There Is No Cat

Groovy '60s Sounds from the Land of Smile!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Poaching sounds

One of my regular stops on my rounds of Blogistan is Myke Weiskopf's ShortWaveMusic blog. Myke takes his shortwave radio and a recorder of some sort out to a quiet location and records some interesting music off the radio and shares it with us. His most recent post, "Whole Numbers Play The Basics", has a couple of interesting clips involving numbers stations, the mysterious broadcasts so ubiquitous during the Cold War that broadcast nothing but strings of numbers, presumably to agents in the field who use unbreakable one-time pads to decode the messages. (See David Goren's great story for NPR's All Things Considered a few years back on the subject for more background.) The first is a recording of U.S. evangelical station Family Radio sharing a frequency with a numbers station. So you get a choir singing while a lone ghostly soloist recites seemingly nonsensical numbers. It's pretty cool.

The other clip in the post is of an old favorite among afficianados of the numbers stations, known as The Lincolnshire Poacher, so named because before every broadcast, it plays a recording of an old English folk tune by that name, played on a wheezing organ, as an aid to tuning in. (This is also an old practice among shortwave broadcast stations, dating to the days before radios had digital readout and it was often difficult to be sure you were on the correct frequency for the broadcast you wanted to hear. I know of at least one web site that serves as a collection of these tuning aids, called "interval signals", which I've found very helpful in identifying various obscure and hard-to-hear stations I've heard over the years. Digression finished.) Anyway, so The Lincolnshire Poacher has been around forever, and was always presumed to be broadcast for the benefit of British spies. I've heard that confirmed through a roundabout route. A friend of mine used to work for military intelligence in Washington some years ago. He's told me and a few other people a story about the time he shared an elevator with a British liason officer. At one point, after the other people who had been on the elevator had gotten off and there was nobody but my friend and the liason officer, my friend started whistling "The Lincolnshire Poacher." The withering dirty look my friend received from that officer was confirmation enough of the source of the transmissions.

Posted at 11:34 AM

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That's an amusing story about "The Lincolnshire Poacher." Too bad our American stations don't use anything similarly catchy. Thanks for the big ups in the blog, by the way :-)

Posted by Myke at 3:08 AM, November 24, 2005 [Link]

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"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

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