There was a time when the only way you could listen to radio stations abroad was to use shortwave. There were special multiband radios for this, and you had to go through the dials ever so slowly, or you’d miss the station you were looking for. Even if you did get the station, you could easily lose it, depending on factors like the quality of the shortwave radio, the strength of the broadcasting station’s signal, and even the weather.
I don’t know just how many people listened to shortwave. My hunch is that it was popular as a form of political subversion. During the Cold War, people behind the Iron Curtain (East European countries under a communist regime) and the Bamboo Curtain (China)—would listen to BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) or the VOA (Voice of America). Both BBC and VOA were operated by governments, and had broadcasts in many languages, especially those used in communist countries.
The propaganda war went both ways. Radio Peking (it was still Peking then, instead of Beijing) also had its shortwave broadcasts sent out to the world in all kinds of languages, including Filipino, boasting the achievements of socialist China and the superiority of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong thought.
Listening to Radio Peking was difficult, not just because of the unreliable shortwave broadcasts but also because it was technically illegal to listen to communist propaganda. In a rural area, listening to Radio Peking was proof you were part of the underground opposed to Marcos.
Martial law came and went and, I guess, Radio Peking as well. Today you can get Chinese TV stations through cable, with occasional propaganda films but mostly a fare of sports and entertainment, and with ads for all kinds of capitalist goods: computers, cell phones, even traditional Chinese medicines.
Today we have hundreds of cable TV channels besides the Chinese ones. With CNN, BBC, HBO, National Geographic and Cartoon Network, it seems that the world is now at everyone’s fingertips, in living color at that. So, why need shortwave?
Mind you, shortwave radios are still found in the market, this time with digital dials to make it easier to track down a channel. They used to be very expensive but you’ll find units lower than P1,000 now. Made in China of course.
But the days of these shortwave radios are numbered now that there’s Internet radio. Thousands of radio stations have been streaming through the Internet for several years now, so you could get the stations through a computer. The quality now depends on the speed of Internet connections, which has improved tremendously through the years.
But listening to Internet radio with a computer, even a laptop, still isn’t very convenient. So it took the emergence of tablets (for example Apple’s iPad) and smartphones (cell phones that allow you to surf on the Internet) to get more people on to, and, in my case, hooked on Internet radio.
The tablets and the smartphones are so portable with a reliable 3G connection, or a stable Wi-Fi connection, you can pretty much listen to the world wherever you are in the house, in the office, or at the beach. You can listen even while driving, but if there’s no one with you it’s difficult changing the stations, so make sure you have everything fixed before you start to drive.
It’s interesting how radio has survived despite many predictions that TV, then computers, would displace them. Radio is a friend and companion. They stay around even if you’re not listening, bringing life to empty nests, and other places that need enlivening. The other day I asked my secretary if there was a concert out in the parking lot, and she sheepishly smiled that she had on the radio full blast because it kept her from hearing “other sounds.” Our building is one of the oldest in UP Diliman, more than 60 years old with grand high ceilings.
If you do want to listen though, radio provides more than white noise. It’s informative, it’s entertaining, it’s even intellectually stimulating if you know where to look—and this is why the Internet is such a boon because, let’s face it, we don’t have too many local radio stations offering substantive programs.
An important tip here: get an app (software) or listen to Internet radio rather than look for all kinds of stations. I use Tune In Radio. Go to tunein.com, with apps for computers, tablets and smartphones. You can browse stations by genre or location, save your favorite ones as presets so you can just click on them when you want them. You can also search for stations, typing in BBC (which will give you many options) or dzMM! It’s a free app, but if you get the Pro version, it even allows you to record programs, which I find very useful for science talk shows, and for music.
My favorite stations are BBC (World Service, and BBC3, which is classical music) and NPR (American National Public Radio) and CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) with a wide assortment of programs, from news on the hour, to discussions around science, the arts, even religion and ethics. Note down the times when a good program comes up so you can go back to that station the same time the next day or the next week. (Or, go to their websites to get the schedule of the programs.)
NPR is actually a network of public radio stations, funded by communities and mainly educational, with a liberal slant. The main NPR station broadcasts out of Washington, D.C., but you can also look for local stations which have local shows interspersed with the national ones. I use KQED out of San Francisco because I lived around that city, the Bay Area, for many years, and it’s always nice to know what freeway traffic snarls you’ve been spared. . . and the weather report and San Francisco’s fog.
CBC is operated by the Canadian government but is in many ways similar to NPR with local community inputs. I listen to CBC Ottawa because my sister lives in that city, and it’s good to be able to e-mail her, “Hey, I heard that. . .”
For classical music I listen to BBC3, WFMT and a Dutch station, Radio 4, that last station because Radio 4 was my constant companion when I was studying in the Netherlands. I’m tuned in right now, with the announcer talking rapidly in Dutch, which reminds me that listening to Internet radio can be a good way of practicing a foreign language. Try Radio Catalunya in Spain for a unique language that sounds like Spanish, Portuguese and English.
Now you know why radio will live on with the Internet. It will be especially important for Filipinos, because we are now spread out all over the world. Overseas Filipinos do use the Internet to listen to our local stations, even calling in sometimes to participate in talk shows. And when Filipinos come home after having lived overseas, to study or to work, the Internet offers nostalgic comfort, and companionship.
But the turning point has been the emergence of tablets and smartphones. Surfing for news and e-mail through a smartphone is still difficult.
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