CLOSE
iStock
iStock

The World’s Strangest Radio Broadcasts

iStock
iStock

We have only the vaguest idea where the broadcasts are coming from, and even less idea where they're going. The sounds are strange—the synthesized voices of women and children mixed with snatches of music, Morse code, or high-pitched buzzing. Sometimes the transmissions appear on a fixed schedule, other times in short random bursts. The only thing they have in common is the eerie recitation of numbers, beamed through shortwave radio signals bouncing across the globe.

These are the "number stations," which have mesmerized conspiracy theorists, radio enthusiasts, musicians and less obsessive members of the public for decades. They’ve been tracked with their own journal, recorded in an influential 4-CD set, and made appearances in lawsuits as well as a Cameron Crowe movie. No government agency has ever explained why they’ve taken over large portions of the shortwave radio dial, and why they’ve done so for years.

One of the most storied of the number stations is "The Lincolnshire Poacher," which began its transmissions with bars from the British folk song. Although it went off the air in 2008, number station detectives believe it was transmitting from a large military site in Cyprus. Another of the best-known stations, the Stasi-connected Swedish Rhapsody, started with a music box rendition of that tune before continuing with the voice of a little girl reciting numbers in German. A station known as the Magnetic Fields opened with the Jean-Michel Jarre's instrumental "Les Chants Magnétique" before broadcasting Arabic numerals and the English phrase "again, again."

The beginnings of the stations are unknown: by some accounts, the broadcasts first began during World War I, although better documentation exists for a beginning during the Cold War. While some suggest that they are the secret communications of drug smugglers, the more likely explanation involves espionage. Court cases, half-admissions, and the memoirs of ex-spies have brought the basics to light—the stations seem to be the broadcasts of intelligence agencies to their spies across the world. Messages are deciphered with a so-called one-time pad, in which a string of randomly generated numbers are mathematically added to text messages in order to encrypt, then subtracted to decrypt them. After each use, the pad is discarded.

While the use of number stations might seem startlingly low-tech for an espionage agency, their one-way nature has its advantages. Listening to the radio can’t be traced the way a telephone call can—because anyone can listen anywhere in the world, no one knows who the message is intended for. Listening to the radio isn’t a suspicious activity (the way carrying around expensive computer gadgetry might be) and doesn’t require much special equipment. Like the use of good old fashioned pen and paper, its simplicity is the key to its utility.

For years, public interest in the number stations was primarily limited to shortwave radio enthusiasts, who communicated with one another via online groups and magazines. A UK-based organization called ENIGMA (European Numbers Information Gathering and Monitoring Association), founded in 1993, tracked the transmissions with its own detailed newsletter for seven years. A radio hobbyist title called Monitoring Times Magazine also wrote about the stations, particularly through the activities of retired naval intelligence officer William Godby, alias Havana Moon. According to the Miami New Times, in the late 1980s Godby used signal-direction-finding equipment to pinpoint several number stations as coming from the "West Palm Beach airport, in nearby Tequesta, and at the Homestead Air Force Base. All were aimed at the Caribbean."

The name most often associated with the number stations today is Akin Fernandez and his Conet Project. In the early 1990s, the London-based Fernandez, who owns an indie music label, discovered the stations late one night while scrolling the dial with his new shortwave radio. When he discovered that no librarian or government agency could tell him what the number stations were doing, he became obsessed. The result, several years later, was a 4-CD set with samples of 150 different broadcasts, and an accompanying 74-page booklet. (Conet, a word Fernandez often heard on the broadcasts, is Czech for "end.") With the kind of treatment usually reserved for aging rock stars rather than secretive government broadcasts, the CDs became cult favorites—sampled by Wilco, who named its 2001 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot after part of a numbers station broadcast, as well as other music groups, and appearing in the Cameron Crowe movie Vanilla Sky.

The Conet Project also prompted one of the first government admissions of the stations, when a UK government spokesperson told the Daily Telegraph in 1998: "These [numbers stations] are what you suppose they are. People shouldn't be mystified by them. They're not, shall we say, for public consumption."

Around the same time, Cuba’s "Atención" station became the world's first station publicly accused of broadcasting to spies. During a federal espionage trial following the 1998 arrest of the "Cuban Five," U.S. prosecutors claimed the spies were using hand-held shortwave receivers to listen to Atención broadcasts, entering the numbers into their laptops to decode the transmissions. The FBI testified that they'd broken into one spy's apartment and copied the decryption program, which they used to decode several messages. Three of the messages were revealed in court:

  • "Prioritize and continue to strengthen friendship with Joe and Dennis,"
  • "Under no circumstances should German nor Castor fly with BTTR or another organization on days 24, 25, 26 and 27,"
  • "Congratulate all the female comrades for International Day of the Woman."

And while some of the broadcasts might be just as banal as that last one, as Fernandez notes in the Conet Project booklet, part of the thrill of listening (the stations are still going strong) is that you have no idea what messages are being transmitted, or who else might be listening. "How many corporations are being compromised by mailmen who pretend to be listening to football results as they rifle through mail? And is the bus conductor on the no. 22 listening to the radio and writing down the results of the horses, or is he being told who his next murder victim is to be? Are all commuters really commuters? What is that buzzing?"

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images
arrow
History
How Superman Helped Foil the KKK
Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images
Hulton Archive (left), Bruno Vincent (right) // Getty Images

The Klansmen were furious.

Dozens of them had congregated in a nondescript room in Atlanta, shaking cloaked heads at the worrisome news that their sect leader had just shared: An act of gross subterfuge had transpired over the airwaves. Millions of Americans had now become privy to their policies, their rankings, their closely guarded methods of organized hatred.

All of it fodder for some comic book radio show. Their mission had been compromised, sacrificed at the altar of popular culture. Kids, one Klansman sighed. His kids were in the streets playing Superman vs. the Klan. Some of them tied red towels around their necks; others pranced around in white sheets. Their struggle for racial purity had been reduced to a recess role play.

Stetson Kennedy listened, doing his best to give off irate body language. He scowled. He nodded. He railed.

The covert activist waited patiently for the Klan to settle down. When they did, he would call radio journalists Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson, offering the results of his infiltration into the group for public consumption.

He’d also contact Robert Maxwell, producer of the Superman radio serial. Maxwell, eager to aid the humanitarian mission of the Anti-Defamation League, would promptly insert the leaked information into his show’s scripts. In between fisticuffs, his cast would mock the KKK’s infrastructure, and the group’s loathsome attitudes would be rendered impotent by the juvenilia.

The Klan roared, demanding revenge on their traitor. “Show me the rat,” their leader said, “and I’ll show you some action.”

Kennedy cheered, just as they all did.

And when he returned home, his Klan robe would be traded for a cape.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Kennedy, born in 1916, was an unlikely undercover operative. After a back injury kept him out of World War II, the Jacksonville, Florida native decided he wanted to combat anti-American forces on the home front. With Klan members alleged to have assaulted his family’s black maid when he was a child, the Klan—once again gathering steam in an era of segregation and racial divisiveness—was a favored target.

Having convinced a “Klavern” in Atlanta, Georgia that he shared their bigoted views, Kennedy donned the ominous attire of a Klansman, attended cross burnings, and covertly collected information about the group that he would then share with law enforcement and media. Radio journalist Drew Pearson would read the names and minutes of their meetings on air, exposing their guarded dialogues.

Revealing their closed-door sessions was a blow—one that Kennedy didn’t necessarily have to confine to nonfiction. In 1946, Maxwell, who produced the Superman radio serial broadcast around the country, embraced Kennedy’s idea to contribute to a narrative that had Superman scolding the racial divisiveness of the Klan and airing their dirty laundry to an enraptured audience.

“The law offices, state, county, FBI, House Un-American Activities Committee, they were all sympathetic with the Klan,” Kennedy said later. “The lawmen were, ideologically at least, close with the Klansmen. The court of public opinion was all that was left.”

Ostensibly aimed at children, Superman’s daily radio dramas were often broadcast to assembled nuclear families; one phone poll showed that 35 percent of its audience was composed of adults.

But regardless of whether parents listened, the activist believed the younger demographic was worth attending to. “Even back in the ’40s, they had kids in the Klan, little girls dressed up in Klan robes at the cross burnings," Kennedy said. "I have photos of an infant in a cradle with a complete Klan robe on. It seemed like a good place to do some educating.” 

In “Clan of the Fiery Cross,” a 16-part serial airing in June and July of 1946, Superman opposes an organized group of hatemongers who target one of Jimmy Olsen’s friends. Exploring their network, Clark Kent uncovers their secret meetings and policies before his alter ego socks the “Grand Scorpion” in the jaw. The idea, Kennedy wrote in his account of his work, The Klan Unmasked, was to made a mockery of their overblown vernacular.

When traveling, for example, Klansmen might identify one another by asking if they “knew Mr. Ayak,” an acronym for “Are You a Klansman?” Although Kennedy may not have actually shared their code words on air—a longstanding myth that was debunked in Rick Bowers’s 2012 book, Superman vs. the KKK—their histrionics were perfect for dramatization in the breathless structure of a radio drama. Given shape by actors and sound effects, all the clubhouse tropes of the Klan seemed exceedingly silly.

The cover to the first issue of Superman
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As Kennedy continued to serve up Klan secrets to Superman, he watched as Klan morale dipped and membership enrollment ebbed. Desperate, the Klan tried calling for a boycott of Kellogg’s, a new sponsor of the show, but racial intolerance was no match for the appetites of post-World War II homes. Rice Krispies and Corn Flakes remained breakfast table staples, and Superman’s battles with the close-minded continued. Emboldened by his success against the Klan, Superman took aim at Communism, a favorite target of the show’s anti-Red star, Bud Collyer.

Kennedy would go on to burden the Klan using proof of uncollected tax liens, and eventually convinced the state of Georgia to revoke their national corporate charter.

Kennedy died in 2011 at the age of 94. While some of his accounts of subterfuge in the Klan later came under fire for being embellished, his bravery in swimming with the sharks of the organization is undeniable. So, too, was his wisdom in utilizing American iconography to suffocate prejudice. Fictional or not, Superman may have done more to stifle the Klan’s postwar momentum than many real people who merely stood by and watched.

Portions of this article were excerpted from Superman vs. Hollywood: How Fiendish Producers, Devious Directors, and Warring Writers Grounded an American Icon by Jake Rossen with permission from Chicago Review Press. Copyright (c) 2008. All Rights Reserved.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
entertainment
Audible Announces $5 Million in Grants for New Audio Plays
iStock
iStock

Audible is trying to get up-and-coming playwrights off the stage and directly into their audience's ears. The audiobook company just announced it will be giving out $5 million in grants to commission new audio dramas for its platform, according to The New York Times.

Audible is looking for young writers who might otherwise be writing for small venues and Off-Broadway shows to write one- and two-person radio plays that will come out as early as the end of 2017. The first round of funding will go to about 12 playwrights.

The grants can cover both commission fees and production costs, and recipients will be chosen by an advisory board that includes award-winning playwrights, directors, artistic directors, and actors from the theater industry.

Though it doesn’t release its subscriber numbers, according to the company, Audible users downloaded almost 2 billion hours of audio in 2016, so it could be a huge platform for a young playwright.

Made-for-audio fiction isn't the company’s only plan for dominating the airwaves, either. Audible recently began expanding into podcasts and news programs.

[h/t The New York Times]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios