Friday, October 14, 2005

The Moscow Coup Attempt - an interview with Derek Whitacre

If you’ve tuned up or down a shortwave radio spectrum for any length of time you may have heard mechanical female voices droning a series of numbers into the ether … or crisp high-toned notes chiming a folk tune several times in succession. These transmissions are mysterious signals thought to be messages broadcasts to spies and agents all over the world. They are referred to as “spy number stations” and appear and disappear regularly on both varied and fixed frequencies. For more information please investigate

Derek Whitacre is the architect of The Moscow Coup Attempt and the delightfully cryptic new cd The Failure of Shortwave Radio which incorporates and weaves samples of shortwave numbers stations throughout blissful washes of melody. The title is somewhat poignant for me as a shortwave radio listener who has witnessed the landslide of shortwave stations discontinuing their broadcasts to North America over the past five years including the BBC, and RVI from Flanders.

Graciously, Derek Whitacre sent me a promotional copy of The Failure of Shortwave Radio and agreed to an interview for this blog:

DJ Frederick: How did you discover shortwave radio in general and number stations in specific?

Derek: National Public Radio. I heard a story about Numbers Stations and a CD collection of Numbers Stations called The Conet Project. From that point I was hooked.

After weeks of research into the subject, I went searching for myself. Using online shortwave radio networks, I was finding numbers stations every once in a while. It's quite a tricky feat, but if you have the right information on their occurrences, you can find them. Anyway... some of my recordings actually made it onto the album. Others I got from sources world 'round, with permission of course. I'd also like to state for the fact, that NONE of my recordings came from The Conet Project collection. I say this because the individual that compiled it is quite letigious on record.

DJ Frederick: What are you thoughts on the state of radio in the US?

Derek: Short answer, it's dead. Long answer... The corporations that own most of the stations in the US could give a shit about music. It's all about bottom line. And to them, America is the same no matter where you go. We're all a faceless horde of consumers, who will take whatever we're given. So now they have the SAME STATIONS in different cities with the SAME PLAYLISTS. "Keep them listening so we can sell more add time... Oh, this playlist works in LA, so it must work in Denver, and Atlanta, and Boston." And where do those playlists come from??? Dying major labels that don't want to invest in anything but a limited scope of "artists" because to be different is bad. Do what works until it doesn't work. Then do it again with a new hot young piece of ass and call it new. Ok, ok... yes, there are a handful of "indie" stations (most of which are owned by these same corporations) playing different blends of music. But they are few and far between.However, I don't really care all that much because I really don't do what I do to get played on KROQ or STAR or Teenie-Bopper-of-the-moment-.7 FM. If I could get on KCRW or other low budget indie eclectic shows, that would be cool. What was the question again?

DJ Frederick: What is a Moscow Coup Attempt live concert experience like?

Derek: I give everyone a gram of dried mushrooms at the door and we just stare at a bug-zapper set up in the middle of the room. Yeah, actually it's kind of like going to see a really loud art film. I play with laptop and synth and other toys to a film montage I cut to the music. It's all archival footage, really creepy images, some not, ancient war footage, NASA development shite...There's a trailer for it on the "Moscow" website. Eventually I'd like to get rid of most of the computer oriented pieces and replace them with real honest to monkeys people playing instruments that don't require wall sockets.

DJ Frederick: I’m wondering if you could talk about some of your film / visual projects?

Derek: Well, other than what I just described, I've written scores for a couple short films no one will see. Actually, one of them is a good little film about fathers and sons called "Ringside Hero," directed by John Covarrubias. There have been some video games I've written stupid little LimbBuzzcut style songs for. I'm also into photography... a lot of macro-lens laden images like the photos I did for the "Failure" album art. RIGHT NOW... I'm thinking about the next film I want to do for "the Coup." Where as I wrote this album thinking about cinema and it being music for "a movie that never was," I might go the other direction and write and film and music together. More of a narrative structure than abstract expressionism.

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One listen to The Moscow Coup Attempt folds the listener into a world of “eyelid movies” and beyond. For sound samples, video and more information cruise over to

The Failure of Shortwave Radio is available to purchase from cd baby via

Derek's cd was released on Capitalist Records (somehow being a non-capitalist I love that name!) which has a website forthcoming at The image on the temporary page made me smile.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

A brief intro to shortwave listening

Shortwave listening (abbreviated SWLing) is tuning for radio stations located on shortwave frequencies, between 1710 kHz (the upper limit of the AM broadcasting band) to 30 MHz (the lower limit of the tuning range of most scanner radio). In between those two frequencies, a shortwave radio is capable of letting you hear news, music, commentaries, and other feature programs in English and other languages from stations located round the world.

Why bother listening to shortwave in this era of communications satellites and cable television news channels? Perhaps the biggest reason is that SWLing can give you a unique perspective on events that you simply cannot get from American media. If you watch coverage of an event in Iraq from CCN or CBS News, you get the American perspective on what is happening from an American journalist. If you listen to China Radio International, you might get a very different interpretation of events.

No one knows the exact number of shortwave listeners (SWLs) in the United States, most estimates place the number in the millions. Shortwave radio sales have increased dramatically in the US since September 11, 2001.

Of course, not all shortwave stations broadcast in English. If you’re studying a foreign language—or want to maintain your proficiency in one—shortwave radio will offer you an unlimited supply of contemporary practice material. If you enjoy music, shortwave will let you hear sounds you probably can’t find in the even the most specialized record and CD shops. Ever heard a lagu melayu song? It sounds like a cross between Indian-style instrumentals and an Arabic vocal style, and it’s very popular in Indonesia. You can hear such songs over the various shortwave outlets of Radio Republic Indonesia. The so-called "world beat" popular with young people had its origins in the "high life" music broadcast by shortwave stations in Africa. Other SWLs arise before dawn to catch the haunting huayno melodies coming from stations in Bolivia and Peru. Some SWL music fans have compiled tape-recorded libraries of folk and indigenous music from shortwave broadcasts that many college and university music departments would envy.

DXing (distance listening) is a manifestation of shortwave’s biggest weakness—the fact that shortwave reception is highly variable compared to the AM and FM broadcasting bands. Reception of a shortwave station on a given frequency will usually vary greatly with the time of day and season of the year. Shortwave reception is heavily influenced by solar activity as indicated by the number of sunspots visible on the Sun. Solar flares and storms can disrupt shortwave reception for hours and even days. Fading is also common on the shortwave bands. While shortwave can offer you listening you cannot find on your local AM and FM stations, it unfortunately cannot offer you the same reliable reception or audio quality from day to day or even hour to hour sometimes.

Many shortwave stations welcome correspondence from listeners, especially reports on how well the station is being received and comments on their programming. Stations often respond to such letters by sending out colorful souvenir cards, known as QSL cards, for correct reports of reception. Some station reply with QSL letters instead of cards, and a few send other items, like pennants with the station’s name or call letters, to lucky SWLs.