You know how your senses can take you back to a place and time? Smells, scents, tastes…they can provoke a flood of memories, good or bad. A Vietnam veteran might flinch when a car backfires, because at that moment he’s back in the dark, muggy jungle with bullets whizzing past his head.
The same can be said for positive associations.
I adore the sound of Morse code. Crackly, tinny, slightly muffled voices over short wave or ham radios. Periodic robo-voice announcements that “This is the W-A-1-D-G-W Repeater.” I love the terrible sound quality, I love the beeps and boops. For me, these sounds have a strong association with being a child, lying in bed, while my dad sat in his office learning Morse code and tinkering with radios. I’ve always had anxiety and trouble sleeping, even from a very young age, and knowing my dad was up gave me a feeling of security. It was like he was standing guard, and as long as I could hear those radio sounds, I knew I could ease my vigilance enough to drift off to sleep.
I first heard of the existence of number stations from the internet- I believe it was one of those spooky YouTube videos that lists off something like, “10 freakiest unexplained whatevers” and had a small segment about UVB-76, aka The Buzzer, a very long running number station out of Russia. Number stations are usually kept occupied with sound of some sort, such as musical tones, buzzes, or really any type of noise. Periodically, these transmissions will be interrupted and replaced with a voice saying groups of numbers and sometimes letters. Sometimes they also use the phonetic alphabet (i.e. alpha, bravo, charlie, etc.)
I was instantly hooked on these creepy little broadcasts. The mystery in terms of the purpose of number stations, the amazingly weird audio…buzzes, beeps, and boops interspersed with robo-voiced strings of seemingly random numbers? It’s like someone thought of this just for me!
I know that I’m weird, I said it in the title.
Spoiler Alert: They weren’t thought of just for me. Number stations have been around since World War I (priyom.org). I’m going to go ahead and semi-ruin the mystery here as well; it seems pretty well established that their purpose is to transmit coded messages. To whom, from whom, and for what purpose is slightly more mysterious, but we’ll get to that part a bit later.
Sidenote: Of course we’d have Yosemite Sam in the U.S. *facepalm*
What appears to be the peak in the use of number stations was during the Cold War, but they are still around today. In fact, some from the Cold War era are still in operation. The Russian UVB-76 station is an example of this; shortwave listeners have reported hearing the buzzer since 1973 (Priyom.org). More on that later!
When these transmissions have been received by shortwave listeners, sometimes they would transmit an acknowledgement of having heard it. The usual etiquette in the radio world would be to send an acknowledgement back, but these stations are shy; no response (Helms, p. 52). To borrow a word from Scream Girls, the spookitude is strong.
It seems that these numbers stations are usually operated by governments, transmitting coded messages to spies abroad or to military personnel at home. Don’t worry, there is more evidence of this than just the reticence.
For one, the good ol’ U.S.A. has intercepted and cracked some of these codes, resulting in the arrest of 5 Cuban Intelligence officers (otherwise known as the “Cuban Five”) for espionage. They were charged with receiving messages from the Atención station for decoding. The U.S. had solid evidence- they had copied all of the contents of the computer they used to decode the messages in (priyom.org). They even had specific examples of some of the messages received:
“Prioritize and continue to strengthen friendship with Joe and Dennis”
“Under no circumstances should [agents] German nor Castor fly with BTTR or another organization on days 24, 25, 26 and 27.” (BTTR is the anti-Castro airborne group Brothers to the Rescue)
“Congratulate all the female comrades for International Day of the Woman.” (Probably a simple greeting for International Women’s Day on 8 March)Sokol, Miami New Times
The Atención broadcast can still be caught on the airwaves, even following the exposure of espionage. Since one-time use (or, more accurately, “one-time pad”) code keys cannot be solved. So there was really no reason to stop using this simple but effective method of communication. Here is a clip of it recorded by a shortwave listener:
If that doesn’t convince you, here’s some more reason to attribute at least some number stations to governments:
“The Czech Ministry of the Interior and the Swedish Security Service have both acknowledged the use of numbers stations by Czechoslovakia for espionage, with declassified documents proving the same.”Wikipedia, Numbers Stations Research and Information Center
There are STASI (the East German secret police during the Cold War) decipher service documents (redacted ones) publicly available, which:
“…contains information obtained by counter-intelligence of the Democratic Republic of Germany about CIA numbers stations. The report describes the use of cipher message, and its transmission through radio waves and receiving it. Furthermore, the text shows example of deciphering the numbers station message. The context of the document shows that STASI had decoded real CIA messages however, they are not available in public. This document is concrete example that numbers stations are used by intelligence agencies and shows its usage in depth.”Numbers Stations Research and Information Center
*I highly recommend checking that article out; it is interesting to see that type of thing in an official capacity!
When people have managed to track down where the radio signals are coming from, they are often led toward what appear to be, or just openly are, military installations. So, it seems rather clear, between that and all the other evidence, that numbers stations are often used by governments to send covert messages. Additionally, it seems that some frequencies are kept “occupied” by continuous broadcast, presumably so that they can be reliably used when needed.
The Famous Ones
Some shortwave enthusiasts trawl the airwaves, looking to catch these numbers stations. A difficult achievement, since several of them change frequencies and broadcast time patterns. They oftentimes get nicknames based on what they sound like. The Conet Project has compiled the definitive collection of numbers station recordings, of which I am a proud owner. It can be purchased here. It comes with “4 original Conet Project CDs containing 150 recordings of Numbers Stations spanning the twenty years up to the release of the original set in 1997, an 80 page, perfect bound booklet, 4 post cards, plus a new 5th CD of 26 previously unreleased recordings of bizarre ‘Noise Stations’, and a new 8 page booklet accompanying the 5th CD.” It also comes with these nifty inserts:
The Lincolnshire Poacher is a very popular station that broadcasted from Cyprus (specifically, from the British Royal Air Force base there) from the mid 70’s to 2008.
The Swedish Rhapsody broadcasted out of Poland from the 50’s to 1998. Spookitude.
This next one is thought to be broadcasted by NATO…and a clip of it is also in a Wilco album.
Ready Ready is an interesting one. It continuously repeats “15728,” until suddenly the voice says, “Ready Ready” and reads off a string of different numbers. Occupying the frequency, and then alerting the receiver of the message that is about to be transmitted.
And now…for the most notorious one… the Russian Buzzer (this dude could have it’s own article).
“Up until 2010, the station identified itself as UVB-76 (Russian: УВБ-76), and it is still often referred to by that name. In September 2010, the station moved to another location, and used the identification MDZhB (Russian: МДЖБ) from then onwards. On December 28, 2015, the station began using the callsign ZhUOZ (Russian: ЖУОЗ) – pronounced “Zhenya, Ulyana, Olga, Zinaida”. From March 1, 2019, the station appears to be using a number of new callsigns, the most recurring of which is ANVF (Russian: АНВФ).”Wikipedia
That clip is actually of a time where the buzzer mysteriously shut down for a few minutes. This has happened before on occasion, but each time it happens it spawns speculation as to what it might mean (i.e., what Russian Intelligence might be getting up to).
A theory that has made the rounds was that the buzzer was a “dead hand” connected to ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles); if Russia were attacked, the buzzer could serve as a “panic button” that would automatically launch missiles at their enemies when it turns off. But, clearly, this has not proven to be the case. When speaking with former Russian military, one article states that:
“The first attempt of making the automatic rocket system was made in 1967. The system was called “Signal” that could issue 30 pre-made orders from the staff headquarters to the rocket units. For instance the order to increase combat readiness. In comparison to paper packets and envelopes it was a huge step forward. However, the Signal could not operate the rockets themselves. Orders were received by military personnel who then had to operate the rocket complexes. So in 1970’s a new version “Signal-M” was issued that allowed to issue the orders from the highest to the lowest ranks of the soviet military. It was the time when the new gigantic RC-20 ICBM’s were released. Also the first Buzzer activities were sighted on this same time. Meaning the station on 4625 kHz was part of the new military communications system to universalize the communications between all ranks and branches. The Monolyth codeword system remained.”
“The Dead Hand was an idea that computers could be programmed to order the rocket launch if there was no other human to do it. Such an idea, as crazy as its sounds, was not created because it was technically impossible to realize or to morally create one, and it had nothing to do with the radio signals on shortwave from the start.”
“Also as mentioned the upgrades in the communications systems that took part in 70’s-80’s possibly meant that the appearance of Buzzer on 4625 kHz and Pip on 3756 kHz was part of attempts to create a regular daily communication and command system. Not just for the rocket forces, but also for regular forces.”Māris Goldmanis, “The Soviet Nuclear Defense System: The Myth of the Dead Hand“
In other words, they DID consider a dead hand of some sort, but it wasn’t related to the Buzzer. The Buzzer, and stations like it, appear to be for exactly what you’d imagine them to be for…communication. No missile stuff.
“MONOLITHS (words coded into a phrase) are constantly changing. That means the same monolith could have different meaning over time. It’s not even a code – it’s an order. BROMAL could mean either combat readiness or an all-clear signal. Those who served as signalmen or EW operators know what I mean.”Russian ex-serviceman
The sound of the Buzzer has changed in tone and speed a few times over the years; this recent recording has a much deeper sound and lots of ambient noise in the background.
Lastly, I want to share my favorite video with you: this compilation titled Shortwave Radio Oddity Roundup. I am so grateful to the person who put this up (check out his channel here); it is thorough, with great information accompanying each audio clip. I love the sounds of these SO much; my personal favorites are the gongs, polytones, Chinese robot, and backwards music station. It’s also cited beautifully in the video description, leading you to more sources should you want to explore them.
I almost fell into a whole other rabbit hole here by veering into shortwave pirate radio stations, but I think I will save that for another time. I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about why I am obsessed with number stations. I know that many find them creepy at best, boring at worst, but I am absolutely fascinated with the fact that I can eavesdrop on a message, even if I can’t know what the message is. I always wonder who else is out there, listening with me.
Helms, Harry L. (1981). “Espionage Radio Activity”. How to Tune the Secret Shortwave Spectrum. Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania: TAB Books. p. 52.
The Soviet Nuclear Defense System: The Myth of the Dead Hand by Māris Goldmanis, January 24th, 2015