BACK to NRC articles page

With the World Band in Your Hands
By IAN AUSTEN - New York News 5/30/2002

World band radiosThe proliferation of Web-based radio stations should mean that a traveler with a modem and a laptop is never without up-to-the-minute news, conversation and music from home. But I found a major flaw in that theory while in rural France last year.

Night after night I was in hotels where my modem became useless after the switchboard was closed down for the evening. I might have saved myself the pain of watching too many talk shows on French television had I brought a shortwave radio along.

While shortwave may conjure up images of bulky metal boxes filled with vacuum tubes, manufacturers have co-opted microelectronics to greatly improve how their radios operate while reducing size.

Since Sept. 11, interest in shortwave radio has grown in the United States. In the past, Sony and other manufacturers sold most of their shortwave -- or, as the industry prefers, world-band -- radios in Europe. Since the terrorist attacks, however, their United States operations have struggled to keep up with the demand.

Before heading back to France this spring, I tried out a number of shortwave radios from Sony, Grundig and Sangean (which also makes units for several other companies, including Panasonic, Radio Shack and Philips). Learning from my mistakes, I then brought one of the radios along on the trip.

Shortwave broadcasters like Voice of America and the BBC's World Service rely on the earth's atmosphere to carry their signals over long distances. The signals used for AM and FM radio and television either pass through or are absorbed by the ionosphere. Shortwave signals, however, bounce off it. By repeatedly ricocheting off the ionosphere and the earth's surface, shortwave broadcasts can travel enormous distances from their transmission towers.

That, unfortunately, is the easy part. The time of year, the time of day, sunspot activity and other factors can affect shortwave reception. One consequence is that shortwave broadcasters change their frequencies generally twice a year. Some broadcasters also transmit at several different frequencies to improve reception in different parts of the world.

"If you now receive one frequency very well, perhaps next year at the same frequency you will not receive anything," said Jacques Fonteyne, head of the broadcasting division for the International Telecommunication Union, which coordinates the assignment of shortwave frequencies among countries.

Mr. Fonteyne suggested that anyone interested in finding a specific station at a set time check with the broadcaster. Many of them maintain Web sites, for example, that include frequency charts.

New shortwave radios, however, have a feature clearly aimed at lazier travelers. Over the last decade higher-end digital radios have replaced analog tuning knobs and dials with liquid crystal displays and push buttons. Like many car radios, these digital tuners will automatically scan the airwaves and stop when they encounter a signal.

That's the idea, at least. But figuring out which buttons to push is not necessarily easy. The Sony ICF-SW7600GR model I tested, for example, had 25 buttons, many with multiple functions, on its front alone.

The sheer number of buttons and their not always obvious functions meant that while I could turn the radio's power on, I was not able to produce a sound without studying the manual.

The ICF-SW7600GR made up for the fiddling somewhat by having the most solid feel of the six radios I tested and the clearest reception for shortwave broadcasts and local FM stations. (I tested the Sony with its main antenna, but it comes with an antenna extension that makes it even more sensitive.)

Tuning in stations on the Sony or other shortwave radios requires a bit of an adjustment for people who are used to choosing only between AM and FM. The frequencies assigned to broadcast shortwave are chopped up into separate groups known as meter bands. The ICF-SW7600GR can receive all 14 bands, but a few inexpensive radios omit a couple of the rarely used ones.

Once you conquer tuning the Sony, you can plumb the depths of the owner's manual and begin storing up to 100 stations in its memory.

On that front, the Sangean ATS 909 beats the Sony. It can store 306 stations, although it is hard to imagine anyone fully exploiting that feature.

A benefit of the Sangean is that anyone can pick it up and tune in a broadcast without a glance at a manual. In fact, it offers a variety of tuning options. Like the Sony, it has a toggle switch for tuning or scanning and a numeric keypad for punching in the frequencies of known stations. But it also has an old-fashioned tuning knob on the side.

Like the Sony, the ATS 909 is packed with features like a complex clock for figuring out the time anywhere on earth, but it is bigger and not as nicely made. Unfortunately, the pair share one undesirable feature. Their big liquid crystal displays, large memories and wide array of features cause them to consume batteries at a surprising rate. And with shortwave radios, batteries are often the preferred power source. While all these radios come with AC-to-DC power adapters, they would need additional transformers to work from a wall outlet overseas.

Both the Sony ICF-SW7600GR and the Sangean ATS 909 are probably best left to people taking extended trips to remote areas where shortwave will be their only information link to the outside world, or people who need a radio that will give them clear reception of Radio Pyongyang when they're at home.

Two other models I tested, the Sony ICF-SW11 and the Sangean SG 622, come from the opposite end of the shortwave radio hierarchy. There is no memory, no clock, no scanning, just an analog tuning dial. Tuning in a station requires a deft touch (and in the case of the Sony, good eyesight to read the tiny frequency scale). And unlike the bigger radios, the signals sometimes drift after tuning.

I was, however, able to consistently tune in the Voice of America and the BBC with both of them, if not some more obscure broadcasters. Despite their small size, the speakers in both provided acceptable sound when listening to music on FM. (The switches on the Sangean, however, seem to come from the same factory as the ones that quickly break on my children's toys.)

For someone who travels mostly to places like Western Europe that are blanketed with English-language shortwave broadcasts, either of the smaller radios would be fine.

There is, however, a third approach. The ATS 404 from Sangean and the Grundig eTraveller VII are minimalist radios with digital tuning.

The ATS 404 is a smaller version of the ATS 909 and stores only 45 stations in memory. It lacks the handy tuning knob but has the toggle switch and keypad.

The smaller model also adds a feature of its own, something Sangean calls the Humane Wake System. It is an alarm that beeps with increasing volume for one minute before taking a one-minute break. It will keep doing that for up to an hour until you shut it off. Unfortunately, the ATS 404 has the larger Sangean radio's huge appetite for batteries.

The eTraveller, which I took to France, is a shortwave radio for people who would rather not own a shortwave radio. It is more embarrassed than proud of its buttons, most of which can hidden by closing a hinged cover. It is also the only radio of the bunch I tried that is small enough and slim enough to stuff into a jacket pocket, and it was much easier on batteries than all the other digital models.

That small size brings some compromises. The speaker is not something you would want to use for listening to opera, and you can store only 10 shortwave stations (a limit I confess I never approached). The eTraveller also does without the numeric tuning keypad, a feature I rarely used on the other radios.

At a rental house in a river valley in southwestern France, I had no problem receiving any English-language broadcaster I wanted. At a house on a hill in the suburbs of Paris, it received an overwhelming number of stations clearly.

And a good thing, too. The one night that I decided to watch television, the choice was between a Kim Basinger film festival and a 1970's French farce involving four people in underwear who were trapped in a car hanging from a tree. Suddenly, even Radio Polonia seemed appealing.