About 20 years ago, Akin Fernandez discovered mysterious sounds and voices being transmitted over shortwave radio stations called “Numbers Stations” that weren’t documented anywhere. With more research, Fernandez realized that these stations had been used during the Cold War to transmit secret messages from intelligence agencies to their spies … but they were still being actively used though the war was long over.
Such began The Conet Project, which was first popularized when Wilco used a portion of one of the recordings, a woman saying “yankee hotel foxtrot,” in their song Poor Places and as their album title and were later sued for copyright infringement.
Here, we asked Fernandez to write out a description of the project that carries such a mystery with it. Have a listen to a portion of the project in the above clip.
Where did you first get the idea for a project about shortwave numbers station recordings?
In the early 1990s I discovered that you can receive weather maps and satellite images by shortwave radio with a simple receiver and an inexpensive demodulator that attaches to your computer. I put it all together and started to decode weather satellite images from all over the world.
Whilst trying to tune into stations that were transmitting these satellite weather maps and photos, I kept coming across stations that were transmitting strange voices reading out strings of numbers and letters. In one of the frequency guides I owned, there were entries for some of these stations, listed simply as “Numbers Station,” with no other information.
In order to understand why this is odd, you need to understand how shortwave radio transmitters are licensed and how they behave when they are legally operated. Each licensed radio station on the air is given permission to operate by a government. If it is not, it is a pirate station operating illegally. Each station has call letters, an address, and when they transmit, they announce who owns the station, where it is on the globe and the schedule of transmission times and frequencies. If you write to them with a reception report, they will send a “QSL” card back to you to say thank you.
The only people who do not conform to these standards are pirates, or people using shortwave for their licensed private use, like ships at sea, and in those cases, you sometimes hear people having conversations with each other.
Numbers Stations had none of this. They did not identify themselves as a licensed station should. They were clearly not pirates, because there were too many of them, transmitting all over the dial in many different forms, and their signals were way too powerful for a man in his garage to be operating. They clearly were not two-way radio telephone calls. These were something different, and the scant information that you could find about them in the 1990s bore this out.
To my astonishment, there were no good sources of information about Numbers Stations. There were a few small books printed by enthusiasts (normally printed very cheaply and bound with staples) filled only with facts you could glean for yourself if you listened to a shortwave.
This was a real live mystery, taking place on a global basis, unreported, scantily documented and passing though the bodies of billions of people every day. Everyone I asked about Numbers Stations didn’t know anything about them. The British Library didn’t have any recordings of them in its collection. There were even some shortwave radio listeners who were huffy and defensive about them, describing them as “nonsense.”
It was about that time that I lost my mind and had to know everything about Numbers Stations that I could find. I couldn’t stand the idea that this was going on and no one knew about it.
Here was something that had been going on for decades, that had never been reported on in a newspaper, that was inexplicably missing from the plotlines of every James Bond and spy movie ever made, and that was going on unabated after the end of the Cold War. This is something that had never been documented in the National Sound Archive in the country that built Alan Turing’s ENIGMA breaking computer, or indeed that is mentioned anywhere by the people curating the espionage relics of war.
Surely, this could not be real, but it was, and it fell right into my lap.
It was at this point and with all this scant information and the red rag to a bull of Numbers Stations in my face and ears that I decided to stop decoding satellite weather photos and start recording and logging Numbers Stations.
Some might think that this is all a bit odd. For certain, people who take that position have not ever heard a Numbers Station. These are not just plain white noises or unedifying, characterless transmissions likethe UK’s “Speaking Clock.” These stations are very VERY weird; they are so weird that they sometimes exceed the emotional thrust of the inspired compositions of Avant-Garde music composers.
These stations, if you are interested in the sort of music that moves me, are a high form of musical expression, fueled by accident and chance, unique, unrepeatable, mysterious and deeply profound. Their lyrics are meaningful and meaningless. They are spoken by men, women, machine women and machine men. They are clearly designed by very creative, thoughtful, anonymous people. Add into this mix the distortions, reverberations and chance elements that the ionosphere superimposes on these “works” and the true nature of their purpose, and you get an art form, available worldwide, without precedent in human history.
This is why I released The Conet Project. It took me three years to compile it, and I destroyed my record label, and myself, to produce it.
Where does the name Conet Project come from?
It comes from the words spoken by one of the Numbers Stations which ended with the words “Konek.”
Some of the tracks actually sound like songs (i.e. “Gong Station Chimes”). Were you surprised by the musical nature of some of these?
Very. Not only is “The Gong Station” musical, but for example the Station XPH, which is not explicitly musical, has a mournful slow introduction, and its main body has a phrasing and tempo like a synthesized bagpipe piece. Many stations use music as identifiers, either recordings of pop songs or sets of tones repeating to notify the recipient. Or not. We do not know why these tones were used, because no one who was responsible for these stations has come forward to explain the reasoning behind the design of the transmissions.
Can you tell us a brief history of Irdial Recordings? How does a company gain a vision to put out a project like this?
Irdial-Discs started in 1987. I had some friends that were making wonderful music but who could not find a label to release their work, and I had some of my own work that I wanted to release that no one would release, so it became obvious that I should run my own label.
Irdial originally was designed to be a blend of Factory, Touch and New York Electro labels like Cutting as a starting point. I took all the things I loved about those labels, mixed them with the works of the people that I knew, and made something that was different to everything else out there in every way, from the sleeves to the sounds and the way we mastered recordings.
The most important thing for me is to not compromise. I hate compromise and accommodating the tastes and ideas of other people. And it has worked. It was clear to me that some of the people who were running record labels at the time that I launched Irdial were not really interested in what they were doing as an act of art. They were trying to balance breaking something new against the tastes of the audience, and they were frightened of taking risks.
Take for example, InSync’s 12-inch “Storm.” This track was mastered onto a cassette. It was rejected by several labels, simply because it was on a cassette. When I was offered it, I immediately mastered direct from the cassette and released it.
I tell this story because it demonstrates how people can’t think for themselves and can have something wonderful given to them on a plate but will reject it simply because they are not familiar with it, or because it comes in a format they mistakenly believe is “bad.”
Can you imagine what the answer would have been, had I turned up in a record label’s A&R department with the idea for a quadruple CD of Numbers Stations, with an 80-page booklet? The only way great things like this can come to light is if someone takes the risk and refuses to follow the herd. That is why I run Irdial-Discs.
You release your recordings under the Free Music Philosophy, but here you’ve gone the direct-to-fan route. Can you talk about your choices here in terms of getting the recordings out there to your audience?
Back in 1999, we had been on the Internet for two years. Irdial was one of the first record labels on the Internet. It was clear to me, after spending years in the BBS scene and watching the Internet grow, that it made sense to spread your music everywhere rather than keep it bottled up. This is why The Conet Project has now been downloaded over one million times and is on computers, iPods and devices all over the world.
It would have been very difficult to do this without the Internet, and of course today, it’s not unusual to see tens of millions of views of pieces of music on YouTube. Giving away music makes sense; superdistribution is the future. The question is, is there a place for record labels anymore, what is the nature of that role if there is one, and how can artists that make music make enough money to allow them to spend all their time honing their art?
I think an answer is coming soon, and certainly an aggregating platform like PledgeMusic is going to be at the center of this new activity, where the owners of it are curators, filtering in (rather than out) the highest art so that people can find who is making the interesting work.
Since the Internet is essentially an infinite space, everyone can coalesce into their own communities so that no sound maker is left out, and rejection from one curator does not mean death, like it used to before the independent label and the Internet.
People need music in the same way they need food. Music makers have been kept away from their public by the scarcity imposed by physical sound carriers. Now that this has changed, it’s a matter of organizing these forces of nature with software and new contracts to increase the availability of art and get the right sounds to the right people, whilst making sure the sound makers can eat.
It’s an exciting time to be working in music, no doubt about it.