Saturday, May 26, 2012

Reader comments: Memories of collecting QSL cards

When this week's series on QSL cards began on Monday, reader Jim Fahringer was nice enough to leave a long, three-part response with his memories of collecting QSLs. Here is what Fahringer wrote, with some patriotic QSLs interspersed for Memorial Day weekend:
I really like collecting QSL cards. There is another type of QSL card which I happen to collect. These QSL cards are issued by international shortwave radio stations from around the world. You don't have to be a ham radio operator or CB radio operator to enjoy them. You simply have to be a shortwave radio listener.

When radio first came out for the general public in the 1920s and 1930s there were very few AM stations up and running on the AM dial, so radio manufacturers produced radios with shortwave bands. These additional radio bands allowed the early radio listeners to have more of a variety of stations to listen to. My first experience with shortwave radio was at my grandmother's house in the late 1950s. She had an old Silvertone floor model shortwave radio. This radio had a cathode ray tube which stuck out from the radio dial. When the radio warmed up, the cathode ray tube would glow green. The tube contained two black lines at the top and bottom of the tube. When you were tuning in your station the closer the black lines became the better the reception of the station. When the two black lines became one line or became as close as you could make them -- it meant that you had the station fine tuned for best quality possible. Back then, as well as today, most developed countries of the world have an external shortwave radio service directed to other parts of the world including North America. The broadcasts directed to North America are in the English language.

Jack "Red Raider" Gienty's KOB0440 QSL card from Bristol, Connecticut.

Any listener can earn a QSL card by filling out a reception report and submitting it to the station. The reception report should contain the following info in order to qualify for a QSL card (although today the requirements are less stringent than they were years ago):
  • 1. You must listen to the transmission for a period of at least 15 minutes
  • 2. Write the date you heard the transmission
  • 3. Write the time that you heard the transmission in Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), which used to be called Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)
  • 4. Write down the name of the station
  • 5. Write down the name of the program
  • 6. Write down the frequency on which you heard the program (It is much easier with today's digital read-out radio dials than it was on older radios. On older radios you would have to guess the frequency and then listen closely to the announcer as he announced the frequency numbers at the end of the program to accurately tell what frequency you were listening to.)
  • 7. Take notes and submit at least three details that you heard on the program
  • 8. Include a SIO or SINPO report (S = Signal Strength, I = Intereference, O = Overall Reception, N = Noise, P = Propogation). You write down a number from 1 to 5 indicating the quality of each item. 1 is the lowest or poorest, while 5 is the best. (These reports are not as useful as they once were, because many shortwave broadcasters have access to electronic monitoring equipment in other countries.)
  • 9. Stations used to like to hear about what model and type of shortwave radio and antenna that were using.
  • 10. After writing down these details, you would send them to the station and anxiously await your QSL in the mail. Today many stations allow you to fill out reception reports online.
In addition to receiving a QSL card, you could often receive a station pennant, giveaways, memorabilia, decals and program guides. Shortwave radio listening and collecting international shortwave radio QSL cards was and is a wonderful way to learn about the culture, government and customs of foreign countries. It is also an interesting and creative way to learn about world geography.

Bob Malboeuf's KMA-6566 QSL card from Worcester, Massachusetts.

Personally, I am amazed at this scientific phenomena of radio waves, which can travel thousands of miles around the globe and penetrate the bricks and mortar of our homes or apartments and be received on radio equipment to produce the spoken word and music.

While most countries of the world continue to broadcast to North America in the evenings in English, a number have stopped issuing QSL cards or require several international reply coupons or dollars to cover postage. In the early days of radio, many AM stations that were far away would also issue QSL cards or letters of verification. These early verification letters/cards and QSL cards from AM stations are quite collectable.

One of the more unusual international QSL cards in my collection is one from "Radio Americus." It seem that "Radio Americus" was a clandestine radio station operated by the CIA on Swan Island in the Caribbean. Its purpose was to destabilize the communist government in Cuba. The station has long since been out of commission. Another interesting QSL card in my collection is one from the U.S. Army Strategic Communication Command in Washington, D.C. The call letters of this station are W.A.R. Some other interesting QSL cards are from cable and wireless international stations in Jamaica and a number from the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy.

I forgot to mention that, in addition to getting QSL cards from international shortwave stations, you could also get QSL cards from private as well as government utility stations like Armed Services and international time stations. Of course, I have QSLs from BBC-London, Radio Canada International, Radio Canada Northern Service, Radio Madrid-Spain, Radio France International, Radio Berlin International, The Voice Germany-Cologne-West Germany, Radio Budapest, Radio Sofia, Radio Moscow, Radio Kiev, The Voice of the West-Lisbon-Portugal, Radio Netherlands, Radio Switzerland, Radio France International, Radio Sweden, Radio Accra-Ghana, Radio Cairo, ELWA-Monrovia-Liberia, Radio South Africa, Radio Australia, Radio New Zealand, Radio Havana, Radio Mexico, Trans World Radio-Bonaire-Netherlands Antilles, 4VEH-Cape Haitian-Haiti, HCJB-Quito-Ecuador, Radio Brazil and Radio Argentina, among others.

Some of the more interesting programs that I heard include: the last transmission before Russian troops invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, the playing of martial music over Radio Moscow in honor of President John F. Kennedy on the day of his assassination and throughout the weekend, and the quoting and reading of an editorial of J.W. Gitt, former owner and editor of The Gazette and Daily newspaper of York, Pennsylvania, over Radio Havana, Cuba.

Another interesting feature of shortwave radio programming was the wide spread use of "Mailbag Programs." Listeners would write letters to these programs with questions about the country and its customs. The letters would be read and the questions answered over the air. It used to be such a thrill to have your letter read and your questions answered for all the world to hear. I had questions answered on Radio Canada, Radio Havana Cuba, HCJB-Quito-Ecuador, Radio Moscow, The Voice of America, Radio Cairo, and Trans World Radio-Bonaire-Netherlands Antilles.

Shortwave radio listening is a wonderful educational experience and collecting QSL cards from international stations is a wonderful hobby.
Thanks again for sharing all of this, Jim!

1 comment:

  1. Jim Fahringer's summary of the shortwave and QSL scene c. 1985 is an excellent snapshot of the intrigues of the pre-Internet Cold War era, redolent of high frequencies and short wavelengths of decades past.

    Unfortunately, many of the broadcasters he mentioned no longer issue QSL cards, no longer broadcast to the United States, no longer broadcast in English, or no longer broadcast, period -- to wit:

    BBC -- No longer issues QSL cards:

    Radio Canada International -- Gone as of 2012:

    Radio Berlin International -- Auf Wiedersehen in 1990. I have one of their last QSL cards.

    Deutsche Welle -- Broadcasts to Africa and Afghanistan only:

    Radio Budapest, Radio Kiev, Radio Sofia, Radio Moscow, Radio Sweden, Swiss Radio International, etc. -- Fuggetaboutit. (Just take my word.)

    On the other hand, Radio Havana Cuba still broadcasts in English to the United States and still issues QSL cards:

    Finally, as mentioned in another post on this site, after the better part of a century, Radio Australia on shortwave just went dark two days ago (January 31, 2017). Have a listen to the lugubrious obsequies intoned by the last of the shortwave greats, Glenn Hauser:

    To quote Mr. Hauser: "Sad." 73.