Cuban radio

Thursday, December 19, 2013
Courtesy of emiana
To me, Cuba has always been shrouded in mystery and yet is full of romanticism. Its music and culture combined with its history of being a semi-closed state both during the Cold War and more recently have made it into one of the more exotic locations to try to catch on the airwaves.

Some interesting facts about the country in this regard:
  • It was one of the first countries to have radio and television in the Americas.
  • There was media censorship in place before the Cuban Revolution, under the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.
  • During the early years of the revolution there remained a number of media outlets that opposed Fidel Castro's new regime, until the Cuban Broadcasting Institute was firmly established.
  • There are three radios for every ten Cuban citizens.
  • Computer ownership was outlawed until 2007 and Internet access is still amongst the most expensive in the world, adjusted for the median monthly wage.

Radio Habana Cuba

Courtesy of Universidad de La Habana
Cuba has one international radio broadcaster, Radio Habana Cuba (RHC), and several clandestine stations broadcasting at it (more on those in a moment). There is plenty of information about RHC on its Wikipedia page (and even more in this paper about the history of the station) although one thing that stood out for me is the fact that during the Cold War it relayed (propaganda) news items from Vietnam, North Korea and the USSR after receiving teletype bulletins from those countries (retweeting, the old school way).

These days, RHC broadcasts towards several regions:  the USA (in English and Spanish), Europe (in French, Portuguese and Arabic), Central America (in English, Spanish, French and Creole), South America (in French, Spanish and even in Quechua - the language of the native populations of Bolivia and Peru) and Africa (in English). For a small country, such broadcasting schedule is ambitious and shows an impressive regional and international reach. Oddly, there seems to be no dedicated broadcast directed at Europe in English or Spanish and the easiest way to catch either in London is to tune in to their beam directed at New York on 6060 kHz from about 0220 UTC (after The Voice of Islamic Republic of Iran stops interfering with the signal on the same frequency). At 0500 UTC the programming switches from Spanish into English.

The short path between La Habana, Cuba and London, UK. It is easy to see why the New York beam might offer some hope of reception in London.
Radio Habana Cuba is nothing short of amazing if you are into Latin music and listening to this station is also a very good way to learn Spanish as the presenters speak slowly and clearly. As a bonus, shortly after the 0400 UTC newscast you can invariably hear a fragment from one of Fidel's public speeches, taken from the Cuban national archives. Here is my recording of that entire hour:

There are some other programming gems, such as El Mundo de la Filatelia (the world of stamp collecting), the likes of which one would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, as well as regular extensive features on the Cuban healthcare and education systems.

A celebratory Radio Habana Cuba stamp, courtesy of dvaldemoro

The station does have Internet streams for both its international and Spanish broadcasts. However, they are frequently offline and their audio quality is often actually worse than the shortwave transmissions, especially if you are located in an interference-free area (sadly, not in my case) and have a good antenna. You can get the latest list of Radio Habana Cuba's frequencies here.

Clandestine Stations

Courtesy: The Monitoring Magazine, November 1985
In its ideological battle against Cuba, the United States have employed a number of shortwave radio stations broadcasting towards the Caribbean island. One of the more famous was Radio Swan, which was set up by the CIA to promote an uprising against the Castro regime and used during the abortive Bay of Pigs invasion to assist with the landings of the US troops by transmitting coded messages. These days, the most prominent US government-funded clandestine station targeting Cuba is the Miami-based Radio Martí, which is primarily staffed by Cuban immigrants. From listening to it with my limited comprehension of Spanish I understood that they use correspondents in Cuba who have American mobile phones that can make calls outside the country (which were obviously smuggled in). Some programs are very propaganda-driven, brutally exposing the deficiencies of the current Cuban economic system, while a few others, such as Avanza Cuba (Cuba Forward) are more positive in their tone and explore Cuba's potential. Below is my short recording of one of the station's evening broadcasts:

The above snippet contains a segment on Pope Francis's birthday dinner with the homeless and a brief description of the US immigration system.

Cuban Numbers Stations

Courtesy: Dirk Rijmenants
A numbers station is a shortwave station that transmits a sequence of encrypted messages, usually in the form numbers read out by an automated voice. During the Cold War, such stations were very active on both sides of the Iron Curtain and it is hypothesised that they were used to send ciphered instructions to spies. Cuba operates a network of these stations, and they have previously been implicated in Cuban anti-US espionage cases. In 2001, Los Cinco (the Cuban Five) were tried and convicted of spying for Cuba in the United States. It is alleged that the group had received and decoded messages that had been broadcast from Cuban numbers stations.

By complete chance, I stumbled across one such station that is actually very interesting. The numbers, spoken in Spanish, are followed up by shrieking modem-like tones (for those who remember the dial-up days of the Internet).

It turns out that this transmission was in the so-called Hybrid Mode and the shrieking tones are in fact computer files being sent in Redundant File Digital Transfer mode called DIGTRX. This mode allows the recipient to connect their shortwave receiver's headphone jack to the mic input their PC's sound card and decode the files as they are being sent across the airwaves. The inventor of this mode came across the station - nicknamed HM01 - by accident, and decoded the files with his own software but couldn't read them: as one might expect, they were encrypted. Below is my recording of HM01, which I caught straight after RHC finished its Spanish broadcast:

It might come across as amusing to find spies employing this somewhat dated way of obtaining information in our digital age. It does, however, offer one huge advantage: the recipient leaves no trace of ever having received the message!

The Cuban Five

The Cuban Five, mentioned above, are a group of Cuban intelligence officers who resided in the United States and were convicted of espionage by a US court. The Cuban media have regular features on their continued detention in the United States and there are major events staged throughout the year that are dedicated to calls for their release. One such event was The Concert for The Five that took place on September 12, 2013 in La Habana. Radio Rebelde, Cuba's arguably most popular national radio station founded by none other than Che Guevara, was airing it live and Radio Habana Cuba joined in by rebroadcasting Rebelde's coverage internationally. I was fortunate to catch a part of this broadcast and record it:

It goes without saying that I will keep tuning in to Cuban radio. In fact, the whole concept of using this older way of listening somehow feels distinctly Cuban.


Channel Africa: Nelson Mandela Memorial Service Broadcast

Wednesday, December 11, 2013
Earlier today, the official memorial service for Nelson Mandela was held at Soweto's FNB stadium in South Africa's capital, Johannesburg. I managed to catch and record Channel Africa's shortwave broadcast on 15235 kHz at 17:00 UTC that reported on the occasion and detailed some of the late leader's biography. Channel Africa is South Africa's official international radio station that transmits out of Meyerton.

Click here to download the recording.