4 mysterious sounds hidden in shortwave radio

The shortwave radio spectrum is a mysterious place.

Over the next few months, the producers of Here Be Monsters will be highlighting some of their favorite unusual, eerie and mysterious sounds. Here, producer Bethany Denton writes about what she discovered while researching number stations.

The shortwave radio spectrum is a mysterious place. It’s how truckers communicate, and it’s where you can find utility broadcasts about the weather and standardized time. It’s home to religious broadcasts and citizens radio. All nestled in an atmosphere of static and distortion. For decades radio amateurs have combed the shortwave range to document these oddities. Along the way, they’ve discovered enigmatic, coded broadcasts known as number stations.

I have been studying number stations for the last few months while producing an episode of Here Be Monsters (MI5 MI6 KGB CIA). It’s not hard to see why they’ve caused such a stir.

Number stations are broadcasts of repeated strings of numbers, sometimes letters, sometimes tones, buzzes, or melodies. These mysterious broadcasts have captivated radio enthusiasts for decades, and have inspired artwork and folklore.  

They’re eerie, and enigmatic, and you can’t help but lean in to try to decode their meaning. From the perspective of a sound designer, they are incredibly fun to work with because they have such a creepy aesthetic. It’s nearly impossible to know what they are communicating, or who they’re meant to reach.

But here’s what we do know:

The origin and purpose of number stations are unknown because these stations are not registered the way all radio stations are required to be. However, with the understanding that a radio transmission requires a great deal of electricity, space, and manpower to run, it is logical that they are operated by powerful entities like government intelligence agencies. It is believed that these broadcasts are meant for spies in the field, who have a key to decoding the hidden messages.

Unable to crack the code, shortwave enthusiasts like Akin Fernandez of the Conet Project record and archive the unexplained transmissions for posterity.

Below are some of my favorite transmissions  All recordings come courtesy of the Conet Project – find their full archive here.

1. Strich

I always thought of this one as “the Teacher” because to me it sounds like a strict teacher lecturing a classroom of bored students.

2. Drone

I was surprised at how musical this one sounded, almost like the opening of a movie score composed by Trent Reznor.

3. Achtung

The voice in this recording sounds like a small child, which, in a case like this, is a surefire way to add to the creepiness of the story.

4. New Star Broadcast

I like this recording because of the folk music preceding the coded transmission. It makes me think that the person this recording was intended for had to be very precise in their timing to catch the transmission at just the right moment.

(Photo: Nite_Owl)