Monthly Archives: April 2013

No-Spoiler Review: “The Numbers Station” with John Cusack and Malin Akerman (no spoilers)

The-Numbers-Station-PosterThe following is a no-spoiler review, as I assume many of you may be waiting for the film to hit the big screen, and I wouldn’t want to reveal any cinematic surprises.

We first mentioned The Numbers Station back in late 2011 –and admittedly, I was eager to see public attention drawn to this public-yet-covert shortwave communications medium that’s still in existence today. Indeed, it’s no wonder that a numbers station became the subject of a film; the subject is truly mysterious. Only a few days ago, while describing numbers stations to a visiting friend who had never heard of them, I played a recording of a numbers station that I made last year–her initial response upon hearing the recording was, in her words, that she experienced “chills” running up her spine.

But what is a numbers station?

Numbers stations, for those of you not familiar with them, are shortwave radio broadcasts that contain only strings of what seem to be random numbers.  In truth, these numbers are encrypted messages for operatives in the field (otherwise known as secret agents). The operatives tune in the station with a simple shortwave radio, then decode the message with a one-time decryption key.  Once the message has been deciphered, the message pads are immediately burnt or destroyed (or, at least, they’re meant to be…).  Oddly, even though this is a very public communication which anyone with a shortwave radio can hear, only one or two individuals will likely ever decode the message.  Such messages have been known to exist in a variety of languages at least since the time of the Cold War, but strangely did not conclude with the Cold War’s supposed end–they are ongoing even today. (Click here to check out our other numbers station posts.)

John Cusack as Emerson (Photo: Image Entertainment)

John Cusack as Emerson (Photo: Image Entertainment)

The Movie

In the movie The Numbers Station, John Cusack’s character, Emerson, is a seasoned field operative–a “black-ops” agent–who faces a life-changing dilemma in the field which places his career in jeopardy.  In an attempt to give Emerson some time to reconcile his emotions, his leader (Liam Cunningham) assigns him to what should be a simple, routine assignment: to protect Catherine (Malin Akerman), a cryptologist who broadcasts at a rural remote numbers station in the UK.

Things go terribly wrong when the station is compromised and Cusack finds himself again facing the same dilemma that sent him to this assignment in the first place: whether to  “retire” his asset (namely, Catherine) in order to fulfill his duty, by cutting off loose ends? Or will his conscience–and tenuous friendship with Catherine–take him in another direction? It’s a difficult ethical dilemma, one Emerson has been attempting to avoid.

Malin Ackerman as Catherine (Photo: Image Entertainment)

Malin Akerman as Catherine (Photo: Image Entertainment)

I’ve seen a number of John Cusack films over the years, and while he’s an extraordinary talent, The Numbers Station unfortunately doesn’t quite allow us to see his full range as an actor simply because his character, Emerson, is stoic and quite introspective. But the chemistry between Emerson and Catherine is complex and tense, and one can’t help but believe he cares deeply for her.

On the action front, The Numbers Station is a much greater success:  pacing is good, with a few moments to collect your breath; still, there’s always looming conflict. The bulk of the film is set in a dimly lit, underground bunker-come-numbers station, and there are actually very few shoot-’em-out scenes, yet the tension and suspense are constant.

I won’t comment on how the plot resolves, but I can say that if you like dark films with tension, moral decisions, action, and intrigue, this is well worth watching.  I enjoyed it.

Moreover, if you love shortwave radio, and are intrigued by numbers stations, you will be pleased to discover that this film treats the concept with due respect and more accuracy than I would have anticipated.

(Photo: Image Entertainment)

(Photo: Image Entertainment)

How accurate is The Numbers Station?

While those who write about numbers stations have presumably never worked for one, there’s an existing body of knowledge out there built on thousands of hours of listening, cataloging stations and even court documents from cases involving spies.  This gives us a fairly accurate idea of the true nature of numbers stations.

Likely inaccuracies

  • Though it is possible, I have never heard of a numbers station which has a live voice behind the microphone, reading numbers; these would most likely be advance-recorded or computer generated.
  • In the film, Malin Akerman’s character, Catherine, only seems to read a string of numbers for a matter of seconds, not minutes; in reality, this would take much more time.
  • I heard no preamble of numbers to ID the correct decipher key.

And yet…likely accuracies

  • In the film, under standard operating conditions, no one at the station knows the nature of the messages being broadcast–this reflects a probable fact about such stations.
  • The numbers station is located in a rural and remote part of the UK, a convincing setting for a numbers station (though some may broadcast from major broadcasting sites).
  • Once the station has been compromised, Cusack’s character explains in some detail how numbers stations work on the operative’s end; this description is very true to what is known or believed of actual numbers stations.

So, should you see it?

I anticipate that most any shortwave radio enthusiast will enjoy The Numbers Station. As a non-movie-reviewer–in other words, as a regular joe public movie-goer–I give it 8 stars out of 10.  Go ahead!

Click here for show times and on-demand viewing.

If you’ve seen The Numbers Station, please comment below.

Videos: The Numbers Station Trailer and Featurettes

The official trailer:

Video Clip 1: The Assignment

Video Clip 2: We need that cypher


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Al Jazeera: Radio Free Sarawak offers alternative voice ahead of elections

Clandestine station, Radio Free Sarawak, offers an alternative voice in Malaysia ahead of elections next week. For those living in remote jungle communities–places where the Internet is not readily available–Radio Free Sarawak can be heard on shortwave radio.

Al Jazeera’s Florence Looi reports from a village in Sarawak:

Added to other posts tagged: Why Shortwave Radio?

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Shortwave Radio Recordings: Voice of Greece

greeceFor your listening pleasure: four hours of music, and a little Greek commentary, from the Voice of Greece.

I recorded this broadcast on Sunday, April 21st March 8th, 2013 on 9.42 MHz at 18:30 UTC. While recording, I piped the shortwave audio through our home hi-fi system–it sounded absolutely amazing. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did.

Click here to download the full recording, or simply listen via the embedded player below:

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Switzerland In Sound comes with a familiar voice

The host of Switzerland in Sound, Bob Zanotti.

The host of Switzerland in Sound, Bob Zanotti.

For any of you who listened to Swiss Radio International (SRI) on shortwave radio, you’ll no doubt know the name of long-time radio presenter Bob Zanotti. For me, his deep, rich voice was synonymous with SRI.

What you may not know is that Zanotti hosts his own website called Switzerland In Sound. It is chock-full of up-to-date Swiss information, news (Tina Turner became Swiss?), interviews, thoughts, musings and a wealth of vintage recordings from SRI.

SwitzerlandInSoundIf you were a fan of The Swiss Shortwave Merry-Go-Round, you’ll be pleased to discover the many recordings he has of The Two Bobs (Bob Zanotti and Bob Thomann).

Bob also manages a Facebook page for Switzerland in Sound. If you’re on Facebook, I encourage you to join his group.

Check out Switzerland In Sound:

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Shortwave Radio Recordings: Radio Romania International

Victory Avenue (Calea Victoriei), a major avenue in central Bucharest (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Victory Avenue (Calea Victoriei), a major avenue in central Bucharest (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Today at 20:30 UTC, Radio Romania International’s signal on 11,745 kHz was  quite strong, as it so often is.  RRI is one of the few broadcasters that still target Europe and the eastern US on shortwave.

RRI is a treasure of a station, too, with true local flavor–Romanian news, music, and mini cultural documentaries. This Sunday broadcast features the program Inside Romania, Romanian Without Tears (a language program which always reminds me of the similarities between French and Romanian), DX Mailbag, and Roots.

Click here to download the full broadcast as an MP3, or simply listen via the embedded player below. This recording features their interval signal before and after the broadcast:

If you enjoy Radio Romania International, I encourage you to send an accurate and descriptive reception report to: [email protected] Maybe your letter will be featured on their DX Mailbag!

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Shortwave Radio Recordings: Radio Australia’s Tok Pisin service

Mount Tavurvur in Papua New Guinea (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Monday morning, I was up earlier than usual and caught Radio Australia’s Tok Pisin (Pacific Pidgin Language Service) on 9,475 kHz.

I doubt many English-speaking SWLing Post readers will understand Tok Pisin if you’re hearing it for the first time, but as with other Pidgin languages throughout the world, Tok Pisin is a mixture of several languages: English, German, Malay, Portuguese and Austronesian languages. It has a comparatively simple structure and you might be surprised what you can understand if the topic shifts to something familiar. I’ve certainly enjoyed listening to it in the background as I work on other projects.

I recorded a full 90 minutes of the Tok Pisin service; you can download it directly by clicking here, or simply listen via the embedded player below:

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