Roll back the tape: 1960, Cincinnati, Ohio, 3 am. My upstairs bedroom.
Headphones on, I’m squinting in the dark at the lighted dial of my Hallicrafter S-38e short wave radio, with a Q-multiplier attached that I built from a Heathkit. The S-38e was produced from 1957 to 1961, making it the end of the Hallicrafters S-38 line of shortwave radios, priced at about $50. I gingerly tune the dial to zero in on the frequency for Radio Bangkok, so distant and so faint, nestled in between the Voice of America and Radio Moscow.
I had been waiting for the right conditions to bring this station in, verify their information and address and send them a letter so I could receive a QSL card, verification from them, proof that I tuned in to their station across the great divide. Shortwave stations around the world mail QSL cards to shortwave radio listeners. When it comes, I add that treasured postcard to the ones already on my wall, ones from Melbourne, Australia, Hilversum, Holland, the BBC, Deutsche Welle from Cologne, Radio Brazzaville in the Congo, Quito, Ecuador, and many more, each one associated with the pushpins on the world map also on my wall.
Wires from my attic room trailed out my window and connected with an array that hooked onto insulators attached to trees around the backyard, a twelve-year-old kid’s attempt to weave a net to catch the radio waves bouncing off the ionosphere around the earth to feed my imagination and the romance of places far away from Ohio. Poring over station schedules that appeared in magazines like Electronics Illustrated made it possible to track times and frequencies that stations used to broadcast programs in English language. With that information, I could connect with the faint, elusive signals I was pursuing. Nighttime was best for shortwave reception, and, of course, darkness added to the mystery.
Fast forward sixty years, same guy wearing headphones, not searching for the barely audible shortwave stations anymore, but still cruising the radio waves. These days I’m stalking FM stations for soul-satisfying music. And the romance is still there.
High-quality FM radio is now available world-wide, programming from virtually every country on the planet. As one would expect, there is a smorgasbord of programs, from ethnic music to pre-programmed industrial pop to religious hymns to the very strange, it’s all there. At this moment, as I sit and type this article, I am listening to a station in Lokoja, Nigeria, after listening to Paul Fairchild’s program The Train on WDRT-FM in Viroqua, Wisconsin.
Then, with a couple of clicks, I can move on to Bukawayo, Zimbabwe, skip over to the Baku Jukebox in Baku, Azerbaijan, then on to Shirley & Spinoza Radio streaming out of Dali, China, definitely one of the strangest stations you will find. Check it out. Their motto: “broken, bouncing mixed up radio waves from your planet”.
Thousands of FM stations are available with excellent sound quality, unlike the crackle and hiss from my old short-wave days, pulling in stations that were mostly government-sponsored and located in a country’s capital city. These days there are FM stations dotting the globe, and you can find them on the internet.
One portal into this radio wonderland is Radio.Garden. Type that in your browser and a picture of the Earth will appear covered with green spots, each one representing an FM station. Some are privately run, many are community radio stations, with programming that runs the spectrum of music, talk, and news. Cruise the world and be surprised at what you discover. As in all radio station cruising, some of the programming will appeal to you, some won’t. Many stations have websites that list program schedules, making it possible to find the type of programming that is of interest to you.
My musical interests are wide-ranging, so Radio.Garden has been like a candy store for me. This site has also provided a host of geography lessons. Like Google Earth, Radio.Garden offers views of the region of the earth where the stations are located, complete with the ability to zoom in for close-ups of the city, town, or village in which the station is located.
Once I pull in the broadcast, I side track to the station’s website, where information is posted and I can get a picture of the operation and the people spinning the tunes. Visiting these places from the air, following the highways and river systems of so many places that were unknown to me, has been a constant revelation.
Who are these folks that provide such an amazing free service for a music lover like me? Based in Amsterdam, Radio.Garden was launched in 2019, their vision stated on their website:
“By bringing distant voices close, radio connects people and places. From its very beginning, radio signals have crossed borders. Radio makers and listeners have imagined both connecting with distant cultures, as well as re-connecting with people from ‘home’ from thousands of miles away.”
Another great resource I recently discovered is the Underground Radio Directory showcasing the best of worldwide radio. At this site a large number of worldwide stations (currently 115) are listed. They can be found at www.undergroundradiodirectory.com. You can click and go directly to a program currently streaming or go to the station’s website.
Not only have my musical and geographical horizons expanded as I search for music originating in far-flung places, my curiosity about the radio stations themselves has grown. As I tour the radio world, I have noticed that many of the stations are Community Radio stations, a form of radio broadcasting not unknown to me.
In past years as Kate and I have journeyed across the United States, we have often searched the radio dial for good music. Many times it was the community radio stations in cities we were passing through that provided welcome relief from the commercial offerings crowding the dial.
Community radio stations are streaming worldwide, connecting people across borders and opening up horizons for listeners, offering views into other cultures, lessons in geography, and the voices and music of all the regions of our planet.
Visit the Crow’s Nest for future articles on the history of community radio and how it has taken its place in worldwide radio broadcasting.
Until then, turn your radio on. Stay local or go worldwide.