One night ten years ago, sanitary on a college radio program here in Los Angeles, clinic I was treated to an entire hour’s worth of possibly the spookiest audio I’d ever heard. It consisted solely of human voices captured on incredibly static-laden shortwave channels, reading nothing but repeated passages of letter/number combinations. Some of the recordings were in English — some in Russian, others in various Eastern European tongues.

When I turned the radio on, I’d just gotten in my car after a night shift at the video store where I worked at the time. I’d missed the opening few minutes of the program, and the second the radio came on, I sat transfixed, trying to figure out just what it was I was listening to. For twenty minutes, I sat there, motionless, trying to come up with an explanation for some of the strangest audio I’d ever been present for. After a long passage of these recordings, the DJ came on the mic and announced that he’d been playing selections from a box set called “The Conet Numbers Project”, a collection of shortwave recordings detailing the activities of “numbers stations”, which were operated by the intelligence community surrounding various Cold War superpowers. Wikipedia sez:

Numbers stations are shortwave radio stations of uncertain origin. They generally broadcast voices reading streams of numbers, words, letters (sometimes using a spelling alphabet), tunes or Morse code. The voices that can be heard on these stations are often mechanically generated. They are in a wide variety of languages, and the voices are usually women’s, though sometimes men’s or children’s voices are used. Evidence supports popular assumptions that the broadcasts are channels of communication used to send messages to spies. This has not been publicly acknowledged by any government that may operate a numbers station, but in one case, Cuban numbers station espionage has been publicly prosecuted in a United States federal court. Numbers stations appear and disappear over time (although some follow regular schedules), and their overall activity has increased slightly since the early 1990s. This increase suggests that, as spy-related phenomena, they were not unique to the Cold War.

According to the notes of The Conet Project, numbers stations have been reported since World War I. If accurate, this would make numbers stations among the earliest radio broadcasts. It has long been speculated, and was argued in court in one case, that these stations operate as a simple and foolproof method for government agencies to communicate with spies working undercover. According to this theory, the messages are encrypted with a one-time pad, to avoid any risk of decryption by the enemy.

High frequency radio signals transmitted at relatively low power can travel around the world under ideal propagation conditions, which are affected by local RF noise levels, weather, season, and sunspots, and can then be received with a properly tuned antenna of adequate size, and a superb receiver. However, spies often have to work only with available hand held receivers, sometimes under difficult local conditions, and in all seasons and sunspot cycles. Only very large transmitters, perhaps up to 500,000 watts, are guaranteed to get through to nearly any basement-dwelling spy, nearly any place on earth, nearly all of the time. Some governments may not need a numbers station with global coverage if they only send spies to nearby countries.

Although no broadcaster or government has acknowledged transmitting the numbers, a 1998 article in The Daily Telegraph quoted a spokesperson for the Department of Trade and Industry (the government department that, at that time, regulated radio broadcasting in the United Kingdom) as saying, “These [numbers stations] are what you suppose they are. People shouldn’t be mystified by them. They are not for, shall we say, public consumption.”

Whatever the case may be, this shit is genuinely unnerving, and I challenge you to listen to it for even just a few minutes without getting the chills.

The Conet Numbers Project, disc 1 (ZIP file)
The Conet Numbers Project, disc 2 (ZIP file)
The Conet Numbers Project, disc 3 (ZIP file)
The Conet Numbers Project, disc 4 (ZIP file)

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  1. Mark Selway says:

    An excellent set of recordings, for a knock out 1 2, team the Conet Recordings up with Ash International’s The Ghost Orchid which consists of recordings from the “other side” captured in the sounds inbetween sounds recorded on tape.

    Cool drinks for the freaks indeed, and a fine Blog….

  2. Baal of Confusion says:

    One of my favorite podcasts, Skeptoid, had a piece on these number stations just a couple weeks ago:

  3. Matt says:

    I’m really looking forward to hearing these, just from the description alone. If they are as creepy as you’re saying they are, I think they might be useful for affecting dreams if played at a low volume. I’m gonna experiement that up.

  4. chris says:

    well i haven’t listened to these as of yet either, but i am very much looking forward to them. this is an excellent blog and i thank-you for posting.

    from the description of these recordings, let me pipe-in and say that i had a similar experience in the 90s at one point, awakened in the middle of the night to cbc radio canada’s program “brave new waves” ( which is no longer); the audio was from another from the great Ash International label. the recording was “runaway train”, a black box recording from the 1940s, i believe, of a train out-of-control. the recording was between the lone engineer of the train, and the dispatcher. it’s pretty amazing, capturing the colloquialisms of speech of the the time, and full of by-the-minute drama.

    thanks for this!

  5. Alexander De Large says:

    1997 is the answer.

  6. kingpossum says:

    Creepy, eerie stuff indeed. I bailed after only a few seconds in. Hey Matt, give us a report on your dreams experiment, eh?

  7. illlich says:

    A couple years ago I spent Thanksgiving at a friends house out in the sticks. That night we sat around drinking booze in his garage testing out his new wood stove and fiddling with an ancient tube SW receiver from Radio Shack. I mentioned the concept of the numbers stations to him and we admitted that it was interesting but neither of us had ever heard one of those stations, despite years of shortwave listening. A few minutes later while trying to steer away from all the frequencies Dr. Gene Scott monopolizes, completely out of the blue we found one, and sat curiously enraptured for a while, listening to the oddly monotonic voice mechanically reading off numbers.

    I had assumed that the internet had made these stations obsolete, but of course governments can track your internet browsing, but not a lone radio receiver.

  8. Rob says:

    Yep, these are extremely creepy… If you are interested in finding out more, try and hear the documentary, ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’ made for BBC Radio 4 by Simon Fanshaw. Fascinating.

  9. Roger_Camden says:

    First off, check out what the anti-spam word was:

    These recordings are great.

    Seems that they’ve been making the rounds heavily the past couple of weeks. It seems like every music-related forum I lurk has at least one thread devoted to it.

  10. O says:

    Reminds me of Cocteua’s Orpheus, when he listens to the radio.

  11. Jacques du Bois says:

    A great share- I actually got the 4 CD set when it was available because I liked it so much…one night I had my CDs on random and I had one of these CDs in there- and I was in the middle of a trip and this CD came on and I freaked out. I have it now on my iPod and randomly, these tracks come on between everything…very cool.

  12. Francesco says:

    Thanks for posting this… Absolutely love it. What’s wrong with me????

  13. Lane says:

    When I was a kid (1970s) in bed at night I would tune in distant AM stations and get the same sort of ‘vibe’. Very creepy. I thought I was the only one…. Guess not.

  14. Chip says:

    I got into ham radio and shortwave listening as a teenager in the early 1970s, and numbers stations were all the rage and had quite a following, as they were most prolific during the 60s-70s, and in high use during the cold war. What I don’t understand, is everyone’s description of feeling very ‘creepy’ while listening to these. I was mesmerized and fascinated by stations from all the way around the world, as if from a distant planet. Weird and Creepy, me thinks not. Guess if you don’t really understand it, you might get afraid of the dark.

  15. Matt says:

    Update on using these as “dream material”:
    First off, I now agree with what Chip said… These don’t seem especially ‘creepy’, but they are definitely weird.

    I’ve slept with these on low volume 5 or 6 times now. I’ve only been sobor for it twice, though. When drinking I NEVER remember my dreams, and when sobor I RARELY remember them. That said, the two sobor sleeps with this stuff going elicited very VIVID dreams.

    I don’t want to attribute that exclusively to the recordings. I’m sure my thinking about dreaming had as much to do with it as anything. But still, I’ve felt a little more energized and rested upon awakening.

    Perhaps the numbers, words, strange sounds, etc., has my brain working on things like a puzzle, as I sleep? Sort of mental exercises/ isometrics or something?

    Anyhum… thanks again for posting these.

  16. Not all of these are scary, but a few are really damn frightening! ESPECIALLY the very first one. I thought it was going to summon the hell-demons into my tiny little bedroom.

    The dream idea posted earlier in the comments is intruiging! I think they should try putting the first song on repeat over and over all night long and see what kind of dreams that gives you.

    I have to point out that the 5th track on cd 1 sounds a lot like ther kid in the movie Gummo (“mommy has a pussy….daddy has a pussy…) which kind of made me smile.

    I could see these recordings as being extremely useful for underground film-makers and experimental electronic music artists/djs. This is an awesome post! I am very grateful.

  17. RON says:

    Great post! Thank you!

  18. Sudsman says:

    I have this set, and I’m surprised no one here knew that one of the tracks (CD1, track 4 – NATO Alphabet) was what Wilco used underneath the song “Poor Places” from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, which got its name from the woman’s voice on the track. (Wilco was sued by Irdial for ripping the track from this set, of which Jeff Tweedy is a huge fan.)

    Anyway, just thought I’d share this bit of info. Love your blog!