Shortwave Radio For Preppers

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A year and a half ago, I asked my friend George Ure at Urban Survival to help with an article on emergency communications.  And since he’s the kind of guy who will build you a watch even if all you wanted to know is the time is, he turned out a really good article which can still be found over on our Strategic Living site.

More recently, as I have started to get serious about both shortwave and HAM radio, I asked him some additional questions during our weekly video conference. What started out as a phone conversation, turned into a lengthy discussion of the whys and the wherefores of shortwave, amateur radio (ham) and the gear to get started/Hammarlund Shortwave

Why Preppers Need Shortwave Radio

While we all understand the need to have a viable method of communication both during and after a catastrophic emergency, most of us think of a NOAA weather radio first and a shortwave band last.  But in reality, both are important.  So I asked George: “Practically speaking, why would a person want to have a shortwave radio?”

If America ever had a really worst case kind of event, like an electromagnetic pulse attack, a shortwave radio could get you news and information from halfway around the world.  You would have the ability to know what is going on.  That could be important if all official news and information sources have been destroyed or damaged.

The same thing would be true if there were massive power failures.  As you know, this is not an altogether improbable event.

The other thing – and my favorite reason – is that to some folks, shortwave radio is just plain fun.  It gives you a chance to brush up on your trend spotting skills.  New music, new politics, new ideas – they often show up first on obscure shortwave stations or satellite television channels.”

With that in mind, I am pleased to share the wisdom of George Ure in Part 1 in a two part series on shortwave and HAM radio for newbies.

Revisiting the Magic of Radio – Part 1

Everyone who is serious about communications has their own story of how they just sort of “fell into the hobby” and usually even for a lot of ham radio operators, the saga usually began with something simple.

In my case, it was an old five-tube radio and yes, I’m that old. I had loved to listen to it but there was just something missing. With an external antenna being cobbled up to a tree outside, I discovered that living in Seattle, I could begin to listen to radio stations in distant cities. And one thing led to another and the first thing you know, I was a regular listener to KGO in San Francisco at age 12.

As cool as that was – to hear local news from a faraway place, it was nothing compared to what happened next. My family home was on the northwest side of Beacon Hill and from the upstairs windows, we could see Elliott Bay. One day while twisting this and that adjustment inside the radio, I discovered that I could hear tugboats talking back and forth out on the bay – and from there I was hooked. This was back when there was still a low frequency marine band down around 3 Megahertz, which is how frequencies are measured these days.

Back in the old days, however, radio frequencies were much more self-explanatory: it was cycles per second which really explained the visual concept much more clearly. Political correctness disease again, eh?

Today, those tugboat radios are gone, but not the generations of shortwave fans who evolved from tinkering with other radios. As a matter of fact, these days there are lots of old transistor radios which can be had used for a few dollars at a thrift store that you can tweak on. A radio able to pick up the lower TV audio channels can often be adjusted to hear ham radio as well as low (VHF) band public services.

For preppers, who don’t want to come up through the assorted screwdrivers and learn electronics and get acquainted with the “business end” of a soldering iron, there’s a much easier solution. A wide range of manufacturers have absolutely grand shortwave radios that are very inexpensive.

The Gear:  Some Great Radios are Available

My personal (under the pillow at night) radio is the Tecsun PL-660 which you can pick up from Amazon for $130. It’s a really wonderful radio that has all the features a first-time radio user would be shopping for: digital tuning, good selectivity (to separate close stations), an antenna attenuator if you’re not interested in distant (DX) listening.

More sophisticated users will appreciate the synchronous detector which reduces some of the selective fading common to late night/ distant stations as well as an assortment of timers for waking up, going to sleep and gobs of memory for storing stations you might wish to refer to in the future.

One thing is does NOT have is the NOAA weather radio channels, but it has better: Aircraft band turning which is always interesting. As I mentioned on my site a while back, every major airport has a service called either AWOS or ATIS which stands for an “automated weather observation system” or “automated terminal information system.” These are continuous broadcasting systems that give wind speed, gusts, visibility, temperatures and other pertinent airport information such as landing light or taxiway lights being out.

Another good radio manufacturer is the C. Crane Company and their CC-Radio-SW which is a few bucks more than the Tecsun and is really aimed at the serious AM/FM market.  The built-in “Twin Coil Ferrite® antenna pulls in AM very well and while it’s good for shortwave listening, its tuning steps are 5 KHz where the Tecsun is 1 KHz.  In addition, the Tecsun offers selectable sideband operation which means you can listen to the HF ham radio bands which are almost all single sideband, data, and Morse…all of which require a beat frequency oscillator (BFO) to decode.

With these or other shortwave radios, you’ll be able to listen to all the clear channel stations at night such as regional high power AM stations which other stations have to avoid interference with…which is why many AM stations have multiple towers. But there far more exciting listening to be had checking out Radio Japan, listening to news direct from China, the BBC and even Radio Havana, Cuba.

Do It Yourself Radios

Tens of thousands of Americans became interested in building electronics kits in the 1960’s when a company called Heathkit of Benton Harbor, Michigan, had a wide range of kits for do-it-yourselfers.  Although the kits didn’t offer the modern features you see today, their ‘Mohican” was their first all-transistor radio and building those Heathkits (or any other kit) was and is just a heck of a lot of fun.

There is some buzz developing around Heathkit since the company is reorganizing and may introduce new products in the near future according to their FAQ here.

Noise Matters

The most important thing to do before you run out and plop down $100+ for a fine shortwave radio that will last you decades is to use an old, cheap, portable AM radio and go around your house listening in between stations (or better: a marginal weak station) to see how much noise is being generated by appliances in your home.

Most people are shocked to learn how much noise their computer, for example, introduces to the radio environment. If you’re going to do shortwave (or even serious long-distance AM nighttime listening) you’ll need to walk around and figure out where local noise is coming from.

One noise source, which I’ve been fighting with for 50-years is fluorescent light fixtures. Not all of them, but some, make a terrible radio racket. Another one is the typical inexpensive type dimmer switches. One other? Many home computers.

What the dimmer switch uses is a solid-state part that turns the power off and on just some of the time and that switching process can turn benign alternating current into some really ugly square wave pulses and these tend to create “harmonics” which pollute the radio spectrum “from DC to Daylight” as an old radio expression goes.

Usually, the offending appliance or switch can just be turned off and in the event of an actual emergency where you need to get information from a radio station some hundreds of miles distant it’s likely the power being off will clear up reception dramatically! The switching-type power supplies in home computers (even laptops) make the same kind of ugly noise, as do monitors.

One last tool in our “get started” kit would be a copy of the World Radio TV Handbook which, although it will set you back $25 bucks or so, will prove invaluable when you start putting pins in a global map to mark your progress as a shortwave listener trying to hit the shortwave equivalent of the DC Century Club…where hams work to get more than 100 QSL cards – confirmations of contact.

I’d go on for hours about the virtues of listening to the BBC when there’s breaking news, but those are all adventures for you to discover on your own.

All this leads naturally into ham radio which we can talk about next I Part 2.

THE FINAL WORD

When I first started this conversation with George, I asked him to talk about how people can gradually get into emergency communications.  He remarked:

“Well, that’s an easy one. This being a pleasant time of year, and people are doing a lot of outdoorsy kinds of things, I can’t think of anything better than listening to far away AM radio stations after dark. Watching the sky, seeing the odd shooting star, and tuning around “the bands.”

Fair enough – that is what I get for asking.  Next we get more practical and more tactical with part 2, the Basics of Ham Radio. 

Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!
Gaye

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Bargain Bin:  Below you will find the items mentioned in today’s article along with my favorite Kaito Voyager emergency crank-style radio.

Kaito Voyager KA500 Solar/Crank Emergency AM/FM/SW NOAA Weather Radio: While George did not mention it, this is the radio I currently own and keep in my bug-out-bag.  It is light weight, portable and requires no batteries to operate.  Everyone should have a hand crank radio that can also be charged with solar energy.  Of course this radio can also be used with regular batteries, too.  It is a fine little workhorse.

Tecsun PL-660 Portable AM/FM/LW/Air Shortwave Radio:  This is a world band receiver with a comprehensive frequency coverage including AM/FM, longwave, shortwave, single side band and the aviation band.  As add-ons, George suggests the Kaito AN-200 Tunable Passive AM Antenna and the Sangean ANT-60 Short Wave Antenna.

C Crane CCRadio-SW:  This radio offers a good combination of sensitivity, selectivity and audio performance.  Shortwave is excellent right off the whip antenna. It features an RF gain control, bandwidth control, bass and treble controls, fast and slow tuning, 50 station memories, lighted buttons, a clock radio with snooze alarm, stereo line output and a headphone jack. It runs on four D-size batteries or four backup AA batteries and the built-in charging circuit will recharge optional NiMh batteries right inside the radio.  An AC adapter and antenna connectors are also included.

Grundig S450DLX Deluxe AM/FM/Shortwave Radio: George also mentioned this Grundig as a decently priced yet excellent shortwave radio.

World Radio TV Handbook 2013: The Directory of Global Broadcasting:  An absolute must if you are interested in finding the most interesting shortwave channels around the world and in obscure locations.

Uniden BC340CRS 100-Channel Clock Radio Scanner The Magic of Radio Part 2: Nutz and Bolts of Radio:  The battery operated scanner is a multi-featured conventional channel scanner that can be used to monitor police, fire, emergency, marine, air, amateur, and other radio services.  NOAA weather too,   into 100 channels over ten banks. The scanner also lets you listen to NOAA weather broadcasts for valuable information specific to your location.  Pretty cool for $80.

Ham Radio For Dummies : This could also be called “Ham Radio for Gaye” or other newbies.  It is never too late to learn and if SHTF, this may be the only reliable form of communication available.


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Comments

Shortwave Radio For Preppers — 15 Comments

  1. Like I couldn’t see this coming. I just went to Amazon and they have “one” radio in stock. Can you spell b-a-c-k-o-r-d-e-r?

  2. I’ve been an AM DX-er (listening to distant stations) since I was akid. I didn’t get a shortwave radio until I was in my twenties, and I got into ham radio at around age 40. So I, too, love the magic of radio.
    Having said that, anyone who buys a shortwave radio these days should be aware that many of the big name international stations are leaving the air waves in favor of the Internet and smart phone apps. For example, the BBC doesn’t broadcast to North America any more. Neither does Radio Netherlands. Even Radio Canada International has gone off shortwave. The Voice of America isn’t readily audible as it was just a few years ago. There are still some commercial stations in the U.S.
    Propagation has been so horrible the last couple years that finding much on shortwave in the daytime is difficult. The best catches are at night, but you’ll hear a lot of Cuba and China relayed via Cuba’s transmitters.
    If all you want to hear is the “big boys” then a cheap pocket shortwave radio would be at least adequate for having in your bug out bag.
    It will be interesting to see what happens with shortwave and regular AM stations in an SHTF scenario. I’ll definitely be listening.

    • John – You bring up an interesting point about the internet. As we both know, the internet could go down (or be shut down) at any time. I wonder if the BBC and the like have a backup plan for going back online via shortwave if that happens.

      After my recent experience with a high end food dehydrator, I plan to start modestly and move my way up the shortwave and ham gear totem pole. I am also (finally) getting serous about getting my ham license.

      Be sure to watch for my article with George on the basics on ham radio on Tuesday.

  3. I don’t really call this communication? You can hear whatever but can’t transmit and imho thats “communication” I guess its not a bad thing to know whats coming…but I can easily see that you might want to tell someone you are coming too?

    • If and when TSHTF, there are not going to be Federal Communications Commission vehicles prowling around looking for “illegal” transmissions. They do have the, but it’s my understanding they concentrate on those who are really egregious, threatening, or interfering with commercial traffic, particularly in high population density sites and transportation complexes, like rail road yards, harbors, etc. Besides, if you keep it short, they can’t locate you right away, even with their hi-fi satellites, although you must be cautious. I am not advocating you do this, only observing that short term transmissions are possible. If you see a van in your area bristling with antennas, then it’s a good time to be quiet.

  4. I have the ” Grundig” that was mentioned and it’s pretty touchy where I am. It’s hard to find a clear channel when weather gets a little serious. I can get a couple of AM channels without problem, but FM is a challenge. Would an outside antenna help it, or do I just need a stronger reception model…..or what?
    I know the better radios are pricey but if there is one I can pretty much depend on, I’ll save up for it….not a problem.

    • It’s said to see (hear) that the BBC, Canadian Inter and others have left the air. I have a Sears Com/Trek IX that I just love to listen to at night. I’m not into listening to shortwave preachers (though they do bring the message home) or some dictator in S. America going nuts into the mic, so having fewer and fewer quality broadcasts is disturbing.

      I’d like to thank the author for this article. When I find articles such as this I normally bookmark it because they’re great refresher info and new info for many folks I talk with.

      One question please. My Com/Trek IX was bought with a broken external antenna. Presently, I use the broken antenna with additional copper wire attached with a clip. The question is, how do I figure out what size plug will fit into the antenna receptacle in the back so I can plug in and run it up the wall. This radio was made in the 70’s I believe.

      Thanks

  5. I have been waiting for this subject to come up again, thanks. my dad bought me a book and CD for studying for the beginners exam, another project on my list for this winter. will be looking forward to part 2

  6. I love in Texas and don’t trust the govt. I want to buy a radio that will pick up as many different conversations as possible. I am a prepper. I would like to pick up cb, ham, noaa, police, and anything else that will give me information in case of emergencies. I don’t want to be stuck in a martial law situation an not be able to find out whats going on. can you tell me exactly what kind of radio to buy. I want to do this soon,,,,,before jade helm 15. Please give me some help. jim scott

    • Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. Here is was my pal George, who also lives in Texas, had to say:

      Been thinking about this…for the money, Baofeng and a programming cable is about as good as it gets. Then read your article on programming with CHIRP and then load up local police, fire, sheriffs and what all.

      There isn’t too much on HF, and most of the close in work will be done on squad radios which will be sat comms and not likely to be overhead. So the local first responder channels will be the best bet.

      I continue to hold that Jade Helm will not take over Texas and that when/if it is ever needed, this kind of exercise is what will be needed when California drinks its last glass of water. Who knows how soon that’s coming?

      Hope this helps!

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