Just As I Thought

Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot. Yankee. Hotel. Foxtrot.

A little over a year ago, I posted an entry about the strange world of shortwave radio codes — numbers, beeps, musical notes that float through the ether mysteriously. This morning, the Washington Post takes up the story:

Shortwave signals are bouncing, as they always do, around the globe, caroming off a layer of the atmosphere a few hundred miles above the Earth and into antennas all over the world. Fernandez can hear news from Egypt and weather reports from China. But his browsing stops when he tunes in something startling: the mechanized voice of a man, reading out numbers.

No context, no comment, no station identification. Nothing but numbers, over and over, for minutes on end. Then the signals disappear, as if somebody pulled the plug in the studio. And it’s not just one station. The more he listens, the more number monologues he hears.

“Five four zero,” goes a typical broadcast, this time in the soulless voice of a woman with a British accent. “Zero nine zero. One four. Zero nine zero one four.”

Numbers in Spanish, in German, Russian, Czech; some voices male, others female. When Fernandez lucks into hearing the start of a broadcast, he’s treated to the sound of electronic beeps, or a few bars of calliope music, or words like “message message message.” Then come the numbers. A few stations spring to life the same time each night, others pop up at random and cannot be found again.

… While the rest of London slept, Fernandez chased these voices all over the dial, never sure when or where he’d find one. He wrote down the results in a green book bound with fake leather. A typical entry looked like this:

Sept 6 ’93
Freq Time Signal
6.201 USB 12:30 am BIZARRE German Children’s Voice
Station starts with beeps, then
GLOCKENSPIEL!! Then count
From 1 to 10 then ACHTUNG!
And message!! [expletive] Hell!!

There are a lot of exclamation points in Fernandez’s log.

“You’re listening, and all of a sudden you come across a really strong signal,” he says. “It’s the most chilling thing you’ve ever heard in your life. These signals are going everywhere and they could be for anything. There’s nothing like it.”

To pay the rent, Fernandez released music through Irdial-Discs, which by then was part of a small ecosystem of clubs and record shops selling avant-garde music in London. Finally, after three years of wee-hours number logging, he heard about a book called “Intercepting Numbers Stations” by a guy named Langley Piece. He mail-ordered it from a place in Scotland, and when it arrived he sat and devoured it in a sitting. The book confirmed Fernandez’s initial hunch — the stations were no joke.

“They’re deadly serious, in fact,” he says. “That little German girl reading numbers, she might be ordering someone to assassinate a person with a poisoned umbrella.”

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