After reading a few too many John Le Carre spy novels, I decided to see whether the shortwave radio spies in the Cold War used is still a “thing” and whether there’s any point to buying one. I tapped into a lively nest of hobbyists and websites documenting these international airwaves online, with no need for a separate device. In short, if you have the internet and just want to play around, there’s no reason to buy a radio.
These hobbyists’ primary tool was something called a SDR or software-defined radio. The University of Twente in Enschede, Netherlands has the most famous iteration. This nifty tool is a radio that scans the airwaves and transmits constantly via a web interface. It can be used simultaneously by multiple users. It even includes a labeled waveform that shows known stations and spots of recent activity, and it can record and save audio.
I’ve spent several hours scanning the airwaves. From what I can tell, the main players are Chinese, Korean (North and South), the BBC World Service, Voice of America (VOA), and a smattering of religious channels. South Korea has a channel called “Echo of Hope”, while North Korea has “Echo of Unification” and Voice of Korea. In addition to VOA, the US government operates “Radio Free Asia” in multiple languages. Radio Taiwan International reports from Taiwan. The Chinese government reportedly jams all of the above channels from time to time . The Cuban government operates Radio Habana. Iran operates Voice of the Islamic Republic. The list goes on.
It’s like the Cold War is still being fought on the airwaves, and honestly it’s pretty boring and lo-fi. You’d be better off visiting their web presence, unless you live in a totalitarian dictatorship, in which case you’re not reading a blog in English, so I suppose a radio could be useful.
If you happen to speak Korean or Mandarin, there may be a world out there waiting to be discovered, though to be fair, both China and North Korea maintain native and English language broadcasts at different hours.
This site has a comprehensive list of stations worldwide, which you can even filter by language.