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Shortwave Gains Low-Power Interest

‘For me, listening to programs on shortwave is like traveling without a visa’

All-Purpose Rohde & Schwarz SK1 Transmitter at Kall, Germany. Photo courtesy Burkhard Baumgartner
HAMBURG, Germany — Over the past two decades, governments in many countries have deregulated transmission services. Today, private enterprises own and operate even large shortwave sites once in the hands of postal and telecommunications authorities.

But it is not only the big power houses.

In Germany, an amateur radio operator bought transmitters, an antenna plant and other equipment from the police and the armed forces, leased a large part of a former utility radio site and is now offering low-power analog transmission services to a certain range of radio stations.

Hamburger Lokalradio (HLR) is one of currently two stations using a small-scale, low-power shortwave service.

Active on FM for 11 years with a mix of high-quality speech programs and specialized music shows, this non-commercial station has repeatedly reached out to listeners beyond the Hamburg city borders. Besides working together with other FM stations and public-access channels in the neighboring state of Schleswig-Holstein, HLR rents airtime on a high-power shortwave transmitter from TDF Group subsidiary Media Broadcast and has a weekly slot on WRN Deutsch, the German language service operated by the London-based transmission-services provider WRN.

Why an international branch for a station that brands itself as “local radio”?

“We are licensed as a nationwide special-interest broadcaster focusing on cultural topics,” said HLR Editor-in-Chief Michael Kittner. “This means we can have our programs aired all across Germany and even abroad. Of course, as a Hamburg-based station, our main emphasis is on our own city.”

Traveling without a visa

But why using shortwave, especially at a time when Germany’s own international radio, Deutsche Welle, is reducing its output on the analog HF bands?

“Well, for me, listening to programs on shortwave is like traveling without a visa,” said Kittner.

Lutz Eikelmann, Holger Luehrig and Karin Marciniak during ‘Swingcafé’ program on Hamburger Lokalradio. Photo courtesy HLR In his experience — both as a radio host receiving feedback from listeners and as a listener himself — shortwave listening is signified by a higher attention to the content, compared to FM. “This is why we particularly relay our speech-based programs internationally.”

One may add, the station’s claim “Total lokal und weltoffen” (completely local as well as open to the world) gains a special meaning from the international distribution.

In December 2009, HLR started conducting test transmissions on the newly acquired frequency of 5980 kHz with a power of just 1 kW. The tests are usually two hours per day in duration, going up to six hours per day over the Christmas period.

They consist of shows from the station’s archives, plus a cross-section of current productions. The entire content is re-edited, given a new set of continuity announcements for an international audience and then fed via the Internet to the transmitter site.

That site is located roughly 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) away in Kall, a small village in the rural Eifel area of Nordrhein-Westfalen. It was once used as a regional police compound, complete with various buildings, underground bunkers and an antenna field.

Avid amateur radio operator and HF engineer Burkhard Baumgartner realized the potentials of the site and managed to lease the transmitter bunker as well as the aerial masts and other equipment.

With the help of two friends, he refurbished a handful of SK1 transmitters, constructed in the 1960s and ’70s by Rohde & Schwarz, with a power of up to 20 kW.

Baumgartner’s basic aim is to preserve the knowledge about analog broadcasting equipment for the future generations of HF engineers. “Of course all transmitters with accessories are in a fully operational condition and are used in a professional manner day after day,” he said.

Telefunken A 189 Dipole Antenna at the Kall Transmitter Site. Photo courtesy Burkhard Baumgartner At first, it was just Baumgartner himself who used the equipment for amateur radio purposes. However, two years ago he entered a new stage as a non-commercial service provider for Radio 700, a broadcaster from the nearby city of Euskirchen — a station that was fully licensed but lacking a proper FM frequency.

The station applied for permission to use 6005 kHz in the 49-meter band, the frequency used until 2007 by RIAS Berlin and its successor Deutschlandradio. After completing a full metrological check, the German federal frequency regulatory body, or Bundesnetzagentur, issued a shortwave license to Radio 700.

The station started its service in April 2008. It can be heard in many parts of Germany and in neighboring countries.

The HLR studios are located in the LOLA Kulturzentrum in Hamburg-Bergedorf. Photo courtesy HLR “We usually experience a dead zone of 100 to 200 kilometers [about 60–120 miles] around Kall,” said Baumgartner. “But conditions and signals on neighboring frequencies permitting, people can pick up the our signal within several hundred of kilometers distance.”

Lots of listeners’ replies arrived from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, and it is expected that Hamburger Lokalradio will reach a similar target area.

It is still to be seen from the feedback as well as own observations how many hours per day HLR will be on the air after the test period.

Still, there are even more new projects pending for Michael Kittner and his colleagues.

In early 2010, they plan to launch a daily six-hour loop of cultural programs on a digital cable channel in Hamburg. A new streaming audio solution for the station’s Web site is also in the pipeline, “And then let’s see if we get the chance to transmit on DVB-T as well,” Kittner said.

Thomas Völkner is a Berlin-based freelance writer and radio producer. Before he was editor-in-chief at Radioropa Hörbuch and presentation manager at WRN.