Sitting outside in the middle of summer, not a cloud in the sky, the Sun beating down on you, with your radio on. If you closed your eyes you could imagine being in a small room somewhere in the Middle East, with nothing but the small radio set keeping you company. Then suddenly you’re brought back to reality: through the hissing on your radio you can hear a Muslim call to prayer, as passages of the Qu’ran are read out. Nice one!
Radio is one of my nerd hobbies. I don’t even know why. It’s as bad as collecting Pokemon cards or playing Nethack, I’d say. Still though, flicking through the frequencies and hearing stuff from faraway places through noise, strengthening, weakening, is fairly amusing.
“Why not just listen to it online?” I get asked. Fuck that. That’s hardly entertaining. I suppose you appreciate it more when you know how radio waves work, how your receiver works, and how positioning your aerial affects what you hear.
Take a look around your house and find some radios. Take a look at the switch where you can select FM, MW, LW: is there an SW option? If there is, great. Even better if your radio has a digital display.
Get a length of electrical wire a few metres long, and wrap one end of it around the aerial. Hang the rest of it off something.
Now visit www.primetimeshortwave.com and select SW Schedules to Europe (or whereever you are). Scroll down to the current time in your area (note that times used in radio are almost always UTC, an hour behind Irish Summer Time). Tune to one of the frequencies given: if you’re listening at night, go for a lower frequency, say less than 10MHz. If it’s daytime, go higher.
With some luck, you should be able to hear something. Try different frequencies. Try it with and without the wire. Try simply playing with your radio and going through frequencies.
You might start to notice more than just usual radio broadcasts. You can sometimes hear amateur radio operators (often with morse code), you can hear radio beacons, and sometimes you can grab radio broadcasts from satellites in orbit.
Here’s your first challenge: what is the most distant country you can hear? Under the most perfect conditions, you might even hear stations in Australia.
The strength of signals can be affected by solar activity on the Sun. Over the next few years solar activity will increase, and you will get to hear stronger and more varied signals. If there are aurorae occurring somewhere on Earth, you should be able to hear the effects via radio.
So this is called shortwave listening. Pretty self-explanatory. Most of the stations you will hear on a household radio will be in a mode called AM (amplitude modulation). If you do some more research, you’ll learn about things called sidebands. But these other modes are somewhat specialist, and are often used by amateur radio operators (hams) to communicate with each other.
Ham radio. As if it couldn’t get any nerdier. Radio hams set up their own station and use it to broadcast a signal to communicate with other people around the world. Again, these signals can travel significant distances around the planet. There is an amateur radio station on board the International Space Station, and sometimes hams get to chat to astronauts as they pass over.
If you want to start broadcasting you’ll need to get yourself a licence. In Ireland these are issued by ComReg. But to get a licence, you first need to study and pass a test (run by the Irish Radio Transmitters Society). The test covers such things as how to operate a radio, radio frequencies, basic electronics, and safety.
I arrived for my test with a tent and massive rucksack, sweating like a paedo in a Barney suit. I was on my way to Oxegen and I’d say yer wan in the ComReg offices had a grand auld laugh at me.
Either way, I passed, and applied for my CEPT licence and callsign (EI6GSB).
Of course, you’ll also need a radio station. These can be expensive. I bought one from America a few years back and it never arrived. It was a lovely wee station, cost me €400 or so. I’d say your man fuckin’ went off with the money, although he claims he sent the radio. Fuckit.
So anyway. There’s your radio stuff. Give it a try. This was about shortwave but like you can do it on any frequency band (mediumwave, longwave, and so on).
Right, that’s enough nerding for one evening.