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The Morning Julep – Numbers Stations, AM Radio and WCKI in Greer, SC

While on a recent trip around Georgia, I let the radio scan for rural AM stations hoping to expose my son to some jewels in the rough. AM radio always seems to add a Depression-era down on your luck flavor to whatever is aired. Maybe it is the underlying static. I was disappointed to find how many AM stations were no longer broadcasting. I am sure that it is all about the money, but when I was my son’s age, there were AM stations that made money from local sponsors by broadcasting local talent. I guess the local talent moved on to American Idol.

When I was 12, I was a burgeoning bluegrass fan and the only local station that played bluegrass was WCKI-AM in Greer. Carl Story spun the tunes and told tales about his adventures playing professionally with Bill Monroe. These days, bluegrass fans tune in every Saturday to WNCW, Spindale’s public radio station, to hear hours of their favorite music.

As we drove through rural Georgia, I noticed that even the gospel broadcasts were no longer heard, replaced with Spanish stations and talk radio, both incomprehensible to me. No vestige of local culture could be found. The preachers, Southern gospel singers and old-time country fiddlers along with local business commercials had all vanished without a trace. Not even a numbers station remained to remind us of the time that existed before.

Numbers stations are relics from the Cold War and occasionally crop up in the news as one did this past week. The latest BBC report featured UVB-76, a mysterious shortwave station that broadcasts from a swamp near St. Petersburg – the one in Russia, not Florida. Thank JFK for that.

The station can be heard worldwide and emits a vacillating tone interrupted infrequently with spoken words and numbers that make no sense. Conspiracy fans speculate that the messages are codes for Cold War agents who are still holding out for Yuri Andropov to be resurrected or positioning coordinates for Russian nuclear submarines. With short wave radio being as low tech as AM radio, maybe the Russians figure their numbers station will still broadcast when the satellites all stop working.

As I played a recording of the Russian numbers station for my son, I imagined a leftover AM station emitting a C note plucked on a banjo string interrupted every so often with a random mix of gospel words, faintly spoken or sung, by those ghosts of the rural South, now almost completely exorcised by our high tech lack of historical memory.