Friday, 18 October 2013


Remember shortwave radio? Without wires, satellites, or Internet service providers, people have been able to listen to distant stations half way around the globe. To me, there's something wondrous about being able to hear voices and music from distant lands while sitting in my home. The fading and distortion just adds to the feeling of pulling in stations. During crises, such as the terrorist attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, I was able to hear events as they unfolded.

Being a lover of electronic sounds, I've often listened in wonder to the point-to-point stations between the shortwave broadcast bands. The tonal qualities and strangeness of the signals only made them more appealing to me.

I'm not alone in my fascination with these mysterious signals. Shortwave listeners have probed the ether for clues to the purpose and location of these transmissions. For a report on this hobby, listen to NPR's "All Things Considered" radio feature, "Music By The Numbers". You can also hear another report called NPR's "Lost and Found Sound" radio feature, "The Shortwave Numbers stations". Once you get past the commercial, the program gets quite interesting.

Musicians have also noticed the tonal qualities of shortwave utility stations, as listeners call them. Avant Garde composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen led the way but eventually rock groups mixed these signals into their music.

One of the most famous uses of these signals was "Reception" by Paul McCartney and Wings. It was the beginning track on his 1979 LP Back To The Egg.

Another good example is "Radio Waves" by OMD. Using a shortwave radio with a scanning feature, the duo recorded the signals as the receiver scanned a specified frequency range. Then they recorded their instruments and vocals along with the radio recording.

Lesser-known musicians also followed suit. Listen to "World Service" by Anthony Moore and the way he used distant signals to augment the feeling of being in one of Africa's war-torn countries.

"Animal Waves" by Can is another example of shortwave signals being use to create a mood of distance and exoticness. This track from one of Germany's more adventurous bands appeared on their Saw Delight album in 1977.

Sound collages have also been made using shortwave signals as well as program snippets. Here's one called "Time Zones" by Negativeland Particularly humorous is the Radio Moscow clip and the announcer's reference to the "Commy" people.

Though "Radioland" by Kraftwerk only contains synthetic shortwave sounds, I believe it still qualifies as it's an ode to shortwave radio activity. It conveys the concept of scanning the dial quite well, in my opinion.

I also have used these mesmerizing signals in my own electronic music compositions. One of them is called "A Short Wave To Shortwave" by Bruce Atchison. A better example is "Passing Messages" I used a numbers station and shortwave utility signals to create the mood of hearing a clandestine broadcast.

If you would like to see what the decibel scale is like in pictorial form, visit the Quiet Refuge site. Disclaimer: I get no remuneration for linking to this site. This is just for interest sake.

I've mentioned shortwave radio in all three of my memoirs. The first two are available through this page. How I Was Razed: A Journey from Cultism to Christianity is featured on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Virtual Bookworm Publishers.

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