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A signal heard round the world

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The first time I heard a shortwave radio broadcast was on a winter night in the mid-1960s. I was a Boy Scout, visiting my scoutmaster to work on a merit badge. But before I left, he showed me a radio on a shelf above his basement workbench. He turned it on and played with the dial. Suddenly, I heard a voice declare that I was listening to Radio South Africa.

A program from South Africa! I didn't know such a thing was possible. The kids in my working-class neighborhood in Philadelphia were fans of Top 40 music in those days, and it was as hard to pry us away from our cheap transistor radios as it would be to separate a kid from an iPod today.

But a broadcast that traveled from one half of the globe to the other – well, that was something different entirely. I knew I couldn't afford to buy a shortwave radio, even if I knew where to get one, which I didn't. But until I did, I knew I could use my transistor to tune to distant AM stations.

Night was the best time to receive the programs of clear-channel broadcasters whose booming signals carried hundreds or thousands of miles – as they were intended to do, by the Federal Communications Commission, to serve rural America.

It was exciting to search for those stations, as well as regional broadcasts from nearby states whose weaker signals seemed to drift in my direction by happenstance. I used my thumb and finger to rotate the plastic wheel on the side of the radio with the patience of a burglar turning tumblers to crack a safe. When I got something, I listened on a little speaker pressed to my ear for the call letters and the city – Boston, New York, or Chicago – and the news and weather.

It wasn't until 1980 that I heard a second shortwave broadcast. By that time I had worked as a news director at a small AM station (whose signal, pathetically, barely reached the outer limits of our listening area). One day I visited a colleague and noticed a shortwave on his kitchen table. He let me fiddle with it and told me about his hobby. Not only can you listen to broadcasts, he said, but also you can correspond with stations around the world, which will then reward you with a nifty "QSL" card – or a souvenir, such as a lapel pin – if you send a note telling them when you listened and the quality of the reception.

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