Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Yankee, Hotel, Foxtrot - Listening to Numbers Stations

I’ve decided to branch out a bit here at ANF.  The primary focus will remain on cars, but writing about them for a living as I’ve been doing for a while now has encouraged me to broaden my scope - I hope you’ll find my scattered momentary interests and obsessions, er, well, interesting.  I deeply appreciate my readers, so feel free to let me know your feelings, good or bad.

It's been mentioned here before that I’m a big fan of the band Wilco, and in particular their 2002 masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.  The album is named after a sample used here and there on the record of a synthesized British female voice repeating those three military alphabet letters.  I’d been curious to know where this sample came from and what it meant since I first heard it back on the day it was first released over a decade ago, and just yesterday I finally put in a bit of research on the subject.

Apparently it’s part of a shortwave radio broadcast that originated from something called a “numbers station”.  Numbers stations are thought to be platforms for illicit, secret communication between government agencies and internationally deployed spies.  According to the Conet Project, who have amassed a large collection of these recordings from around the world, numbers stations date to as early as World War I – making them among the earliest practical uses of radio.  Nearly every government on earth has at one time or another used these means to send coded messages, and they’re still quite prevalent today. 

Shortwave broadcasts are capable of reaching around Earth’s curvature due to ionospheric reflection, also known as “skywave propagation”, in which their high frequency waves literally bounce back and forth between surface and ionosphere, like a basketball between your hand and the floor.  This, combined with the simple, relatively low-powered equipment needed to broadcast shortwaves makes them an obvious choice for covert, intercontinental communication.  Besides spy and military agencies, numbers stations are also thought to be used by international criminal, anti-government, and terrorist organizations, too.

You can listen to any of these broadcasts right now in the comfort of your own home.  “Comfort” might not be the right word, really, as the seemingly random sequences of voice, song, and electronically-generated noise contained within them are somehow deeply unsettling - this little girl counting in German played a part in a terrifying nightmare I had last night.  Haunting and captivating seem to go hand-in-hand, though – like salty and sweet, or pleasure with a bit of pain, it’s a favorite flavor combination for social misfits and perverts of all stripes.  Have a listen, but be prepared to be thoroughly creeped the fuck out.

Check out this link to the Conet Project for a list of recordings.  This one in is my favorite - a series of gongs that sounds exactly like a 12th generation cassette recording of some experimental German band's drug-fueled tape looping sessions in a dank Berlin housing project basement sometime in the early 80s - a lot like early Einstürzende Neubauten, then.

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