A Soft Start to Short Wave Listening

My image of a Ham Radio user always focused on someone seated in front of phalanx of wartime-style radios with lots of dials to twiddle and heavy earphones, frantically tapping out an indecipherable message in Morse code. Either that or someone who had constructed their own radio equipment with fiendish ingenuity. The need for enormous aerials also featured in my vision. For this reason I always assumed that there was no easy entry for me into the hobby. But of course my image was wrong, or at least wildly outdated. These days a would-be Short Wave Listener (SWL), and even someone who wants to transmit communications, can do so with a compact receiver or even a handheld device, available online from places like Amazon or eBay.

To transmit using Ham Radio you need to obtain a licence (more of which in a future post) but to start listening you just need the right kind of radio receiver. My regular radio tunes into favourite stations, such as Classic FM, but it is not set up to receive Amateur Radio users. What I needed was a receiver which incorporated Single Side Band (SSB) as well as AM and FM. Also, Ham Radio users are only permitted to transmit on certain wavebands. I guess this is because they don’t want major broadcasters continually interrupted by amateur users trying to connect with each other, and vice-versa. So there are rules about where you can transmit in the same way that there are rules about how and where we can cycle on roads. We cannot ride a bicycle willy-nilly down a motorway or chaos would ensue. So you will find amateur users on allocated bands, such as 40 metres, rather like cyclists on a dedicated cycle path.

The nice thing about buying a radio which picks up SSB is that if you buy one and find that SWL is not for you, you are not left with a redundant piece of kit – you have a high quality little radio on which you can listen to your favourite regular stations. My first receiver was the compact Tecsun PL-660 Short Wave World Band Radio with SSB. At the time of writing you can pick one up for £78 on eBay or £110.80 on Amazon. And then you can have your first shot at listening to the Ham Bands. For starters, select SW (Short Wave) and then press the SSB button until LSB (Lower Side Band) shows on the display and tune the radio to 7100 kHz (40m). Gently tune up and down between 7100 and 7200. Chances are you’ll hear someone from Germany or Italy calling CQ (more or less translated as seek-you) and looking for a contact. If the voice is distorted, twiddle the SSB BFO (Beat Frequency Oscillator*) tuner on the side of the radio to fine tune. The people you can hear will probably exchange call signs (more about which in a future post) and you might hear references such as “You are 5 and 9” – indicating that they are receiving a clear and strong signal from their contact. A contact might end with “73” as a goodbye. And that’s where you start. Soon you will be exploring other Bands and hearing callers from as far away as Russia, Kazakhstan and even Australia, and listening in on chats about the places where the radio amateurs are living.

*Don’t know what terms like BFO, SSB, LSB etc. mean? Nope, me neither – don’t worry, you don’t need to know how or why it works, you just get used to what it does in practice.

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