The BBC World Service Antarctic Midwinter Broadcast

Phew. Just a couple of hours after walking home from work on what I think must’ve been the warmest day of the year, I was settling down to listen to a most unusual radio programme.

Just as it was mid-summer’s day here yesterday, in Antarctica (and elsewhere southern) it was midwinter.

Stranded for months in nocturnal eternity, the staff of the British Antarctic Survey get a rather special gift from the BBC. On this day, the scientists, engineers and other support staff traditionally give each other gifts, have a big meal, and get rather merry.

But they also tune in to a special BBC World Service broadcast directly pointing at them. And I mean literally: the Beeb utilises three shortwave transmitter sites around the world, points them south, and broadcasts a special one-off half hour programme directly to Antarctica in the hope that the bases will pick it up.

Shortwave audiences may be shrinking as time and technology move on, but this show deliberately only has a target audience of 50 or so. I’m not sure how long it’s been going on, but it seems to be something of a tradition.

The show features a bit of music, some messages of support from the great, the good and the weird, and primarily plays messages from family and loved ones of the intended audience. I imagine it provokes scenes of joy, tears, merriment and embarrassment to all listening in. The show was presented this year by Cerys Matthews of 6 Music.

As a shortwave listener, this kind of special broadcast is especially interesting. Because although the target audience is the bottom of the globe, the nature of the broadcast meant that other listeners could attempt to pick up the signal as it made its way south.

I was very pleased to get good reception from two of the transmitter sites: Woofferton in England, and Ascension Island, a dot in the South Atlantic. Signals from Dhabbaya in Abu Dhabi eluded me.

I usually get good reception from all three sites, and even though in theory they were all directing their signal south, I was still able to pick up Ascension almost as strong as I was Woofferton.

Shortwave radio has fascinated me for 15 years or more, and it continues to. For every ten relays of China Radio International you have to wade through, there’s always an oddity popping up. And the variations in the atmospheric conditions mean that every listening session is different somehow.

But even more so, special events like the BBC’s Antarctic Midwinter Broadcast can’t fail to intrigue me and I was so pleased to be able to ‘take part’ this time.

My trusty Tecsun PL-380 continues to do sterling work with the aid of the bundled long wire antenna draped out of the window across the balcony. I’m pleased to get pretty decent reception in my ground floor flat in NW London, despite masses of sources of interference, lack in height, and being surrounded by buildings.

The reception quality of the Midwinter Broadcast was less good than I’m used to, but this is to be expected as the signals were directed in a particular way and it was just nice to pick them up on their way.

I made some very sloppy recordings of the broadcast for the SWLing Post blog, and they’re online here. The show itself can be heard in much higher fidelity online here.

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