Wednesday, February 29, 2012

[Almost] Unvarnished Truth

My first radio was a black, sixties, Japanese made transistor brick of no import, given to me by my grandfather when I was no more than six years old. At eight, I received a modern ball-shaped plastic one whose precise, late 60's psychedelic colour now-escapes me, with two dials (for eyes) and a lucite window dial (the nose) for the frequency. Both were 9v powered and limited to AM or FM. At ten, I withdrew my accumulated savings and bought a cool-looking Sears ten band receiver (with all the shortwave spectrum) that called out to me from its display shelf every time I passed enroute to the hardware department with my father. I strung an "X" of wires from the corners of my room in a crude attempt to mimic a di-pole antenna. And with that, the world entered my bedroom through this box, and I was never the same.

Although day-time transmissions can be received on the higher frequencies, it was after dusk that the world seemed to truly come alive. "Lights-out" was never bedtime for me. It was only the beginning of my nightly travels. The BBC World Service was my first and daily fare, but "Tom Meier" of Radio Nederland, was my favorite, mostly for reasons of its strong signal relayed through their station in Bonaire, Netherlands Antilles. Radio Moscow punched through every band, and occupied what seemed to be the entire 41meter frequencies with their 200kw transmitter, holding up their end of the propaganda wars then raging. So strong and prevalent were they, they trampled and bled into more diminutively-powered neighboring stations that had the misfortune of living adjacent to them.  Radio Kiev, sharing facilities and transmitters, was almost indistinguishable in brashness (unless one wishes to learn Ukrainian over the airwaves). Radio Habana Cuba, Peking Radio, Radio Sofia, Vatican Radio, and half-hour english-language broadcasts from every capital in Europe never failed to intrigue and fascinate as I sought to determine their location in my World Atlas.

By eleven, I had reached the limitations of this box, whose low sensitivity and poor filters prevented me from visiting more exotic lands, and caused the unstable signal to drift and waver. I watched the newspaper classifieds daily for used army surplus gear receivers (or transceivers) made by military suppliers Hammarlund or Hallicrafters, bedazzled as I was by their dimensions, knobs and toggles and super-sensitive tuning wheels. I finally found one and my mother hesitantly drove the two hours to exchange my $35 for a grey metal behemoth filled with glowing-orange tubes, weighing at least twenty kilos, that looked as if it belonged on the bridge of a WWII aircraft carrier, or in the control-room of a nuclear power station.

I pestered my mother for a trip to the nearest Radio Shack to buy big spools of copper wire, and insulators. Upon returning home, I shimmied up the trees in the backyard and created a large array - a 75m by 75m di-pole, complete with a ground, and ran it to control box that I built which allowed me  to create single directional poles, as well as attenuate their lengths. Now, inserting it into the antenna receptacle  of the receiver,  I was able to visit almost every nation of the world from my bedroom. I would send them letters attesting to my reception on the east coast of America. In exchange, they would send a post card of verification (a "QSL") - typically with a lovely photo or image from their capital or something iconic from the country, in addition to a schedule, magazines, pennants, and tourist info to entice the potential traveller. And for the ones with ulterior political motives, they sent reams of propaganda (The Ba'ath Party Manifesto, History of Socialism in Albania, The Christian Word Afrikaans Life, and dozens of LPs from Springbok Radio that were intolerably boring but which looked great on my bookshelf). Some were after my soul, which I would gladly rent for a large pretty colour-postcard of Ecaudor's majestic snow-capped Mount Cotopaxi, whereas others were as eager for international contact from their remote studios in Kabul or Irian Jaya, as I was. For at eleven, the many politics were dwarfed by the novelty value of correspondence from around the world. I might go to bed with ABC Brisbane's morning show, dial down to the multitude of local small-power stations in rural Venezuela or Colombia, before drop in to Tashkent and Yerevan. I'd set my alarm to rise at 3am to catch the afternoon news on Radio New Zealand, before drifting back to sleep under the magical spell of Radio Cairo's non-stop show-casing of Umm Kulthum. I started receiving more mail than my parents. All my money was spent on postage, and I fretted when Mr Smiley (real name, no fooling!), our local postman was late for his route.

Within two years, lightning had not yet taken out my installation, and solid state technology was advancing rapidly. The tubes and heat generated by the Hallicrafters (not to mention the space it took up on my desk) were becoming a liability and I upgraded to a best-in-class Japanese-made Yaesu FRG-1-0-something-or-other. I initiated the formation of a regional club of similarly socially-awkward radio geeks, and began publishing a specialty shortwave radio publication, gathering several hundred of members from the area, organizing in-depth, surveys of frequencies, equipment reviews, and tips, as well as occasional get-togethers. This was quite an undertaking since it was all done before word-processing and home computers, requiring final drafts all typed on an IBM Executive (without an eraser-key relying wholly upon good typing and bottles of "Liquid Paper"), before the monthly two dozen pages were arranged, reduced and printed on my father's IBM Copier, to make a neat package. Dues just about covered postage, but it was enjoyable and engaging nonetheless.

As a result of my virtual travels, I matured and rapidly developed intellectually. Political sensitivities arose early as result of the many hours of listening. My bullshit detectors were raised to hypersensitive levels, as I mastered the art of distilling fact from fiction or opinion. The sheer hyperbole of Radio Tirana's or Radio Pyongyang's english service was comical, even to a twelve-year-old. It was possible to listen to both All India Radio and Radio Pakistan's versions of the Indo-Pakistani war, before being mediated by the BBC for the central case, or the Voice of Israel's version of the Yom Kippur war relative to that of Radio Moscow. It became obvious that, by comparison to the BBC World Service, The Voice of America was almost as tainted as Radio Moscow, fighting as they were for minds on the front line of the cold war. Though despite all these defects, the variety of programs from talk radio, classical music, interviews with artists and writers in their respective countries provided enlightenment unavailable in American television or radio media, let alone my middle-school in an anodyne middle-class suburb. World capitals, major cities their industries and life, were memorized as were world leaders, forms of government and regional and historical travails. Geography and history became my favorite subjects, though my writing skills were honed as well.

But it was the BBC (and to a lesser extent CBC and CBC Northern Service) which provided the daily stability - the continuous unexaggerated voice to navigate the extremes of bullshit, propaganda, and outright lies. They were the gold standard, and I became addicted, and remain so to this day. As I went to university and travelled abroad, I brought a SONY ICF-5100 and now, still possess an even a smaller version, that has allowed me have the BEEB with me, wherever and whenever, which was particularly important when travelling back to the USA where intelligent international news was and remains well-nigh impossible to find without a broadband connection.

Of course the internet has changed everything. Short-waves while still important to outlying areas and less-developed nations, are almost wholly irrelevant where connectivity is ubiquitous and live stream from all over the world are the norm. Yet, the BBC, more than any other news, information, or media organization has continued to make itself relevant in walking the line of [almost] unvarnished truth in an increasingly tainted world of slant and disinformation, airing diverse views and opinions, producing unfathomable quantities of fascinating content that would otherwise be nearly-impossible hear, as well as developing methods of audience participation on many contentious issues. Some may take exception and find fault in the BBC World Service and they are not perfect, but, to me, they are valued beyond measure. And to this end, I wish them and all associated, a very very happy happy 80th anniversary. You impacted my life, and changed MY world for the better, and I will always be extremely grateful.


Castanea_d said...

My wife and I also love the shortwave, and have listened to CBC and BBC (and much, much else) for many years on a nice Grundig. It saddens us that so many of the broadcasters, including BBC, have been cutting back. We can no longer get Radio Netherlands, which used to be a mainstay.

Shortwave still has an important role to play; I hope that it does not disappear.

Thank you for this splendid tribute to the medium.

Anonymous said...

Sure made me cry...
I recall some of my friends getting the Radio Moscow calendar; quite the in thing for some of the more left-leaning types. I was the only one in my group in college that didn't have their ham license, and QSL cards taped all over the wall. One of my early jobs was in government funded research - they had tons of old Hallicrafters tube receivers all over the place. They're probably still there, and still working. And don't forget Collins; good stuff.

Semi-Literate Monkey said...

Great piece, thank you very much. I'm writing this from inside Bush House on a grey wintry London morning... where I have been based for, ahem, a couple of decades, so your thoughts are highly motivational and I'll share them with friends.

"Cassandra" said...

Thanks. Given the choice between the NHS and BBC World Service, I am confident I could live quite happily in poor health with the company of the World Service. However, invert the choice and give me good health, but no BEEB (and the V.O.A.for company?), I think I would quickly become suicidal, or at least an ascetic monk.

jkb said...

A wonderful piece. Our personal favorite was always the Queen's Christmas speech. Simply not the same in video. The first Iraq war was pretty great as well - the radio broadcasts, that is.
You were very lucky - I'll bet your parents are pretty great!xamic

Greg said...

Thanks for the well done piece. I too was smitten as a teen by shortwave listening. As you say, there are many other opportunities available today that replace short wave listening as a way to get quality information, but I still find myself listening in when I have trouble sleeping late at night. I have also taken up learning the morse code. It keeps the grey matter from hardening up.



Gail said...

Great piece. I remember stringing up antennas in the back yard for my old Hallicrafters. It was 1957 or 56 and I was 10. I still remember the Quito station and what else was there to do in Alamogordo, New Mexico.