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The Shortwave And the Calling

For Akin Fernandez, Cryptic Messages Became Music To His Ears

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 3, 2004; Page C01

In a cluttered home office in the World's End section of London, Akin Fernandez is trolling the dial of his newly acquired shortwave radio. It's December 1992 and it's late at night, when the city is quiet and the mad-scientist squawks of international broadcasts have an otherworldly tone. Fernandez, the owner and sole employee of an indie music label, is about to trip across a mystery that will take over his life.

Shortwave signals are bouncing, as they always do, around the globe, caroming off a layer of the atmosphere a few hundred miles above the Earth and into antennas all over the world. Fernandez can hear news from Egypt and weather reports from China. But his browsing stops when he tunes in something startling: the mechanized voice of a man, reading out numbers.

Akin Fernanadez, pictured on a London rooftop, turned his fixation with shortwave transmissions into "The Conet Project" recording. (Poppy Berry - For The Washington Post)

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No context, no comment, no station identification. Nothing but numbers, over and over, for minutes on end. Then the signals disappear, as if somebody pulled the plug in the studio. And it's not just one station. The more he listens, the more number monologues he hears.

"Five four zero," goes a typical broadcast, this time in the soulless voice of a woman with a British accent. "Zero nine zero. One four. Zero nine zero one four."

Numbers in Spanish, in German, Russian, Czech; some voices male, others female. When Fernandez lucks into hearing the start of a broadcast, he's treated to the sound of electronic beeps, or a few bars of calliope music, or words like "message message message." Then come the numbers. A few stations spring to life the same time each night, others pop up at random and cannot be found again.

At first, Fernandez figures it's a prank, the work of radio pirates with a sense of humor. But you need a license for this part of the radio band, and why would anyone break the law just to read digits into the dark yonder? In England the penalties are serious. Where's the comedic payoff?

Nobody has answers. Not the guy who sold him the radio, who claims they're weather stations -- which is crazy, because weather stations don't hopscotch to different spots on the dial, as many of these did. Not a manual he buys about shortwave frequencies, which has a chapter on "numbers stations" and describes them as a riddle that nobody has solved. Not the British Library, which seems to have catalogued every other sound on the planet.

What's with the numbers?

Answering that question, it turns out, would take Fernandez years, and it left him nearly penniless, at least for a while. It also brought him a horde of admirers on another continent, eventually earned him a credit in a Tom Cruise movie and sparked a legal battle with the acclaimed band Wilco.

Fernandez would study numbers stations largely because he couldn't stop even if he tried -- which is to say, he fell into the grip of an obsession. But along the way, by both accident and design, he discovered amid all that static the raw material for a point he likes to make, with characteristic zeal, about the future of rock-and-roll.

That, however, is later. In December of '92, Fernandez is just listening. And listening. He stays up till 4 or 5 every morning, jotting down frequencies and figures, looking for patterns. He keeps a detailed log, not for weeks or months but for years, without a clue about what exactly he is logging. Sometimes Fernandez doesn't leave his house for a week.

"You just get submerged," he says, on the phone from London. "You get immersed in it. There are so many questions and the only answer is to listen more, because no answers are coming from anywhere else."

The Secret Sounds

A few things you should probably know about Akin Fernandez: There's the basic background stuff -- that he's the son of Nigerian-born parents, that he grew up in Brooklyn and moved to London when he was 15 years old. He calls himself a geek. He believes UFOs are real. More mysteriously, there appear to be grooves carved into his clean-shaven head, the origins of which he politely declines to discuss. ("Irrelevant," he says.) He is now 41.

Also -- and this is key -- Fernandez hunts for audible thrills the way a shark hunts for meat, which is to say constantly and ravenously. This makes it a little easier to grasp his passion for numbers stations. They were unlike anything that had ever hit his ears.

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