Archiving Shortwave History with Software Defined Radio

Broadcast shortwave radio is not always archived for long at the station, so finding sound bites from interesting historical events can be difficult. We know that songs are of course recorded, but talk back radio, discussions in between music, news readings, weather updates, ads and pirate radio are all lost over time. Although these things may seem mundane now, future historians may be interested in listening in on this little slice of life.

At this years HOPE XIII conference, Thomas Witherspoon, owner of the popular SWLing Blog gave a talk titled "Creating a Radio Time Machine: Software-Defined Radios and Time-Shifted Recordings". Currently the talk is available as a full recording of all talks at the conference over on Livestream. Thomas' talk begins at about 9h03m45s (thanks to Aaron Kuhn from the comments for finding the talk. Hackaday also recently ran an article on the content of his talk.

Thomas' idea is to create a database of shortwave radio IQ recordings so that they can be archived for historical purposes. The project is called "The Radio Spectrum Archive" and has a website set up at To do this modern software defined radios like the RTL-SDR can be used to record a large bandwidth, however the problem is with data storage as IQ recordings can take up extremely large amounts of disk space. 

Interestingly, it turns out that people have actually been making IQ recordings since the 1980's by connecting their shortwave radios to VCR tape recorders. In the modern day these VCR recordings can be digitized into an IQ file, and played back in software like HDSDR. In the video below Thomas demonstrates the playback of a digitized VCR radio recording from May 1 1986. You can hear some interesting news tidbits on the soviet cover-up of Chernobyl, the Challenger disaster and the launch of a new hurricane tracking satellite. If recording was more popular it would have been interesting to hear soviet radio during this time too.

In addition to archiving IQ files, Thomas has been releasing a podcast of curated historical audio recordings from VCR tapes, as well as modern recordings that may be of interest over at

We envision a future where one day these recordings could be automatically turned into text logs via advanced speech to text software, so they could easily be searched through.

[Also seen on Hackaday]

Radio Spectrum Recordings: A short demonstration


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