Coping: “Prepper” Shortwave Radios

I was sitting in the sun room one afternoon last week and it dawned on me that I didn’t really need to have as many radios as I have. And since my BroInLaw was eyeing the aircraft receiver monitoring Ft. Worth Center which is (to Elaine’s dismay) sitting a counter in the kitchen, I offered him a Sony shortwave portable to enjoy.

Then it dawned on me: Although he was a radio op back in his .mil days, there are lots of things about radios today that are different. I mean besides the lack of people shooting at you…

So I thought this morning we could go on a short tour of what’s out there on the shortwave and broadcast bands that might be useful should the SHTF…

Radio Set-Up

When possible, run your radio on the least robust power system you have (mains, generator or solar) and conserve valuable batteries for when you really need them – which is when it’s a) dark or b) the generator is broken or out of fuel.

Next point: Learn all the features of the radio in advance of an emergency. Get the time set for local and UTC if you have dual clocks. And poke some important stations into the memory. We’ll get to those shortly.

Now an odd one: I want you to take your radio outside, and tune in a station on the local AM radio band. Make it a station whose location (of their tower, not the studio) is known. Usually, by rotating the radio while holding it away from your body, you can hear a distinctive null – or drop in the signal quality – when the radio is pointed a certain way.

On top of the radio, put a piece of tape with an arrow on it and the word NULL.

Now congratulate yourself, you own a fine AM band radio direction finder. No, this tip does not work when you plug in an external antenna, at least not predictabily. But (and don’t let Homeland know I said this) armed with a couple of key coast stations, like KGO in San Francisco, or KFI in Los Angeles, you can actually come close to figuring your position in a boat offshore. In fact, back in the old days, this was how drug pirates (in the days before national technical mkeans – satellites) stole boats in the Paicific Northwest and sailed them to the South Seas. Between jet contrails through the Pacific High and a few spins of the radio dial, as long as you have batteries, you have basic navigation. This also works on cloudy days in mountain country, too, but it’s best here if you are atop a high hill and the ground doesn’t have too much iron in it and other things.

The key thing is that while geo-cashing is fun, there’s much more art in geo-caching usuing only a county map. But it can still be done with a simple paragraph description of a geo-cache site and an assortment of known commercial AM stations surrounding the cache area. (I forgot how dangerous I could be with a portabe radio!!!)

I am not too keen on memories, but if you have a few favorite stations, you can plug them in, although what you listen to may vary based on time of year.

A bit of explanation here:

Radio propagation depends on something called the MUF or Maximum Useable Frequency. This is the highest radio frequency that will generally reflect a radio signal.

In the summertime, the MUF is higher and in wintertime, when it is lower. This is why (again, generalizing) it is easy to work skip on CB in summer.

That’s when the MUF may be above 30 Megahertz (MHz).

Come wintertime, the MUF may only get up to 15 MHz (and sometimes not that high) during the best part of the day for long distances, generally around daylight if you are working near the MUF.

I set up a list of shortwave stations based on spring and fall conditions, because the odds are 50-50 that those stations would be useful. A few memories to the higher frequency stations you like for summer use and a few for winter.

Another tip: If the SHTF, you will be immensely comforted to know exactly what time it is. For this, the National Bureau of Standards and Technology (NIST) operates time and frequency standards on 2.5, 5, 10, 15, and 20 MHz in the shortwave band. They also have regional weather – see their site for additional details on their “programming” if you want to call it that.

As an aside, NIST does a better job of time and frequency than they do why buildings fall down in New York. Ahem…

Now we need some stations to listen to, assuming you’ve already found the noisy neighbort’s computer and the noisy light dimmer in the kid’s room. (Scroll down to the Radio Detective here.)

There are not a lot of shortwave stations left on the air, although Ham Universe has a list over here (along with more details on bands and listening times).

The reason for shortwave falling out of favor is that it costs a fair bit on money to keep a shortwave station on the air. The barriers to entry in broadcasting have effectively all collapsed, thanks to ease of streaming music and news from services such and iHeart Radio and Tune-In. Which is why a lot of what you hear on shortwave is paid God-Talk shows. One that has been around for years is HCJB – which calls itself the Voice of the Andes.You can read about the religious basis of the callsign in the Wiki entry here.

One useful tip: When you find a station and sort out its schedule, such stations will give you an immediate sense of band conditions which can vary dramatically from day to day.

OK, if it’s largely foreign language and lots of God-Talk, why bother?

Well, that’s for NOW.

Let’s think through what would happen if the West was plunged into dismal darkness by an EMP event. No streaming.

On the other hand, the BBC has extensive programming and a guide here. Not only that, but the Voice of America is still on the air. A little less hawkish view of the world can be found on the Radio Canada International broadcasts.  (Axiom #42: To a country with nuclear weapons, every problem looks like a first-strike opportunity…)

Back in my Cayman Island days, 1983-85, I would listen to Good Morning Africa on the BBC and then flip over to Bob Edwards doing Morning Edition which (going from memory) was on VOA.

That was then – and this is now. Media habits have changed and I’m surfing news and data with that first cup of coffee nowadays.

A major performance boost for almost any small shortwave set can be had by stringing up 40-100 feet of wire, as high and far from surrounding objects as possible. Not during a lightning storm, though, if you please. Attach to the external antenna jack, if you have one, or simply clip it onto the antenna with a clothes pin. You should be reward with very good listening.

When I am not using my “grown up” ham radio (a Kenwood TS-590S), I have provisions for the Tecsun 660 to be plugged in to the big beam antenna that hovers 30 to 65 feet over the house. The reception is nothing short of amazing.

So there it is: Fun and adventure on shortwave. I should toss in a link on Amazon to both the Tecsun 660 as well as the World Radio-Television Handbook.World Radio TV Handbook 2016: The Directory of Global Broadcasting and Tecsun PL-660 Portable AM/FM/LW/Air Shortwave World Band Radio with Single Side Band, Black.  I are done my solid for the day.  You will thank me as the world ends.

And on the Peoplenomics side of things, there are instructions for how to put up a Free-to-Air satellite system, as well. Granted, you many not find watching The Pentagon Channel as interesting as we do, but non-traditional is something anyone can do to get mentally separated from “the herd” a bit.

And since the “herd is usually wrong” we figure if EMP is part of SHTF, the shortwave radio will at least provide a good time-stamp of when the world ends.

Adventures of the HT-18

As long as I’ve leaped into radio (being an expert at it and all) I thought I would fill you in on how that 60 year old piece of tube gear worked when I –plugged it it.

I was able to “work” a fellow in Alabama with only 4-watts on the 40 meter ham band.

That’s nothing special in terms of power and distance, but for right out of the box and not even tuned into the antenna, I thought it was OK.

The only major refurbishment will be to put in a fresh high voltage capacitor (Hayseed Hamfest is a wonderful source) and a thorough cleaning. The Morse note was a bit “ragged” with some residual AC on the plate voltage…a problem I can fix for either $6 bucks worth of parts from stock here, or several times that with the properly made replacement….and since I like classic, I will opt for the other.

Home Made Electronics

By the way, this gets me onto another discovery: I just ordered one of the MFJ antenna tuner kits. 941-EK it’s called and the assembly instructions are over here.

If you really like electronic kits, the Heathkit Company keeps trying to make a comeback…so keep an eye on their product page.

Another great time-sink is Pacific Antenna which (near as I could figure) took up from Hendricks QRP kits. I can spend hours on this kind of site, thinking through which features and which radio to build…

But before I get to anything else, there is still that therimin kit to build. And tons of real work that has been piling up while the eyes have put things on hold.

With all the Raspberry and Arduino stuff on the market, it just makes sense to us to move a little effort into the ham radio area.

One Last Thought

I don’t know as you knew this or not, but once a year the American Radio Relay League ( has something called “straight key night.” The idea is this is when to pound out Morse by hand with no help from a keyer or computer. Tube type gear is prized for this event.

This morning’s discussion of shortwave game me this thought:

Wouldn’t it be cool if the whole world could agree on a couple of days a year when people would voluntarily go back to older technologies?

We have become so totally dependent on tech that I sometime worry that if the wrong wire broke, or the critical router went down, the world would not be able to reboot.

And that’s the idea. Global reboot day. Where we pause as humans to figure out what is best rather than what makes the global business model work.

Yeah…dream on, sucka.

Write when you get rich,

7 thoughts on “Coping: “Prepper” Shortwave Radios”

  1. Ah..the days of the Johnson Viking transmitter and Drake 2-B!!
    The 660 rocks, agreed
    I miss the days of Radio Nederlands, RSA, Swiss Broadcasting, etc not the same especially without the glow of the tubes.

  2. Outstanding column! My biggest fear about EMP or a SHTF scenario is that your website would no longer be available. You never cease to amaze me with the breadth and depth of your knowledge, insight,
    and wit. A cup of coffee and old George is the best way to start the day.

  3. Regarding shortwave, if I tune into BBC or some other European station I have to turn my antenna due north, same as with flying but South America SW tunes in due south. Since the earth is round, isn’t the earth round in the southern hemisphere and curvature allowances should be made, too?

    Perplexed Penny

    • Be not perplexed!
      The directional antenna in the shortwave is only operating on the AM band. After that (higher frequencies) it is all on the whip antenna.
      If 6you were listening to Radio One on AM, the radio would generally be perpendicular to England, or if gray line, perpendicular to the grayline as it passes through England.

  4. George – Seeing “Shortwave Radio” and “Anti Social Media” together at the top of the page – it clicked. They are the same. SR is really just a geeky old guy’s version of FaceBook! Both have content you can listen to (I read the PBS Nova updates regularly), both have distant circles of friends (that won’t/can’t help when you need them), both have a closer inner circle of family (that will help), and both are fully public (no privacy).

  5. At El Rancho de Chaos off grid, sans TV, and pc email on a very limited basis is a no brainer. But I do look forward to time spent on my Ham/SWL gear. Only thing is this past weekend I was wanting to finish up the new dipole tuning and was making what I figured to be the last trip up the ladder to the roof peak where the last 12 feet is up the old decrepit tower. As I was reaching for the next to last cross brace near the top of said tower I looked at the corner and thought to myself, self that weld doesn’t look to……at which point the brace broke loose and I felt like the day long ago when I was just 18 and I felt prop wash pushing me to the side after that crazy guy yelled “GO!” and shoved me out the door of a perfectly good airplane. I was ready to start screaming 1 thousand 2 thousand when instinctively I suppose the other hand not still clutching a cross brace with a rusty end had grabbed on to the main mast pipe. Needless to say the antenna finally got tuned and the main feed point connector was replaced with a pulley and cable to allow deployment from ground level.
    This week was spent Tower shopping and visiting the Dr. This 64 year old shoulder is sore as hell.

  6. Radio Canada International was shut down years ago.

    On April 4, 2012 an approximate 80% budget cut to the International service from $12.3 million a year to $2.3 million a year was announced by RCI Director Hélène Parent. In the 2012 federal budget, a 10% funding reduction was announced for the domestic broadcaster, CBC/Radio-Canada. The Crown corporation subsequently translated this to an 80% reduction to the International service under its financial and managerial control.[4]

    These changes effectively ended broadcasting by RCI via shortwave and satellite. RCI News service (as a separate news service from the CBC/Radio-Canada derived news) ended, and the Brazilian and Russian sections closed.

    All shortwave transmissions (including those from the Sackville Relay Station in Sackville, New Brunswick), satellite, and all broadcast programming ended on June 26, 2012. In addition:

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