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Window to the world wasn't always wide open

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

I stole the telescoping antenna from my world band radio a week or two ago, to replace a damaged antenna on my weather alert radio.

I went through a phase where the world band was one of my fondest possessions. But I haven't used it for its intended purpose in several years; most recently, it was sitting on my desk here at work, serving as an AM radio. (We don't get FM signals very well inside the building.)

World band refers to shortwave stations from around the world. I use the term "world band" rather than just "shortwave" because "shortwave," to some people, refers to ham radio, with individual ham radio operators. World band is something different -- professional radio stations, many of them government-supported, such as the Voice Of America, BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, Radio Havana Cuba, and so on.

When I first listened to my world band in the late 1980s, I was entranced by the idea of hearing all of these different voices from around the world -- unfiltered access to what different countries thought and enjoyed and talked about. Most of the stations either broadcast in English some of the time or had a separate channel set aside for English. Some stations could be found pretty regularly, but others would come and go depending on atmospheric conditions. A shortwave signal bounces between certain atmospheric layers, allowing it under just the right conditions to travel around the curvature of the planet. Most transmitters are set up in order to beam their signal to a particular part of the world, and most of the major players had at least one set of transmitters specially aimed at the U.S., but the fun happened when special conditions enabled you to receive something outside the norm.

As you scanned across the dial, yearning to discover something new, you would sometimes come across a series of musical notes, repeated over and over and over. This is called an "interval signal," and it is the audio equivalent of a test pattern. (It now occurs to me that many of you are too young to remember test patterns.) It meant that a station was preparing to go on the air -- or, sometimes, to switch over to a different language for the next portion of the broadcast day). Each station had its own distinctive interval signal. Radio Canada's, for example, consisted of the first four notes from "O Canada," its national anthem. If you heard those four notes, playing over and over again, you knew you had stumbled across one of Radio Canada's frequencies and that they would soon begin broadcasting.

I enjoyed the jazz music on Radio Havana Cuba, but laughed at the anti-American slant of their news broadcasts. (They probably think the same thing about the Voice Of America.)

BBC World Service had a musical request program, the name of which escapes me at the moment, and I wrote to them asking for an Electric Light Orchestra song which had barely touched the charts here in the U.S., and therefore never gets played as an oldie, but which I suspected had done better in Jeff Lynne's homeland. A few weekends later, I went away on a church retreat and failed to listen to the show. A week or two after that, I found a BBC T-shirt in my mailbox and realized they had played my request and I had missed it.

There were a number of religious programs on world band -- foreign stations making money off their world band frequencies by selling time to screeching American evangelists or lunatic fringe conspiracy theorists. But there was also HCJB, the "Voice of the Andes," a Quito, Ecuador-based station with great, high-quality Christian programming.

I bring all of this up because it's an interesting example of how technology changes things. There are still world band stations out there, and you can still buy world band radios at Radio Shack, but there are fewer stations broadcasting and fewer people listening. Why? I'll give you three guesses, and the first two don't count. It used to be mysterious and exotic to listen to the BBC World Service or Deutsche Welle; now, I can achieve the same effect by going to www.bbc.co.uk or www.dw.de. For that matter, I can read the top news stories from the leading newspaper in just about any major world capital within seconds. If I get homesick for places I visited during my Kenya mission trips, all I have to do is call up the web sites of the Standard or the Daily Nation, Kenya's competing daily newspapers.

It's exciting that a new generation has access to an international perspective, but I'll always remember fondly the time I spent straining to hear those tinny voices bouncing around in the stratosphere.

--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.

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John I. Carney
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John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette.