Conflict in distant lands sparks interest in shortwave radio By Julie Pendray From SignOnSanDiego.com <TABLE VALIGN="TOP"> <TR> <TD> Harry Hodges sets his alarm to 1 a.m. and awakens to get on the radio. He may chat with an acquaintance in Australia, talk with someone about an exotic broadcast locale, or he may get down to serious listening. What's happening in Afghanistan? Is anyone broadcasting? </TD> <TD> </TD> </TR> </TABLE> U.S. Air National Guard EC-130s are flying over Afghanistan broadcasting music and information on shortwave, and other operators are setting up stations. The radio station in Kabul is back on the air, now run by the Northern Alliance. A retired Army lieutenant colonel, Hodges chats day and night on the amateur radio bands within the shortwave spectrum. He's not alone. There are already about 9,000 amateur radio operators, or "hams," in San Diego County, and about 700,000 nationwide. And with the outbreak of war and threat of terrorist acts, shortwave is on the rise. Sales of shortwave radios from manufacturers to dealers showed a 19 percent increase in September over the same time last year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association, a national group that tracks purchases. "Sales of shortwave radios are up so much that they cannot deliver them fast enough to the radio stores," said Stewart MacKenzie, the Orange County-based general manager of the American Shortwave Listener's Club. MacKenzie estimated that shortwave listening has increased 100 percent since Sept. 11, based on his discussions with manufacturers, radio contacts around the world and increased hits on the club's Web site. For amateur radio operators like Hodges, or shortwave listeners like Vista's Kitty Morse, shortwave provides a window to the world. "There's a romance to it, listening to a foreign language coming from so far away," said Morse, who has been listening for years. "It's amazing when you think about it." So, what can you hear on shortwave? You can pick up coded and uncoded information from the military, ships, aircraft, even spies or the president of the United States. (Of course, using some of the information is regulated.) "You could have heard the former Taliban station in their language if you knew their language," said MacKenzie. "Or you can hear the American military sending radio signals from an aircraft that flies at 30,000 feet and beams signals down to Afghanistan, or beaming programs to Afghanistan from Diego Garcia, an island in the Indian Ocean." The most popular station on shortwave, in English, is the British Broadcasting Corp. World Service. "The BBC is the most nonpolitical, non-propaganda station in the world," said the 73-year-old Hodges, who operates under the call sign W6YOO. "When people hear the BBC say something, they believe them. There's certainly a lot more news. It's more complete and there are less interruptions from advertisements." Morse used to listen to the BBC as she was growing up in Morocco. In North Africa and Europe, she said, people are glued to shortwave. "In Morocco we go to sleep every night listening to Big Ben on the BBC World Service," said Morse, of her travels with her husband. Wartime spurs interest in shortwave listening. Equipment sold well during the Gulf War, according to Tom McDuffie, manager of the San Diego branch of Ham Radio Outlet. The company is considered the biggest provider of ham radio equipment in the world. Hodges' fascination with shortwave goes back to a different war. "We used to listen to Radio Moscow when we were in Korea," he recalled, as he glanced at his military memorabilia and photos in his home office in Escondido. "I got interested in shortwave when I was serving in Vietnam in the Army and I was able to contact my wife and family in the U.S. via a station with a phone patch." Now Hodges is an operator with the U.S. Army Military Affiliate Radio System, known as MARS. The system uses licensed amateur radio operators who are interested in military communications on a local, national and international basis. He is also a local contact for the American Radio Relay League, an organization that offers a wealth of information for hams. On any given day, he may give tours of his equipment, chat and give licensing tests to would-be amateur operators. In these days of the Internet, why would someone choose to communicate with people on shortwave? "Why do people climb Everest? Because it's there. It's the challenge of it," said Hodges. He acknowledged that "Amateur radio operators are funny ducks -- we're different from other people." He doesn't go to the same lengths as some "DX-ers" -- shortwave buffs -- who seek out tiny islands in the middle of nowhere, bobbing their way in rubber boats, equipment packed in ice chests, just to say they've broadcast from an exotic locale. Some people have been shot at, even killed, while pursuing these extreme adventures, he said. "These guys are nuts." But Hodges does have at least one album filled with postcards that DX-ers have sent him from all over the world. These exotic trips are called DXpeditions. While the American Shortwave Listener's Club's motto is "World Friendship Through Shortwave," some DX-ers are blunt about what they find in their hunt for adventure. One card sent to Hodges from the South Sandwich Islands reads, "The most awful place in the world" -- a quote from Captain James Cook.