I thought I wanted to be a ham. No, not the kind of ham that’s a nickname for a bad actor. (Although I was once almost that too, but that’s another story.) And also not the pink meat that goes perfectly with green eggs. Nope, this was a different kind of ham — for a while in my early teens, I wanted to be a ham radio operator.
I think there was a ham radio club at school and that might have triggered my interest, or maybe it was just that I was always on the lookout for the next gadget. This was in the mid 1950’s, and by then I had already spent a lot of time taking apart old radios, record players, and anything else I could get my hands on, so short-wave radio would have been something new.
Unfortunately, becoming a full-fledged ham meant passing the FCC’s very tough licensing test, one that required being comfortable with Morse code on a telegraph key. While I had every intention of eventually passing that test, there was nothing to keep me from having a short-wave radio just for listening. That is, if I could find the funds to buy one.
I honestly don’t remember how I came up with the money, but I would guess it was by saving my allowance and combining it with odd-job money, birthday money, and probably a parental loan. In any case, I eventually bought myself a Hallicrafters short-wave receiver — a small, new model that was a little less expensive than the big ones the company was known for at that time, but still not cheap.
It required an external antenna, which meant that I soon found myself up at the peak of the roof, stretching a long wire between two pieces of broomstick that I had nailed at opposite ends. I can’t imagine that I would have had parental permission for any of this, so I probably operated on that principle so well known to teenagers (and military personnel) — it’s easier to get forgiveness than it is to get permission.
Once I began listening in my darkened bedroom at night, I found that the experience entailed more than just eavesdropping on ham operators. My unit also received AM radio, and with the addition of the external antenna was able to pull in stations from all over the country. From my location in middle America, I found myself listening to everything from the latest “big city” rock and roll, to country music from the deep South and jazz from New Orleans.
But there was more. Once I switched to the short-wave bands, the whole world opened up to me. Exotic music that intrigued me and strange languages that I didn’t understand made for intoxicating listening. I especially enjoyed some of the broadcasts from Spanish-language stations, because even if I didn’t understand the announcers I loved the music.
And finally I discovered Radio Moscow, which at that time was making regular, powerful broadcasts in English. They had newscasts (with definite slants to them) and a lot of classical music, probably mostly Russian composers. It was the height of the Cold War, so I was intrigued but also felt a little guilty — almost as if I was somehow being disloyal. And even beyond that, I wondered if their propaganda might somehow – well – brainwash me.
I don’t think I seriously believed that, but I was pretty unsophisticated so it’s not that far-fetched that the thought would have crossed my mind, especially in that era. But if any brainwashing actually occurred, it was probably the kind that helped open my eyes to classical music. I can still remember relaxing in bed late at night, headphones in place, listening to something like Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”
It wasn’t my first exposure to the classics – my Dad had a few classical records – but it helped make the music a little “cooler” in my eyes, and to a teenager that’s everything. As for the verbal parts of Radio Moscow, I usually would change stations when the music ended — that newscast bored me.
But the use of propaganda in broadcasting was – and is – a reality, and the medium has also had a history of being used by the intelligence agencies of countries to communicate with their agents. The Conet Project was formed just to explore that concept and it’s fascinating stuff.
Oh and by the way — I never did manage to pass that FCC test and become a ham.