When the Airwaves Sang… 

1 July 2007 tbs.pm/3214

Nigel Stapley remembers how he became a Short Wave Listener

When my father received his Long Service Award from Brymbo Steelworks in the early 1970s, he was given the princely sum of £35. With that, he decided to buy a second-hand Grundig radiogram from Bert Evans, who owned one of the newsagents’ shops in the village.

This was a mighty and stylish beast, built in the good, old-fashioned style. The robustness didn’t quite extend to the electrics, however, and it had to be repaired. Indeed at one point Mr Evans gave my father his money back and he instead bought a brand new Ferguson radiogram from Telefusion in Wrexham. This also went wrong in short order, as did the Ultra set which replaced it. They were both manufactured by Thorn (Ferguson and Ultra being much like the Austin and Morris of the automotive world – by this time mere ‘badge engineering’). In the end the Ultra too went back to the shop (following much involvement from the local Trading Standards office after Telefusion decided to get stroppy with my mother – not the best idea any company has ever had) and the deal with Bert Evans was on for a second time.

And so the Grundig became my father’s pride and joy, and he would often spend his evenings feeding LPs on to its turntable – brass bands, military bands, light music of all sorts. I vividly remember one evening his playing my Geoff Love And His Orchestra Play Your Top TV Themes album which included an arrangement of the theme from Match Of The Day.

Suddenly there was a timid knock on the living-room door, and there stood our next door neighbour, known to me as ‘Uncle Hubert’. “Is there football on the telly, Bill?” he asked.

Yes, these were the days when you really could still leave your back door unlocked for your neighbours to come in as they pleased. It’s not a myth; indeed it was considered quite rude and stand-offish if you didn’t.

I also remember well one evening giving Dad my 7in single of Autobahn by Kraftwerk. He put on the B-side, Kometenmelodie, and listened intently for the full six-minutes-plus of tones and effects. When it finished, he frowned in puzzlement and said, “I was waiting for it to start”. He was sixty-four years old so I thought it really rather sporting of him even to listen to it at all, let alone the whole thing.

There was much more to this powerful creature than the turntable, of course. There was a four-band radio. This is where my story really starts. But first, some personal history.

My fascination with radio had started at a very young age. I’m sure that I heard early broadcasts from the pirate station Caroline North, anchored off the Isle Of Man, when standing in our back kitchen at about 6 am one morning while my brother was getting ready for work. I would have been no more than three years of age. We had only mains-operated valve radios at the time. I would listen to Vincent Kane presenting Good Morning Wales on the old Welsh Region of the BBC Home Service (later Radio 4) before scooting off to school. It was almost like a bereavement when our old mains radio finally gave up the ghost, failing to come on one morning.

So it was time to embrace the future. My mother bought a Marconiphone transistor portable from our local Curry’s. This was in strict factual terms a four-band receiver, but two of the bands were short-wave and there was no VHF(FM) band. The set was powered by a great big PP9 battery which effectively doubled the weight of the thing. It wasn’t entirely reliable either, the rotary volume control being prone to bad contacts. The red pointers on the dial broke off quite early on, leaving mere stumps to navigate by.

This, though, was where the magic of radio started to kick in. I was allowed, if I had been a good boy, to take it up to bed! I was six or seven, so my bedtime would have been sometime shortly after 8 pm at that time. If I hadn’t whined too much, or hadn’t cheeked my elders, or had done well at school, then I got to take the radio upstairs at bedtime.

There the Marconiphone would sit, tuned usually to Radio Luxembourg – although BBC Radio 2 often got a look in. I would listen for about an hour to Luxembourg’s Barry Alldis or Jimmy Savile, until I was ordered off to sleep and the radio was removed to its usual place in the living room.

This went on for a couple of years until the Marconiphone packed up. Someone, it may have been my Uncle Harry, gave me a little two-band job – long & medium wave. I don’t remember the make but it was enclosed in a mock-leather case which gave off a most peculiar smell. It had its problems however. The band selector switch was temperamental and usually wouldn’t stay on the medium wave setting. This ruled out Radio Luxembourg but was OK for Radio 2 which broadcast on long wave in those days. So it was, that I would listen – sometimes illicitly – to Humphrey Lyttleton’s Jazz Club, On The Latin Beat with Leopoldo Mahler and even to Wally Whyton’s Country Club. On Friday nights I would stay awake until way after ten to try to catch Radio 4’s topical comedy show Week Ending or Ronnie Barker’s Lines From My Grandfather’s Forehead (latterly repeated as a tribute).

A year or so later I got a replacement set. I cringe now at my acquisitiveness, as I recall how I wheedled out of my Uncle Harry the three-band Philips set he’d himself only just been given. This was a fine little set, and for the first time included a VHF band. Admittedly VHF signals weren’t all that good at the time round our way, especially not on a set with nothing more than a smallish telescopic aerial.

For the next four years or so, this was my way of hearing programmes such as I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue and indeed most of Radio 4’s output.

Which brings me, by a commodious vicus of recirculation [Steady on! – Ed], to our Grundig radiogram. This was usually off-limits to me simply from the practical consideration of its being in the living room and therefore in competition with the television. Except when my father was spinning an Eddie Calvert LP or something. My opportunity came eventually. By the age of about thirteen, I was considered sufficiently grown up to be left at home on my own on a Saturday afternoon while Dad went out to the football and Mum went to see Nain (grandmother).

Now at that age there were two ways in which a boy could have spent the afternoon. However I had been giving the Grundig lascivious glances for some time and was desperate to get my hands on it, much as I had gazed longingly at the centre-page spread of the Grundig catalogue which had featured the Satellite radio with its dozens of short-wave bands.

The Grundig had what my radio didn’t, and that was a short-wave band. I had had the occasional dalliance with this and had listened to the whistling and popping and the strange tongues emanating from the big old speakers as I spun the counterbalanced tuning knob from one end of the dial to the other. Now was my chance to go all the way! I plugged it in and pressed the key marked SW. On came the lights behind the tuning dial, followed by the green glow of the EM87 ‘magic eye’ valve.

After a few seconds, this settled down to show bright green at each end with a gap in the middle to show that there was no strong signal coming in. Slowly, gently, lovingly, I turned the knob. Once more the strange noises and voices started to emerge. Unlike the tuning scales for medium wave and long wave, there were none of those names which were the radio equivalents of Chimborazo and Cotapaxi: Kalundborg, Saarlouis, Lahti, even Athlone! Here, on the short-wave band there were no directions like that, only roughly-drawn maps of the broadcast bands: 49m, 41m, 31m, and so on. Here was adventure.

The voices kept on coming, as I edged my way along the dial, in languages strange to me. Suddenly I was stopped in my tracks by… yodelling? Intrigued, I stayed with it. It turned into that sort of alpine polka music which has given the accordion its deserved reputation. Then I heard, “This is Swiss Radio International in Bern”. Ah! Something I understood! I sat in my father’s armchair and waited.

Then, at quarter past the hour came a fourteen-note sting, followed by an English-speaking voice. I listened on, fascinated by the notion that from hundreds of miles away, someone was telling me about their country. This was a form of magic! Out of nothing, invisibly warping the molecules in the air to bring these sounds to me. To me, sitting in a draughty council house in an industrial village in Wales, where just to go across the border to Chester was an expedition. I sat still and silent, scarcely daring to breathe in case this enchantment was scared away.

After a news programme came another announcement saying that it was time for Swiss Short Wave Merry-Go-Round. Goodness I thought, that sounds rather jolly! So there I sat and heard a short burst of brass music interspersed with imitation Morse code and a rather reedy voice said “Hello again, friends and neighbours, and a hearty welcome…” (although for a long time I thought he was saying “a howdy welcome”; the Schweizdeutsch accent, I suppose…) – “…here aboard the Merry-Go-Round with yours truly Bob Thomann…” – “and next to me, as usual…”; at which point a younger stentorian voice which was clearly American came in and said: “…Bob Zanotti.”

And off they went, talking about things I simply didn’t understand: propagation, ionospheric disturbances and much more. I sat there captured and captivated. This was a whole new world (plus its ionosphere) opening up before me. They even signed off in what seemed to me to be an enigmatic fashion: “Goodbye…”, “…Good DX-ing…”, “…And the very best of 73s” … Not a dish in a Chinese restaurant, nor yet an advanced sexual position: merely radio ham code for “Best Wishes”.

I listened as often as I could after that, although I couldn’t always get to stay home on Saturday and sometimes for reasons I didn’t really understand there were times when it was impossible to find SRI where I expected it to be. Or anywhere else for that matter. Or any other station, come to that. That was another part of the charm of course: with the sort of equipment I had access to, even tracking down your favourite high-powered European station was akin to a hunting expedition in the jungle. Sometimes you found your leopard, sometimes you never even saw its droppings no matter how hard you looked.

I became promiscuous. From Switzerland I groped around the bands for other stations. At the time I never really found one which took my fancy and eventually other interests took me away from short wave for a few years. I came back to it when I was about nineteen, when I finally got a cheap portable which had short wave on it. I would tune around at all hours, hoping for something which would open my mind to another country; or which would at least have an interesting interval signal.

I became quite obsessed by interval signals, in the same way as I was obsessed – and still am, I suppose – by the idents of television stations. Back in the radiogram days, I found the most peculiar tune being repeated in a loop. It sounded as if it was being played on the strings of a piano with a series of rubber mallets. It turned out to be the interval signal of Radio Norway International.

I gathered them up like others collected flowers or leaves: that guitar tune for Spanish Foreign Radio; that slow and gloomy tune of Radio Kyiv; the ten-note fanfare of Radio Prague; that slightly eerie glockenspiel of Deutsche Welle and the rather jauntier Radio Sweden effort. And the clashing carillon which identified Radio Netherlands, which sounded even more bizarre when reception conditions were a bit goofy.

There were the programmes themselves of course and although my lifestyle (if such it could be called) mostly prevented me from revisiting The Two Bobs in Bern, I did find interesting programmes on the subject of broadcasting, elsewhere. Two of my regular listening pleasures were Sweden Calling DX-ers hosted from Stockholm by George Wood and Media Network, Radio Netherlands’ round-up of news and reviews presented, with a sharp wit and a dry sense of humour by Jonathan Marks. Indeed, Marks once made an hilarious spoof series called “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to DXing” and played it on the show.

I became a little bit of what now would be called geeky. I clearly remember one fine summer’s afternoon going off on a long walk up Hope Mountain listening to the rock programme on the Hungarian service of Radio Free Europe.

During my University days I would often be up late at night, pretending to be interpreting early Welsh poetry whilst in fact listening to Radio Moscow’s World Service. The names and voices of Joe Adamov and Vladimir Posner still resound. A lot of it was tosh of course but a necessary counterbalance to what I would get from the strictly-impartial-and-not-funded-and-controlled-by-

the-Foreign-Office-and-MI5-oh-goodness-me-no BBC World Service.

My friends thought me odd. They did anyway, but I’m sure I helped the impression along by doing things like tuning my house-mate’s Toshiba to the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran while we were in our communal room playing Scrabble or Risk.

And then The Wall came down, and along came satellites and eventually the internet. Broadcasting organisations suddenly decided that they couldn’t ‘afford’ short-wave services anymore and that there was no need for them in the digital age and at a time when ‘our’ values had become all but universal. So short wave transmissions were like vinyl records, consigned to the history of obsolete technology.

Tune through the short-wave bands today. Even from the most cursory inspection, it seems that the high-frequency radio spectrum is the preserve of American Christian fundamentalists, except for those few countries or cultures whose territory extends so widely that only short wave will do (Russia, the Arab world). There seem to be fewer alternative perspectives (however potty – I often listened to Radio Tirana more for a cheap laugh than anything else) to the ‘givens’ of the New World Order.

All this would have been left slumbering in the back of my mind until a few nights ago when, in an idle moment, I did a Google search for Bob Zanotti (not being able to search for his broadcasting partner because, as I’ve said, I had no idea how his surname was spelt).

I came up trumps with a site called Switzerland In Sound which included a special downloadable programme recorded by The Two Bobs early in 2004 (nearly a decade after the Merry-Go-Round had been yanked from the schedules). I downloaded it, hit the ‘Play’ button in Winamp and wallowed for an hour as Thomann (by that time in his mid-70s) and Zanotti (scarcely sounding a day older than when I’d last heard him some twenty-five years earlier) reminisced about their programme and tried to put the world to rights in respect of the way that short-wave broadcasting has been scandalously disregarded in recent years. As it has been: it’s all-but impossible to get a radio for standard domestic use which includes a short-wave band nowadays.

It brought it all back, hence this extended reminiscence. Blame it on the ether – it’s a mind-expanding substance.

You Say

4 responses to this article

Anthony 14 April 2016 at 10:26 pm

I used to enjoy SW as a kid and used to tune up and down the dial for interesting stuff;usually 12.30 UK you caught Radio Netherlands English Service on three frequencies, two used Flevo transmitter site in the Netherlands and the third a transmitter site in Madagascar.

The first two frequencies were very strong on 5.955 kHz and 9.715 kHz in the 49 and 31 metre bands Shortwave using omnidirectional antennae at 500kW erp hence the strong good signals in Lancashire North West England, but on hot summer days, a strange trait would plague these transmissions;these would start off with mainly good reception then later on, thru the broadcasts, swirling fades and distortion would affect them, while the 17.605 kHz frequency from Madagascar was non existant in North West England as this was beamed towards South West Europe i.e Spain Canary Islands and Balearics with a lower power (250kW I think).

At 13.25 UK, 5.955 kHz Shortwave would closedown after the closing national anthem, while 17.605 and 97.15 kHz would stay on air for a one hour programme in French at 13.30 UK.

At 14.30 UK Radio Netherlands would return to the air, this time with a English transmission to Asia on 15.575 kHz, and 17.810 kHz Shortwave, and a second single SW frequency to Europe, this time only using 5.955kHz Shortwave from Flevo, I did actually receive one of the two Asia frequencies for this transmission once think it was 15.575 kHz during a period of extreme atmospheric conditions which made it unusually good into North West England but towards the back end of the transmission and closedown, it was marred by severe fading.

At 19.30 UK Radio Netherlands came to air again on 6.020 kHz in Europe on the 49m band in English and this was good reception in the evening with just occasional fade-outs.

At 20.55 UK I tuned in to Radio Exterior De Espana on the 31m band Shortwave in English and this went on until 22.00 UK, good reception with just occasional fading, then at 22.00 UK I would tune in Radio Berlin International on the 49m band with a very strong signal and their English transmission to Europe.

At 23.00 UK after Radio Berlin International signed off, I tuned around and listened into the world famous Radio Luxembourg German Service on 49.26 metres 6.090 kHz with it’s powerful worldwide 500kW omnidirectional signal and just occasional fade outs and heterodyne whistle from Bayerische Rundfunk next door on 6.085 kHz, until dead on 00.00 UK when the English Service would kick in with the usual SW/FM opener and Dave Christian’s gravitas “This is Radio Luxembourg on 208 metres 1440 kilohertz Medium Wave, now on three FM frequencies in Europe and around the world on 49.26 metres Shortwave, wherever you are Radio Luxembourg is right there with you!!! Station Of The Eighties Radio Luxembourg!” the first midnight news would begin usually followed by an hour of music and DJ chat followed by Earthlink at 1am UK time until the Bob Stewart all frequency closer at 3am UK and closedown track usually Sunny’s Maybe The Morning and Luxembourg National Anthem to end the transmission, but by the 80’s the Luxembourg National Anthem was dropped and the closedown just consisted of the all frequency closer and Sunny’s Maybe The Morning was replaced by the brilliant Duncan Mc Kenzie single “To All Of You Out There”, which afterwards the MW and SW frequencies would switch off.

I kept on listening to SW until the broadcasters dropped all European transmissions, and when Radio Netherlands started hiring 1440 kHz MW from Marnach Luxembourg for English 21.30-22.25 UK (and reception was much easier;still with occasional fade), I would mainly listen to SW for daytime purposes while the transmissions were still available, I also followed Radio Netherlands evening English transmissions to 1512 kHz MW from Wavre Belgium when 1440 was dropped.

I kept up until SW fell out of favour with many broadcasters and I turned my attention to satellite delivered radio which was even easier and better quality to listen to without the fades and whistles, if less exotic.

It’s shame today that many broadcasters have even dropped satellite medium wave and shortwave for an internet only existance but in truth these methods rapidly became old hat and history and it’s even sadder today because many international broadcasters have closed down for good too, those voices and sounds will NEVER grace our airwaves ever again which to me is very very sad, but that’s progress for you, and many stations feel themselves that their time has come and gone.

Paul Rawdon 25 April 2017 at 12:48 pm

I’m in the process of going through 40 plus years of DX transferring the recordings on reel to reel tape to the computer. It’s certainly brought back a lot of memories plus a number of loggings that I didn’t get around to sending a reception report. Radio Bhutan was one I wonder what the reaction would be if I send the report now 26 years after the event.

Mort 12 October 2017 at 9:41 pm

Oh, happy (?) memories !
I used to stay up late at night tuning the “Short Waves”. The one that really stuck with me was Moscow’s “Shiroka” on the Glockenspiel. Just ten notes, but so evocative. So much so, I went to night school to learn Russian. My politics are far from the Soviets; I regard Margaret Thatcher & Genghis Khan as pinkoes.
These interval signals; by Gum ! They were woodworms in my wooden head.

Paul Fraser 8 October 2022 at 12:46 pm

I discovered short wave by happy accident. I had a Science Fair® 2-transistor project kit radio; actually an amplified crystal set. I slid the coil along the ferrite rod in the tuned circuit and heard whistles and foreign tongues. These I found were stronger after dark. I would get up around 1AM UK time, to hear Radio Prague. I excitedly sent in my reception report and for years received copies of ‘Czechoslovak Life’, a propaganda magazine featuring excellent photography.

I later acquired a Trio R-300 communications receiver and heard the wall to wall evening parade of Soviet Bloc signals, both within broadcast bands and without, of varying technical quality but all very strong. There was a period when hi-fi owners in the UK were hearing Radio Moscow in the background on their systems, due to the high signal strength. Speaker leads acted as aerials and a semiconductor junction in the equipment served as a crystal set’s detector diode.

Radio subsequently took me abroad, to a ‘floating madhouse’. It has changed a lot, on domestic bands as well as short wave. Current events remind us of the value of short wave in supplying news and support in a crisis.

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