Film, Radio and TV - 21
Day and night, signals from hundreds of high-powered shortwave transmitters traverse the earth with thousands of programs in more than 100 languages.
Most North American radios do not come equipped with the ability to receive these signals. Fact is, you have to go out of your way to find radios that can tune into shortwave.
However, this programming has often changed the course of world events.
Some countries have been so afraid of the information in these shortwave programs that they have spent billions of dollars to jam (electronically block it out) the broadcasts.
North Americans, whose radios typically only receive AM and FM broadcasts, know little about these "battles in the ethers." Even in this Internet age a significant percentage of the world's population still depends on international shortwave for their information.
In this module we will not be focusing on the hundreds-of-thousands of relatively low-power amateur transmitters operated by individuals around the world. This type of shortwave use, commonly referred to as ham radio, is primarily a point-to-point service and is generally considered a hobby.
Even so, ham radio operators are frequently called into service during disasters to relay critical information.
Ham radio operators are often the first to tell the world about disasters and medical emergencies. Although these operators use
shortwave frequencies, in this module we'll focus on the high-powered, mass media-type, transmitters operated by governments, corporations, and private agencies
-- so called international shortwave.
What Is International Shortwave?
Permanent, high-powered shortwave broadcast sites typically involve acres of huge antenna arrays like the one shown here.
The largest sites depend on miles of wire suspended in the air, as well as miles of buried wire serving as electrical ground systems.
Using these arrays, international shortwave stations direct their signals largely toward the ionosphere. Through careful calculations involving electronic directionalizing, power, and atmospheric conditions, these antennas aim their signals so they will come down on specific target areas around the world.
From the illustration below you can see how these signals can bounce (refract) off of the ionosphere — even multiple times — and land thousands of miles away. Recall that ionospheric refraction is primarily a nighttime phenomenon.
The transmitting frequencies used for international shortwave are higher than the normal medium wave (MW) frequencies used for standard AM radio. Being higher in frequency, the waves are shorter in wavelength; thus, the term shortwave.
Rather than specific frequencies (as in, "this is the 980 spot on your radio dial") international shortwave frequencies first fall into bands (blocks of frequencies). If you want further information on these, click here.
Shortwave makes for interesting listening. It's easy to tune into stations from all over the world, especially at night. A large percentage of these stations program in English and beam their signals to North America.
In addition to news and features about their country, some international stations provide on-air lessons in learning their country's language.
During the "cold war" you could clearly receive stations from Russia and China, which were broadcasting more hours of shortwave programming than any other country -- much of it directly to North America.
Listening to newscasts from these Communist countries provided some amazing contrasts to the information most of us hear in the free world.
Most shortwave services are designed to serve political or religious interests.
One that is considered free of this type of "spin" is Britain's BBC World Service. This service broadcasts in 43 languages and is relied upon by people around the world for balanced, comprehensive news.
Although their production approach might be somewhat dull by U.S. standards, many consider the content better balanced and much "meatier" than U.S. network newscasts.
If you have Real Audio™ or RealPlayer™ installed in your browser you can click here and hear BBC radio's World Service. A few other shortwave services, such as Radio Netherlands, provide similar news coverage.
In the United States the Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts in dozens of languages (listed below) from dozens of high-powered transmitters around the world.
One of the studios of VOA is shown on the right.
Rather than having the U.S. government disseminating news for its own people — a questionable practice for a democracy — all VOA transmitters are aimed outside of the country.
A version of VOA in Special English is read at a slower speed using a simplified vocabulary of about 1,500 words. This version is intended for people around the world who are not proficient in English.
VOA broadcasts in the following languages.
From the beginning, there has been an effort to insulate the Voice of America from political pressures. Its news content and balance are carefully evaluated. It was felt that this was the only way that it could maintain credibility around the world.
Even so, it's alleged that political pressures have influenced content. In 2004, after a number of rival U.S. government-sponsored international broadcast services were started that could bypass this scrutiny, VOA staff members threatened to strike. They felt that if pro-government bias was detected in government-sponsored international broadcast services that the credibility of all U.S. international broadcasting would suffer.
The audio sample links previously provided above are through the Internet, which generally provides a much better sound than an actual
shortwave broadcast. This segment from Radio New Zealand International was taken off the air. It is available directly from this site and provides a more realistic
shortwave listening experience.
(This file requires that a RealPlayer program is installed on your computer.)
Religious Sort-Wave Broadcasts
Many other shortwave broadcasters are religious. These are typically evangelical and fundamentalist in nature, and supported by listener contributions. Some of the radio evangelists listed in the previous chapter can also be heard on shortwave.
The largest religious shortwave broadcaster is Vatican Radio, which programs in 40 different languages, makes use of two hundred journalists from 61 countries, and broadcasts into five continents. Pope Pius XI commissioned the inventor of radio, Guglielmo Marconi, to set up the Vatican radio system north of Rome more than 70 years ago.
Shortwave Jamming Efforts
Some countries fear a free flow of information. And, from the perspective of controlling beliefs through controlling information, their fears are justified.
The BBC and the VOA have broken major stories that were embarrassing to political dictatorships before their government agencies could prepare a version for their own broadcasts that was more acceptable to the leadership — although not necessarily true.
But, once a truth is out, it's difficult to convince people of "another truth," especially from a government suspected of not being totally truthful to start with.
Some countries have gone so far as to imprison citizens caught listening to international short wave and even to issue radios that could only receive government approved stations.
However, many people in these countries defy bans on listening to international shortwave. In rural areas scores of people have shortwave radios hidden under beds, under floorboards, and behind walls.
Work slowdowns and drops in morale and productivity in totalitarian countries have come on the heels of major embarrassing revelations broadcast by such "free world" stations as VOA and the BBC. Defectors from these countries have verified that many of their people relied on these outside newscasts to find out what was really going on in the world -- and even in their own country.
With shortwave signals literally dropping down from the sky, it's difficult to block them out, but billions of dollars have been spent trying.
Jamming, or using transmitters on the same frequency, broadcasting such things as recordings of seagulls squawking, heavy machinery running, or just shrill annoying tones, have been common approaches in trying to obliterate outside newscasts and information. Less obvious is just broadcasting "throwaway" programs on the same frequency. (Generally, both programs become unintelligible.)
During the cold war the Soviet Union reportedly had 200 transmitting sites throughout Russia using more than 600,000,000 watts of power to jam the transmitters of Radio Free Europe (RFE) the VOA, the BBC World Service, Deutsche Welle, KOL Israel, and Radio Tirana. Additional jamming transmitters were operated by other nations throughout the former Warsaw Pact.
According to estimates made by the BBC, almost a billion dollars was spent each year by Russia alone in trying to jam outside broadcasts.
As late as 2002, the Cuban government jammed the Voice of America's Radio Martí and the Chinese government jammed broadcasts made by adherents of Falun Gong.
With some exceptions, by 2013 most countries that used to jam outside broadcasts have stopped and the focus has shifted in countries such as North Korea and Iran to blocking the Internet.
Shortwave broadcasts don't have to rely on the huge antenna arrays pictured above. Lower-power transmitters on boats or in guerrilla hideouts (that regularly shift their locations) are sometimes used to try to destabilize governments. In fact, governments have fallen after shortwave and standard AM, medium wave broadcasts to citizens have been used to coordinate uprisings.
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