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What's the Frequency, Kenneth?


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The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations

Of all the hundreds of science fiction tales I digested as a boy, nothing so firmly shaped my nascent understanding of infinity as Orson Welles's 1938 radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds. I'm not saying I was one of those naifs who looked under the bed for little green men--as a suburban teenager in the 1970s I was already far too sophisticated for such silliness.

No, the moment in the program that managed to burrow its way into my subconscious comes at the climax of the first act, when a ham radio operator, alone and far removed from the carnage, plaintively broadcasts into the void: "2X2L calling CQ...2X2L calling CQ...2X2L calling CQ...New York. Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone...?" It wasn't just the fear and resignation in his voice that haunted me--it was also that enigmatic code. What did those figures mean? Who was he trying to reach?

When I first heard The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations, my thoughts ran immediately to poor, lonesome 2X2L. The four-CD set is a mind-boggling collection of dispassionate, disembodied voices reading lists of numbers and sometimes letters in many languages, over crashing waves of lush, unfiltered radio static, occasionally accompanied by perky robotic musical themes borrowed from hell's own ice cream truck. The collection was first issued in 1997 by a small British label, Irdial-Discs, whose other big release is a two-CD collection of the low-frequency radio signals emitted by electromagnetic phenomena like the northern lights. Irdial owner Akin Fernandez first heard a numbers station in the course of pursuing an obsession with the shortwave transmission of weather faxes. Five years and much research and networking later, he released The Conet Project in a limited edition of 500. A few months ago, due to (relatively) popular demand, he finally re-pressed it.

Unlike AM or FM stations, which dutifully identify themselves every few minutes, numbers stations transmit their signals anonymously on various shortwave bands 24 hours a day. They carry no identifying information, and their content generally consists of little more than the voice of a man, woman, or child, sometimes real and sometimes synthesized, spieling the aforementioned codes. Listeners over the years have given the voices names--some of them affectionate, like Cynthia, the Babbler, the Sexy Lady, or Bulgarian Betty, some of them more simply descriptive, like Spanish Lady. The music, when it appears, is apparently designed to alert the listener that the message is starting or ending. One long-standing station is colloquially referred to as the Lincolnshire Poacher for the calliope-esque version of the British folk tune it uses as an introduction.

Welles's ham operator was a far cry from the agents of international espionage for whom numbers stations are thought to be broadcast. According to the West Yorkshire-based European Numbers Information Gathering and Monitoring Association, or ENIGMA, the stations are broadcasting messages encrypted using what're known in the spy business as "one-time pads"--previously agreed-upon keys used once, for a particular message, and then discarded. The system is thought to be unbeatable, provided that the pads are generated in a truly random fashion and, of course, that they don't fall into the hands of a third party.

Here is a transcription of a message intercepted a little after Christmas by a Russian listener and posted recently to Spooks, an Internet mailing list for numbers station aficionados: "Message 1, message 1, message 1: 5431 0013 5210 7610 9535 4370 5210. End of message. Message 2, message 2, message 2: 4314 1191 1610 0841 3767 3160 6189 8396 1376 1502 0635 8076 9323 7150 1183 7675 1247 7154 1610. Repeat, repeat, repeat: 4314 1191 1610 0841 3767 3160 6189 8396 1376 1502 0635 8076 9323 7150 1183 7675 1247 7154 1610. End of message. End of transmission."

The compilers of The Conet Project have no more idea what that means than you do. But they're convinced that an agent of the MI6 or the CIA or the FSB or Mossad intercepted it, decoded it, and carried out some sort of untraceable activity at its behest. Does that sound paranoid? As The Conet Project has called media attention to numbers stations, official sources haven't exactly allayed the fears of the uninformed masses. "We don't intend to discuss these stations, if any exist at all, and I'm not saying there are [any]," John R. Winston, assistant chief of the enforcement bureau of the Federal Communications Commission, told a public radio reporter in 1999. An officer of Britain's Department of Trade and Industry was only slightly more forthcoming in an interview with the Daily Telegraph: "People shouldn't have any interest in numbers stations because they shouldn't be listening to them because they are illegal to listen to," he said. "These are what you suppose they are. People shouldn't be mystified by them. They are not for, shall we say, public consumption."

Numbers stations are a black hole: no matter how much light is shed on them, none is returned. But that hasn't stopped a loose worldwide federation of trainspotters from dedicating countless hours to finding, tracking, categorizing, and recording them. The Conet Project collects over 150 recordings made between the 70s and the present, and is awe inspiring in its scope and implications. One station runs a tape loop of six electronic tones that's only occasionally interrupted by a man reading Russian numbers; another bookends its brief transmissions with recordings of Tyrolean yodeling. One station of British origin, not strictly a numbers station but included in the set nonetheless, has broadcast nothing but an incessant, monotonous buzzing every night since at least 1987.

At first listen the set seems as impenetrable as the monolith in 2001, but eventually, confronted with actual audible evidence of secret maneuverings that most of us will never, ever be privy to, you can almost feel the wash from the black helicopters' rotors on the back of your neck. Taken one at a time, the recordings baffle and confound, but absorbed one after the other they blur together in a hypnotic fugue. If mathematics is the language of the universe, they're the numerical equivalent of Kurt Schwitters's dadaist sonata, Ursonate. ("Rakete bee bee? / Rakete bee zee.") Or maybe, if William S. Burroughs was correct that "language is a virus from outer space," they're an inoculation against phonetic infection.

Maybe numbers fanatics feel a bond with those anonymous voices the way some prisoners come to feel empathy for their captors. The recordings are a Rosetta stone for the language of deceit, a fetish object for the informationally disenfranchised. I was seven when Nixon's men broke into the Watergate, and in a way everything I've done since has been guided by an ingrained mistrust of authority. But even the missing 18 minutes of Nixon's secret tapes couldn't freak me out more deliciously than The Conet Project.

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