Just before Christmas I’ve got a message from a reader from Naltchik suggesting a shortwave band radio recording. Gotcha! This is the RTÉ Radio 1 from Ireland, one of the first full-service broadcasters in the world.
This particular piece of audio has traveled all over the planet – from the Dublin studio to the relay station in Meyerton, South Africa, from there to Veliky Novgorod, Russia where I recorded it while on holidays. Non-binaural recording, headphones are not required.
This letter brought back memories of something I was completely carried away by. I will get back to this later but now let’s start start with this song from the late 70s. Do you remember this?
It wasn’t just video that killed the Golden Age of radio stars of course – we have lots more ways to listen to sounds from far away (including the old-time radio dramas) these days so that the whole idea of transmitting audio via some electronic medium is here to stay. But it would never be the same for sure, and what really makes the difference are the side effects caused by the carrier drawbacks.
Ah those lovely drawbacks! Are we the last generation to remember say – the buzz of the utterly imperfect, equally enigmatic, unpredictable and charming shortwave radio? It was quite a proper medium whose popularity was doubled and subsequently diminished by the number of external circumstances.
Growing up behind (or outside?) the Iron Curtain brought with it its own joys. Just like the shortwave bands of the old Okean radio. The whole world was packed into this wooden box with the drum-like rotating band switch. The languages you’ve never heard before, the pop charts revelations (its the mid-late-80s, mind you), the mysterious number stations, ham radio – which if you didn’t have the lower/upper SSB (single-side band) knob on your machine sounded like an alien speech, and the static – which of course wasn’t the static but the real aliens trying to get in touch with the mankind.
Tuning to your favourite show has become much easier with the Internet – it’s all about the ‘click of a button’, like they say, a true cliché of the modern days. But when the click is done the one thing is clearly missing, the presence of an intimate friend somewhere near. Radio was my best friend for many years. It wasn’t just listening – it was a ritual, resulting in tons of not-so-necessary information about the dramatic changes in the French government, or some knowledge of Romanian steel industry, or really nice samples of South Korean hip-hop. Their northern counterparts played nothing but ardent revolutionary songs on some weird badly-modulated off-band frequencies.
Many radio stations have put an end to their international broadcasts later on – the external services of Swiss, Austrian or Norwegian radio are among those that are no longer can be heard, but I still could easily find familiar voices or idents of many stations from those era that has moved over to the Internet.
They are still good, and they are not to blame that it doesn’t feel like they’re speaking to you now anymore. The tone gets clearer, no hum, no static, but it’s just as confusing as listening to all those so called ‘remastered’ audio tracks of old movies and cartoons sacrificed by the TV perfectionist bosses itching for the ‘modern’ sound to be found everywhere.
Why is that? It is really difficult to explain – just as explaining the feel of rewinding C-90 cassette spinning around a pen or pencil as you are trying to save the Walkman’s pre-alcaline and non-yet-rechargable batteries power. And does one on the verge of going to rant about modern life have to explain?
As to the RTÉ recording I have started with – there’s a minute-long gap in this shortwave transmission, not a very uncommon thing in the world of shortwave radio where the stations are dealing not only with complicated transmitters and huge antennas but with enormous distances between the studio and the relay station. Noise and fading are natural environment and aren’t something listeners would be really angry with. Signals may also disappear, leaving you face to face with this gurgling and hissing universe where voices and comets are put on a par.
Recorded July 2nd 2010 (Grundig YB-80 analogue output)
Published January 7th, 2011.