Perhaps because of the immediate sense that one is listening to something not intended for them, or maybe due to the sheer disturbing nature of the static-ridden monotone voice with which they are delivered, many bizarre codes on shortwave radio are, at times, as disturbing as they are interesting.
These strange series of words and numbers are not the crazy ramblings of a demented person. They are actual broadcasts from real locations known as “numbers stations”. These mysterious broadcasts hail from shortwave radio transmitters that send out a constant stream of numbers, letters, words or song lyrics, all delivered by disembodied voices. The voices are male and female, young and old.
For example, a typical broadcast, perhaps in a well-spoken lady’s voice would go:
Yankee…Hotel…Foxtrot…Yankee…Hotel…Foxtrot… (WHITE NOISE STATIC) …0,0,9,6…8,1,0,5…2,2,5,1…2,1,1,0…0,0,9,6…8,1,0,5…2,2,51…2,1,1,0…
Indeed, to many laypersons that hear number station transmissions for the first time, they sound eerie and distant, as if from a barren, lonely post-apocalyptic future. For governments and others that need to transmit messages to their agents in foreign countries, however, they are extremely valuable. And while at their height in the Cold War era, and even with the surge of technological advancement, many believe they remain relevant and active today.
Before we look at these darkly mysterious broadcasts, check out a recording from 2016. It claimed to be an intercepted broadcast, in English, from a Russian numbers station.
How Numbers Stations Operate – A Simple, Consistent, And Reliable Format
Number stations, sometimes called One-Way Voice Links (OWVL) broadcast a series of loops of numbers or letters. Inside the string of seemingly nonsensical characters is a code which, if you have the decoding mechanism, delivers secret messages across borders and long distances to foreign agents (spies).
The majority of number stations operate on shortwave radio. This is because shortwave has characteristics that make it easy to send a signal extremely long distances. Although different types of transmission equipment have been used, a regular shortwave transmitter anywhere from 10 kW power to 100 kW is the most common form.
Even though spies have access to high-tech modern equipment, many governments find it advantageous to continue to use old-fashioned shortwave radio. It raises less suspicion than a bank of expensive high-powered equipment. Shortwave radio is also better than modern conveniences like cell phones and e-mail because it does not leave a digital trail.
Number stations usually follow a consistent formula. Most broadcasts take place at the beginning or the bottom of an hour. Very often, the beginning of a broadcast will have a “signature” identifier or slogan—perhaps a saying or phrase; or clip of music, sounds or tones.
Usually, there is only one message per each transmission. Just as the sign-on has a signature, sign-offs also have some sort of theme. For example, they may say the word “end” or repeat a series of zeros. You might also hear another snippet of music or sounds.
Number stations are broadcast out in the open but they don’t make any sense to most people. Some officials think they are nothing but a campaign of disinformation by governments to throw adversaries off their trail.
A Useful Tool In The World Of International Espionage
While numbers stations have been used by criminals like smugglers to help transport illegal contraband such as drugs across borders, it is widely believed that most are run by governments to communicate with agents.
For example, most number station broadcasts are in the part of the shortwave band set aside for international use. This band is not available to most citizens that might contemplate using them for criminal activity. As a quick side-thought, given some of the conspiracy connections between large drug smuggling operations and various intelligence agencies around the world, this is an interesting observation.
These specialist broadcast stations have been around since World War One. One of the original uses was for countries to communicate with their spies working in foreign countries undercover. Many number stations broadcasts are encrypted with a one-time pad, a type of encryption method that uses a key once and never again. They are considered unbreakable.
Their use continued throughout the Second World War in a similar capacity. However, the recordings that emerged during the Cold War years are some of the most intriguing. And while we will examine several such broadcasts, we will begin with one of the most intriguing of the Cold War era, and one that continues today.
The UVB-76 Transmission – “The Buzzer”
While some researchers insist the UVB-76 Transmission is not part of the numbers station broadcasts, it is one frequently discussed within such circles. And according to some, it is not merely an emergency channel for Russian authorities.
Although the first official reports of the strange broadcast transmission known as The Buzzer are from 1983, many researchers and those with an interest in such numbers stations claim activity goes back further than that to the early-1970s. Coming from somewhere in the region of Russia on the frequency 4625kHz, the broadcast features a short “buzzing tone” which runs 24 hours a day.
On occasion, this buzzing tone makes way for voice transmissions. Spoken in Russian, these too are most likely code, although it is not known what they mean. Even stranger is the randomness with which these voice messages take place. While they could have always occurred, in recent years reports in an increase in these voice messages have led to increased monitoring of The Buzzer. In turn, this increased monitoring has led to more and more recordings of these strange messages.
Perhaps even more bizarre are, again only on occasion, the strange background or incidental noises. Most common are what sounds to be muted or distant conversation. Whether this is frequency interference is not known, but some researchers have suggested that the buzzing tones are not relayed to the frequency wave electronically, but by a microphone picking up the sound manually.
Frequency Interference Or Background Noise Of An Open Microphone?
In November 2010 one listener recorded almost half an hour of such a conversation. The conversation doesn’t appear to be in code, and features the caller asking for the “duty officer”. The caller then goes on to say that:
Vulkan also lost it. Right now, Vulkan is trying to figure out the problem” and that “somewhere between Vulkan and Sudak is a problem!
Just what the intercepted conversation might be is open to debate. Was their frequency interference picking up another, unrelated conversation? Or might the suggestions that The Buzzer is broadcast through an open microphone prove accurate? Was this fact forgotten on this occasion in November 2010? Was a channel that should have been shut off left open?
Although it isn’t the episode mentioned above, the video below is a good example of the kind “interference” that is often picked up.
The are many more anomalies discovered within these strange broadcasts. And a quick search on social media will bring you a plethora of examples. Some of the more chilling is a one-minute recording that appears to pick up a woman screaming in the background. Others contain what sounds like an old record player.
While the broadcast could well be a channel available for emergencies, it remains one of the most discussed and listened to of such broadcasts. And the cold fact is, we don’t know who is behind it.
Incidentally, although many still call the broadcast by its UVB-76 name, in recent years the identification changed. In 2010 it changed to the MDZhB and then in 2015, it changed again, this time to ZhUOZ.
The video below is from April 2013. It features what appear to be voice commands followed by a typical example of the “buzzing” that continues today.
“The Lincolnshire Poacher” Broadcast
One of the most famous number station broadcasts is one that appears to be for the understanding of the British Intelligence services. Named The Lincolnshire Poacher it was first noticed coming out of Cyprus, very likely from one of the many Royal Air Force bases there, in the late-1970s.
Its moniker comes from the use of several bars from the English folk song of the same name at the beginning and end of each specific broadcast. Following this, a computerized female voice in a “typical” English accent reads a sequence of five numbers. This is a great example of numbers stations and spies using one-time pads.
It is widely accepted, although not proven, that the broadcast was once used to transfer information to British spies at various places across Europe, and possibly further east. The broadcast was active right up until 2008 when it would suddenly cease. If there is an intelligence connection, which is very likely, chances are the broadcast has changed frequency and format, or even that intelligence services have abandoned such broadcasts in the region altogether.
Interestingly, in 2013, a digital media platform would publish an article stating that the famous Lincolnshire Poacher broadcast had ceased on radio frequencies but was now on a telephone line. They would publish the phone number, which comes from Aldershot, England. When callers would dial it the familiar bars of music would greet them before the number sequence began.
Even more bizarre, the following day on the number in question, the music and number sequences were no longer there. In their place, a message states they should use the “back-up channel Romeo X-ray three nine”. Several callers also received mysterious texts telling them not to call the number again.
You can listen to a typical broadcast below.
The Disturbing Tones Of “The Swedish Rhapsody” Broadcast
Although it doesn’t appear to be active today, one of the most unsettling numbers stations broadcasts is The Swedish Rhapsody which hails from Poland and their intelligence services.
Although reports go back to the late-1950s, it would appear that interest and intercepts of this broadcast were at a peak in the seventies and eighties, perhaps indicative of the Cold War times.
The transmission gets its name from the use of the tune in the opening of each broadcast. Although as if to add an extra layer of intrigue and discomfort, the music is from an old-fashioned music box. Incidentally, some researchers suggest the tune is actually The Luxembourg Polka.
Following this, what sounded like the “electronic voice” of a young child would read coded words before the broadcast would end the way it began. In recent years, researchers revealed the words were, in fact, a specially developed device known as the Sprach-Morse-Generator. It was a tool of the East German Stasi under Soviet rule.
It would abruptly stop broadcasting in 1988. However, several broadcasts came to light in the early 2000s before ending once again.
The video below contains a recording of this truly mysterious broadcast.
Other Intriguing Broadcasts
There are literally hundreds of these number station broadcasts happening all over the planet. While some may prove to be innocent enough with reasonable explanations, others are particularly interesting.
The Backwards Music Station
Sometimes referred to as the Whalesong station, the transmissions are so-called due to their distinct sounds similar to that of whales, or even “records playing backward”. The transmissions have been active for decades, most likely stretching back to the Second World War.
Some theories believe the US Navy are behind the frequencies, pointing to the US Naval bases on the Florida coast. Others, however, due to the signal being particularly strong off the British coast, suggest that the Royal Navy or even British intelligence are responsible for the transmissions.
“Yosemite Sam” Number Station
The Yosemite Sam broadcast is relatively new to the world of such transmissions. Beginning in 2004 and operating out of the Laguna Reservation near Albuquerque, New Mexico, those who reported the transmissions would tell of a sound of “data burst” before the famous cartoon character states, “Varmint, I’m gonna blow you to smithereens”.
Then, another series of data bursts follow on four separate frequencies. Ten seconds later, the transmission repeats. It takes two minutes in total and broadcasts at exactly seven seconds after the hour, every hour. It remains active today.
The video below features a typical transmission.
The E9- Magnetic Fields Station
Not much information is available about the E9-Magnetic Fields Station other than it appears to broadcast out of Algeria. Like other number station broadcasts ,it begins with several bars of music. In this case, Jean Michel Jarre’s Overture Apregiator.
A typical example of a transmission would be the words “Forty-Four D! Forty-Four D!” before the simple, “Again, Again”. Then the same song sounds again and ends the broadcast. Most believe the Algerian Intelligence Services were responsible for the station and it doesn’t appear to be active today.
Recording of a German Numbers Station
Below is a recording of a German Numbers Station, G06 or G6 at 4792KHz on Dec 11, 2009 at 19:36 ZULU time.
Aside from the fact it’s clearly in German, and anyone without a fluent and strong understanding of the language would be lost, the actual content of the message is completely nonsensical – to us. To somebody, though, that message will mean something. Genuine instructions for some kind of operation or to pass on information.
You can hear that recording below.
The “Webdriver torso” Broadcasts – Number Stations Of The Contemporary Era?
First noticed in 2014, an account on YouTube under the name Webdriver torso began uploading videos that were exactly 11 seconds in length with blue and red rectangles on the screen. Furthermore, the audio consists of bizarre “pitch” sounds.
At last count, the YouTube channel had over 70,000 such videos on its channel. However, there is very little other information available. No one knows who is behind the channel. And more to the point, no one knows what the strange 11-second videos mean. Might this be the first indicator of how such secretive instructions and reports will broadcast in the twenty-first century?
You can see one such video below.
Interference and Jamming
The first official public accusation of using number stations to transmit information to spies was the “Atención!” station of Cuba. A United States Court espionage trial came after the arrest of several Cuban spies in 1998. Prosecutors in the United States said they were decoding numbers that came over the “Atención!” number station.
The FBI went to one of the accused spy’s apartments in 1995, gathered computer decryption equipment, and used it to decode their messages. During the trial, the FBI translated some of the spy messages. Here is one example:
Under no circumstances, should agents German nor Castor fly with BTTR or another organization on days 24, 25, 26, and 27.
Interference and jamming of number stations take place. Even though the stations are on open frequencies, jamming is somewhat difficult due to the limited number of transmitters available that are capable of jamming a transmission.
Nonetheless, there is interference on record over the years:
- North Korea interfered with the Lincolnshire Poacher station in 2006.
- One dangerous jammer affected critical aeronautical transmissions in the Caribbean in 1990.
- A West German-based numbers station interfered with Radio Moscow broadcasts.
- The Mossad station Uniform Lima X-ray clashed with the “Independent Voice of Zimbabwe” broadcasts.
A number of large jamming sessions took place in 2005 and 2006 from the Chinese Music Station which emanates from the mainland of China. Many suspect the real agenda was to jam the broadcast of the Taiwanese station, Sound of Hope. There were no spoken numbers or letters as in a traditional numbers station broadcast – only a cacophonous mixture of music, songs, sounds, drums, and flutes.
The Mystery Continues (And Looks Set To Do So!)
Perhaps the largest collection of number stations transmissions belongs to The Conet Project. They have assembled assorted transmissions onto CDs. The recordings are also available for free download for the nonprofit use of the general public.
Despite this, the band Wilco used several of the transmissions for a music album without permission. The Conet Project would subsequently sue the band and eventually settle out-of-court. They paid for the commercial use of the transmissions as well as legal costs. Legal use of The Conet Project recordings feature music groups like Boards of Canada and Faith No More, and in commercial films like Vanilla Sky.
The Conet Project is without a doubt the greatest collection of these strange, intriguing, and sometimes haunting transmissions. What they might mean, though, is still very much open to debate.
Nobody knows for sure who is transmitting the eerie, robotic numbers and letters across cities, towns, and borders into foreign countries. Many assert they are government agencies communicating to a far-flung spy network, or simply trying to outwit a rival country’s espionage effort. Others believe drug smugglers have learned to use technology to move their product.
Once again, we should remember the connections between some of these “contraband” operations and the world’s intelligence services. Perhaps what began as ways of communicating with spies during the Second World War and the Cold War that followed have now morphed into a communications network of the modern and altogether more complex, agenda driven age.
The video below looks at five of the most mysterious, and at times, unsettling number station broadcasts on record.