Sparks – A Semi-Serious Look at the Hobby

How did you start in radio, either as a SWL, scanner user or a ham?

I suppose my own experience was typical in that I was loaned a shortwave radio – an Eddystone but don’t ask me which one – and listened to exotic places which, as a schoolboy back in the 60’s, were truly ‘the other side of the world’. Back then, of course, I knew nothing about antennas so having a mains powered shortwave radio by my bed meant I was mostly listening to VOA, AFN and the ubiquitous Radio Moscow! Yet there was more than just the comments and news – nothing can quite compare with the rising, falling modulation punctuated by fading in and out, atmospheric cracks and bangs, the rat-a-tat-tat of the ‘Woodpecker’ Over-The Horizon radar system used by the Russians. Or the non stop music of the pirates like Caroline, RNI, Mi Amigo? Those were the days indeed!

Racal RA17
The Racal RA17 HF Radio

Later, I bought an old valve radio set that was so heavy it had to be consigned to the garden shed – which meant putting  lots of clothes on and  taking a flask of coffee in the autumn and winter to go hunt DX – but by then the bug had bitten. The set was the ubiquitous Racal RA17, with a frequency range of 980 kHz’s to 30MHz, although it was marked in kilo and mega cycles. Even when it was freezing cold, I’d be huddled in the shed listening in – I’d put up with anything to listen in to a world that took on a more three dimensional aspect from the geography maps we had on the walls at school. I also ‘inherited’ a rather deaf AR-88 from an elderly gentleman who heard I was a keen listener – how I wish I’d kept both now!

As the years passed, my interest did not wane and I took my Marine Restricted Radio certificate simply because I was offered it by the Mate when my ship was in dry dock. The Radio Examiner was there to check out a new Second Mate and the Mate, knowing I was into radio, suggested I did mine as well. How easy was it? Well, I didn’t need a theory exam! As I recall, it was a working knowledge of the marine frequencies, protocols and procedures and then a practical demonstration of how to operate the ship’s main set (HF) and VHF sets, some basic work on the emergency transmitter / receivers and a run through how to make a distress call, PAN call, etc. I also put in a ‘test’ call to one of the Coast radio Stations which, if memory serves me right, was Cullercoats. Also, if I remember correctly it took me a total of two hours and I was rewarded with a Board of Trade Restricted Radio Operators Licence. Add to that the Marine VHF license a few years later and there I was – an Able Seaman with two radio op certificates that most ships officers would not let me use! Well, the HF sets anyway. VHF was OK.

Then CB came along and I was one of the first in my home town to get one – a Midland hand held which I shortly afterwards swapped for a Midland base and a DV27 which – believe it or not – I attached to a metal dustbin lid on my bedroom floor! Oh the fun of those early days before CB became an excuse for ejits and the bands became overcrowded with fools who swore, ‘stepped’ on your transmission or played music. Why is it we collectively kill the things we enjoy?

Talking of CB, the ‘ultimate’ set up for me was a Silver Rod HF vertical allied to a Hy-Gain V and a 200w Zetagi amplifier. Now that could pull in the signals and many a happy DX session meant the entire night working the skip!

Anyway, the demise of CB saw me moving back to the SWL world and, as I progressed. I got well into it. I used to have a set up which was able to read CW and RTTY, owned an FRG 7700 with all the bits, an AOR scanner that covered all the way up to 1400MHz (which was the top end them days!). I also had a CW / RTTY / Telex / TOR decoder (can’t recall the name now) so was able to do data modes as well as most other things.  I sold that off, got married, and basically contiinued to dabble with a battered Russian Selena Vega set.

While I was at college (as a mature student) I owned a small set up that included my venerable old Sony ICF Pro 80 –  the world’s most under rated hand held SW receiver in my opinion and as rugged as the brick it resembled, an AR 2000 scanner and a VT 225 airband scanner. I was also writing the monthly ‘Scaning’ column in a popular radio monthly. All, alas, sold off as the studying meant less and less time to play with the ether. Other sets in use at this time were the Realistic DX 394 and a Sangean ATS 803 – both fairly good sets for the price they cost.

A bleak period followed where I was without anything at all until – in a rash moment last year – I decided to say ‘bugrit’ and bought the beautiful, much loved Grundig SAT 8800 (see review) followed by the GRE PSR282 (see review) – and am dabbling again. Mostly HF stuff and civvy airband but will look at BC bands and hams now and again.  There is a stromng temptation to buy another scanner soley for military airband – but maybe later this year!

While I derive a great enjoyment out of radio, I am a bit angry about the new digital revolution going on that will see most of the HF stuff shut off. Now, having paid loads of money for my Grundig, them lying politicos and the visionaries of the broadcasting world want to slash my investment overnight and force me to go digital. Funny old world. If it has a profit attached, it is good for them. If it is free, stamp it out. As many digi box isers will know, the signal can sometimes be completely knocked out by ‘atmospherics’ – right in the middle of something you’re getting in to! So much for the huge push towards ‘the ultimate listening experience’. Old time 27MHz CB’ers may detect some déjà vu in that mentality….. full circle!

Which leads me to where I was going first of all.

What have we got nowadays? Well, there is 446MHz PMR. Yes, I have dabbled. I set up an internet connection via a gateway (and very good it was too) but it didn’t have the same appeal as ‘working’ a real radio. In terms of radio, the short range and lack of additional power make it a bit tame for someone schooled in the old AM CB days. I do think it is a good thing and I am glad it is unlicensed, making it available to anyone, and yes it has its uses – but oh my…..for the good old bad old days of AM CB!

Digital may well really be the inevitable end to shortwave broadcasting and signal encryption the end of scanning as we know it. How long? Who knows? The headlong rush towards digital seems to be a lemming’s charge as it is still largely an unknown factor and some countries have reverted back to their FM broadcasts after finding digital is not as good as it is cracked up to be! One source – I believe it was in Finland – says that DAB has not got the coverage nor has it raised consumer awareness.  Add to this the relative high cost of the kit and hello, we have a problem.

It does mean the end of our crackling, hissing medium and short wave sets as it brings us CD quality broadcasts via our TV’s and internet. Sadly, for me it will never have the magic of old fashioned ‘steam radio’. Half the fun was always pulling out a weak signal – really working the set – and being rewarded by an exotic broadcast or two. Now, I can tune in via the ‘net or satellite and ‘pull’ in many US stations that would have needed the right conditions to push the ‘S’ meter up even with a good antenna!

No, for me, DAB is too easy and I, for one, will mourn the passing of what was an experience that led on to a lifetime’s interest. We may well like to make things easy nowadays but in doing so, we kill the magic of discovery that often led to other things. And wasn’t magic what it was all about?

John Griffiths © 2005

About TM1 78 Articles
Simon is the founder and owner of the TM1 website. Since 1999 he has provided the online community with a place to meet up with like minded radio enthusiasts and discuss projects relating to the hobby and a large number of equipment reviews and resources totally free of charge.


  1. Great write up. Very inspiring. I am a keen amateur on cb and ham too and find these reports very informational. Many thanks for your efforts.
    Mark Dj1


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