Ghosts of the shortwave
One was called The Woodpecker.
I'd heard it when I was a child. Its rhythmic electronic hammering would appear out of the static, and then I would turn the dial again and it was gone. It sounded mysterious, because it sounded like it had purpose, albeit one I could not understand. Others sounded like great engine rooms, as if on some huge ship, roaring and throbbing as they went about whatever it was they were doing, wherever it was they were. But were others too, and some of these spoke in voices rather than sounds, voices in a dozen different languages, chanting their way through their strange liturgy of numbers or phrases.
Turn any shortwave radio on and run through the waveband and you could hear them. No station identification, no songs, no comment or context, just sounds or numbers. Some of the stations are there all the time, some only once a day, some appeared for one time only, the dull, mechanical sounding male or female voice would count, "Seven oh four. Nine. Nine. Four oh six," over and over and then they would be gone, never to return. Some would sound live, others like they were tape loops, repeating over and over, the tape slowly wearing through. And behind it all was the hiss and crackle of atmospherics, the distortion and compression of the signal.
Some numbers stations would announce their appearance with a snatch of music, like the station which used the old folk tune The Lincolnshire Poacher, or with ascending or descending musical notes that sounded as if they were played on xylophones or glockenspiels, or early primitive synthesisers. Others just came from nowhere. And sounded like they came from nowhere. They became their own music, but it was music from a strange place.
I thought then, that they must have meant something, that there must have been some reason for the counting and the tones that was more than just some dreary test of a radio station before it went on the air playing middle of the road seventies rock, or the vaguely unhinged swing that many foreign stations seemed to play back then. But I forgot about them for a long time, and only remembered them recently, when I found out that I was right. They did mean something more.
They meant death. Betrayal to men who would come in the middle of the night. Acts of heroism, acts of betrayal, acts of revenge. And probably wheat export counts and machine tool production numbers, and other things less glamorous.
The shortwave numbers stations were, it turns out, governments and their agencies talking to their spies. Long coded messages from the mothership in London or Moscow or Virginia to agents in other countries who would listen to the strings of numbers or phrases and take some meaning from them, using one time pads or other prearranged codes. Communicating with intelligence agents was always fraught with difficulty, but the numbers stations had one advantage - anyone with a shortwave radio could pick them up. No need for any potentially incriminating Q-style radios hidden inside wooden legs. Just a radio that could pick up shortwave, and maybe a Bible to work out what words were being spelled out. Take the third chapter in John, for example. The first number read out might be the verse, the second number the word in the verse, the third number the next verse, and so on. Untracable. Non-incriminating.
"These (Numbers Stations) are what you suppose they are. People shouldn't be mystified by them. They are not for, shall we say, public consumption." (spokesman for the UK Department of Trade and Industry, quoted in the Daily Telegraph).
Before it became clear what the purpose of the stations was, a man called Akin Fernandez was fascinated enough by them to spend years listening to them, charting them, recording them, looking for patterns, a fascination that was to become the Conet Project.
Fernandez is the owner of Irdial Records, a record label which had long been releasing avant-garde music, and through Irdial he released The Conet Project, a four CD set with over 150 recordings of the music of the shortwave, accompanied by a eighty-page booklet. The set sold a remarkable 2000 copies before Irdial closed. It acquired something of a cult following, one San Francisco record shop even tracking it and asking everyone who bought a copy to pose for a photo.
Somewhere along the line, the band Wilco picked it up, as a sample from it was used on their song "Poor Places", and that sample gave the title to their album: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Legal goings-on ensued, and it was settled out of court in Akin Fernandez's favour. Conet samples have also turned up in film - they were used in the Tom Cruise film Vanilla Sky - and the record label has been started up again. You can read more about the whole story here and more about numbers stations here.
Although Fernandez has defended his rights to control commercial use of his recordings, he has kindly made the whole project available for personal listening for free via the (now-revived) Irdial website, as well as the accompanying booklet. All the clips in this post are courtesy of Irdial and their free music policy.
The Conet Project CD set is also available through the Irdial website (although currently out of stock).
And despite the end of the Cold War, the numbers stations are still out there.
Somewhere on the shortwave.