When the world was a far bigger (not to say more mysterious) place than it is today, information on a subject that didn’t receive mass media coverage was often acquired from some dusty volume in the local library – if you were lucky. Some subjects, it appeared, remained uncovered and unnoticed. Take what could be found on the outer limits of the wireless. Before the colonisation of the family home by FM units incorporated into swanky hi-fi sound systems, the humble portable radio had several options at the flick of a switch that FM ultimately downgraded.
There was medium-wave, which was the option of the masses – home to all four national BBC radio stations, not to mention the local BBC ones, wherever you happened to be in the country, and the ILR alternative. There was long-wave, primarily the choice of the cricket devotee tuning into ‘Test Match Special’, as well as providing the BBC with split slots when glamorous new FM began to reserve the popular programmes for itself. And then there was the enigmatic poor relation, shortwave. I was always intrigued by shortwave because its presence on the airwaves made no sense. Medium-wave, long-wave and FM schedules were listed in the Radio Times – nothing on shortwave was. It seemed to be a repository for the odd, the eccentric and the quirky; and, needless to say, I found it fascinating.
I remember early family holidays on the Continent, furtively moving the dial around the radio that had come along for the ride, trying to pick up Radio 1 or anything broadcasting in English; I usually located the World Service at various times, but it was prone to drifting in and out of hearing as though the transmitter was fixed to a pendulum. The snap, crackle and pop of the reception, the atmospheric SOS of the Morse code messages that could be discerned in the distance, and the strange stew of foreign tongues that babbled for a handful of seconds before disappearing again created a uniquely alluring and anarchic audio mosaic that seemingly had no structure whatsoever. Even when music was stumbled upon, it was usually in French or German and had more than a touch of the Eurovision about it.
Those wonderful old radios had the names of stations printed in a little panel on the front, where turning the dial moved what resembled the clapometer from ‘Opportunity Knocks’, gliding in and out of the stations listed without them ever actually being situated where the panel claimed. Nevertheless, the names themselves were in possession of a curious, archaic exotic quality that is utterly redundant today. FM rendered them redundant to a degree, and relegated the old family radio to my bedroom, where I had free rein to explore the parallel universe of shortwave. It was during this period that I began to come across some sounds that were disturbingly weird even by shortwave standards.
I wasn’t to know then that shortwave’s ability to broadcast across far greater distances than any other radio frequencies meant that I was picking up stuff from thousands of miles away, though what sounded to me like distorted Russian voices certainly suggested I was hearing something emanating from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. I began to notice these voices regularly, usually in the early evening; sometimes they sounded more Chinese than Russian, but always they had a detached and chilly element to them that evoked all kinds of spy movie clichés, particularly as the Cold War was still in full swing. They were often infiltrated by what my imagination pictured as flying radioactive jellyfish falling from the sky and landing on the earth’s surface – well that was the image that entered my head whenever the voices were interrupted by an alien sound I had no reference point for. On other occasions, what I can only describe as Tom & Jerry incidental music being performed by a Krautrock band would break up the voices. At the time, I had no idea I was listening to ‘Jamming’; but at the time I had no idea what I was listening to at all.
The voices were almost robotic; even if I’d been able to speak the lingo, I suspect I’d have struggled to decipher what was being said. One thing I could make out, however, was that numbers were being recited and repeated with unwavering monotony night-after-night. I thought I was the only person on the planet tuning into this bizarre medley of spoken word gibberish, and though I often recorded some of it onto a cassette, I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing likewise.
Fast forward a couple of decades and I now know I most certainly wasn’t alone. Thanks to the internet, I discovered the sounds I’d been tuning into were unofficially recognised as Numbers Stations, the means by which secret service agencies communicated with their spies in the field behind enemy lines. No government has ever publicly admitted they exist, but there is now a plethora of information and background out there on this clandestine phenomenon. And while many of the old ones have subsequently vanished from the airwaves, an outfit called The Conet Project have released several CDs of recordings over the last ten-fifteen years, many of which are far creepier than anything I heard when I used to tune in.
If some of us not involved in the spying game have just cause to sometimes suspect we’re being monitored by anonymous nosy parkers, the Numbers Stations can be viewed as symbolic of a more innocent age, an age when only those operating in an arena one entered into with full knowledge of its dangers could expect to be exposed to the all-seeing eye of the secret state.
© The Editor