The portable radio I owned for most of my growing-up had a couple of shortwave bands on it. I was always more interested in the idea of shortwave than in shortwave itself—I would buy a copy of White’s Radio Log (a now-defunct publication) and try to find international stations, but I don’t recall spending a great deal of time doing it.
I tuned the shortwave bands enough to know that there were a few stations playing electronic tones and periodically pausing to announce . . . something. I couldn’t always identify the languages, but they weren’t usually anything I recognized. A little bit of research revealed that there were several such stations, and that their purpose was mysterious. The stations announced seemingly random strings of numbers, repeating them endlessly, occasionally mixing them with snippets of music or other sounds and an array of tones, buzzes, whooshes, and metallic whines that were hard to tolerate for very long. These were, of course, the fabled “numbers stations.” Their origin dates back to the Cold War, when they were presumably used as beacons or communications media for clandestine operations. The pattern of tones likely meant something to somebody, somewhere; the cryptic strings of numbers might have meant something else; the pauses between the tones and/or the cryptic strings of numbers have meant something entirely different.
The end of the Cold War did not end the numbers stations. And they became better-known in the post-Cold War era than at any time before, thanks to A) the Internet, and B) The Conet Project, a four-CD set of numbers-station recordings released in 1997. People became familiar with such famous numbers stations as Swedish Rhapsody and the Lincolnshire Poacher, named for the snippets of music they broadcast over and over and over again. The Conet Project took a weird hold in popular culture, inspiring connoisseurs of “found sound,” most famously Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who got the title for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from The Conet Project (and ended up in a copyright kerfuffle with the project’s creator). Today, it’s presumed that numbers stations are still used by spies, and perhaps by international drug traffickers. But no government or agency anywhere in the world has ever confirmed their involvement with such stations.
Listening to The Conet Project, or any of the gazillion YouTube videos devoted to numbers stations, ain’t for everybody. The disembodied voices (sometimes the voice of a child), the unfamiliar languages, the cacophony of sounds, and the weird and repetitious music, adds up to an odd, unsettling listening experience. Just what in the hell is this for? Who is tuning in for the young girl speaking German on Swedish Rhapsody . . . and what are they doing with whatever they learn from it? A station nicknamed Yosemite Sam, believed to originate in the New Mexico desert, used several frequencies to broadcast a 0.8 second burst of some kind of data, followed by a clip taken from a 1949 Warner Brothers cartoon, repeating in a predictable pattern for a precise length of time. It operated for only a few days in 2004 and 2005. Some people believe it had something to do with the CIA—or maybe it was just a pranking radio engineer.
But if it meant something, what was it?
If you have to ask, you aren’t supposed to know.