Day 1 – Number stations

[Image adapted from NJCHCI, under a CC BY 3.0 license.]

There’s a certain liminality to crawling the internet late at night. You’re a little altered, a little uninhibited, a little numb with sleep and boredom, but still invested – interested in turning over stones, in following threads, in wandering through a desert of creation and intent, and seeing what grabs you. In looking for oases. There’s little risk except losing more sleep, and you’ve already failed to salvage that, so why not plunge ahead?

So you find a website where people write letters to trees. You find a website where you can buy used socks, and one where you can buy live slugs. You find people you hate being maddeningly, deliciously wrong. You find subcultures and interests you never knew of before, and have no real personal connection to, but find that the long dark hours aren’t as lonely as you thought. And you find lovely things, and you find terrible things, and you find inexplicable things.

Number stations seem like a purer form of this. Rather then the whole business with servers and packets, you have a radio.

When shortwave radio took off as a consumer hobby in the 1920’s, people would search across frequencies (not all, although some of them, must also have been up late at night and near-delirious for the world to show them something worth staying up for.) Sometimes, they would hear mechanical voices reciting numbers. Long strings, random numbers. Then static. These transient stations became more and more common during World War 2 and through the Cold War.

Here’s a short clip of the most famous number station, which ran for four decades. At the beginning and between sets of numbers, it played MIDI bars of the folk song The Lincolnsire Poacher.

Who broadcasts the number stations? Consensus states that they’re run by government intelligence agencies to transmit messages to spies in foreign countries. The spy uses a radio to tune into the frequency at a predetermined time, and uses a one-time pad to decode their message. A very small amount of number station messages have been cracked, and some stations have a presumed owner, but by and large, the stations and their robotic voices drifting out over the electromagnetic frequencies are still mysterious.

Number stations are still around today. Their benefit is that a station can play a message with no way to tell who or how many people are listening in, a capability on which they still outmatch digital means.

If you’re not a spy and don’t care about that, you can even listen to stations online. I find it sounds best alone after midnight, but that may be a personal preference. Happy listening.

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