere; the amount and character of the signals that will bounce off the ionosphere, as well as what layers of the ionosphere said signals will bounce off, depends on the weather in space (see and There's another deep rabbit hole in understanding propagation. Here is one place to start. (note that for the purposes of this discussion, HF and Shortwave mean pretty much the same thing.)

Others have recommended Monitoring Times; I am a satisfied subscriber as well.
I live in the American midwest, so I can't really comment on what you will be able to receive in the UK. I can say that on a regular basis I pick up signals from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
posted by leapfrog at 11:17 AM on July 1, 2011

It's been a few decades since I played around with shortwave, so perhaps this isn't done much anymore, but time was you could write to many of the state-sponsored stations and they'd snail-mail you packages of vaguely nationalist swag. Stickers, badges, little flags, program guides, inflatable globes, propaganda and the like. If they do over-the-air language lessons, free course materials may be on offer. I suspect there's less of that going on in the post Cold War Internet age, but do keep your ears open for international stations that invite you to write in for goodies.
posted by mumkin at 7:27 PM on July 1, 2011

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