Shortwave radio

Shortwave radio
A solid-state, analog shortwave receiver

Shortwave radio refers to the upper MF (medium frequency) and all of the HF (high frequency) portion of the radio spectrum, between 1,800–30,000 kHz.[1] Shortwave radio received its name because the wavelengths in this band are shorter than 200 m (1500 kHz) which marked the original upper limit of the medium frequency band first used for radio communications. The broadcast medium wave band now extends above the 200 m/1500 kHz limit, and the amateur radio 1.8 MHz – 2.0 MHz band (known as top band) is the lowest-frequency band considered to be 'shortwave'.

Initially thought to be useless, shortwave radio now has many applications where the behaviour of radio waves in the Earth's atmosphere make long-range communication possible. Shortwave radio is used for broadcasting of voice and music, and long-distance communication to ships and aircraft, or to remote areas out of reach of wired communication or other radio services. Amateur radio on these frequencies can provide hobby, educational and emergency communication.



The discovery of long-distance shortwave propagation

Amateur radio operators are credited with the discovery of long-distance communication on the shortwave bands. Early long-distance services used surface wave propagation at very low frequencies,[2] which are attenuated along the path. Longer distances and higher frequencies using this method meant more signal attenuation. This, and the difficulties of generating and detecting higher frequencies, made discovery of shortwave propagation difficult for commercial services.

Radio amateurs conducted the first successful transatlantic tests[3] in December 1921, operating in the 200 meter mediumwave band (1500 kHz)—the shortest wavelength then available to amateurs. In 1922 hundreds of North American amateurs were heard in Europe at 200 meters and at least 20 North American amateurs heard amateur signals from Europe. The first two-way communications between North American and Hawaiian amateurs began in 1922 at 200 meters. Although operation on wavelengths shorter than 200 meters was technically illegal (but tolerated as the authorities mistakenly believed at first that such frequencies were useless for commercial or military use), amateurs began to experiment with those wavelengths using newly available vacuum tubes shortly after World War I.

Extreme interference at the upper edge of the 150-200 meter band—the official wavelengths allocated to amateurs by the Second National Radio Conference[4] in 1923—forced amateurs to shift to shorter and shorter wavelengths; however, amateurs were limited by regulation to wavelengths longer than 150 meters (2 MHz). A few fortunate amateurs who obtained special permission for experimental communications below 150 meters completed hundreds of long distance two way contacts on 100 meters (3 MHz) in 1923 including the first transatlantic two way contacts.[5] in November 1923, on 110 meters (2.72 MHz)

By 1924 many additional specially licensed amateurs were routinely making transoceanic contacts at distances of 6000 miles (~9600 km) and more. On 21 September several amateurs in California completed two way contacts with an amateur in New Zealand. On 19 October amateurs in New Zealand and England completed a 90-minute two-way contact nearly halfway around the world. On October 10, the Third National Radio Conference made three shortwave bands available to U.S. amateurs[6] at 80 meters (3.75 MHz), 40 meters (7,5 MHz) and 20 meters (15 MHz). These were allocated worldwide, while the 10-meter band (28 MHz) was created by the Washington International Radiotelegraph Conference[7] on 25 November 1927. The 15-meter band (20 MHz) was opened to amateurs in the United States on 1 May 1952.


In June and July 1923, Guglielmo Marconi's transmissions were completed during nights on 97 meters from Poldhu Wireless Station, Cornwall, to his yacht Elettra in the Cape Verde Islands. In September 1924, Marconi transmitted during daytime and nighttime on 32 meters from Poldhu to his yacht in Beirut. Marconi, in July 1924, entered into contracts with the British General Post Office (GPO) to install high speed shortwave telegraphy circuits from London to Australia, India, South Africa and Canada as the main element of the Imperial Wireless Chain. The UK-to-Canada shortwave "Beam Wireless Service" went into commercial operation on 25 October 1926. Beam Wireless Services from the UK to Australia, South Africa and India went into service in 1927.

Far more spectrum is available for long distance communication in the shortwave bands than in the longwave bands; and shortwave transmitters, receivers and antennas were orders of magnitude less expensive than the multi-hundred kilowatt transmitters and monstrous antennas needed for longwave.

Shortwave communications began to grow rapidly in the 1920s,[8] similar to the internet in the late 20th century. By 1928, more than half of long distance communications had moved from transoceanic cables and longwave wireless services to shortwave and the overall volume of transoceanic shortwave communications had vastly increased. Shortwave also ended the need for multi-million dollar investments in new transoceanic telegraph cables and massive longwave wireless stations, although some existing transoceanic telegraph cables and commercial longwave communications stations remained in use until the 1960s.

The cable companies began to lose large sums of money in 1927, and a serious financial crisis threatened the viability of cable companies that were vital to strategic British interests. The British government convened the Imperial Wireless and Cable Conference[9] in 1928 "to examine the situation that had arisen as a result of the competition of Beam Wireless with the Cable Services". It recommended and received Government approval for all overseas cable and wireless resources of the Empire to be merged into one system controlled by a newly-formed company in 1929, Imperial and International Communications Ltd. The name of the company was changed to Cable and Wireless Ltd. in 1934.

Propagation characteristics

Shortwave frequencies are capable of reaching any location on the Earth as they can be refracted downwards by the ionosphere (a phenomenon known as Skywave propagation). A typical phenomenon with shortwave propagation is the occurrence of a skip zone (see first figure on that page) where reception fails. With a fixed working frequency, large changes of the ionospheric characteristics may create a skip zone that appears at night.

As a result of the multi-layer structure of the ionosphere, propagation often simultaneously occurs on different paths, refracted by the E- or F-region and with different numbers of hops, a phenomenon that may be disturbing for certain techniques. Particularly for lower frequencies of the shortwave band, absorption of wave energy in the lowest ionospheric layer, the D-layer, may be a serious limit. This is due to many collisions of electrons with neutral molecules, absorbing energy from radio waves and turning it into heat.[10] Predictions of sky wave propagation depend on:

  • The distance from the transmitter to the target receiver.
  • Time of day. During the day, frequencies higher than approximately 12 MHz can travel longer distances than lower ones; at night, this property is reversed.
  • With lower frequencies the dependence on the time of the day is mainly due to the lowest ionospheric layer, the D Layer, forming only during the day when photons from the sun break up atoms into ions and free electrons.
  • Season. During the winter months the AM broadcast band tends to be more favorable because of longer hours of darkness.
  • Solar flares produce a large increase of the D-region ionization causing, during periods of several minutes, an absorption in the D-region so high that all sky wave communications are extinguished.

Types of modulation

Several different types of modulation are used to impress information on a short-wave transmission.

Amplitude modulation is the simplest type and the most commonly used for shortwave broadcasting. The instantaneous amplitude of the carrier is controlled by the amplitude of the signal (speech, or music, for example). At the receiver, a simple detector recovers the desired modulation signal from the carrier.

Single sideband transmission is a form of amplitude modulation but in effect filters the result of modulation. An amplitude-modulated signal has frequency components both above and below the carrier frequency. If one set of these components is eliminated as well as the residual carrier, only the remaining set is transmitted. This saves power in the tranmission, as roughly 2/3 of the energy sent by an AM signal is unnecessary to recover the information contained on it. It also saves "bandwidth", allowing about one-half the carrier frequency spacing to be used. The drawback is that the receiver is more complicated, since it must re-recreate the carrier to recover the signal. Small errors in the detector process can greatly affect the pitch of the received signal, so single side band is not usual for music or general broadcast. Single side band is used for long-range voice communications by ships and aircraft, Citizen's Band,and amateur radio operators. LSB (lower sideband) is generally used below 9 MHz and USB (upper sideband) above 9 MHz.

Vestigal sideband transmits the carrier and one complete side-band, but filters out the redundant side-band. It is a compromise between AM and SSB, allowing simple receivers to be used but requiring almost as much transmitter power as AM. One advantage is that only half the bandwidth of an AM signal is used. It can be heard in the transmission of certain radio time signal stations.

Continuous wave (CW) is on-and-off keying of a carrier, used only for Morse code communications.

Narrow-band frequency modulation (NBFM) is mainly used in the higher HF frequencies (typically above 20 MHz). Because of the larger bandwidth required, NBFM is much more commonly used for VHF communication. Regulations limit the bandwidth of a signal transmitted in the HF bands, and the advantages of frequency modulation are greatest if the FM signal is allowed to have a wider bandwidth. NBFM is limited to short-range SW transmissions due to the multiphasic distortions created by the ionosphere. [11]

Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) is a digital modulation for use on bands below 30 MHz.

Radioteletype, fax, digital, slow-scan television and other systems use forms of frequency-shift keying or audio subcarriers on a shortwave carrier. These generally require special equipment to decode, such as software on a computer equipped with a sound card.


Some major uses of the shortwave radio band are:

  • International broadcasting primarily by government-sponsored propaganda stations to foreign audiences: the most common use of all.
  • Domestic broadcasting: to widely dispersed populations with few longwave, mediumwave and FM stations serving them; or for specialty political, religious and alternative media networks; or of individual commercial and non-commercial paid broadcasts.
  • Utility stations transmitting messages not intended for the general public, such as aircraft flying between continents, encrypted diplomatic messages, weather reporting, or ships at sea.
  • Clandestine stations. These are stations that broadcast on behalf of various political movements, including rebel or insurrectionist forces, and are normally unauthorised by the government-in-charge of the country in question. Clandestine broadcasts may emanate from transmitters located in rebel-controlled territory or from outside the country entirely, using another country's transmission facilities. Clandestine stations were used during World War II to transmit news from the Allied point of view into Axis-controlled areas. Although the Nazis confiscated many radios and executed their owners, many people continued to listen.
  • Numbers Stations These stations regularly appear and disappear all over the shortwave radio band but are unlicenced and untraceable. It is believed that Numbers Stations are operated by government agencies, and are used to communicate with clandestine operatives working within foreign countries. However, no definitive proof of such use has emerged. Because the vast majority of these broadcasts contain nothing but the recitation of blocks of numbers, in various languages, with occasional bursts of music, they have become known colloquially as "Number Stations". Perhaps the most noted Number Station is the "Lincolnshire Poacher", named after the 18th century English folk song, which is transmitted just before the sequences of numbers.
  • Amateur radio operators.
  • Time signal and radio clock stations: In North America, WWV radio and WWVH radio transmit at these frequencies: 2500 kHz, 5000 kHz, 10000 kHz, and 15000 kHz; and WWV also transmits on 20000 kHz. The CHU radio station in Canada transmits on the following frequencies: 3330 kHz, 7850 kHz, and 14670 kHz. Other similar radio clock stations transmit on various shortwave and longwave frequencies around the world. The shortwave transmissions tend to be intended primarily for human reception, while the longwave stations are generally used for automatic synchronization of watches and clocks.
  • Over-the-horizon radar: From 1976 to 1989, the Soviet Union's Russian Woodpecker over-the-horizon radar system blotted out numerous shortwave broadcasts daily.

The term DXing, in the context of listening to radio signals of any user of the shortwave band, is the activity of monitoring distant stations. In the context of amateur radio operators, the term "DXing" refers to the two-way communications with a distant station, using shortwave radio frequencies.

The Asia-Pacific Telecommunity estimates that there are approximately 600,000,000 shortwave broadcast-radio receivers in use in 2002.[12] WWCR claims that there are 1.5 billion shortwave receivers worldwide.[13]

Shortwave broadcasting

See International broadcasting for details on the history and practice of broadcasting to foreign audiences. See shortwave relay station for the actual kinds of integrated technologies used to bring high power signals to listeners.

Frequency allocations

The World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC), organized under the auspices of the International Telecommunication Union, allocates bands for various services in conferences every few years. The last WRC took place in 2007.

At WRC-97 in 1997, the following bands were allocated for international broadcasting. (listed in the table):

Metre Band Frequency Range Remarks
120 m 2300 – 2495 kHz tropic band
90 m 3200 – 3400 kHz tropic band
75 m 3900 – 4000 kHz shared with the North American amateur radio 80m band
60 m 4750 – 5060 kHz tropic band
49 m 5900 – 6200 kHz  
41 m 7200 – 7450 kHz shared with the amateur radio 40m band
31 m 9400 – 9900 kHz Currently most heavily used band
25 m 11,600 - 12,100 kHz  
22 m 13,570 - 13,870 kHz substantially used only in Eurasia
19 m 15,100 - 15,800 kHz  
16 m 17,480 - 17,900 kHz  
15 m 18,900 - 19,020 kHz almost unused, could become a DRM band
13 m 21,450 - 21,850 kHz  
11 m 25,600 - 26,100 kHz may be used for local DRM broadcasting

AM shortwave broadcasting channels are allocated with a 5 kHz separation for traditional analog audio broadcasting.

International broadcasters for practical reasons sometimes operate outside the normal WRC-allocated bands or use off-channel frequencies to attract attention in crowded bands (60m, 49m, 40m, 41m, 31m, 25m).

The new digital audio broadcasting format for shortwave DRM operates 10 kHz or 20 kHz channels. There are some ongoing discussions with respect to specific band allocation for DRM, as it mainly transmitted in 10 kHz format.

The power used by shortwave transmitters ranges from less than one watt for some experimental and amateur radio transmissions to 500 kilowatts and higher for intercontinental broadcasters and over-the-horizon radar. Shortwave transmitting centers often use specialized antenna designs (like the ALLISS antenna technology) to concentrate radio energy at the target area.


Shortwave does possess a number of advantages over newer technologies, including the following:

  • The difficulty in censoring programming by authorities in target countries: unlike the Internet, government authorities have technical difficulties to monitor which stations (sites) are being listened to (accessed). For example, during the coup against President Mikhail Gorbachev, when his access to communications was limited, Gorbachev was able to stay informed by means of the BBC World Service on shortwave.[14] However, it was reported that during the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Government was able to trace listeners of western shortwave stations by monitoring the EM emission from the tuning circuit of receiver and power usage.[dubious ][citation needed]
  • Low-cost shortwave radios are widely available in all but the most repressive countries in the world.
  • In many countries (particularly in most third world nations and in the Eastern bloc during the Cold War era) ownership of shortwave receivers is widespread[15] (in many of these countries some domestic stations also used shortwave).
  • Many newer shortwave receivers are portable and can be battery operated, making them useful in difficult circumstances. Newer technology includes hand-cranked radios which provide power without batteries.
  • Shortwave radios can be used in situations where Internet or satellite communications service is unavailable (or unaffordable).
  • Shortwave radio travels much farther than broadcast FM (88-108 MHz). Shortwave broadcasts can be easily transmitted over a distance of several thousands of kilometers, e.g., from one continent to another.
  • Particularly in tropical regions SW is somewhat less prone to interference from thunderstorms than medium wave radio and is able to cover a large geographic area with relatively-low power (and hence cost). Therefore in many of these countries it is widely used for domestic broadcasting.


The benefits are widely regarded as being outweighed by the drawbacks such as these:

  • Shortwave broadcasts often suffer from serious interference problems because of overcrowding on the wavebands, atmospheric disturbances and electrical interference problems (particularly in cities) from TV sets, computers, poorly designed domestic appliances, and substandard electrical installations.[citation needed]
  • Even under ideal reception conditions, the audio quality of a shortwave broadcast is usually inferior to that of domestic stations, particularly FM stations, and it is always in mono.[citation needed]
  • As more people around the world have access to television and the Internet, old technologies such as shortwave radio find it difficult to compete for listeners' attention.[citation needed]
  • In most Western countries, ownership of shortwave radios is usually limited to interested enthusiasts since many new standard radios do not have the shortwave band facility. Therefore, Western audiences are limited.
  • The dependence of shortwave radio on atmospheric conditions (the best frequency for hearing certain parts of the world varies by time of day and season) means that it can be difficult to use by non-technically-minded listeners.[citation needed]

Amateur radio

The practice of operating a shortwave radio transmitter for non-commercial two-way communications is known as amateur radio. Licenses are granted by authorized government agencies.

Amateur radio operators have made many technical advancements in the field of radio and make themselves available to transmit emergency communications when normal communications channels fail. Some amateurs practice operating off the power grid so as to be prepared for power loss. Many amateur radio operators started out as Shortwave Listeners (SWLs) and actively encourage SWLs to become amateur radio operators.

A pennant sent to overseas listeners by Radio Budapest in the late 1980s

Shortwave listening

Many hobbyists listen to shortwave broadcasters without operating transmitters. In some cases, the goal is to hear as many stations from as many countries as possible (DXing); others listen to specialized shortwave utility, or "ute", transmissions such as maritime, naval, aviation, or military signals. Others focus on intelligence signals from numbers stations, or the two way communications by amateur radio operators.

Many listeners tune the shortwave bands for the programmes of stations broadcasting to a general audience (such as Radio Taiwan International, Voice of Russia, China Radio International, Radio Canada International, Voice of America, BBC World Service, Radio Australia, Radio Netherlands, Voice of Korea, Sarawak Report etc.). Today, through the evolution of the Internet, the hobbyist can listen to shortwave signals via remotely controlled shortwave receivers around the world, even without owning a shortwave radio. Many international broadcasters (such as Radio Canada International [6], the BBC and Radio Australia) offer live streaming audio on their websites. Shortwave listeners, or SWLs, can obtain QSL cards from broadcasters, utility stations or amateur radio operators as trophies of the hobby. Some stations even give out special certificates, pennants, stickers and other tokens and promotional materials to shortwave listeners.

Utility stations

Utility stations are stations that do not broadcast to the general public. There are shortwave bands allocated to the use of merchant shipping, marine weather, and ship-to-shore stations; for aviation weather and air-to-ground communications; for military communications; for long-distance governmental purposes, and for other non-broadcast communications. Many radio hobbyists specialize in listening to "ute" broadcasts, which often come from places without shortwave broadcasters.

Unusual signals

The short wave bands are also used by unlicensed individuals who want mostly short range "party line" like communications. Two examples are the use of HF for communication between fishing boats in many areas of the world, and the unlicensed use of the 11-meter band. Called "pirates", these unlicensed operators can cause interference to licensed stations. Many third-world countries have shops selling HF transmitter radios to any customer without regard to license or operator knowledge. In 2011, there is virtually no national nor international efforts to control such pirate operations.

The short wave bands are also used for various experiments, some going on for years. In 2011, signals tracable to China regularly send powerful HF transmissions that scan over wide HF ranges, perhaps to determine the maximum usable frequency (MUF) or other issues.[citation needed]

Shortwave's future

The development of direct broadcasts from satellites has reduced the demand for shortwave receivers, but there are still a great number of shortwave broadcasters. A new digital radio technology, Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), is expected to improve the quality of shortwave audio from very poor to standards comparable to the FM broadcast band. The future of shortwave radio is threatened by the rise of power line communication (PLC), also known as Broadband over Power Lines (BPL), where a data stream is transmitted over unshielded power lines. As the frequencies used overlap with shortwave bands, severe distortions make listening to shortwave radio near power lines difficult or impossible. However, because it is a cheap and effective way to receive communications in countries with poor infrastructure, shortwave will be around for years to come.

Short wave use by licensed hobbyists, amateur ham radio operators, continues, but it is diminishing due to competing interests in computers and other communication devices. Some hobbyists have combined amateur radio HF with experimental and established data modes that can communicate very close to under the noise floor of receivers.

Shortwave broadcasts and music

Some musicians have been attracted to the unique aural characteristics of shortwave radio which—due to the nature of amplitude modulation, varying propagation conditions, and the presence of interference—generally has lower fidelity than local broadcasts (particularly via FM stations). Shortwave transmissions often have bursts of distortion, and "hollow" sounding loss of clarity at certain aural frequencies, altering the harmonics of natural sound and creating at times a strange "spacey" quality due to echoes and phase distortion. Evocations of shortwave reception distortions have been incorporated into rock and classical compositions, by means of delays or feedback loops, equalizers, or even playing shortwave radios as live instruments. Snippets of broadcasts have been mixed into electronic sound collages and live musical instruments, by means of analogue tape loops or digital samples. Sometimes the sounds of instruments and existing musical recordings are altered by remixing or equalizing, with various distortions added, to replicate the garbled effects of shortwave radio reception.

The first attempts by serious composers to incorporate radio effects into music may be those of the Russian physicist and musician Léon Theremin, who perfected a form of radio oscillator as a musical instrument in 1928 (radios of the time were prone to break into whistles, adding various tonal harmonics to music and speech); and in the same year, the development of a French instrument called the Ondes Martenot by its inventor Maurice Martenot, a French cellist and former wireless telegrapher. A notable chamber piece by Mexican composer Silvestre RevueltasOcho x radio, 1933—features a complex texture of pseudo-mariachi musics, overlapping and cross-fading as if heard from distant stations: quite similar to shortwave radio signal propagation disturbance. John Cage used actual radios (of unspecified wavelength) live on several occasions, starting in 1942 with Credo in Us, while Karlheinz Stockhausen used shortwave radio and effects in works including Hymnen (1966–67), Kurzwellen (1968)—adapted for the Beethoven Bicentennial in Opus 1970 with filtered and distorted snippets of Beethoven pieces—Spiral (1968), Pole, Expo (both 1969–70), and Michaelion (1997). Holger Czukay, a student of Stockhausen, was one of the first to use shortwave in a rock music context. In 1975, German electronic music band Kraftwerk recorded a full length concept album around simulated radiowave and shortwave sounds, entitled Radio-Activity.

Among others, The The whose Radio Cineola monthly broadcasts draw heavily on shortwave radio sound,[16] The B-52s, Shearwater, Tom Robinson, Peter Gabriel, Pukka Orchestra, AMM, John Duncan, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (on their Dazzle Ships album), Pat Metheny, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Rush, Able Tasmans, Team Sleep, Meat Beat Manifesto, Tim Hecker, Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead, Roger Waters (on Radio KAOS album), Wilco, code 000 and Samuel Trim have also used or been inspired by shortwave broadcasts.[citation needed]

See also


  1. ^ Tomislav Stimac, "Definition of frequency bands (VLF, ELF... etc.)". IK1QFK Home Page (
  2. ^ Stormfax. Marconi Wireless on Cape Cod
  3. ^ "1921 - Club Station 1BCG and the Transatlantic Tests". Radio Club of America. Retrieved 2009-09-05. 
  4. ^ "Radio Service Bulletin No. 72, pp. 9-13". Bureau of Navigation, Department of Commerce. 1923-04-02. Retrieved 2009-09-05. 
  5. ^ [1]
  6. ^ [2]
  7. ^ [3]
  8. ^
  9. ^ Cable and Wireless Plc History
  10. ^ Karl Rawer:"Wave Propagation in the Ionosphere". Kluwer, Dordrecht 1993 ISBN 0-7923-0775-5
  11. ^ Ian Robertson Sinclair, Audio and Hi-Fi Handbook, Newnes, 2000 ISBN 0750649755 pp. 195-196
  12. ^
  13. ^ Arlyn T. Anderson. Changes at the BBC World Service: Documenting the World Service's Move From Shortwave to Web Radio in North America, Australia, and New Zealand, Journal of Radio Studies 2005, Vol. 12, No. 2, Pages 286-304 (doi:10.1207/s15506843jrs1202_8) mentioned in [4] WWCR FAQ
  14. ^
  15. ^ Habrat, Marek. "Odbiornik "Roksana" (Radio constructor's recollections)". Retrieved 2008-08-05 
  16. ^ [5]
  • Ulrich L. Rohde, Jerry Whitaker "Communications Receivers, Third Edition" McGraw Hill, New York, NY, 2001, ISBN 0-07-136121-9.

External links

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