Tropical Bands - Part One, by Chrissy Brand
Published in Radio Active Oct 2001, copyright PWPublishers
Published in Radio Active Oct 2001, copyright PWPublishers
When I started short wave listening in the 1970s, I soon started hearing about `the Tropical Bands'. Alongside the main International broadcasters, the morse code and the atmospheric bleeps and rumbles, I was fascinated to discover the existence of domestic radio stations emanating from the tropical countries.
To this day you can still hear some exotic programming using a basic short wave receiver. The stations broadcasting are usually small powered set ups, hence the challenge for experienced DXers as well as interested newcomers. If you look closely at a list of the regular International Broadcasters on the short wave bands you will realise that the majority of the developing world have no presence, no opportunity to report their opinions in the way that the Voice of America of Voice of Russia have. The only way to hear the voice and culture of these less affluent but significant countries is to tune to their domestic stations.
The better the receiver, and even more importantly, the aerial set up, then of course the more signals you will be able to pick up. But this short series of articles aims to illustrate how anyone can tune in with a fairly standard short wave radio, along with a set of references to books and Internet resources, as well as details on radio stations, frequencies and programming, QSL policies, and interviews with some Tropical Bands listening experts.
You haven't heard anything on radio quite like the sounds of RTV Malienne, from Bamako in Mali, Africa, with its 20 minute string musical pieces that to the untrained ear can sound like a singer accompanied by the plucking of rubber bands. The so called `World Music' scene has been popular in the west for over a decade now, but with your faithful short wave receiver you can dip straight into the original sounds yourself rather than purchasing a watered down version of a World Music compilation CD on the High Street.
What the Tropical Bands are
So what exactly are the Tropical Bands and what do they consist of? Many frequencies in the 120, 90, 75 and 60 metre bands are used by countries broadcasting from the tropics, defined as those countries located between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer. These were allocated by international agreement many years ago, but it is popularly believed that Colombia was responsible for instigating what is called in Spanish the "banda internacional de los 60 metros". Short wave was considered a cheaper and more practical method of transmitting local domestic radio signals across distances in tropical countries. At the time it was simply too expensive for many economies in the area to erect the required FM transmitter sites, particularly in more remote regions, and so shortwave became the king of the airwaves for countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia...
Regular surveys of stations using the Tropical Bands shows a marked decline in the past 30 years, (the Danish Shortwave Club Domestic Broadcasting survey), with an increase in FM networks in the developing world replacing shortwave transmitters. It now tends to only be countries with vast expanses of land that cannot justify the expense of a nationwide FM network who broadcast in the Tropical bands.
A consequence of domestic short wave broadcasts is of course a need for appropriate receivers to be on sale. I would have expected there to be far more choice or at least access to such short wave receivers in the tropical countries. However on visits to countries such as Brazil, Malaysia and Singapore, I have been disappointed not to come across an array of exciting and cheap receivers unknown to us in the UK. It appears that although the standard digital short wave receivers that we know and love in the UK are available, most people make do with ghetto-blaster type receivers, with a short wave band. It is increasingly more difficult to find such machines in the UK , (i.e. ghetto-blasters with adequate short wave) and I still cling on to my large and ugly silver Hitachi short wave cassette radio circa 1981 which can pull in the DX, However there is still a necessary demand for receivers with coverage including frequencies from 2300 kHz to 4995 kHz in the tropics.
Henrik Klemetz who wrote the now out of print "Latin America by Radio" (Espoo, Finland: Tietoteos Publishing Company, 1989; ISBN 951-9035-95-1) also comments that a few decades ago there were plenty of portables around in most of Latin America. Many of the receivers which covered the 60 and 90 metre bands were not on sale in Europe. In Ecuador, you would often see Quichua Indians carrying king size portables, "the poorer the Indian, the bigger his portable". But even modest family homes could afford a decent table top receiver.
Programmes are very different from those heard elsewhere on short wave. Whereas the International broadcasters all have a set agenda, whatever language and target area they are broadcasting to, the Tropical Band stations tend to be low powered domestic stations, so transmit mostly in local languages, although the effect of Empire remains, with for example, Latin American being predominantly Spanish speaking.
The programme content on International stations tends to be more formulaic, often consisting of a 30 minute broadcast of world news, national news, a political opinion or press review, local music or arts, sport, frequency details and sign off. Domestic stations in the tropics may well have news and features, sports commentaries and weather, but each include their own unique sounds, although it is difficult to generalise about 400 radio stations covering dozens of countries; a sprinkling of local music, small orchestras with strange and wonderful instruments, wailing vocals, jade bells or Andean flutes. There is far more variety and even if you are unable to understand the language, the sound and lilt of different speech styles can itself be of great interest, and is useful practice for when the station identification is given. It is a good idea to have a mini disc or tape recorder to hand, to be able to record such details should you not catch them the first time around.
There are also a number of Clandestine stations that use the tropical bands, which are again very different from the regular domestics with a definite political agenda. Some of the current tropical clandestines will be covered in a future article.
What's to be heard on the Tropical Bands
The times where the signal path is in the dark are the times to listen, so during the UK evening, night, wee small hours and dawn will produce best results. Even better is when either the listener or station is at sunrise or sunset, (known to Tropical Band aficionados as Greyline enhancement) This is due to the ionospheric conditions at such times. With a regular digital receiver and a standard telescopic aerial you should be able to hear some of the stations listed here. Even if you have a receiver without the Tropical bands, some stations have parallel frequencies elsewhere on shortwave, which I have included where available. The languages used are the vernacular or the ex-colonial, so the pattern is predominantly Spanish or Portuguese for Latin America, and French or English in Asia and Africa.
A few examples of what you might hear (as of 2001) are included here:
ORTM (also known as RTV Malienne) broadcasts from Bamako in Mali, on 4835, 4784, 5995, 9635 and 11960 kHz, 0600 to 0800 and 1800 to 0000 UTC. The programmes are in French and local languages, although there is occasional news in English. They play a lot of local music and reception is usually fair to good.
Ecos del Torbes in San Christobal, Venezuela, on 4980 kHz, night times. Plenty of Latin American music from love songs to dance, and a wonderful identification announcement and jingle, with the announcers voice vibrating with echo and drama.
With a good outdoor aerial you can even sometimes pick up the Tropical Band countries on medium wave, such as The Kenyan Broadcasting Company, KBC, from Nairobi on 1386 kHz in the small hours of the morning.
The Voice of Tanzania from the spice island of Zanzibar is on 6105 and 11735 kHz daytimes and evenings, in Swahili. This station should not be confused with Radio Tanzania, on the African mainland in Dar es Salaam and heard on 5050, 5985 and 7280 kHz, also in Swahili, from 1600 to 2100 UTC.
With more sophisticated equipment and a long wire or other antennae system you have a choice of the world, if the atmospheric conditions are right and you tune in at the right place and time.
For instance Radio Union in Lima, the capital of Peru, is on 6314 kHz, (ex 6115 kHz) around 0530 UTC. This has been reported from Hannu Romppainen in Finland, on a recent DX-pedition to Hyrynsalmi, Northeastern Finland. The station issues QSL cards for correct reception reports, something that is not commonplace amongst domestic broadcasters. Write to Radio Union, Apartado Postal 833, Lima 27, Peru. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Send an IRC with any reception reports. They also accept tape recordings if you provide details of when the recording was made.
Another Peruvian station that is keen to receive reception reports of their new 2kw transmitter was recently mentioned by Daniele Canonica in Switzerland on the Hard Core DX email discussion group. Radio La Hora, Cusco on 4855 kHz confirm with a QSL card and pennant. Av. Garcilaso N° 411, Wanchaq, Cusco, Peru.
A fuller listing of stations to be heard and guides to complete frequency lists will be given in the next article. The ones given above are just examples.
You will also hear more familiar sounds on the Tropical Bands from countries that definitely are not in the tropics, such as the Voice of America on 4950kHz, Radio Taipei (via the Skelton transmitter in Cumbria) on 3955 kHz, Radio Korea (via Skelton) and Radio Budapest on 3975 kHz. The American Forces Network can also be heard, broadcasting from Sicily in English on 4995 kHz with some interesting feature programmes alongside sport, pop and classical music.
Other stations that can come in clearly and are not in the tropics by a long way, but could count as exotic DX are some domestic Chinese stations. Other examples are the Voice of Armenia from Yerevan on 4810 kHz and Radio Tashkent on 5025, 5030, 5050 and 5060 kHz, with an English speaking broadcast at 2030 UTC.
A major international broadcaster making use of the Tropical bands is All India Radio on 4840 and 4850 kHz. Testing the conditions to see if you can pick up any of these more familiar sounding stations is a good way of starting an evening of Tropical DX, in order to ascertain what reception conditions may be like. Subscribing to an email service specialising in such things, such as that run by the Hard Core DX group, is another good idea. More details of such opportunities and services will be discussed in more detail next month.
Rise and Fall
The best research conducted on the use of the Tropical Bands is that of the Danish Short Wave Club's Domestic Broadcasting Survey, edited by Anker Peterson. Their calculations suggest there are currently 389 domestic radio stations using the Tropical Bands.
This gives newcomers to this aspect of the listening hobby plenty to aim for, as well as old time listeners. Sadly though, there is a sharp decline in Tropical Band broadcasters as a 1972-1973 survey showed over 1100 domestic radio stations in operation. Over 452 stations left the Tropical bands at a rate of 19 a year between 1973 and 1997.
The disappearance rate has increased even more dramatically since 1997 with a further 212 stations leaving, mostly for pastures new on the FM bands. The move to FM may provide clarity and better quality reception for the target audiences, but it is a frustrating loss for the poor DXer. Being able to receive a faint, distant signal from say RRI Jambi Indonesia on 4925 kHz is better than having no chance at all of a station that has deserted the Tropical Bands in favour of FM.
To summarise, the Tropical bands consist of the following frequency and metre bands:
120 metre band; Stations from 2310.0 kHz Northern Territory Shortwave Service, Alice Springs, Australia to 2490.2 kHz Radio Oito de Setembro, Descavalo, Brazil.
90 metre band: Stations from 3200 kHz Trans World Radio, Swaziland to 3492 kHz Radio Padilla, Padilla Bolivia.
75 metre band: Stations from 3900 kHz Nei Menggu People's Broadcasting Station, China to 4000 kHz RRI Kendari, Indonesia.
60 metre band: Stations from 4750 kHz Mongol Radio and Television, Mongolia to 5075 kHz Voice of Pujiang, China
References: The British DX Club, Hard Core DX, Anker Peterson and the Danish Shortwave Club, YLE Finland, Karel Honzik, Willi Passmann, Henrik Klemetz, Hannu Romppainen, Marie Lamb, Daniele Canonica