Do Hams Still Listen to Shortwave? They do in Canada!

Listening to the shortwave commercial stations (along with CB radio) has been a key gateway activity for entry into amateur radio. That was back when commercial shortwave was vibrant and perhaps in its heyday. There is still a very active set of SWLs contributing to the popular website and the legacy work by the well-known Van Horn family to just name a couple. The Spectrum Monitor publishes information about shortwave listening, too. Of course, the Grand Daddy publication, the World Radio TV Handbook is still around. But do amateur operators still listen to the shortwave radio bands? In this article, I want to address the question I just raised with a clear answer: They still do in Canada!

The Radio Amateurs of Canada (RAC) fielded a national survey of Canadian hams in 2021. A total of 2,089 responses were received, of which 1,630 (78%) were from RAC members. Approximately one-third of all RAC members took the time to complete the survey. This is an example of “voluntary response sample” and is not a probability survey. The final report compared responses to known population characteristics which suggested that the realized sample data is generally representative of Province and license characteristics. I’ve just completed a full report from the data which is available on my website. The results on shortwave listening are the focus of this article.

The results show that indeed Canadian amateurs listen to the shortwave frequencies outside of ham radio bands. Out of 38 specific operating activities, over a fourth (28.8%) of Canadian amateurs said they are involved in shortwave listening in a typical month. This was ranked 16th out of 38, ahead of QRP operations, Elmering, weather spotting, and other activities thought to be popular in amateur radio. This result may be surprising to the reader. But my further analysis shows a clearer picture of how traditional shortwave listing activity is integrated with other ham activities.

I have included in Figure 1 a map of all license-holders in Canada from the amateur radio regulator, ISED. The provided licensee address was georeferenced to the street-level for the vast majority and city-level for the remainder. There is also a bar chart showing how SWLing varies by Province.

Amateurs in Canada are concentrated all along the Southern border and in the urban centers of the Southeastern seaboard. There is another concentration on the Western coast near Vancouver. For the survey results, the bar chart in the bottom panel of Figure 1 illustrates how shortwave listening varies. A majority of hams in Newfoundland and the Northwest Territory use shortwave radio for listening. Those in Saskatchewan and Manitoba round out those Provinces above the overall survey mark of 28.8 percent. Excluding Nunavut Province with only 2 survey respondents, the lowest engagement in SWLing is Alberta. The remaining Provinces are about equal, in the lower twenty-percent figure.

Do these results make sense? The physical isolation of the two highest Provinces makes using shortwave broadcasts very practical in many ways. But there is more to it as I investigated whether SWLing is a more obscure activity in ham radio or is it more integrated into portfolio of things that current amateur operators do today?

In Table 1, I summarize my crosstabulation of shortwave listening by other activities (some 37 tables). The three groups summarized in the table reflect whether there was a statistically significant relationship between the two activities and, if so, whether SWLing was greater or less when the ham said they participate in the comparison activity. If there is no significant relationship, then shortwave listening is about the same whether the other activity is engaged in or not. If shortwave listening is a surprising yet obscure activity, there would be few other activities associated with it. Or, perhaps there might be no relationship at all with a random assortment of hams tuning into to those bands.

What the results in Table 1 demonstrate is how significantly integrated shortwave listening is with a number of activities central to the hobby. There are only seven activities without an association and one with a negative relationship. Contesters tend to pursue SWLing significantly less. This is the opposite, however, of what DXers report. Ham operators who listen to shortwave bands also practice a variety of popular activities in their practice of the hobby. These findings tend to remove any doubt as to whether listening to shortwave radio bands is fully an integrated part of contemporary amateur radio in Canada.

Another question about these results is whether it is simply a residual activity of the large Baby Boom cohort? Should this be the case, SWLing is likely to age out of existence over the next couple of decades. If so, shortwave listening would be highest among the most senior survey respondents and lowest among the youngest.

In Figure 2, I constructed a line chart of shortwave usage by age group. There is a clear downward trend as SWLing is highest among younger hams than more senior ones. The significance test suggests that this overall age pattern is not significant. The result is that the survey result of a quarter or more of Canadian hams engaging in shortwave listening is not a holdover of amateurs from a previous era of the hobby as younger hams.

Even with there being a non-significant trend in opposition to the Baby Boomer remnant hypothesis, I examined how long these hams had been licensed (tenure) and a complementary question in the survey regarding long many years they had been active. Perhaps it is not age per se but length of experience as a licensed or active ham that might influence whether nor not shortwave listening is attractive. These results, too, showed almost no difference regarding shortwave listening and length of experience or activity in the hobby. This are positive findings for shortwave band usage outside of amateur radio.

To further assess how shortwave listening might be linked to other factors, I compared the rural-to-urban locations of amateurs in the survey. There are no significant differences even when compared within these Provinces. The rural-to-urban locale does not explain why some Provinces have higher shortwave listening levels than others.

To conclude, these are somewhat unexpected findings based upon the rhetoric that ham radio operators tell themselves in the public sphere. We frequently hear that shortwave listening is passe, that the commercial and government broadcasters are retreating, and so forth. These may be factually the case from the supply-side of non-ham shortwave transmissions. But the hams in Canada do listen to shortwave broadcasts or one type or another in addition to participating in the core set of activities that comprises amateur radio. Contesting is the sole specialty that is negatively related to such listening. By contrast, DXers are more likely to listen (30.2% vs 23.6%). There are Provincial variations in listening but no patterns within any of them that vary along the rural-to-urban continuum.

The relationship of SWLing to the rest of the amateur radio hobby’s activities appears well-integrated. While the broadcast sector of the shortwave industry is at a low ebb right now, amateur radio in Canada still embraces listening to the non-ham bands. We do not know how this national survey of Canadian amateurs may compare to those of other nations. However, it is the sole survey of which I am aware that measures the activities of amateur radio operators in such detail. Until we do have comparative surveys, the RAC Survey 2021 is our only objective insight into ham radio activities.

Some readers may view these surprising results through their own “personal windshield” of listening experiences. “Why, I don’t know any hams who listen to shortwave broadcasts,” they might say. Others could counter, “Well, we need some “good” survey data on this issue.” I’ve spent a career conducting surveys, teaching survey research methods to PhD students (and fellow faculty), and advising some of the largest survey organizations in the world, such as NORC at the University of Chicago, the SRC at the University of Michigan, and the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service to name a few. The RAC Survey of 2021 is not a high quality statistical probability sample costing a few hundred thousand of dollars. But it is the best one I’ve seen to date on a national scale with behavioral measures of amateur radio operators. So while the reader’s experiences on SWLing might indeed be differ, it is the aggregate picture that we have never had national level results like those in the RAC Survey 2021. Do they apply to the U.S.? Well, would you rather go just with your personal windshield to generalize or take the picture these results present as our best guesstimate for similar behavior in the States?

Frank Howell, K4FMH, is a regular contributor to and writes from Mississippi, USA. Contact him at [email protected].

8 Responses to “Do Hams Still Listen to Shortwave? They do in Canada!”

  • Walter Luffman KZ4CR:

    Obvious follow-up question, and not necessarily limited to Hams in Canada: what SWL stations do Hams listen to? Many former SW broadcasters have gone radio-silents, although some still provide streaming services.

  • Frank K4FMH:


    Excellent Q. The RAC Survey 2021 was designed to see what behavioral operating activities that Canadian hams engaged in over a month’s time. See full report via link in article. Thus, what they listened to would be a less important focus. Interesting and important writ large but surveys that attempt to do”everything” wind updoing very little.

    Paul Coverdell (see Final Report) did the best job I’ve seen to date with the questionnaire content and coverage. Surveys like this beg further Qs and subsequent surveys.

    I proposed an ongoing survey program to the ARRL some 5 years ago which the Keague Admin & Finance Cimmittee approved, But CEO David Minster killed it. Reasons unknown as he refused to contact me about it, according to my division Director. He seems to prefer to use statements like “we know” in his monthly columns and speeches with any source of data. Thus, I was most happy to give my career long expertise gratis to the RAC.



  • Elwood Downey, WB0OEW:

    Thanks Frank, appreciate your time for this. I am as interested in your techniques as I am the subject matter. Disappointed, but not surprised, ARRL was not interested in actual data. 73.

  • Frank K4FMH:

    Hi Elwood,

    Thank you for the positive comment. Help me out so that I can better understand your comments.

    “I am as interested in your techniques as I am the subject matter.”

    You are interested in how to do survey analysis? Because you are a ham? Happy to help…just elaborate so I can better understand your request.

    No, I’ve spent 6 or 7 years trying to get the League into what every other mid-cap non-profit, membership corporation in the U.S. does: collect and analyze data to EVALUATE their programs and services.most uses these results plan their futures, The ARRL? Their previous COO Harold Cramer told me he didn’t know what I was talking about when I approached about it.

  • Bill Phelan N2KPE:

    I have been a ham for a long time, and a member of ARRL on and off over the years. (Mostly “off”). I find that over those years the general attitude is an arrogant “our way or the highway”, so, no surprise that they “killed” the idea which, IMO is an excellent one.
    As an aside, does anyone know if the station (equipment) that Joe Walsh of the Eagles is still there at Hq and working ?

  • Frank K4FMH:

    Hi Bill,

    Yea, ARRL’s approach to transparency reminds me if Chevy Chase on SNL: we are the ARRL … and you’re not!

    Why? I spent some time in the historical radio magazines and books on the emergence of ham operation in the U.S. most is a alike here:

    The ARRL has slanted the interpretation of ham radio history to favor the importance of themselves. The Maxim Mythology is the centerpiece. Clarence Tuska actually taught Maxim’s son about “the wireless” while Hiram looked on. Tuska was the CO-FOUNDER of the ARRL but they have diminished his role. Hugo Guernsback was the actual organizer of hams in the U.S., along with Marconi and a couple of others. See or listen to the links above.

    Because of this extreme focus, the League became fossilized as the sole source of information authority and values in the hobby. This fossilization has prevented them from desiring any external sources of objective information, certainly any systematic data, to exist. They refuse to release the data collected from the readership survey required by the USPO to certify bulk mailing rates. The data created by the Hoke+Mintz project (~$400k+) was not released to to the public because the CEO said they’d lose the ARRL’s “competitive advantage.” To whom?

    The ARRL is the only non-profit if its size and a membership organization that dies not have evaluation data systems published openly. The ONLY one. They ask for donations to the Teacher Institute, for instance, but do not publicly disclose even the barest data on program implementation (formative eval) or effectiveness (summative eval). I am sure whether the TI management even knows these terms, based on public documents.

    Frank K4FMH

  • Jerry VE6CPP:

    How I got my start ! SWL then heard Ham’s can ‘Talk to each other’ ! Still spin thru the SW Bands to see what propagation is open ! Great Article.. 73

  • Frank K4FMH:


    Me too…check out the full report for more results on Canadian hams. TCA has a few articles out or coming out, too.



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