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Waves of Fascination

Shortwave radio: Where the lunatic fringe lives, breathes and flourishes

Perhaps most intriguing of all shortwave phenomena are the so-called numbers stations that are 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. 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." An ex-navy man who calls himself Havana Moon became obsessed with cracking the rubric and claims he used radio-direction-finding equipment to trace Cynthia to a military transmitter in Virginia, where the spooks have their headquarters. Hmm…

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 are 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.

Turn the Dial to the Right, the Far Right

It's no coincidence that the shortwave band is at both the extreme right and the extreme left of the AM dial. Skinheads, fire-and-brimstone preachers, self-proclaimed patriots, anti-WTO paranoiacs and deeply opinionated people of every stripe all find a home on shortwave. There, Rush Limbaugh is written off as a conciliatory, moderate milquetoast. Shortwave is the only sure way to keep a finger on the fringes from the safety of your home.

Adam is a 25-year-old hippie woodsman from Michigan who says he's "down with militias," 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.

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-- or rather, white. As in proud to be white. According to the book Waves of Rancor: Tuning in the Radical Right, there are more than a thousand 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 the race-war fantasy The Turner Diaries, the book 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.

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