Numbers stations are shortwave radio stations that broadcast either strings of numbers or morse code. Most of them are in female voices, but some are men or children (or speech synthesis). They’re generally said to have started after WWII, and are mostly used to transmit information to and from spies. There is also some evidence that the more transient numbers stations are used for drug-running.
Some of them are exceptionally stable and have been around for decades, and others are only around for a few weeks. Some are sporadic, going silent for months or even years, before becoming active again. Others have a frequent and set broadcast schedule.
No government has technically acknowledged that they use them for espionage, but in 1998, a spokesperson for the department in charge of radio broadcasting in the UK told The Daily Telegraph ”these [numbers stations are what you suppose they are. People shouldn’t be mystified by them. They are not for, shall we say, public consumption.” which is not exactly keeping it on the dl, guys. And apparently in the late ’80s, a group of amateur hobbyists actually tracked a transmission signal to the Warrenton Training Center, which is a classified facility used by the CIA and NSA among others, along with a relocation bunker. And then, knowing they basically couldn’t deny it, the FCC was just like “lol, no comment. Shut up.”
Among enthusiasts, there are some that have been consistent and unique enough to gain a reputation. A few of my favorites:
- The Lincolnshire Poacher- which played the folk song as an interval signal (everyone is pretty sure it was run by the SIS out of Cyprus)
- Cherry Ripe - same deal as above, but out of Australia or Guam.
- Magnetic Fields - maybe Algerian?, plays Jean Michel Jarre as an interval signal
- The Buzzer (UVB 76) - it’s mostly a buzzing noise, occasionally punctuated by number strings, but the buzzing seems to be manually generated because sometimes you can hear voices or banging noises in the background. Was located by some Russian urban explorers, but the outpost was abandoned by the time they got there. Still broadcasts today.
- Yosemite Sam - broadcast an extremely short data burst followed by a recording of the cartoon character yelling “Varmit, I’m gonna blow you to smithereens!”
- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (E10) - broadcast from the ’60s til 2011. Generally considered to be run by Israeli counterintelligence/Mossad. A woman reading the phonetic alphabet. Wilco named their album for it.
- The Swedish Rhapsody - terrifyingly creepy, uses a music box playing Swedish Rhapsody by Alfven for an interval signal and the voice is a little girl.
- Whalesong - sounds a bit like its namesake or music played backward, it’s just strange tones and distorted voices (not really a numbers station but it counts). People think it may be a dual broadcast in the UK and USA.
The Atención station deserves its own paragraph, because of the role it played in a US espionage prosecution case. In 1998, the FBI brought down the Cuban Five of the Wasp Network, using evidence collected from one of the spies’ apartments. The FBI testified that they entered the apartment and got the computer decryption code for the Atencion station, where they recovered a few messages. One of my favorites is "Congratulate all the female comrades for International Day of the Woman." on March 8. How nice.
Numbers stations have also been mentioned in the prosecution of Ana Montes, a former analyst at the DIA, in 2001; Kendall Myers in 2003; and Carlos and Elsa Alvarez in 2006.
The Conet Project is a treasure, and has collected hundreds of recordings, available for your perusal and delight.