Way back in the “dark ages” when there was no internet, Americans who lived abroad depended on their shortwave radios to keep up with what was going on in the world.
Somewhere at home I still have my old radio, with its analog tuner and scales for various parts of the shortwave spectra of stations. That thing—a Phillips, I think—weighed a ton but it would pull in stations from around the globe with its enormous antenna.
The first big improvement to shortwave was the introduction of far smaller transistor radios that were a fraction of the size and heft yet did a much better job.
We always hoped for cold, clear nights. That’s when all the expats could be found fiddling with their radios, searching the shortwave ether, intent on finding out what was happening, especially at home. You didn’t bother trying to pull in stations in daytime.
The BBC was always the preferred station for comprehensive and unbiased English-language broadcasts, with the U.S. government’s Voice of America network also well worth checking. The VoA was good, but BBC was the gold standard.
Even then, we often tried to grab the signal from Radio Moscow to get their skewed view of events. It often seemed to me that the Russians had a better signal (clearer sound) than either the Brits or Americans. But there was never any doubt of the Russkies’ political bent in their broadcasts. I mean, they were so obvious.
This was especially true in the early 1970s, when we lived for a few months in the Cayman Islands while I ran a newspaper there. That was hard work but a lot of fun.
The paper was a weekly called The Cayman Compass and the owner was Reid Dennis, who grew up in Warrenton. I had known Reid when he worked for The Fauquier Democrat (now The Fauquier Times).
Wherever I traveled, there were always Yanks and Brits.
Well, why wouldn’t they be? For centuries the British were serious, hard-core explorers, locked in competition with other European seafaring countries. They had a huge fleet of vessels and almost surely the largest number of highly trained sea captains and sailors manning them.
My mentor as a young journalist was John Eisenhard, and a finer mentor and gentleman you could not find. I worked for him for five years at The Democrat, when that newspaper was owned by one Hubert Phipps.
I could write an entire column about the relationship of those two men but won’t. Both of them are gone now anyway, so what’s the point?
This was the era of the Vietnam War, and that war divided the country as fiercely as it is split right now, probably more so.
I seriously doubt Phipps knew it but Eisenhard often worked the night shift at VoA in downtown D.C., driving all the way into the city, then back again, only to grab a few hours’ sleep and get back to work at The Democrat in the morning. I don’t know how he did that.
Well that era is long past now and those radios from the pre-internet days are obsolete. In their place is the ubiquitous internet with its Wi-Fi. The expatriates in Timbuktu or Tougaloo know what you know, from the same sources, at the same moment.
What happened to those hours scanning the radio dial, searching for a signal from a distant land, carrying a reassuring voice telling you all’s right with your world?
The news isn’t necessarily more accurate now, but sure gets around the world a lot faster. That seems to be of paramount of importance.
Paul Sullivan of Spotsylvania County, a former Free Lance–Star reporter, is a freelance writer. Email him at email@example.com.