Xeni and I were just talking about the wonder of Wilco and their performance at the recent Outside Lands festival. As many of you know, Wilco's magnificent album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot was named for (and uses samples from) the Conet Project, a four CD collection from Irdial-Discs of "numbers stations." For decades, intelligence organizations have reportedly broadcast one-way messages to their agents in the field via shortwave, and the transmissions happen to sound weirder than any Stockhausen score or minimalist electronica you've ever heard -- a child's voice, or the obviously synthesized intonation on what's known as the "Lincolnshire Poacher" station, named for the folk song accompanying the numbers. The Conet Project contains recordings of 150 of these stations. I wrote about the Conet Project in 1999 for a feature article in Salon. (Cory also blogged about the project on BB after Irdial oddly sued WEA, Wilco's label, for copyright infringement.) Since then, Irdial has posted the Conet Project audio on Hyperreal. From my Salon article, titled "Counting Spies":
My preferred dose? One CD of Conet before bedtime. Repeat if necessary. Be warned, though: Side effects may include grainy and nihilistic nightmares starring a grayscale spy cabal armed with an arsenal of dead media. Conet as soundtrack to a J.G. Ballard noir documentary. Indeed, Ballard's style of (non) fiction blends seamlessly with the blurb on Conet's stark, minimalist packaging: "The origin of these stations is in dispute. Their purpose is unclear. Some of these organizations should have been closed down after the 'end of the cold war,' yet they continue to transmit like clockwork."
And therein lies the mystery that keeps headphones on hundreds of numbers listeners around the world. Most of these people aren't the avant-audio enthusiasts who frequent Aquarius (Records, where I bought my copy). They don't know from musique concrete. These shortwave buffs are knob-twiddlers of a different sort. For them, the process of numbers stations is more interesting than the product. Under the mainstream radar, numbers stations Web sites, online chat rooms and e-mail lists thrive with listeners sharing frequencies, recordings, rumors, stories and speculations about the strangest sounds on the dial.
"If you tune in to the BBC World Service, you know where the studios are, who the intended audience is and where the transmitters are, but with numbers stations you don't know any of that," says Simon Mason, a chemistry lab supervisor in England who in 1991 penned one of the first texts detailing the numbers racket, "Secret Signals: The Euronumbers Mystery." "It's like a mystery novel or television show, but the difference is no one will ever come out with a solution."
Previously on BB:
• Who owns recordings of numbers stations?