WTF?! Wednesdays: The Conet Project Recordings of Shortwave Number Stations (1998)

Shortwave number stations? WTF is that?! And why would anybody want recordings of them?!! The first part is easy to answer. The second part? Hmmm…let me think on it.

Though most governments probably don’t want to go on record admitting this, shortwave counting stations were set up to enable one-way communications to a spy embedded in an area. Secret messages are encoded as numbers and are transmitted, after a short and (sometimes) snappy musical preamble, via the human voice. Since they probably change the cipher for each message, and because it’s nearly impossible to locate the consumer, this method of information broadcast is supposed to be highly secure.

I say “supposed to be” because honestly, I have no freaking idea. It does seem plausible. Actually, I’d rather not talk about it too much because what with all of the recent discoveries of NSA monitoring activities, I’d rather not have them open up a file on me. Though now that I say that, maybe it doesn’t matter. I’ve got nothing to hide. Hey guys! I live on a horse farm…I only have DSL for Internet access…Uh…my stereo has tubes in it!


So why would a person want to listen to this stuff? Further, why would a person want a four-disc set? I suppose most people wouldn’t. When I found out about the phenomenon, it seemed both fascinating and creepy. I tracked down a copy at my local record store, much to the dismay of TheWife™. (Don’t worry, I don’t make her listen to it.) I don’t experience this material as music, but more as a kind of vaguely-scripted performance art. Life just seems more interesting knowing that these activities are going on.

A side note: these recordings were first issued in 1998, after which they went out of print. Wilco used a sample of a woman saying “Yankee…hotel…foxtrot” for the album of the same name. The settlement of the lawsuit that followed allowed the set to be reissued in 2004.

There, blame it on Jeff Tweedy

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Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to, and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at