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Date: 12/03/06

"When Airwaves Swing..."

When my father received his Long Service Award from Brymbo Steelworks in the early 1970s, he was given the princely sum of £35. With that, he decided to buy a second-hand Grundig radiogram from Bert Evans, who owned one of the newsagents' shops in the village.

This was a mighty and stylish beast, built in the good, old-fashioned 'brick shithouse' style. The robustness didn't quite extend to the electrics, however, and it had to be repaired. Indeed, at one point, Mr Evans gave my father his money back, and he instead bought a brand new Ferguson radiogram from Telefusion in Wrexham. This also went wrong in short order, as did the Ultra set which replaced it. They were both manufactured by Thorn ('Ferguson' and 'Ultra' being much like 'Austin' and 'Morris' of the automotive world - mere 'badge engineering'). In the end, the Ultra too went back to the shop (after much involvement from the local Trading Standards office after Telefusion decided to get stroppy with my mother - not the best idea any company has ever had), and the deal with Bert Evans was on a second time.

And so the Grundig became my father's pride and joy, and he would often spend his evenings feeding LPs on to its turntable - brass bands, military bands, light music of all sorts. I vividly remember one evening his playing my Geoff Love And His Orchestra Play Your Top TV Themes album, which included an arrangement of the theme from Match Of The Day. Suddenly, there was a timid knock on the living-room door, and there stood our next-door neighbour Mr Roberts ('Uncle Hubert' to me, although the relationship was a very tenuous one - his brother had married my auntie Florrie). "Is there football on the telly, Bill?", he asked.

(Just in case you were wondering; yes, these were the days when you could still leave your back door unlocked for your next-door neighbours to come in as they pleased. It's not a myth; indeed, it was considered quite rude and stand-offish if you didn't).

I also remember well one evening giving Dad my 7" single of Autobahn by Kraftwerk. He put on the B-side, Kometenmelodie I, and listened intently for the full six-minutes-plus of tones and effects. When it finished, he frowned in puzzlement and said, "I was waiting for it to start!". He was sixty-four years old, so I thought it really rather sporting of him even to listen to the whole thing.

There was much more to this powerful creature than the turntable, of course. There was a four-band radio. This is where my story really starts. But first, a lot of personal history...

My fascination with radio had started at a very young age. I'm sure that I heard early broadcasts from the pirate station Caroline North, anchored off the Isle Of Man, standing in our back kitchen at about 6am one morning while my brother was getting ready for work. I would have been no more than three years of age. We had only mains-operated valve radios at the time. There was one big oblong one, the make of which I don't remember, but a little later there was a squat Bush model (possibly the DAC90A). I would listen to Vincent Kane presenting Good Morning, Wales on the old Welsh Region (sic) of BBC Home Service (later Radio 4) before scooting off to school. It was almost like a bereavement when this finally gave up the ghost, failing to come on one morning.

So it was time to embrace the future. My mother bought a Marconiphone transistor portable from our local Curry's. This was, in strict factual terms, a four-band receiver, but two of the bands were short-wave, so no VHF/FM band. The set was powered off a great big PP9 battery (which effectively doubled the weight of the thing). It wasn't entirely reliable, either, the rotary volume control being prone to bad contacts. And the red pointers on the dial broke off quite early on, too, leaving mere stumps to navigate by.

This, though, was where the magic of radio started to kick in. I was allowed, if I had been a good boy, to take it up to bed with me! I was six or seven, so my bedtime would have been sometime shortly after 8pm at that time. If I hadn't whined too much, or hadn't cheeked my elders, or had done well at school, or hadn't pissed the bed the night before (I was a very nervous child and also afraid of the dark, which made getting out of bed in the middle of the night and crossing the landing to the lavatory an insurmountable problem), I got to take the radio upstairs at bedtime. There, the Marconiphone would sit, tuned usually to Radio Luxembourg, although BBC Radio 2 often got a look in as well. I would listen for about an hour to Barry Alldis or Jimmy Savile, until I was ordered off to sleep, and the radio was removed to its usual place in the living room.

This went on for a couple of years or so, until the Marconiphone packed up. Someone, it may have been my Uncle Harry (I had two, this was my mother's brother), gave me a little two-band job (long wave & medium wave). I don't remember the make, but it was enclosed in a mock-leather case which gave off a most peculiar smell. It had its problems, however, namely that the band selector switch was temperamental and usually wouldn't stay on the medium wave setting. This ruled out Radio Luxembourg, but was OK for Radio 2, which broadcast on long wave in those days. So it was that I would listen, sometimes illicitly, to Humphrey Lyttleton's Jazz Club, On The Latin Beat (I think that's what it was called) with Leopoldo Mahler (I think that's what he was called, but Google isn't my friend on either point), even to Wally Whyton's Country Club. On Friday nights, I would stay awake until way after 10pm to try to catch Radio 4's topical comedy show Week Ending, or Ronnie Barker's Lines From My Grandfather's Forehead (currently being repeated as a tribute).

A year or so later, I got a replacement set. I cringe now at my acquisitiveness as I recall how I wheedled out of my Uncle Harry the three-band Philips set he'd himself only just been given. This was a fine little set and, for the first time, included a VHF band! Admittedly, VHF signals weren't all that good at the time round our way, especially not on a set with nothing more than a smallish telescopic aerial. Nevertheless, for the next four years or so, this was my way of hearing programmes such as I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, and indeed most of Radio 4's output at that time.

Which brings me, by a commodius vicus of recirculation, to the Grundig radiogram. This was usually off-limits to me simply from the practical consideration of its being in the living room, and therefore in competition with the television. Except when my father was spinning an Eddie Calvert LP or something. But my opportunity came eventually. By the age of about thirteen, I was considered sufficiently grown up to be left at home on my own on a Saturday afternoon while Dad went out to the football and Mum went to see Nain (grandmother). Now, at that age, there were two ways in which a boy could have spent the afternoon. However, I had been giving the Grundig lascivious glances for some time, and was desperate to get my hands on it, much as I had gazed longingly at the centre-page spread of the Grundig catalogue which had featured the Satellit radio with its dozens of short-wave bands.

You see, the Grundig had what my radio didn't, and that was a short-wave band! I had had the occasional dalliance with this, and had listened to the whistling and popping and the strange tongues emanating from the big old speakers as I spun the counterbalanced tuning knob from one end of the dial to the other. Now was my chance to go all the way! I plugged it in and pressed the key marked SW. On came the lights behind the tuning dial, followed by the green glow of the EM87 'magic eye' valve. After a few seconds, this settled down to show bright green at each end with a gap in the middle to show that there was no strong signal coming in. Slowly, gently, lovingly, I turned the knob. Once more, the strange noises and voices started to emerge. Unlike the tuning scales for medium wave and long wave, there were none of those names which were the radio equivalents of Chimborazo and Cotapaxi: Kalundborg, Saarlouis, Lahti, even Athlone! Here, on the short-wave band, there were no directions like that, only roughly-drawn maps of the broadcast bands: 49m, 41m, 31m, and so on. Here was adventure.

The voices kept on coming as I edged my way along the dial, in languages strange to me. Suddenly, I was stopped in my tracks by...yodelling? Intrigued, I stayed with it. It turned into that sort of alpine polka music which has given the accordion its deserved reputation. Then I heard, "This is Swiss Radio International in Bern". Ah! Something I understood! I sat in my father's armchair and waited.

Then, at quarter past the hour came a fourteen-note sting, followed by an English-speaking voice. I listened on, fascinated by the notion that from hundreds of miles away, someone was telling me about their country. This was a form of magic! Out of nothing, invisibly warping the molecules in the air to bring these sounds to me. To me, sitting in a draughty council house in an industrial village in Wales, where just to go across the border to Chester was an expedition! I sat still and silent, scarcely daring to breathe in case this enchantment was scared away.

After a news programme came another announcement, saying that it was time for Swiss Short-Wave Merry-Go-Round. Goodness, I thought, that sounds rather jolly! So there I sat, and heard a short burst of brass music interspersed with imitation Morse code, and then a rather reedy voice said "Hello again, friends and neighbours, and a hearty welcome..." (although for a long time I thought he was saying "a howdy welcome"; the Schweizerdeutsch accent, I suppose...) "...here aboard the Merry-Go-Round, with yours truly Bob Thomann..." (and I admit that I didn't know until about three days ago that that was the way to spell his surname - for ages I thought it was something like 'Taumen'. Oh well...) "...and next to me, as usual..."; at which point a younger, stentorian voice which was clearly American came in, and said: "...Bob Zanotti."

And off they went, talking about things I simply didn't understand: propagation, ionospheric disturbances, and much more. I sat there, captured and captivated. This was a whole new world (plus ionosphere, of course) opening up before me. They even signed off in what seemed to me to be an enigmatic fashion: "Goodbye...", "...Good DX-ing...", "...And the very best of 73s." (*)

I listened as often as I could after that, although I couldn't always get to stay home on Saturday and sometimes, for reasons I didn't really understand, there were times when it was impossible to find SRI where I expected it to be. Or anywhere else for that matter. Or any other station, come to that. And that was another part of the charm, of course: with the sort of equipment I had access to, even tracking down your favourite, high-powered European station was akin to a hunting expedition in the jungle. Sometimes you found your leopard, sometimes you never even saw its droppings no matter how hard you looked.

I became promiscuous. From Switzerland, I groped around the bands for other stations. At the time, I never really found one which took my fancy, and eventually other interests took me away from short wave for a few years. I came back to it when I was about nineteen, when I finally got a cheap portable which had short wave on it. I would tune around at all hours, hoping for something which would open my mind to another country; or which would, at least, have an interesting interval signal.

I became quite obsessed by interval signals, in the same way as I was obsessed (and still am, I suppose) with the idents of television stations. Back in the radiogram days, I found the most peculiar tune being repeated in a loop. It sounded as if it was being played on the strings of a piano with a series of rubber mallets. It turned out to be the interval signal of Radio Norway International.

I gathered them up like others collected flowers or leaves: that guitar tune for Spanish Foreign Radio; that slow and gloomy tune of Radio Kyiv; the ten-note fanfare of Radio Prague; that slightly eerie glockenspiel of Deutsche Welle, and the rather jauntier Radio Sweden effort. And the clashing carillon which identified Radio Netherlands, which sounded even more bizarre when reception conditions were a bit goofy.

There were the programmes themselves, of course, and although my lifestyle (if such it could be called) mostly prevented me from revisiting The Two Bobs in Bern, I did find interesting programmes on the subject of broadcasting elsewhere. Two of my regular listening pleasures were Sweden Calling DX-ers, hosted from Stockholm by George Wood, and Media Network, Radio Netherlands' round-up of news and reviews presented, with a sharp wit and a dry sense of humour, by Jonathan Marks. Indeed, Marks once made an hilarious spoof series called The Hitchhiker's Guide to DXing and played it on the show.

I became a little bit of what now would be called geeky. I clearly remember one fine summer's afternoon going off on a long walk up Hope Mountain listening to the rock programme on the Hungarian service of Radio Free Europe, for example.

During my University days, I would often be up late at night, pretending to be interpreting early Welsh poetry, whilst in fact listening to Radio Moscow's World Service. The names and voices of Joe Adamov and Vladimir Posner still resound. A lot of it was tosh, of course, but a necessary counterbalance to what I would get from the strictly-impartial-and-not-funded-and-controlled-by-the-Foreign-Office-and-MI5-oh-goodness-me-no BBC World Service.

My friends thought me odd. They did anyway, but I'm sure I helped the impression along by doing things like tuning my house-mate Danny's Toshiba to the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran while we were in our communal room playing Scrabble® or Risk™.

And then, The Wall came down, and along came satellites and, eventually, the internet. Broadcasting organisations suddenly decided that they couldn't 'afford' short-wave services anymore, and that there was no need for them in the digital age, and at a time when 'our' values had become all but universal. So, short-wave transmissions were, like vinyl records, consigned to the history of obsolete technology.

Tune through the short-wave bands today. Even from the most cursory inspection, it seems that the high-frequency radio spectrum is the preserve of American christian fundamentalists, except for those few countries or cultures whose territory extends so widely that only short-wave will do (Russia, the Arab world). There seem to be fewer alternative perspectives (however potty - I often listened to Radio Tirana more for a cheap laugh than anything else) to the 'givens' of the New World Order.

All this would have been left slumbering in the back of my mind until a few nights ago when, in an idle moment, I did a Google search for Bob Zanotti (not being able to search for his broadcasting partner because, as I've said, I had no idea how his surname was spelt).

I came up trumps with a site called Switzerland In Sound, which included a special downloadable programme recorded by The Two Bobs early in 2004 (nearly a decade after the Merry-Go-Round had been yanked from the schedules). I downloaded it, hit the 'Play' button in Winamp, and wallowed for an hour as Thomann (by that time in his mid-70s) and Zanotti (scarcely sounding a day older than when I'd last heard him some twenty-five years earlier) reminisced about their programme, and tried to put the world to rights in respect of the way that short-wave broadcasting has been scandalously disregarded in recent years. As it has been: it's all but impossible to get a radio for standard domestic use which includes a short-wave band nowadays.

It brought it all back, hence this extended reminiscence. Blame it on the ether - it's a mind-expanding substance.

(*) Not a dish in a Chinese restaurant, nor yet an advanced sexual position: merely radio ham code for "Best Wishes".