I really enjoy listening to radios. I really do. So much so that I have part of my house dedicated to listening to radios (my radio lounge) and it is filled with radios and radio-related things.
I enjoy this pastime so much that I spend lots of time in discussion forums like the HFZone Discord discussing all things related to radio listening. And because I have years of experience, I am pretty good at radio listening. Good enough that new radio fans will approach me and ask “Hey Guero, how can I listen to radio better?”
This is not always an easy question to answer because there are so many ways to enjoy listening to radio. A lot of it comes down to what kind of listening you want to do… casual listening, technical listening, exploration listening… There are so many options. But I think many new folks get distracted with what kind of equipment they should have (“I want the best!”) before they decide what type of radio listening makes them happiest. And lots of other folks are happy to give these new listeners advice on what kind of equipment they absolutely must have, because if they don’t have the right stuff, “you will suck and you will hate radio listening” to paraphrase some of the advice I’ve seen online (I’m looking at you reddit).
Here is my perspective on how you can start radio listening for various categories of radio listening. These are just some ideas on how to start–where you end up is the fun you have ahead of you in your radio journey!
I enjoy a number of radio programs on the HF bands (High Frequency bands, a.k.a. Shortwave Radio). Here the content is what matters to me. There are music programs such as Radio Northern Europe International , This Is A Music Show, The Mightly KBC, and Pop Shop Radio that I really enjoy. There are also programs that share news and culture about people in countries and cultures that are interesting to me, like Radio Prague, Radio Romania International, Radio New Zealand Pacific, and Hobart Radio International. There are even programs about radio listening such as Glenn Hauser’s World of Radio, and Adventist World Radio’s Wavescan. Many of these programs are broadcast from big powerful transmitters that use hundreds of watts of power and can be heard easily from many locations. These transmitter stations include WRMI in Okeechobee Florida USA, the Issoudun Transmitter Site maintained by Radio France International, the Nauen Transmitter Station in Germany, and the Moosbrunn Transmitter Site run by Radio Austria International (ORF) to list a few prominent examples.
Because these transmissions are strong, you don’t need special equipment, expensive receivers, or elaborate antennas. An entry-level shortwave radio can work wonderfully to receive these stations. Perhaps you have an old shortwave (SW) radio that you found in an elder relative’s storage-space or one of your own from many years ago. Maybe you have never owned a SW radio before and want to start this exploration and noticed many inexpensive radios on the various online retailers… Pick one that fits your budget! Don’t worry about the radio you cannot afford yet–you can always upgrade your equipment later when you have more resources! Plus, even the most modest radio is good for getting started and catching many of the shows and stations listed above with just the built-in (aluminum telescoping “whip”) antenna! Keep reading and I will tell you how you can improve your antenna game to catch even more stations, not just the strong ones!
Some folks really like fiddling with the knobs, and tweaking settings to get the best listing experience in terms of sound fidelity, signal processing, or signal decoding.
Some of this activity is more in the realm of audio engineers and not most listeners. I have friends in the HFZone discord that can help you with this part of your journey if you want to understand better how to design and apply noise reduction filters and other signal processing algorithms to make the signal you receive sound like it did when it left the recording studio.
One part of technical listening that I can talk about is decoding signals. I really like a program called “Shortwave Radiogram”. This program sends encoded signals that sound like a chorus of robots singing. Listeners like me who like the beeps and boops will decode these signals to get a treat of interesting text stories and some fun images. I have even received encoded images sent down to earth from the International Space Station (Using the Slow Scan TV format)–signals sent over a radio frequency! How insanely cool is that?! You can also decode weather charts broadcast by the NOAA
EXPLORATION LISTENING (DX) AND ANTENNAS
“I want a radio that will receive stations from all over the world in perfect high-fidelity at all times” … I’m sorry, but the physics of the universe says no. The upper atmosphere (the ionosphere) has a big role in how far SW signals will propagate through a phenomenon called skywave. There are fluctuating conditions that influence the skywave including solar weather–some days will be great, and other days will be not so great for SW Listening (SWL). A decent radio with a good antenna, and an elementary understanding of propagation conditions, solar weather, and the best times of day to listen to particular bands (above 10 MHz during the day, below 10Mhz at night) will help a lot.
But the best thing you can do to extend your radio reach is to try an improved antenna beyond the telescoping whip attached to your radio. Something as simple as a length of speaker wire attached to the whip will help dramatically! There are even pre-fab “wire antennas” available as retractable spools with jacks or clips to attach to your radio
I started talking about how to use radios for different types of radio listening. But as important as the right kind of radio is the right kind of antenna. The built-in whip antenna on your portable radio or the supplied antenna with your SDR kit is a start. But you will outgrow the limitations that these simple antennas will create. A random length of wire (about 20ft or 7m) clipped to your whip antenna or plugged into an antenna port with the appropriate adapter is an excellent start if you are keen to hear distant stations on the High-Frequency bands (a.k.a shortwave radio). Stay tuned to future posts or videos exploring different antenna configurations.
WHAT ABOUT SDRs?
All of the types of radio listening I’ve discussed so far can be done with an SDR (Software Defined Radio). SDRs are pretty cool devices with many compelling features. But they are a different kind of radio listening from other kinds of radios that came before them. SDRs require a radio device (often in the form of a dongle) coupled with client software that is run on a computer, laptop, or tablet. Some SDRs are designed for VHF, UHF, and SHF listening (e.g. RTL-SDR v3 dongle) others or optimized for Shortwave HF bands (Airspy HF+ Discovery). Each of these devices will need an antenna that is best suited to the radio band for which the device was designed and client software (SDR++, SDR#, SDR Uno, and others) that will let you access the features you need. Future posts by myself and other HFZone members will explore the merits and drawbacks of different SDR configurations.
HOW YOU RADIO IS UP TO YOU
Simple portable receivers are all you need to start. A random bit of wire will help your reception if the HF bands are where you want to be. Other types of antennas will improve your reception in other bands. The bottom line is you don’t need to blow your budget on expensive sets or even SDRs–there will be time to grow into that later if the kind of radio listening you enjoy most should require more elaborate equipment.