I bought a new radio last week. I did not need a new radio, but here’s the thing: I like to buy radios. They were my first fetish objects.
I have very few memories that go back further than my first radio, a fits-in-the-hand six transistor object about the size of an iPhone, that I would huddle with next to the heating vent on cold weekend mornings in our living room, listening to early rock and roll. It’s a social history given that the portability and affordability of the transistor radio went hand-in-hand with the growth of rock and roll. I remember as late as eighth grade, in the summer of 1963, I would go over to my friend Kenny’s house across the street with my transistor, moving the dial from station to station until one played the song I could not wait for him to hear: “Fingertips (Part 2)” by a kid our age from Detroit: Little Stevie Wonder.
I also became infatuated with shortwave, and the idea that you could listen to stations in a myriad of languages from all over the world. In ninth grade, in a new high school with few new friends, I convinced my parents to buy me a shortwave radio, a Hallicrafters S-108 receiver. Not as posh as the classic S-110, but the S-108, which I still have (though the tubes died long ago and the dials need overhaul) remains a classic of form and function: it looks like a shortwave radio is supposed to look, with two dials for calibration, an objet d’art that was capable in its day of hauling in signals from all over the globe with just a piece of wire as an antenna: I’m talking all over, Australia, China, Japan, every country in Europe and many in Africa and South America.
You could also listen to the chatter of amateur radio operators, known as hams for those too young to remember. There was a store called Arrow Electronics where you could buy ham equipment, and which kept a good stock of magazines, along with guidebooks from the Amateur Radio Relay League, (ARRL), the official governing body, with ham operators listed by their call letters (say, W1AAA through K9ZZZ) and addresses, worldwide. The idea was for the shortwave listener (SWL-er) to send hams and broadcast stations alike a postcard with your name, or if a ham, your call letters, and confirm hearing them, at a certain day, time, and radio frequency, along with a report of the quality of the reception. Then they’d send you their card, known as a QSL card, verifying your card, and hams and SWLers (shortwave listeners) prided themselves on the individuality and quality of their QSL cards. People would post these cards on their walls, making for many a decorative den or radio room for these hobbyists.
There was burgeoning interest in ham radio around 1964. To the world, Barry Goldwater was the Republican Senator from Arizona running for president against incumbent Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson. To hams, he was K7UGA, neither Republican nor Democrat, just another amateur radio operator from Arizona. I was almost inconsolable when my friends from my previous school were in the newspaper because their radio club had contacted and conversed with the popular K7UGA.
I joined the radio club at my new school. There was only one other member, a pimply kid named Alex, and no ham radio station. We went to his house one day because he had a Citizen’s band (CB) radio years before it became a fad in trucker and Burt Reynolds movies. You didn’t need a license, and could talk to anyone, in their own kooky jargon. Unfortunately, CB radio signals did not travel much beyond the neighborhood. It was not exactly a thrill to hear the local Entenmann’s bakery delivery guy on the CB radio telling his dispatcher that he had delivered his crullers to King Kullen and was about to drop his load at the A&P.
That same year, the New York World’s Fair opened in Queens with a ham radio station inside the Coca-Cola pavilion: K2USA, a call letter uniquely designed for the World’s Fair. Radio stations east of the Mississippi River, ham or otherwise, were designated by international convention to begin with “W,” while “K” stations indicated west. (WABC, New York, KABC Los Angeles; WOR, New York, KHJ, Los Angeles). Some early stations were “grandfathered” in, so even now, the CBS radio station in Pittsburgh retains KDKA.
So K2USA was a unicorn station name, and as soon as I got my novice ham license, I would spend up to an hour every World’s Fair visit to use their state of the art set-up. My home e-mail address begins with a W2, as a tribute to what a ham station’s call letters would start with in New York state.
My ham license, a beginner’s or “novice” license, allowed me to use the lowest end of the shortwave spectrum, the 2-meter and 6-meter bands, but only in Morse code. I studied my Morse code, passed the test, and went to Arrow Electronics to buy an inexpensive transmitter and Morse code key, just a slightly modernized version of what you see in old Westerns where someone needs to send a telegraph message from a railroad station. (Kind of like a computer mouse, come to think of it.) The transmitter was not as copasetic as the Hallicrafters receiver. In fact, after a few minutes it would overheat, start to smoke, and nearly catch fire before I could shut it down and unplug it. This happened with two or three of these transmitters in a row. My great accomplishment one morning was having a Morse code conversation with a ham in Sweden. I did not think the conversation lasted long enough to send him my QSL card, but about a week later his came for me in the mail, so I guess it counted as my longest distance ham connection ever, especially considering that the 2-meter band rarely had the atmospheric bounce to cross oceans.
Then I got interested in girls, and shortwave became a little less groovy.
But I do remember in 1968, when there was breaking news that Russian tanks invaded Czechoslovakia to put an end to that country’s flirtation with the youth and freedom movement in the rest of the world. I was smoking pot with some friends and I said, hey, let’s hear what Radio Prague is saying about it. We fired up a joint, I fired up the Hallicrafters S-108, and it was pretty exciting: As we listened, the English language service of Radio Prague went from declaring independence and freedom of speech, defiant of the incursion, to another voice reading statements welcoming the Russians as comrades in solidarity with the goals of international Communism.
But some things you never forget. I was on a freelance travel junket to a small Caribbean island 20 years ago. I sat alone on the beach watching a spectacular sunset and cloud formations above the nearby island of Guadeloupe. And what came to mind was: “Guadeloupe, home of FG7XL,” a ham radio operator who had been very busy in the 1960s, since Guadeloupe was a great catch for any long distance listener or operator. The call of “CQ DX, CQ DX, (CQ, calling anyone, DX, long distance) this is FG7XL, Jean-Pierre from Pont-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe,” would result in a mad convergence of hams from all over the world who needed to add this small island nation to their countries list.
So, last week I bought this Chinese-made radio, a Supersonic SC-3201BT, an impulse buy from one of those pop-up ads on social media. And it was under $40. It’s a real throwback: a boom box and cassette tape player, with four radio bands: AM, FM, and two shortwave. It’s got Bluetooth, which works pretty well. The speakers are loud; in fact, once you dial up the volume, there is no progression from soft to louder to very loud. You turn the sound up a millimeter from zero and it is almost too loud to listen. I also noticed that despite two decent boombox speakers that put out this loud sound, they appear to be mono, not stereo. In truth, this doesn’t bother me much, but it does seem weird: Who makes a radio with two speakers that are not stereo?
The selling point to me wasn’t the playing of tapes or radio, although I will always check out shortwave, even though the internet has made it almost obsolete. You want to listen to radio in Uzbekistan, there are dozens of apps offering thousands of stations, both internet radio and broadcast radio, from around the globe. You can find the clear signal of a dozen radio stations in Uzbekistan, some of which play authentic Uzbek disco music.
The shortwave bands are pretty dead, anyway, mostly background noise, as they often used to be during humid summers. And I have no idea where we are in the sunspot cycle that determines propagation conditions. I do know that this is supposed to be a year when the cicadas come back. Whatever I come across seems to be Spanish, French, or English-language Bible stations. Back in the day, there was one religious station that was unavoidable, HCJB, a Christian missionary station in Quito, Ecuador. It had huge antennas, and a potent signal, broadcast from 8,600 feet in the Andes Mountains. It stopped broadcasting in 2009; I have read that a new airport for Quito was built on the site. But HCJB was useful, since it was the best way for SWL-ers to get a QSL card from Ecuador.
Governments all over the world have stopped subsidizing their national shortwave channels, although the United States is still in the propaganda business. One of the few stations that break through the static is the US-based Cuban expatriate station, Radio Marti. I randomly looked up a former favorite government shortwave station, Radio Netherlands, broadcasting from Hilversum. It ceased transmission in 2013.
The Voice of America is still out there. I once appeared on the VOA to discuss whether rock and roll was good or bad; bad, according to philosopher Allan Bloom, author of the then-best seller The Closing of the American Mind. My old friend Bernie Barnard of Long Island’s rock station WBAB was working for VOA, so she booked me to debate Bloom. Since Bloom knew about a lot of things, but nothing about rock music, I crushed him.
You need a much more sensitive tuner than Supersonic’s to hear any detail on shortwave, and hams now universally communicate via single-side-band (SSB), which uses less bandwidth but requires an extra-fine tuner. You could do it manually with the Hallicrafters S-108 by gradually moving the Pitch Control knob so the garbled voices would gradually become audible.
Also, the dial calibration on the so-called Supersonic leaves so much to be desired that I have to guess where my favorite FM stations are by scrolling through nearby stations whose frequencies I know because of the touch buttons in my car. (There are no digital tools at all.) And the AM dial is so tightly packed with identical syndicated talk shows that there is no thrill in late night scavenging for stations in faraway places across the US mainland and Canada. Even my last car radio with an AM dial could easily find Canadian stations on cold, clear nights, the best time to hear long distances on the AM dial.
But what I wanted really was the promised ability to record cassette tapes to mp3 via USB slot or SD Card. Not only do I have quite a lot of musical cassettes: I’ve been enjoying tape two of The History of the Dave Clark Five which makes the case that the DC5 catalogue is among the most underrated of the British Invasion. (I have no idea where tape one is.) But I also have dozens of interviews on cassette (Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Little Richard, and my Voice of America appearance), which I would love to have on mp3 so I can embed them on my Substack newsletter, https://waynerobins49.substack.com/.
So far, that does not work at all. I downloaded a new copy of Audacity for my Mac, and will probably buy a cheap cassette player that will plug directly into my desktop’s USB slot. I don’t exactly feel cheated by my $40 Supersonic radio, but it is not the kind of acquisition of which radio dreams are made.
Header image: Zenith Trans-Oceanic shortwave radio. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Ryan A. Jairam.