Death by Numbers ("Come in Number 51, Your Time is Up") / by Jeff Hunt


“If you guys are really us, what number are we thinking of…?”
— Theodore “Ted” Logan, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

“Who is Number 1?”
You are Number 6.”
— Opening Sequence, The Prisoner

The Conet Project has got to be one of the most unlikely, cryptic, disturbing, compelling, hypnotic, creepy, frightening, and thoroughly fascinating titles ever issued on compact disc. For decades and decades during the Cold War, an unsettling phenomenon was discussed in whispers among short-wave radio circles. Every once so often, while scanning the frequency band, an operator would encounter an abrupt and chilling transmission. Amid the modulation, static, atmospheric noise, and sideband splash, a signal would appear rising and fading, undulating in and out of audibility, a signal containing an eerie, vaguely human voice. The voice was mechanized, intoning very slowly what seemed to be gibberish: repeated series of numbers; sometimes letters; occasionally cryptic words, over and over again. Usually the voice was that of a preternaturally calm female; sometimes, in profoundly disconcerting broadcasts, it was that of a small child, but always slow, always deliberate, always without any hint of emotion. Peering through the distorted mists of high-frequency propagation, these voices sounded as if they originated from some place beyond time, or perhaps beyond the grave. They contained, within their concealed, mysterious incantations, a splinter of the occult, a queasy auditory glimpse into the void. And then they would disappear, like ghosts, sonic phantasms.

These stations were soon dubbed “numbers stations” and discovering and logging their broadcasts became an obsession among a cloistered yet worldwide elite. The transmissions came in a variety of languages, but the droning, repetitive aspect was a constant. Being the height of the Cold War, various theories were put forth at the far end of the sanity spectrum, e.g. alien communiqués, but many short-wave enthusiasts were former military men, and they knew cryptography when they heard it. The numbers stations were using the durable, high-powered, low-tech capabilities of short wavelength radio to transmit code. This was serious cloak-and-dagger stuff, real-life espionage in action. The numbers stations were transmitting secret messages to spies operating in enemy countries, and all of the usual spooks were suspect: the CIA and the KGB; the Mossad; Castro’s intelligence services; East and West Germany; North and South Korea; the People’s Republic of China. Within the creepy monotone of a child, shadowy figures might very well be ordering assassinations.

Documenting numbers stations was an exercise in frustration, even for the most committed monitors. Signals appeared and disappeared, seemingly at random; they jumped from frequency to frequency; they switched languages, formats and length without any apparent rhyme or reason. Still, a few hearty souls persevered, including London’s Akin Fernandez, who pursued his search with the devotion of a religious zealot, if not the zeal of a madman. He finally collected and compiled his years of documentation into a massive, stark 4xCD set, with an exceptionally assembled and informative book that contained a detailed history, logs, playlists, transcripts, and a bibliography. The original version of The Conet Project (Irdial, 1997) was pressed in an edition of 2,000 copies, and passed through the marketplace with little fuss. But in the intervening years, word of mouth spread. Thanks to the efforts of Akin Fernandez, some small part of the numbers station phenomenon no longer exists exclusively in the shadows.

While it would seem to have the most limited audience imaginable – cranks, conspiracy theorists and other, all-around paranoids – The Conet Project has become one of the most celebrated and sought-after releases of the last twenty years. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy used excerpts in the album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (without permission from Irdial, for which he was successfully sued); in fact the title of the record itself comes directly from a broadcast documented in The Conet Project. Director Cameron Crowe used portions in his Tom Cruise/Penelope Cruz vehicle, Vanilla Sky. Other famous obsessives include the Besnard Lakes, Devendra Banhart, Faith No More’s Mike Patton, and Boards of Canada. It’s odd to consider: Numbers stations were formerly a gravely clandestine phenomenon, one that evoked shudders of dread among those shortwave enthusiasts who stumbled across their clipped, creepy, and completely inscrutable, monotonic incantations. Now, thanks to The Conet Project, they’ve become a minor pop-cultural sensation – yet numbers stations are still in operation around the globe, fulfilling their unknowable agendas. It boggles the mind, but it could be that somewhere in a shack in Cuba, or a basement in China, or a Mossad-funded fishing boat off the coast off the Arabian Pennisula, there is a solitary agent who, after transmitting a forlorn message according to the pages of a cryptogram, spends idle hours listening to the recordings of The Conet Project. Comparing notes, as it were, professional spook to professional spook. The truth is out there – provided you are willing to decipher it. 

Jeff Hunt
Atlanta, Georgia
March 2010