Monday, August 07, 2006

Greetings, Earthlings!

The delightfully named blogger Poohchucker at Infinite Monkeys recently recalled a youthful fascination with something he had never actually experienced himself -- shortwave radio:

At various times of the day, on many different frequencies, a mysterious voice appears from nowhere. It may be a live voice or a synthesized one. It may be female or male. It might be speaking English, or Spanish, or German, or some Slavic variant. Whatever form the voice takes, the content of its broadcast is always the same: numbers, and lots of 'em. Nobody knows what the numbers mean, or where the voice is coming from. The station is not registered and the voice never identifies itself. It just chants its senseless litany of digits for a few minutes, then disappears back into the ether from whence it came.
Poohchucker goes on to provide a sample transcript of just such a transmission, and explains what kind of effect this knowledge had on him:

I never had a shortwave receiver in my youth, but just the thought of these robotic voices out of nowhere would give me a major case of the creeps. Nobody knows why they're out there, or where they're coming from, or what they're trying to get across; if somebody does know, they ain't talking.

So why the hell has somebody -- or something -- been reading numbers and making vaguely farty noises on the shortwave band for the better part of four decades?

The fertile mind can come up with all sorts of implausible explanations. Perhaps space aliens snapped up the Voyager probes and have been trying to make contact with us using whatever limited vocabulary they were able to glean from those gold discs. Or maybe the stations are paranormal in nature. It's said that ghosts are simply electromagnetic imprints left behind when we shuffle off this mortal coil. Is it possible that shortwave listeners have inadvertently tuned into the poor, lost soul of some long-dead German mathematician, doomed to recite the digits of pi for all eternity, or until he gets to the end, whichever comes first?

Unlike Poochucker, I actually did have a shortwave radio. It was really a present to my father from his employer to honor him on the occasion of his 40th year working for the same company. He had a list of gifts from which to select his preference, and chose the shortwave radio with me in mind, as I had recently started learning German in school. Twenty-five years ago, there was nothing like a shortwave radio for a teenaged American kid to experience news and entertainment programs from other countries. (It all seems rather quaint today in light of our familiarity with the internet.)

The General Electric "Monitor 10" 10-band radio.

I think I must have appreciated my father's gift more than most things that I received as my own presents during my adolescence. During the summer, I spent many a late night staying up to tune in to distant broadcasts from far and abroad. Sometimes I settled for nationwide major league baseball games on the AM band, which received better reception at night, and other times, I scanner the shortwave bands listening for anything intelligible. Deutsche Welle was always easy to find, if not to lock on to, and there was never any trouble finding a Spanish language station in this hemisphere. There were many stations broadcasting in languages that were far beyond my comprehension. I even picked up some channels in Morse Code. And, as Poohchucker noted, there were stations that just broadcast mumbo jumbo.

But it had to be mumbo-jumbo for a reason, right? As a teen, I was perfectly willing to accept that my radio was intercepting secret messages from Mars to covert operatives here on Terra Firma. Either that, or it was the speed metal version of dots and dashes. Whatever is was, I loved hearing it. Nothing stirs the imagination like the Great unknown.

Poohchucker has more info on the mysterious "Numbers Channels", along with a link to samples thereof. And it seems that I was on the right track when I assumed "secret messages" were being sent to/from "covert operatives":

It's commonly believed that the broadcasts are actually coded messages from espionage agencies to covert field agents operating in enemy territory. The unique attributes of shortwave make it well-suited for such uses. Because shortwave frequencies are refracted by the ionosphere, such transmissions are capable of traveling from their source to the other side of the globe. And because radio is inherently a broadcast medium, interested parties might eventually be able to triangulate the source of a transmission, but they can never identify its ultimate destination.

I may not have understood a single buzz or bleep, but I did find those broadcasts addictive. Poohchucker's post made me realize how much I missed my old shortwave radio. So I looked...and found it in my kitchen, hidden behind a box of Rice Krispies in the cereal cabinet. (This saves me from having to shell out a couple of hundred dollars for a new one.) The last time I used this radio set, the volume control knob was misbehaving something fierce. Somehow, after years in storage, it now works wonderfully. I listened to Deutsche Welle. And some eastern European things that I couldn't understand. And a couple of Spanish language stations. There were some Morse Code feeds, and two or three very LOUD Christian religious broadcasts from right here in the good old US of A. I also heard, very loud and clear, news from NPR and...

Whoa. NPR? National(socialist) Public Radio, broadcasting to all parts of the globe?

No wonder people in other countries hate us.


jipzeecab said...

Six years ago in an attempt to permanently solve all my radio problems I purchased a Grundig YB 300PE for around $ 100. It has two extensive digital shortwave bands besides the normal am/stereo fm. It was also the only digital radio I could find with a built in alarm.
It is so complicated to use that I had to call the manufacturer's techs to find out how to set the alarm. Besides wearing out batteries even when I hardly use them, about once a month I have to hit a reset button to get it to work again.
I listened to SW a lot as a kid, first on a 1940's era radio console and then on a radio I built myself for $ 20. I did all the stuff to become a amateur radio operator (like learn how to send and receive morse code at 30 wpm)back then but never got a transmitter.
Heard the "numbers" but never thought anything unsavory about them. My dad told me that some of them were weather stations exchanging data.
Some of the "noise" on there was the UPI and Associated Press teletype transmissions.
My personal favorite was the National Bureau Of Standards Clock where every five minutes the time would be announced. I also used to listen in on ship to shore radiotelephone transmissions (occasionally an operator would leave his monitor on and you could hear both sides of the conversation on the landbased channel).
Every Country in the soviet bloc had their own propoganda station in English with the format of a male and female announcer alternating reports.

Leo Pusateri said...

I used to love listening to my shortwave, and I still do. I bought a Grundig pocket-sized short wave radio for around $30 at the Mall of America a couple of years back, and started enjoying it all over again..

Like you said, it was like our version of the internet back then, and it was always fascinating to me to listen to real-time broadcasts from around the world. One of my favorites was to listen to the propaganda spouted out by Radio Havana (reporting on the sugar cane crop, telling about the good life to be had in Cuba, etc).

I too, remember the numbers stations, and had surmised that they were coded spy messages.

Thanks for taking me back, sir! It was fun!