This Is Not A
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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".