Voices amid the static

Dear Mind Hacks readers, I’m wondering if you can help me track down the source of stories I’ve heard about people hearing illusory voices amid the static in the early days of radio.

A 2004 BBC Radio 4 documentary on ghostly voices captured on recording equipment called ‘Speak Spirit Speak’ started with a story about Swedish radio operatives during World War II who diligently tracked Nazi radio transmissions – only to discover afterwards that the area they were monitoring never contained any enemy forces.

Despite my attempts to find out more I’ve not been able to discover any other account of this curious incident.

I’ve also heard lots of second-hand stories about people tuning in to what seemed to be feint transmissions in the early days of ham radio only to discover that they were misinterpreting the hiss and whistle of the interference as voices.

However, I’ve not found any other mention of this phenomenon either.

So, do any Mind Hacks readers know where either of these or similar incidents have been documented before?

There have been several similar stories of people hearing what they thought were voices of spirits on electronic equipment (a phenomenon as ‘electronic voice phenomena’ or EVP) and I’m wondering if there have been any documented examples that are less rooted in beliefs about the beyond.

12 thoughts on “Voices amid the static”

  1. I’ve recently taken up ham radio and find this happening to me. Occasionally when trying to hear faint signals (I’ve heard this with time signals, not just voices) then find myself thinking that I hear it and then realise it isn’t really there.

  2. This has been around for years. I remember hearing a radio programme about this on BBC Radio 2 about 40 years ago. Seem to recall they included getting recordings of voices from inanaminate objects like paintings (possibly Mona Lisa).

  3. In 1939, B.F. Skinner developed the verbal summator to experimentally induce the effect you describe.

    To quote: The verbal summator is a device for repeating arbitrary samples of speech obtained by permuting and combining certain speech sounds. One of its uses is comparable with that of the ink-blot and free-association tests. The speech sample does not fully represent any conventional pattern in the behavior of the subject but it functions as a sort of ink blot. (Skinner, 1939,p. 71).
    Not sure if there has been much use of the technique since then, but I would imagine it being useful in experimental psychopathology research on hallucination-proneness and relations with various task performance paramaters.

  4. Sorry, the correct reference is Skinner (1936):

    Skinner B. F. The verbal summator and a method for the study of latent speech. Journal of General Psychology. 1936b;2:71–107.

  5. You say that “‘Speak Spirit Speak’ started with a story about Swedish radio operatives during World War II who diligently tracked Nazi radio transmissions – only to discover afterwards that the area they were monitoring never contained any enemy forces.” – I’ve not heard this story before, but, when pondering its implications, one needs to consider the known physics of “radio propagation,” which has established that radio waves don’t just travel in a straight line. Indeed, they can arc over the horizon. So the WWII listeners, while monitoring a specific area, could easily have picked up signals from just about anywhere.

  6. I suspect that the perception of voices among the static in the early days of radio was an artifact very similar to the human predilection to see faces everywhere; we are hard wired to impose sense on random sensory inputs.

  7. I have recently finished a book called “The Audible Past” by Jonathan Sterne. There is a large chapter in there about the origins of sound fidelity, and part of the conversation goes into this aspect of radio listening. Radio listening was and still is very very noisy, and people were often in the early days mocked for putting up with the hiss and static, as it was common to think you’ve heard something but haven’t. The book had a few cartoons from the funny papers about this too.
    I work with radios a lot in my art practice and rely on this effect too. The Skinner experiment sounds interesting!

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