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"On the Short Waves, 1923-1945"

Reviewed by Dr. Kim Andrew Elliott, Voice of America

This review was presented in the May 1, 1999 edition of the VOA program, "Communications World." This script can also be found at http://www.trsc.com/cw/cw_990501.html. Reprinted with permission.

"On the Short Waves, 1923 to 1945" - That's the name of a new book by Jerome Berg, known to his fellow DXers as Jerry Berg. There have been previous books about international and shortwave broadcasting, but this is the first that looks at the subject from the perspective of the hobbyist listener.

Since 1986, Jerry has been the chairman of the Committee to Preserve Radio Verifications. Verification, or QSL, cards are a central feature of the shortwave DXing hobby. Most shortwave, and many medium wave, broadcast stations send QSLs to listeners who send reception reports. These QSLs are considered proof that a shortwave DXer has heard x number of station in y number of countries. Veteran DXers and their families have been sending collections of QSLs and other literature sent by radio stations to Jerry's committee. Jerry also searched out old shortwave magazines and memorabilia at antique radio club meetings. As a result, Jerry amassed an unparalleled collection tracing the history of the shortwave listening hobby. And that was the basis for his new book.

Jerry begins with the pre-history of shortwave, the first spark-gap transmissions, then the development of the vacuum tube, which made voice transmission possible. The precursor of shortwave DXing was long distance listening in the medium wave band, where broadcasting first developed. Jerry traces the evolution of the radio hobbies. By the early 1920s, the radio amateurs who transmitted were distinguishing themselves from those who listened and who were beginning to complain about interference caused by the transmitting amateurs. The listeners themselves were dividing into two camps, the DXers or fans, who thrilled in hearing distant stations, and the program listeners who just wanted to be entertained by program content. DXing was enough of a mainstream activity in the early 1920s that, in many major cities, radio stations went off the air weekly during so-called "silent nights." This would allow listeners to hear stations from distant locations. As broadcasting became a significant source of revenue, the practice of silent nights was dropped.

In chapter three, Jerry discusses the early experimental shortwave broadcasts. We learn that Frank Conrad of Westinghouse, who developed the first medium wave broadcast station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, also set up the first shortwave broadcasts, as early as 1921. In 1924, the General Electric and Crosley companies started shortwave transmissions. These were not primarily direct-to-home broadcast services, but served to relay their respective medium wave stations, as Jerry explains:

[Reading from the book] "The leading broadcasters wanted to reduce reliance on cables for network connection among regular AM broadcast stations, and eliminate the dominance of the national cable operator, American Telephone and Telegraph, which did not wish to lease telephone lines to stations. AT&T was the owner of station WEAF, and thus a competitor. The company was also in conflict with American radio companies on issues concerning who would control U.S. broadcasting. With the settlement of these disputes in 1926, the resulting retirement of AT&T as a broadcaster, and its agreement to lease long-distance telephone lines to the radio companies for networking purposes, one of the early commercial rationales for the development of shortwave disappeared."

In Europe, shortwave broadcasts from Britain and the Netherlands began in 1927. Part two of Jerry's book is under the heading "Shortwave Comes of Age: the 1930s." And indeed, by this decade U.S. shortwave listeners could hear the well-organized international broadcasting efforts from Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union, Britain, and many other countries. Jerry devotes a separate chapter to shortwave broadcasting from the United States, which in the 1930s consisted of several private stations. The idea was to use popular American radio programs to attract audiences overseas, and thus to bring advertising revenue. But foreign audiences were difficult to measure, and were not always relevant to U.S. advertisers.

Jerry Berg's account of the early days of the Voice of America comes at the conclusion of his chapter on U.S. shortwave broadcasting in the 1930s. I would have expected it in his section on the "war years," as VOA did not begin until 1942, as a result of the United States entry into the war. This seven-page account documents the complex development of VOA from in inception in February 1942, to the government takeover of private shortwave transmitters in November of that same year. Programs were produced by both the Office of War Information and the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. Here is an excerpt.

[Reading from the book] "The government began leasing 15-minute blocks of air time over the private shortwave broadcasters and producing its own programs, calling them, fairly casually, the Voice of America. They introduced them with the Yankee Doodle theme that is still familiar to listeners of the Voice of America. Thus, at the outset, the Voice of America was neither a station nor a government agency, but a series of short, government-produced programs."

Jerry Berg describes the shortwave listening hobby in the 1930s with chapters on receivers, popular shortwave magazines, clubs, and station QSLs received by DXers during that decade. The book concludes with two chapters about shortwave during World War Two. Armed forces broadcasting services and clandestine broadcasts are included here. Here's one passage.

[Reading from the book] "Another interesting German endeavor was Radio Debunk, the 'Voice of All Free America.' It was heard in the United States on varying frequencies, including 6275 and 7200 kc., around 8:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, opening with 'Stars and Stripes Forever.' It purported to be using a mobile transmitter in the Midwest, but it actually operated from Bremen. The folksy presentations of 'Ed and Joe Scanlon' were always anti-American."

The final chapter of Jerry's book is "Listening in Wartime." Amazingly, Jerry's research shows that shortwave DXing remained as an organized hobby during the second world war, although in a reduced form, with so many DXers in the military service or working late hours in defense industries. Most shortwave receiver manufacturers shifted to the war effort, but Zenith began its popular multiband Trans-Oceanic series in 1942. In some other countries, during the war, listening to foreign stations was a criminal offense.

Jerry, or Jerome, Berg's "On the Short-Waves, 1923 to 1945" is clearly written, although the subject matter will appeal more to the radio enthusiast than to the general reader. Until now, most of what we have known about the early years of shortwave broadcasting and the shortwave listening hobby has been in hard-to-find bits and pieces. Now it's collected in one very interesting book.

"On the Short-Waves" will be published in July by McFarland & Company of Jefferson, North Carolina, http://www.mcfarlandpub.com The price is $42.50.

I'm conducting a drawing so that at least one of you can win a copy of "On the Short-Waves, 1923 to 1945." Please send me a postcard if possible, or a letter (no E-mails please). Please let me know the date and time you are hearing this, and the frequency, or, if applicable, the name or the local rebroadcaster, satellite service, or Web site. My address is Communications World, Voice of America, Washington, D.C. 20547, USA.