U.S. shortwave broadcasters consider themselves rebels - and are proud
by James Careless
That's how many broadcasters view privately-owned U.S. shortwave radio
stations. They've got a point; when it comes to the conventions of
commercial AM/FM radio, this country's 25-odd shortwave stations are
anything but conventional.
In fact, the U.S. shortwave broadcast industry is sufficiently
different from domestic AM and FM that it has its own lobbying group,
the National Association of Shortwave Broadcasters (online at www.shortwave.org
). A look at its membership list reveals stations unknown to most U.S.
broadcasters, such as WMLK Assemblies of Yahweh, KAIJ Two If By Sea
Broadcasting Corp., and WRMI Radio Miami International.
Missing from the shortwave ownership list are names like Clear Channel
and Infinity. Most U.S. shortwave stations are owned by religious
groups, while a few others, such as WRMI and WBCQ, are commercially
Why is U.S. shortwave so different?
First, AM and FM are local or regional in coverage, while SW is
national or international, thanks to the way radio waves propagate in
the 5,000-30,000 kHz area of the spectrum. Like familiar AM signals at
night, amplitude-modulated shortwave signals literally bounce off the
ionosphere, allowing them to reach thousands of miles beyond the
horizon. However, shortwave signals do this all the time, depending on
which of the SW bands are used.
FCC-Authorized U.S. Shortwave Stations
Two If By Sea Broadcasting Corp.
KFBS Northern Mariana Islands, SA
Far East Broadcasting Co.
KHBN Medorn, Aimeliik, Palau
High Adventure Ministries
KIMF Pinon, N.M.
International Fellowship of Churches
KJES Vado, N.M.
Our Lady's Youth Center
KNLS Anchor Point, Alaska
World Christian Broadcasting Corp.
KSDA Agat, Guam
Adventist Broadcasting Service Inc.
KTBN Salt Lake City
Trinity Christian Center of Santa Ana Inc.
KTWR Agana, Guam
Trans World Radio Pacific
KVOH Rancho Simi, Calif.
High Adventure Ministries Inc.
KWHR Naalehu, Hawaii
LeSea Broadcasting Corp.
WBCQ Monticello, Maine
Allan H. Weiner
WEWN Vandiver, Ala.
Eternal Word Television Network Inc.
WGTG McCaysville, Ga.
Blue Ridge Communications Inc.
WHRA Greenbush, Maine
LeSea Broadcasting Corp.
WHRI Noblesville, Ind.
LeSea Broadcasting Corp.
WINB Red Lion, Pa.
World International Broadcasters Inc.
WJCR Millerstown, Ky.
World Wide Gospel Radio Inc.
WMLK Bethel, Pa.
Assemblies of Yahweh
Radio Miami International
WRNO New Orleans
Good News World Outreach
WSHB Furman, S.C.
Herald Broadcasting Syndicate Inc.
WTJC Newport, N.C.
Grace Baptist Church
WWBS Macon, Ga.
Charles C. Josey
WWCR Nashville, Tenn.
WWFV McCaysville, Ga.
Blue Ridge Communications Inc.
WYFR Okeechobee, Fla.
Family Stations Inc.
The rule of thumb: higher shortwave frequencies bounce best during the
day; lower SW frequencies work better at night. Combine this with
seasonal ionospheric variations and the sun's 11-year sunspot cycle,
which affects how well SW signals bounce, and one can see that
shortwave stations need a number of frequencies assigned to each of
Second, in the United States, the SW bands are reserved for
"When the Voice of America was founded in 1947, it was prohibited from
broadcasting domestically, in order to prevent the government from
propagandizing to its citizens," says Larry Magne, editor in chief of
"Passport to World Band Radio."
"The FCC decided that if this rule applied to the VOA, it should also
apply to domestic shortwave broadcasters as well."
Fuzzy business model
However, according to NASB President and WRMI General Manager Jeff
White, the FCC's restriction has an important loophole.
"The current rules do not say SW stations cannot broadcast to the
U.S.," he said. "They say stations cannot broadcast programs that are
intended exclusively for an audience in the continental United
As a result, U.S. shortwave broadcasters typically target countries
such as Canada and Mexico, with their signals coincidentally
blanketing any U.S. territory that happens to be in the way.
For instance, WRMI's 50 kW North American feed originates from a
Florida-based periodic yagi antenna pointed towards Vancouver at 317
"With this heading, we manage to legally cover virtually all of the
continental United States," White said.
Then there's the issue of revenue. Although some U.S. shortwave
broadcasters - religious groups such as EWTN Global Catholic Radio and
Adventist World Radio, for example - don't count on making a profit,
others, like WWCR, WCBQ The Planet and WRMI, definitely do. But
although there are believed to be 600 million shortwave listeners
worldwide, including about 5 million in North America, no Arbitron-
style ratings service exists to report what they're listening to.
Without ratings, it is difficult to impossible to sell commercials. As
a result, profit-minded U.S. SW stations make their living by selling
airtime to whoever wants it. Typically, this tends to be religious or
The religious programmers run the gamut from mainstream to fringe,
while political programmers range from Cuban dissidents to right-wing
militia groups. In some cases these programmers work live in the
station's studios. However, it's more typical for them to send in
prerecorded programs on cassette, CD or MiniDisc, or to send in their
shows by phone or, increasingly, over the Internet.
The cost? "We charge anywhere from $25 to $65 an hour, depending on
the time of day and the number of hours purchased," said Allan Weiner,
WBCQ owner and general manager. Based in Monticello, Maine, the
station uses three converted commercial/military transmitters, some
home-built antennas and a 1950s-vintage mobile home converted into a
At WRMI in Miami, Jeff White sells airtime for $1 a minute. Meanwhile,
WWCR in Nashville, Tenn., charges anywhere from $15 for 4.5 minutes to
$160 for 59.5 minutes, depending on whether you're buying on a one-
day, weekly or Monday-through-Friday basis. With four 100 kW
transmitters - a single 50 kW transmitter is considered to be the bare
minimum by the FCC - WWCR has more reach and a more sophisticated
transmission/production plant than WCBQ or WRMI.
Thus, given the FCC's restriction on domestic broadcasting, the issues
of propagation, audio quality and static associated with amplitude-
modulated shortwave and the lack of a measurable audience, the
commercial SW market is not one for the faint-hearted.
Add the general public's lack of awareness of the medium - "People ask
me all the time how they can pick up Radio Miami International on
their AM/FM receivers," White said with a shrug - and one can see it's
a tough business.
"The handful of truly commercial stations may generate anywhere from
less than $200,000 a year to perhaps a few million," he added. "These
are not Clear Channel-type operations."
Paying the bills
These broadcasters are willing to put up with poor production quality
and content; this comes with the turf of selling airtime blocks. They
can tolerate downright weird shows.
"I remember one show where the guy was doing a chant to the angels,"
White said. "He just kept chanting the same thing over and over again
for 15 minutes."
In fact, U.S. SW broadcasters are willing to put up with almost
anything from their clients, as long as they pay their bills.
"It is still a free country and they have a right to say a lot of
things," said WWCR General Manager George McClintock.
"We pretty much let anyone say what they want," said Weiner. "Our
listeners demand that we be as open and free speech as possible. They
crave it. They demand it."
Besides, "The FCC doesn't really monitor the content on U.S.
shortwave," White said. "I don't think they see that as their mission
or concern. They are more worried about whether a station's technical
parameters are correct."
That said, U.S. shortwave broadcasters often suffer grief from their
clients' programming. Even radio's renegades have their limits.
For instance, WWCR learned that neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel was using his
airtime to deny the Holocaust. "We threw the program off," said
McClintock. Zundel had been broadcasting in German, and WWCR's
operators didn't understand what he was saying.
Even so, many Americans associate U.S. shortwave with far-right
broadcasts. This is ironic, given that most of what McClintock calls
"militia money" stopped flowing to shortwave broadcasters when the
dreaded year 2000 finally arrived. Apparently the New World Order's
"non-collapse," in McClintock's words, severely hurt the militias'
ability to solicit donations from listeners.
All in all, U.S. SW broadcasters operate in a strange, Twilight Zone
kind of world, but one that they relish. Passport's Magne believes
that U.S. shortwave broadcasters enjoy it so much that they don't want
the FCC to loosen its archaic restrictions on domestic shortwave.
"The truth is that they like it the way it is," he said. "If the rules
were changed, it could open the floodgates to more competition."
An unfair accusation? Not according to WRMI's White.
"We discussed changing the rules at the National Association of
Shortwave Broadcasters' convention a few years ago," he said. "In
fact, the FCC asked for our help in doing so. However, after some
discussion, a lot of people came to Magne's conclusion: that we're all
better off just leaving things as they are. After all, under the
current regime, the FCC pretty much leaves us alone. If the rules were
changed, then they might get serious about enforcing them."
"If it works for you, leave it alone," said McClintock. Granted, the
FCC shortwave rules are "as loose as a goose," he said. But "If it
ain't broke, don't fix it."
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