For anyone under the age of 90 it i’s easy to forget about the times before the Internet. How difficult it was to find out even simple information such as when the local DIY shop is open? What are the film times at the cinema complex let alone what is happening in Albania. If it wasn’t on the TV news, in a newspaper or encyclopaedia then the only way to have any idea at all was either to go there in person, speak to someone who had been there in person or delve into the mysterious world of the wireless.
Always being eager for information and new cultures when my contemporaries would spend their evenings watching videos of Bambi or Dogtanian and the 3 Muskehounds I was waiting for darkness to fall so I could pick up stations from the other side of the world.
Like most other things, wireless receivers (or Radios) were a lot different than today. Big heavy valves that would take a while to warm up similar to the old televisions where the sound came on and you had to wait impatiently for the screen to lighten up. No push buttons to find channels, you had to manually tune the dial but that was part of the fun, at least for Shortwave Radios and once connected to a 100 feet wire antennae that went round my bedroom twice and then over the roof and down the back garden…then the world was your oyster.
Pre-digital radio signals work by transmitting a radio wave. Depending on the frequency of the signal, the radio broadcast has a greater range and by using a shortwave radio you can pick up signals transmitted in Australia or China which bounce off the atmosphere to return to Earth on the other side of the planet.
This might sound rather haphazard these days but stations and countries spent vast amounts of money to get out their message to the world. The most famous of these would be the BBC World Service, the VoA (Voice of America) and Radio Tirana International. I jest of course about Tirana because although people might not think Albania important on the global scene, during the Cold War many Warsaw Pact stations had very strong transmitters throughout the radio spectrum. Most stations broadcast in a variety of languages but finding them would be a challenge unless you knew where to look or even if you did know where to look.
Endless hours were spent exploring the radio spectrum and due to the broadcast schedules and the best reception often taking place when night was between you and the station, you had to check the same spot at different times of the day. Many radio enthusiasts kept a log of every station they had received, at least if they could identify it. I had several hundred from all round the world, Hanoi, Toronto, Bucharest, Moscow, Iran. As you will see from just these stations you might wonder as to the impartiality of the broadcasts and don’t everyone pick on Toronto. It’s true many of the programmes were propaganda but others explored life and themes in their own countries and some were just entertaining with listeners from all around the world enjoying them and writing them letters. It also meant that from about the age of 5 I could pick out propaganda from a valid story which might not sound useful today but it taught me at a very early age of how to see through everything from politicians to commercial advertising.
Things would get more complicated as many of the strongest countries would transmit jamming signals which for months on end could make reception of certain legitimate stations impossible. For example Russia would jam the BBC at a certain frequency, the BBC would immediately switch transmitters but the Russian jamming would continue and block out that hard to pick up station from East Africa that I really wanted to hear. Like a busy city the radio waves would ebb and flow and constantly change and sometimes it would take weeks to identify the station as just before the IDs were given out at the top of each hour either interference would come from someone starting a car outside or switching on a TV or computer or a more powerful radio station would start its broadcast overplaying what I was listening too. Each radio band would have is own character, good and bad and when a newcomer arrived it was often easy to pick out.
Shortwave Radio was very much a science as well as an art and readers would send reports to stations and if your report was worthy and you mention details that showed you had listened to the broadcast and not just bagged another new station for your log then they would send you a SQL card to say thanks.
It wasn’t just radio stations that were on air, their were all sorts of morse-code varieties and mysterious transmissions such as the East German woman who would read out a succession of numbers for year after year. Sometimes you would hear the warble of a satellite and as the pitch rose you knew the satellite was approaching and if I went outside I could see the lights of the satellite in the night sky.
I learnt a lot from listening to these stations and I often wrote off to them or related organisations featured on their station. I remember for example writing to NASA and getting a good size package full of information back for free all about space programmes and rockets and the Space Shuttle. I also remember receiving one from Star City in what was then the Soviet Union. It was huge and full of everything Cosmic from Yuri Gagarin onwards, all in English of course except for their thank-you letter which was in Russian and took me about 4 years to translate. The Russian package had also been clearly opened and inspected by Mi5 to make sure I wasn’t an 8 year old spy.
Later on the radio receivers lost their valves and became electronicised and latterly into Scanner radios where you have push buttons, channel memories and the ability to set the radio to automatically scan for stations and interesting transmissions for everything from space stations to London Underground.
Being into all of this it is no surprise I also got into the internet before it was the internet back in the very early 90’s and with university it rather got me out of the radio scene. Now with internet radio and digital radio anyone one can listen to thousands of stations around the world but there is still a lot to be said to doing it the old fashioned way and maybe one day I will buy another 100 metres of cable and find out what is happening in the world or Radio Tirana International. In lots of ways I still think I learnt more on a 30 minute hissy radio broadcast from Cuba than I do on the web today.