When I was a kid, I had a fascination with shortwave radio. I successfully begged my parents to give me a multi-band radio that could not only receive standard AM and FM, but the aviation band and a limited number of shortwave frequencies. I dove into the world of DXing, the practice trying to pull in distant radio signals.
Late one winter night, I found my first “numbers station.”
You know one when you hear one. Usually, the transmission begins with some kind of note or sequence of musical notes. Then a voice comes on, reading what appears to be a series of random numbers. The voice might be male, female or even a child. Some even included longer musical pieces.
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Numbers stations broadcast coded messages to spies and operatives in the field all over the world. On any given night, you might stumble across a broadcast meant for a CIA spook, a KGB spy or a Mossad agent. What were these messages? To whom were they directed? And what were the results of these communications?
If anyone told you, they’d have to kill you.
It was all very spooky, terrifying, and exciting. You were eavesdropping on something clandestine, secret, possibly illegal. Spies! Espionage!
But unless you had the key, you had no idea what was going on. It’s about as un-hackable a communication system as you can get.
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Numbers stations first appeared during the First World War, the earliest days of radio broadcasting, although they reached their peak during the Cold War. They were extremely efficient at communicating … whatever. Unlike the internet, it was possible to locate the source of the transmission, but you had no idea who was receiving it or where on the planet they might be.
Civilian shortwave listeners became intrigued by these mysterious transmissions. DXers all over the world began logging the transmissions and sharing them with each other. There were attempts to triangulate the signals in order to find their source. When located, they’d give the stations unofficial names like The Gong Station or Nancy Adam Susan.
This is a sample of a broadcast known as The Swedish Rhapsody which popped up every day except Fridays.
One of the more famous Numbers Stations was known as the Lincolnshire Poacher, a powerful broadcast that seemed to originate from Cyprus between the mid-1970s and 2008.
The best guess amateur radio sleuths could come up with was that it was an operation by the British Secret Service (actual James Bond stuff!) that announced its presence with a few bars from an English folk song called — you guessed it — The Lincolnshire Poacher.
A similar station run by MI6 came out of Australia and was known as Cherry Ripe for its use of an English folksong by the same name. It was on the air until December 2009.
Russian stations have their own allure. During an attempted coup, a signal emanating from Moscow did nothing but broadcast the number five for hours. Why? No one knows.
Then there’s The Buzzer, a Russian station officially known as UVB-76 which is apparently controlled by the 60th Communication Hub (and perhaps also the 69th Hub) known as “Vulkan” located near both Moscow and St. Petersburg. Officially, it’s known as Zhuzhzhalka, which translates into English as “Hummer.”
Since the mid-’70s, the station broadcasts two buzzes at the top of every hour, 24 hours a day. During Russian daylight hours, the buzzes are followed by a series of fuzzy tones at a rate of between 21 and 34 per minute. Occasionally, a male voice appears reading either a string of numbers — in Russian, of course — or a bunch of random words or even names (“Anna, Nikolai, Ivan, Tatyana, Roman”). Occasionally, Morse code can be heard. The station has a worldwide fanbase that speculates on what its purpose might be.
This continued for years until June 2010, when it suddenly stopped for one day. There was another interruption that August before going a little haywire with a series of unfamiliar sounds and what appeared to be a little Swan Lake from Tchaikovsky. In September, it appeared to rename itself MDZhB after a male voice declared “Mikhail Dmitri Zhenya Boris.” You can listen to a sample of UVB-76 (or MDZhB) here.
One theory is that UVB-76 is a “dead hand” signal. Should Russia ever be wiped out in a nuclear attack, the drone will stop and a retaliation strike will begin.
Here’s another example of something coming from Russia.
Something called The Conet Project sprang up to record these broadcasts that are now stored in a fascinating archive. I got so deep into this rathole that I bought a very expensive five-CD collection featuring this material.
There are many more online resources, of course. If you want to dive into this mystery, start with the Numbers Stations Reseach and Information Centre.
And good luck.
Alan Cross is a broadcaster with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and a commentator for Global News.