How Hobby Radio-Listening Gave Lessons in Diversity

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For a very limited number of hobbyists, diversity existed before they ever heard of the word in its present context.  The following is a personal reflection of this hobby – radio listening with the intent of obtaining verifications from the stations heard. On occasion, I may specifically mean that radio, as usually referred to here, is a tool which can facilitate integration, but for that to work, it would seem appropriate to be cognizant of the diversity which already exists.

 

In North America, especially the closer one is to the Canada – U.S. border, the challenge would have been the greatest. Europeans would have had the easiest time of it, across the board.  Africa would have had the opportunity, except for financial restraints on the proper type of radio, and postage costs.  I imagine that there would have been some limitations for the Australian continent, especially in the outback; these would have been similar to those encountered in the problematic area of North America.

 

The difficulties which could be encountered center on the specific part of the general hobby.  Collecting the verifications, called QSLs, a term from ham radio operators, emitted in dots and dashes, when used as a question, meant, “Will you verify?” As an answer, it meant, “(Yes), I will verify”.  The term then extended to other radio listeners who were not radio operators, but sent reports asking for verifications to stations which often had an interest in knowing their range, and quality of signal.  In itself, such collecting did not teach much about diversity, except that one might admire the diversity of cards received.  Clearly, this type of diversity is not the object of this report.

 

We will start by considering the A.M. broadcast band.

 

If the receiver was of poor quality, nothing more than local stations would be within one’s listening capabilities.  Here we obviously have a limited view of the world, and even of one’s own country.  On the Canadian – U.S. border, one might get subtle differences in programming, which often was shared – less so when Canada insisted on Canadian content (see my article on CKLW for details).  Even Americans near the Mexican border had opportunities for some diversity, as American operators interested in avoiding Federal Communications Commission restrictions moved across the border, and transmitted from there.  In the winter, it was possible to hear these stations in Canada.

 

Before the Civil Rights movements, there would have been palpable differences between the programming in the Southern States, and the North.  The former did not play music such as that of the Motown sound, which became the forte of American-owned CKLW.  I imagine that some QSL collectors in the South may have experienced family pressure over listening to such stations.  This is a topic I have never seen addressed in the hobby magazines, but President L. B. Johnson’s Great Society had already been partially implemented.  How great it was is a separate question; let’s get back on topic.

 

Occasionally, listeners in the East might have learned something from the West Coast, and vice versa.  The chief benefit would have been improving one’s geographical knowledge.

 

Europeans, who live in countries very closely bordered by others, would only be limited by their knowledge of the language of the neighbouring countries.  They had an additional alternative which does not exist in North America, Long Wave.

 

The real area for getting diversity was Short Wave Radio.  The idea of the QSL collector was to obtain these from as many different countries as possible.  Ham radio operators did the same, and probably still do, perhaps with some limitations.  At least one magazine for radio hams featured the King of Jordan, himself a radio operator.

Radio St. Helena QSL

Relatively Rare QSL card from the Island of Santa Helena – once a year for a few hours of the afternoon. Only about a dozen broadcasts were ever made. Click here for more info. Click Image to Enlarge.

 

Now, it would be overly-difficult to collect verifications if one could not communicate with the station heard in the language that one uses.  No problem!  Almost everyone communicated, during some time of the day, in English.  Personally, I am referring to the 60s.  It was a great disappointment for me not to be able to hear some of the International Broadcasters which were listed in two monthly radio-electronic magazines.  Beyond Venezuela and Colombia, and the powerful American-run religious broadcaster  HCJB in Ecuador, it took me years to hear anything half-decent further south. The same goes for New Zealand, but Africa offered the then-modern Radio RSA (Republic of South Africa), in the then admittedly apartheid period, but also Radio Cairo, aka The Voice of the Arabs, Radio Ghana, and Radio Uganda; and from the non-African point of view, Voice of American relay stations in Morocco and Liberia, if not others.  Later, I would hear Radio Nigeria and also Zimbabwe, I picture the QSL of the latter on the page about me hosted on this website, which discusses the influences which lead me to write about the topics that I choose.

 

Aside from Egypt, in the Middle East, I heard and received QSL cards from Lebanon (a hard catch), Israel, and Kuwait.  Perhaps being on the Mediterranean Sea helped their signal.  Many years later, I would hear Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Syria.

 

Western Europe offered the greatest opportunities, from any of its members of what is now the Group of Seven, to the tiny Vatican State.  The only catch missing was Luxemburg.

 

Eastern Europe was easy, too.  The communists wanted the world to hear their message. I think that like the religions, they could only be successful with those who were already receptive to their message. The news was uniformly boring, science and industry could be worth listening to, but from what I saw at the World’s Fair in Montreal, Expo 67, their products were clunky besides those of the West.

 

I have no doubt that the present manipulator’s of children’s minds use something like a purported Jesuit technique (this was said by a very conservative Catholic professor at the formerly Baptist-affiliated McMaster University in Canada) of inculcating the Catholic ideas into the children at a young age in order to achieve success.  I believe this was the communist method, and it seems to be what the West in now doing in its schools in order to teach various types of diversity.  On the theoretical point of view, I would agree with the potential success, because I could imagine if the political right tried to teach children how bad communism was by having them listen to the output of these East European stations, they would quickly become rebels in the conservative mold.  Apolitical young hobbyists would hardly be enthused by those stations which started off by mouthing the clichés of their ideology.  However, considering what has happened to some communist countries, and considering the losses churches are experiencing, it would seem that application of this principle cannot guarantee success.

 

Be that as it may, I again suppose that some QSL collectors, especially younger ones, or those in military families, might have been reluctant to write to communist countries, or prohibited from doing so.

US & Russian QSL Cards

QSLs from Nations in Conflict: Left: Radio Moscow/Voice of Russia; Right, Voice of America. Click Image to Enlarge

 

I personally wrote to Radio Peking during a time of crisis in Canada, when something called the War Measures Act was in effect, due to agitation in Quebec.  To this was added the fact that an American electronics magazine had just written, that Peking (so-called at that time, instead of Beijing) would not accept letters addressed to China, that they must be addressed to the People’s Republic of China.  This was not true, I got the QSL, a full-colour magazine, two copies of Peking Daily on high-quality white paper, and a letter, which was in no way connected to my listening report, telling me that Liu Shao Chi (modern spelling Liu Shaoqi) was a Kuo-Min Tang (three words at that time) reactionary.  I had no idea of either the subject or the predicate of that sentence, but it is a nugget of (useless) information that remains with me.

 

As I complain in my other page with some QSL cards, the Internet has practically destroyed this hobby.  The last time I listened to short wave, the bands were full of religious broadcasters.  According to a check made yesterday, the most aggressive of these (from the viewpoint of a hobbyist who is trying to hear the stations that are being drowned out by this one’s powerful signal) is Adventist World Radio.  They broadcast from relays in several countries, including Austria and Russia.  A check a few months ago showed that many of the stations which I had listened to, have disappeared from the Short-Wave band.  The Voice of America and the BBC are still functioning, but I now read the latter on the Internet – a disheartening product from the time that I was a member of their radio club,

QSL Cards _ Religious

Click on Image to Enlarge. Two religious broadcasters. Selected: on Left, a non-religious card from Vatican Radio, emphasizing a view of St. Peter’s from an antenna; right: religious broadcaster WEWN, located in Alabama.

 

QSLs: KHBI, Nederland

QSL Cards for hearing relay stations of the Christian Science Monitor and Radio Nederland. Click image to enlarge.

 

Nevertheless, I can emphasize, that at a time when there was a cold war being fought, here was a hobby which, for the sole purpose of collecting the coveted QSL, brought the listener into contact with other cultures, political thought, races, and ideas.  In writing our letters, which, in theory were limited to proving that we heard the program by giving time and date, frequency, and details, plus and evaluation of the signal quality, at most, one might add a comment on how much the listener had appreciated the transmission.  I am not a flatterer, although I might have shown interest by asking a question which I hoped would elicit a response.

 

I think that Italy was the only non-communist country in Europe to send some material with the card, usually describing their current government.  Apartheid South Africa and Communist East Germany had the best quality propaganda from a reader’s point of view, but China made the best effort even back in the 60s, when no one suspected it would become so economically powerful.  Portugal, at that time still under a dictatorship, sent a small magazine with some useful information for the short-wave listener, with tips on how to hear stations in their colonies (I never heard either Angola or Mozambique) During the Prague Spring, Radio Prague sent a colour magazine of high quality.

 

In later years, Iran and North Korea would send literature along, as did, on one occasion, another former Soviet satellite, now proud as being liberalized.

Click on Image to Enlarge. Nations in Conflict: QSLs from Kol Israel (Voice of Israel) and Syria. Both stations stopped transmitting in 2013 on short-wave.

 

At one time or another, Spain, Japan, the Voice of America, the BBC, and Radio Moscow offered language instruction (material is still available on the Voice of America and the BBC, often with transcripts on their web-pages).  Radio Finland has a short program once a week in Latin, though they took holidays this year. It’s a smorgasbord, which itself is culinary diversity.  In spite of all the propaganda which might be involved, it is a diversity which implies polite listening, instead of backbiting.  I hardly think that the listener who would waste time lambasting the station heard would be the recipient of any kind of reply.  And such a letter could only be sent by those with money to waste.

 

Of course, there were always a few spoilers – countries which demanded, in a way, to be heard, but did not want their people to hear anything from the outside.  For this reason, they practiced jamming, which left the listener with horrible sounds covering the frequency to be heard.  Probably started by the Nazis against the BBC, it was then used by Communist countries.  I understand the government of Pinochet in Chile also employed this.  The technique is not perfect, and in that area of the world, I have heard someone tuning in to a Radio Moscow program, Escucha Chile, specially intended for the country just alluded to.

 

Sadly, while the Internet does provide the modern-day equivalent to my one-time hobby, the replacements of radio stations and hard-copy newspapers tend to be highly frivolous by comparison.  I hate to say it, but those who recommend alternate web-sites to the standard news pages are recommending material which I find embarrassing to look at.

 

Not all is lost, for those who would be interested in such a hobby.  There are web-pages which list times, frequencies, and transmission languages of short-wave stations. One of them incorrectly includes long and medium wave, but that information would be useful to those outside of America and the Southern Hemisphere in general. Diehards make an effort at learning a few words of foreign languages, in order to be able to make out what country or language they hear.  Once a radio station challenged the listener with snippets of such languages, and I felt disappointed at how much I did not know about their admittedly very difficult choices.  I would never have heard any of those stations anyway.

 

Once the number of catches diminished on the short-wave broadcast band, I started listening to more exotic frequencies, such as an A.M. marine band.  Usually, nothing very far away is heard, but the owner of a yacht was surprised by the distance from which I caught his signal.  Reception was possible from the Gulf of Mexico, the Mississippi River, and the Great Lakes.  Heard were coast guard cutters, lakers, deep-sea vessels, yachts, tugboats, cable-layers, oil carriers, and a ship which siphoned up sand, which I later saw berthed in Hamilton Harbour (Ontario, Canada) for the winter.  Here, the most interesting feature was often the record of a ship’s travels before the QSL was sent to me.  In one case, the ship had gone around the world before a reply was sent.  A few captains sent long letters and photos.

 

So, as a bonus, there were the diverse postage stamps from many countries.  These, too, would be educational, if well designed.  Take, for example, the stamp on my reply from Uganda.  First of all, the language on the stamp is English.  Second, it stated something about stamping out high intra-ocular pressure.  This is a cut above putting popular culture on postage stamps.

 

The hobby is particularly recommendable for those who do not have the means to travel around the world.  Even if no money is available for writing to the stations, perhaps their call sign can be recorded.  Obtaining a QSL card will not always be possible, because of limitations of a station’s budget, and some appreciate return postage (International Reply Coupons, when mint stamps are not an option).  Even then, some major broadcaster send out a postcard which is not a true QSL, in that it does not mention date, time, frequency, and where necessary, transmitter site.  The BBC never mentioned the first 3 of these, if I remember correctly, and Deutsche Welle now does the same.  The Soviet Union, unfortunately, did not give the transmitter site.  This was important, because the Soviet land mass made it problematic to be heard in target countries, so they used what is called the shot-gun approach.  They would fill several short-wave bands with maybe half-a-dozen frequencies, and hope that one of them would get through satisfactorily. One could be hearing the signal from an autonomous Soviet Republic, but all the credit went to Moscow. Nevertheless, it was possible to obtain a separate card from what was then called the Ukraine, and perhaps, had it been possible to hear some similar area, such as Georgia, they too may have had their own QSL.

 

Some countries specialize in changing the QSL all the time. This makes for an interesting post-card collection, without ever having to be a tourist.  Among these are or were the Netherlands, Japan, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Norway, France, Russia, and at one time, Portugal. Special requirements had to be met in some cases, that is: a series of reports within a certain period.  Monotonous uniformity were exercised by the BBC and Deutsche Welle, while the Voice of America did change the design occasionally, I have received only one which was a photo.

QSL cards

Click on Image to Enlarge. Left: One of a series of illustrated QSLs from Radio Sofia, for sending in a series of reception reports. Right: another religious broadcaster, this one from. Another Trans World Radio Station is mentioned in my article on CKLW.
I have chosen the card with ruins in Bulgaria. These are similar to the picture post-card sent to me from Damascus Radio, together with their QSL. The picture showed the ruins of Palmyra, before ISIS brought them into a less majestic state.

 

In the case of poorer countries with time to reply, only a letter might be sent to the listener.  These, however, bear a friendlier tone.  Such was an example from the early sixties from Radio Nacional de Colombia, in Spanish, as a result of the few words I was able to string together using a basic textbook, and having studied no more than a half-dozen chapters.  In some countries, the effort made by a foreigner to learn the language is highly appreciated, even in spite of the mistakes one may make.

 

And the more languages one knows, the greater the potential diversity.

 

When one thinks about it, is not the diversity of those who know only their own language, or a second one very badly, a highly-mutilated product, which will never allow true integration with those of other cultures?  Or is learning another language “cultural appropriation”?

 

That said, I would say that even in the 60s certain radio stations, by their content, were spreading the message for the kind of diversity which one now aggressively promotes.   Those stations that are still on the air, then, offer both the modern, and a taste of the older version.

 

November 17, 2018

© 2018, Paul Karl Moeller

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