Tuesday, July 22, 2008

1234567890 Achtung! The Mysterious World of Short Wave Numbers Stations

A child’s strange, mechanized voice is announcing a series of apparently random numbers. Odd, xylophone-aided, musical interludes are repeated on a loop. Now a disembodied voice barks the phrase “konek!” and the broadcast falls silent. This isn’t some new musical experiment from Steve Reich. You are listening to short wave radio and have stumbled upon a Numbers Station. These intriguing, and often disturbing, radio broadcasts have been beamed across Europe from various secret locations for the best part of 50 years. But who is broadcasting and what exactly are they in aid of? Officially, the answer is that nobody really knows. Short Wave enthusiasts the world over, however, are unanimous in asserting that these “stations” are a means used by the world’s various secret services to communicate information to spies. They are illegal – in fact, theoretically you could be arrested for just listening to one.

Numbers Stations used to be all over short wave radio, especially during the Cold War. Now, they are still in evidence although to a lesser degree. Try scanning through the short wave dial at nighttime, where you will be bombarded with radio broadcasts from all over the world. “The Voice of Russia”, “Radio Havana Cuba”, a plethora of American religious evangelists, distorted pop from the Asian sub-continent; you’ll find it all here. But nothing is more exciting on listening to the SW band than finding a Numbers Station. Radio enthusiasts make a hobby out of searching for them, and swap notes on which broadcasts have been found, which times the recordings were made, which wavelength was being used and so on. But the target audience for these broadcasts is apparently that man on the park bench wearing the dirty rain mac and sunglasses. Or possibly sitting on a train reading a newspaper with two holes cut out for him to peep through.

The only people who are prepared to comment on the machinations of Numbers Stations are radio hobbyists, no nation state has ever confirmed or denied that they operate such a station. According to the short wave aficionados however, the station that has become known as “The Lincolnshire Poacher” is operated by MI6, and broadcasts from a rather tatty old building in Cyprus. Its transmitters are directed towards the Middle East so what the secret service can do is send one of their agents to a country like Turkey (for example) and send messages to him over the airwaves. Similarly, it is thought that MOSSAD, the KGB and others have all made use of this means of communication.

So how do they work? All you need to decode the broadcast is a pen, access to a short wave radio and what is called a “one time pad”. Each letter of the alphabet is randomly assigned an equivalent number, creating a numerical language in which messages can be spelled out, jotted down and ultimately interpreted by the agent in question. Each time a new message is broadcast, the letters of the alphabet are reassigned random numbers, making each individual code theoretically “uncrackable” by anyone who hasn’t been informed which numbers represent which letters. Hence, “one time pad”. One of the rare incidences where an institution was prosecuted for using a one time pad happened in 1998 when some Cuban spies were tried in the U.S. In this case, a station called “Atención” had made the broadcasts. One of the messages was the well sinister “Under no circumstances should agents German nor Castro fly with Brothers To The Rescue or another organization between the 24th and 27th…” Broadcasts are typically made in a foreign language to further obscure the indentity of the message’s sender and recipient . Also, the voices of women and children are often preferred.

The secrecy and danger of numbers stations is partly what makes them so fascinating, so compelling and so mysterious. Happily they often sound fantastic too, especially if you happen to be into abstract electronica or the spooky music we tend to associate with 1970s children’s television programmes – one thinks of the haunting theme tune to Picture Box, which is genuinely one of the most beautiful pieces of instrumental music you could wish to hear. Forward thinking musicians such as Boards of Canada have peppered their records with samples of Numbers Stations. Wilco named their brilliant “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” album after a sample they’d used of a numbers station broadcast. There’s a website where you can download a four disc compilation called “The Conet Project: Recordings of Short Wave Numbers Stations” for free. It must rank as one of the finest collections of avant-garde or “outsider” music there is.

It is named after a mishearing of the Czech phrase “konek” which means “end”, a phrase that brings some Numbers Stations broadcasts to a close. Highlights include "The Gong Station" which is the most sinister thing I think I've ever heard - really, it's the kind of thing you listen to in bed in the dark with the covers pulled up around your face to hide yourself from the monsters lurking under your bed. The distorted electronic noise that goes along with the broadcast and which, some say, constitutes part of the coded message, sounds so other-worldly. But there are some brilliantly surreal moments on "The Conet Project" too; the Alpine bonkersness of "Tirolean Music Station" for example which features yodelling, and Austrian music of the oompah-oompah beer festival variety, which is then interrupted by a sullen sounding man reading out numbers in German.

Every now and then I like to stick "The Conet Project" on and play it as I would an Aphex Twin, Autechre or Black Dog Productions album. But it's SO repetitive. Usually I get to about track ten, disc one and decide that I'm far too spooked to listen to any more. It gives me the shivers in the same way the BBC's terrifying account of mutually assured destruction "Threads" does. I'm just about part of the generation that remembers when "Threads" was broadcast in 1984. Mention of the programme still gives me the spooks. There's a moment in "Threads" in fact, which is very "The Conet Project", now that I think of it. That bit which shows some children a few years after the bombs have dropped passively watching Words and Pictures on a grotty old video tape, as part of an effort to educate the poverty stricken, radiation-enfeebled kids just a little bit. It's the mixture of childhood innocence and maturity-through-suffering that does it. If you watch this thread (har har!) of YouTube clips - and I recommend you do if you want to scare the bejaysus out of yourself - then you can find what I'm talking about at the end of part 12/13. So Numbers Stations are very much connected in my mind with that sort of cold war, nuclear terror. Horrible, but completely compelling at the same time.

Over and out.

Listen to "The Conet Project: Recordings of Short Wave Numbers Stations" here.