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Fine-tuned prayer

I am an avid fan of shortwave radio. It was my Gram and Grandpa who got me into the hobby. For years, they’ve had this big Schaub-Lorenz radio from the 1960’s at their house. The radio is so old that it lists frequencies in kilocycles (kc) and megacycles (Mc) because the hertz as a unit of frequency hadn’t been invented yet, but it works perfectly to this day in spite of the fact. That radio had four frequency bands: the standard AM and FM that any radio has (except AM was labeled “MW” for “medium-wave”), plus “SW 1” and “SW 2”. We grandkids knew the radio had these extra buttons, but neither we nor Gram nor Grandpa knew what they did, and whenever we pressed the button out of curiosity, all we heard was static, so we all kind of assumed that was the end of the matter.

How wrong we all were. One rainy day when I was a sophomore in high school, I decided to fiddle with the radio once again and figure out the mysteries of “SW 1” and “SW 2”. Imagine my surprise when, after turning the tuning knob a bit, I start hearing a ticking noise. No, not that ticking noise, Potter Puppet Pals fans. After a few seconds, the source of the ticking explained itself: “At the tone, 22 hours, 35 minutes, Coordinated Universal Time.” Then a beep, then more ticking. I had found my first shortwave radio station, WWV from Fort Collins, Colorado. The idea of being able to pick up a radio transmission from the other side of the continent was mind-baffling, but my ears (and Google) did not deceive me.

And that was just the tip of the iceberg. After a quick bit of Googling to better explain what was going on here, I found out that shortwave stations are capable of having not just national but oftentimes global reach, and there are multiple directories you can use to find what stations are on the air. And boy, is it an eclectic bunch. First, you’ve got the religious broadcasters. AM and FM radio bands are strictly regulated by the FCC, and with a bunch of would-be radio stations applying for licenses, fees get expensive, and commercial broadcasters end up monopolizing these spaces. Shortwave is also technically regulated by the FCC, but since shortwave signals are subject to international interference, the FCC is much more hands-off about giving licenses, and it’s far less expensive to run a shortwave station. This means that religious broadcasters (mostly Christian, but running the gamut from folks preaching about how Jesus isn’t really God to EWTN’s shortwave department) find it much more hospitable to operate on shortwave, and honestly, who wouldn’t — what with the wider reach and less government bureaucracy to contend with?

But wait, there’s more! Many countries’ state-run media have shortwave presences, and I’ve been amazed to discover government-operated radio broadcasts from Turkey, Vietnam, Japan, China, Sudan and Spain, just to name a few. Indeed, perhaps the most fascinating part of modern shortwave radio is that it is one of the final frontiers of the Cold War. Because of shortwave’s global scope, authoritarian regimes are incapable of censoring it the way many of them censor the Internet, but that doesn’t mean they don’t try. For instance, South Korea regularly transmits broadcasts targeted to North Korea. However, North Korea responds in kind both by broadcasting propaganda toward the South and by “jamming” South Korea’s broadcasts, which works as well as a kid plugging his ears and saying “la la la la la!” when someone is saying something the kid doesn’t want to hear (that is, not well at all).

The United States and Cuba are also in an ongoing propaganda war, but instead of jamming (which both we and the Cubans realize doesn’t actually work all that well), both countries focus on using the shortwave band to its full effect. Radio Habana Cuba is the station I run into the most when I’m listening to shortwave, while the independent U.S. Agency for Global Media has a dedicated Office of Cuba Broadcasting which transmits Radio Martí to the Cuban people. Since shortwave radio is so easily accessible, I’m able to tune into both stations and hear their Spanish-language broadcasts, and I must say I really appreciate Radio Martí’s lighthanded approach. No need to beat the listener over the hand with government propaganda. “Happy” by Pharrell Williams does the job just fine, thank you very much. 

But what does any of this have to do with prayer? Dear reader, I have three analogies (pardon the pun) which I’ve lately found helpful in my prayer life, and they’re all things that prayer has in common with shortwave radio. First, prayer, like listening to a shortwave radio, requires patience. If you’re not prepared to take a steady hand to the analog dial, you’ll miss stations you could’ve hit if you’d simply taken your time. So too with God’s voice in our lives — if we don’t take the time to listen to him, it’s not his fault if we aren’t hearing him. Second, shortwave radio signals tend to warble a bit, but if you’ve tuned the station to the right frequency, this is no cause to adjust the dial. St. Ignatius tells us “in times of desolation, never make a change” — the mere fact that we’re having trouble hearing God’s voice in our lives at any given point does not mean that we are necessarily doing something wrong. Third and finally, on the shortwave band, if you’re paying enough attention, you’ll hear things you couldn’t possibly have expected. How much more true this is of our Heavenly Father.

My two takeaways: first, you should buy a shortwave radio. The one I’m using now I got with reward points from doing legal research on Lexis, but a reasonable-quality shortwave radio will run you about $30 and has good value for money. Second, I hope my profferings about the similarities between successful shortwave radio listening and a deep, fulfilling prayer life may prove useful to you in these weeks to come.

Devin Humphreys is a 3L at Notre Dame Law School. When he isn’t serving as the sacristan at the Law School Chapel or competing at a quiz bowl tournament, he’s sharing his thoughts on the legal developments of the day with anyone who will listen. For advice on law school, hot takes on Mass music, and free scholarly publication ideas, reach out to Devin at dhumphr2@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author, not necessarily those of The Observer.