By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Receiving and listening to shortwave is tied to specifics of place and space as few technologies are. You'll find an entirely different palette of sounds on mountaintops than in valleys, and the trajectory of the signal itself matters. Transpolar propagation (signals that cross the North Pole), for instance, will make stations sound as if they're underwater.
Perhaps most intriguing of all shortwave phenomena are the "numbers stations" that involve nothing more than orations of digits. Around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, American SWLers began coming across unidentified broadcasts of women reading a series of numbers in Spanish. Since then, numbers broadcasts in all manner of languages and originating from numerous countries have cropped up regularly on the shortwave band. They begin with an interval broadcast--a set of tones or a piece of music to let listeners know they are beginning. One defunct East German broadcast always began with off-key bells that were just plain spooky (SWLers have compiled CDs of old numbers-station broadcasts), and another that persists to this day opens with the English folk song "Cherry Ripe" repeated 12 times.
There is no indication in these broadcasts of where the transmitter resides, who the intended audience is or what the words mean. Everyone pretty much agrees they are intelligence-related in some way, although the FCC only grudgingly admits they occur, and it still questions whether any originate from within the United States. SWLers who pore over the numeric codes for possible meanings have given nicknames to certain broadcasts, such as Sexy Lady, the Babbler and Bulgarian Betty. The prevailing theory is that various agencies use them to communicate with agents in the field--a bizarre use of a public means of communication to reach only one or a few people.
One notorious signal was dubbed Cynthia, as in "starts with C and ends in IA." A former member of the Navy who calls himself Havana Moon became obsessed with cracking the numbers-station rubric and claims he used radio-direction-finding equipment to trace the broadcast to a military transmitter in Virginia, where the spooks have their headquarters.
Some particularly dedicated SWLers have developed emotional attachments to certain numbers readers. A lifelong listener from Brooklyn reports hearing the same Cuban woman for more than 20 years. One popular broadcaster is an exceedingly chipper female on Taiwan's New Star Broadcasting, who pleasantly shouts out a half-hour or so of numbers in Mandarin and then ends with a polite "Thank you very much for decoding your message!"
Recently, what seem to be spoofs of numbers stations have been popping up. A new one began with a few bars from Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" before a squeaky voice identified itself as Melvin Mouse, commander of the Rodent Revolution. He then launched into the group's manifesto: "The Rodent Revolution was formed in the 1980s by a coalition of members from every rodent family. Mice, squirrels, beavers, shrews and the most intelligent of the group, the rabbits. Our goal is to overthrow our oppressors, the ape-humans who drool on themselves, listen to shortwave and spend most free moments wanking their willies. We have, in collaboration with the CIA, been using mind-control methods to confuse and baffle the humans since 1985. Thus the inability to clearly hear our 50,000-watt transmission last night... "
Mr. Mouse proceeded to read a string of numbers, which an SWLer with way too much time on his hands decoded as "al fansome is a good human he will feed you eat the special carrots we got from ganja that is all bunny out."
A more perfect form of entertainment is difficult to fathom.
Adam, a 25-year-old hippie woodsman from Michigan, is drawn to the fringe, and the dial. He says he's "down with the militia," though he's not actually a member. "Shortwave is those guys' lifeblood," he continues. "I got one to listen to Alex [Jones] and to hear how the neo-Nazis are trying to hijack the patriot movement."
Jones is a particular gem. He broadcasts from Austin and is a gun-rights and small-government advocate who hates Bush and his band of "globalists" with a vigor that would give any black-clad anarchist a run for her Molotov. A hater of Clinton, the WTO, Ashcroft, environment-raping corporations and the PC movement, Jones calls himself an information warrior, and his goal is to arm you with the proper ammunition. (Jones was the guy driving the motorboat car in Richard Linklater's animated feature Waking Life.)
While Jones is worthy of serious consideration and intelligent debate (he's sort of the thinking man's Art Bell), the rest of the shortwave rabble is pretty monochromatic--that is, white. As in proudto be white. According to the book Waves of Rancor: Tuning in the Radical Right, there are more than 1,000 racist and radical-right "patriot groups" on the air in the United States. A stalwart among these is the National Alliance, a white-power group headed by William Pierce, author of race-war fantasy The Turner Diaries, the book that Timothy McVeigh sold at swap meets and attempted to put into action when he blew up the Oklahoma City federal building. Pierce had a shortwave show for years before migrating to the Internet.