September 5, 2008

Shortwave Radio and Number Stations

A few years ago for Christmas I asked my husband to get me a shortwave radio. Of course this goofy girl doesn't ask for diamonds or perfume, but something totally off the wall. A shortwave radio is a little different from the standard AM/FM ones, because you can pick up stations from all over the world. Shortwave stations are found at the upper end of the AM band, from 1700 kHz, up to 30 MHz (how technical of me...don't be impressed, I just did some Google research).

There's a great listening guide online from NASWA (the North American Shortwave Radio Association) which lists what is on at any given moment. Right now I could be listening to the news out of Africa, folk music from India, or boring journalism for old people, also known as CBS's 60 Minutes.

The weird thing is that there is a shortwave festival every March in Kulpsville, Pennsylvania, only about 5 minutes away from my parents' house. And every year I forget that it's happening until it's over. Not that I'd be that dorky to go...but you never know.

And the even weirder thing about shortwave radio are the Number Stations. Have you ever heard of these? They're creepy stations that play recordings of people reading numbers; and the recordings repeat over and over throughout the day. Often the numbers begin with a little tune, like an old folk song. The recording repeats for a day or so and then the numbers change. No one has yet publicly acknowledged what these things are, but most likely they are used to communicate messages to spies. The song played at the beginning serves as a reference point for the "spy" or whoever to identify that the numbers are meant for them. These recordings can be found in all kinds of languages and the recorded voices are those of men, women, and even children.

Number stations are what prompted us to buy our radio. We've spent many a late night reading about them and listening to them online. Even though we've only picked up a few on our shortwave radio, it's akin in my mind to spooking yourself about aliens or ghosts. The Conet Project compiled a compendium of recordings of number stations from all over the world. You can listen to some of the examples here in Windows Media Player. The Washington Post also ran an article a few years back on the Project.

Even if my hub and I don't spend a lot of time chasing down number stations, we still love our shortwave radio. It's been really useful during power outages, since it has a crank on the side which powers both the shortwave and AM/FM radios and a flashlight. It's amazing to find an item that is actually human-powered, which saves you from buying batteries or using electricity. For under $40, it works well, even if we don't get as many shortwave stations as pricier models. It's also kept us abreast of those aggravating Phillies games, since we no longer get them due to cutting back on cable.


  1. We have a grundig, but I have never figured out how to use it. I'm an idiot.

  2. Us prenatals in Allentown have a grey Grundig, CJ loves to take it to the beach to see what he tunes in... perhaps he'll be trekking to Kulpsville PA next March, cool find and nifty post!

  3. hhmm. The Number stations are enough to make me want to run right out and buy one. Or at least tell him to.

    With the weather as it is right now, it wouldn't hurt for everyone to have one of these in power outages.
    Thanks for the review; it was quite interesting!


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