28 marzo 2008

Onde corte, le ragioni del cuore

Il destino ha voluto che Harry Helms, esperto DXer americano, dovesse vivere un duplice crepuscolo. La sua lunga e difficile malattia (Harry è un paziente oncologico di quarto stadio, il livello metastatico del cancro, e lui stesso, nel profilo del suo blog, coraggiosamente non esita a definirsi terminale) rappresenta evidentemente il declino più drammatico, di fronte al quale tutto il resto passa in ultimo piano.
Con Harry, un piccolo gruppo di hobbysti di tutto il mondo condivide però il peso - relativamente leggero, a questo punto - di dover assistere al lento tramonto delle onde corte, allo stillicidio delle stazioni che vengono smantellate o, quando va bene, ridimensionate. Qualcosa mi dice che Harry, a volte, si sente più triste per questo secondo motivo. Un paio di settimane fa, sul suo blog, Harry ha cercato di spiegare perché l'ascolto di una emittente lontana continua a dargli tutte queste emozioni. Una passione che dura per lui da 45 anni. E' una bellissima dichiarazione d'amore nei confronti di un hobby straordinario, il più bello e misconosciuto del mondo. Andate a visitare il The Harry Helms Blog, dedicato in parte alla radio in parte a quelli che l'autore definisce siti turistici "segreti" - le località in qualche modo legate ad alcune attività militari e governative che vengono o sono state tenute segrete. Helms sa il fatto suo, è un grande esperto di comunicazioni utility, prolifico scrittore di questioni radiantistiche e ospite della trasmissione radiofonica Coast to coast AM, equivalente del nostro programma televisivo Voyager (ok, io non sono un grande amante del genere, ma confesso che in gioventù i libri di Peter Kolosimo li leggevo). Il suo libro più recente si intitola "Top Secret Tourism".
Forza, Harry. Teniamolo ancora acceso quell'Eton E5.

Thoughts About Shortwave Radio
Thursday, March 13, 2008

I have trouble sleeping through the night these days (it’s normal for late Stage IV cancer patients). I often find myself awake two or three times during the night, sometimes for more than an hour. Until I get sleepy again, I grab the Eton E5 portable shortwave radio I keep on my nightstand, put on headphones so I won’t disturb Di, and tune around to see what I can hear.
Why do I do that instead of, for example, listening to my iPod?
Since 1963, I’ve been obsessed with snagging all manner of “non-standard” radio signals. Those include AM and FM broadcast stations from hundreds and thousands of miles away, shortwave broadcasts from foreign countries, communications from ships and airplanes traveling around the globe, military transmissions, ham radio operators-----if it can be tuned on a shortwave radio receiver, I want to hear it. I’ve owned over three dozen different shortwave radios (some of which cost over $1000), numerous accessories (like antenna tuners and audio filters), and specialized antennas (like amplified loops for receiving distant AM band stations). I’ve belonged to numerous radio listening clubs. The first books I wrote were about shortwave listening.
Again, why?? What is it that keeps me searching the airwaves for something distant and unusual?
Part of it is pure nostalgia. Unless you were of sentient age in 1963, you can’t imagine how constricted the flow of information was and how distant the rest of the world seemed back then. The internet was just a theoretical concept and communications satellites were in their infancy. Video of events in foreign nations had to be flown into the United States for broadcast, and magazines and newspapers from outside the United States took weeks to arrive via ship mail. Trying to be aware of the outside world back then was frustrating, like trying to figure out what was going on in a room by peeking through the keyhole.
I wrote in the introduction to my Shortwave Listening Guidebook that I considered my first shortwave radio to be a “magic box.” And indeed it was. Strange languages and exotic music gushed from the speaker of my simple Hallicrafters radio. Cities like Moscow, London, Quito, Melbourne, and Tokyo were in my bedroom with me. I eavesdropped on ship-to-shore telephone calls and communications from airplanes flying routes across the Atlantic. And there were also the dits and dahs of Morse code, the “beedle-beedle” of radioteletype stations, and all sorts of other bewildering noises. I even found myself entranced by station WWV, then in Maryland, and its precise time signals, one beep exactly each second.
When I got my first shortwave radio, it was like that moment in The Wizard of Oz when the movie abruptly changes from black and white to color; the world suddenly seemed smaller and more real to me. I couldn’t visit all those distant foreign places, but they could visit me. And I still get that feeling after 45 years of shortwave. Even though my world is media saturated, with the internet and 150 TV channels available to me, there remains something special about connecting to a distant place via shortwave radio.
Another attraction is the “DXing” aspect of radio. DXing is the art of trying to receive rarely-heard stations on various frequencies. To those not interested in DXing, this must seem like a ridiculous activity, and I suppose it is. But I get a feeling of accomplishment bordering on exhilaration when I manage to identify a weak, unusual radio signal through heavy interference. Maybe the best analogy I can make is to fishing. You never know what’s going to happen when you cast a line into the water, and you never what you’ll hear when you turn the dial of a shortwave radio. Whenever I hear a faint signal barely above the background noise, I am almost forced to stop and try to identify it. It’s as if the station is keeping a secret from me----its identity----and I want to learn that secret. To solve the mystery, I have to battle fading, interference, noise, and distortion. My shortwave radio becomes like a musical instrument in my hands. By manipulating its tuning knob and controls, I can coax weak signals to become more intelligible and, when the gods of the ionosphere cooperate, those faint signals will yield their secrets to me and I am briefly, almost mystically, connected to some distant place. My desire for connections to distant places was probably my biggest motivation for getting a ham radio license.
And when I speak of the “secrets” of shortwave, I often mean it literally instead of metaphorically. I have always been fascinated with unusual and “outlaw” radio stations, such as “pirate” and clandestine radio broadcasters, covert government and military communications, and coded message to espionage agents. The latter were known as “numbers stations” because the messages, usually read by a woman, were in groups of four of five digits. I heard these in English, Spanish, German, and other languages all over the shortwave bands; the signals endlessly fascinated me. When the first pirate----stations operating illegally without a government license----shortwave radio stations took to the air in the late 1970s, they immediately grabbed my attention and I still stumble across them late on Friday and Saturday nights. My fascination with “shortwave secrets” led to my current interest in all types of government secrets, as reflected in my last two books, Inside the Shadow Government and Top Secret Tourism.
However, the era of shortwave radio and DXing is drawing to an end. The internet and communications satellites now carry a lot of the communications that once went via shortwave, and many nations have discontinued shortwave broadcasts entirely. Nations such as Colombia and the Dominican Republic once had numerous active shortwave stations but now only a fraction remain active. While this saddens me in many ways, I also realize the internet and communications satellites have exponentially increased access to information from foreign sources; I can hear far more foreign radio stations via internet audio streaming than I ever could via shortwave radio. Frankly, there’s no need to own a shortwave radio today in order to hear radio stations from around the United States and the world. This upsets some other shortwave fans. One group of them denies the reality of what is happening----to them, the internet is just some passing fad----while another group of listeners raises quasi-survivalist fears of “internet interdiction” by a future American government, leaving the lucky owners of shortwave radios as the only ones able to get information without government censorship. (Sadly, I think many of the latter are actually serious in their belief.)
But I’m less concerned about the possibility of a fascist American state than I am about the possibility there is something interesting zipping through the airwaves and I'm not hearing it. That’s why I keep that Eton E5 within reach at night. The E5 is the sort of shortwave radio I could only dream about four decades ago-----about the size of a paperback book, digital frequency readout, sensitivity and selectivity equivalent to Drake and Hammarlund radios of that era-----and costs only $125 today. Holding it, I have the whole world in one hand. I really wish I could have had something like three or four decades ago, back when there was so much more interesting stuff to hear. But I'm glad I have it now.
I suppose I never did answer why I have been so fascinated by shortwave radio for so long, and that's because I really don't know myself. All I know is that it's a big part of my life, and no one can understand me without understanding the role it has played, and continues to play, in my life.

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