Information is critical for proper preparedness and radio plays a huge role in relaying information during a disaster. Not all Shortwave Radios are created equal. Purchasing the wrong one could mean that you’ve not only wasted your time and money but you could also be missing out on real-time information when you need it the most.
The term “shortwave” has become the common word to describe long distance broadcast communications between 2 and 30 MHz. (Remember that term “broadcast”). In the radio world, the span between 2 and 30 MHz is enormous. This span is divided up into smaller groups called “bands”. Broadcast radio stations are allowed to use certain frequencies in each band to send a ONE-WAY radio signal. Ham radio operators are licensed to use certain frequencies in these bands for TWO-WAY communication signals. These signals rely on “skip” to travel around the world. “Skip” is simply the bouncing or ricocheting of the radio waves off of the ionosphere that surrounds the earth. This is the reason that someone sitting in Michigan can hear stations from the Middle East, Asia or South America.
Getting back to the term “broadcast”, shortwave broadcast stations are very similar to AM/FM broadcast stations. They have news, sports and many types of talk shows. More often than not, the shows are taped and broadcast later. The last time I listened to broadcast shortwave there was even a latin woman repeating a very long series of numbers. I did some research on this and there is a possibility that this is some sort of code used by drug smugglers. This could be true but the one thing I can tell you for sure is that broadcast shortwave will have very limited use for information gathering during a disaster. You may be able to pick up some information after the fact but live news, in a language that you can understand, could be hard to find on broadcast shortwave.
On the other hand, Ham Radio operators use frequencies that can also travel long distances, just like broadcast shortwave. The term for these frequencies is HF or High Frequency. These frequencies are also divided into smaller groups called “bands”. Ham operators have a very effective network that comes alive during a disaster to relay critical information as needed. This information could be priceless during a large scale disaster.
There is one very big difference between broadcast shortwave and Ham HF: the ham operators commonly use “Sideband” (SSB) when they transmit by voice or they use “Continuous Wave” (CW) when they transmit with Morse Code. Not all Shortwave radios have the ability to monitor Ham Radio but most radios that do will also be able to receive the broadcast stations. Thankfully most manufacturers are very proud of the fact that they offer the Sideband and CW features on their radios so you will have no problem finding the correct models. Sideband is sometimes abbreviated as ‘SSB” or “USB/LSB”. The Upper Sideband (USB) is used generally used on ham frequencies above 7 MHz and the Lower Sideband (LSB) is used on ham frequencies below 7 MHz.
Two other Shortwave Radio features that you should know about are External Antenna and Digital Tuning.
Having the ability to use an external antenna can come in handy for receiving frequencies that the stock antenna just won’t pick up reliably. Keep in mind that the radio manufacturers do an excellent job of providing an antenna that will do a good job overall but stock antennas are barely three feet long and an antenna used by the ham operators can be 60 feet or longer. An external antenna is usually just a simple long wire with the appropriate connector on it to fit the radio’s jack. Shortwave radios that accept external antennas will often come equipped with the optional long wire antenna.
Digital tuning is pretty much standard issue on today’s radios and allows you to quickly tune to an exact frequency via a touch pad instead of the older style thumbwheel tuners.
Here is a link to a nice comparison chart showing which radios have these features: Portable Shortwave Comparison Chart
FWIW, I use a Kaito 1102 radio with excellent results, it’s the radio shown in the photo above. I can also recommend all of the Grundig radios with SSB.
9/2/15: While updating the older posts on this blog I noticed that Kaito shortwaves are now marketed as Tecsun. Amazon seems to still have a couple models of TecSun receivers that are SSB capable. Here’s one of the better deals:
And if you want to turn your computer into a scanner receiver to pick up the local emergency radio traffic, this package is one of the best deals around.: