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Number Stations

March 11, 2011 at 12:37 pm

My previous post about the Voynich Manuscript came about partly because recently I've been feeling a lack of wonderment and mystery in my life.   Let's call it a paucity of oddments. 

At times like this, my daydreams tend to drift in well-traveled directions, to follow the well-trodden paths of my dilettantism.  Like iron filings before a superconducting magnet, my thoughts are drawn to pleasant memories of other introductions to the strange.  Because I like to remind myself—I need to remind myself—that we do live in a strange and interesting world.

Which is probably why I've always been fascinated by number stations.

A month of so ago, I mentioned in passing my fondness for the late lamented Omni magazine, which is where I first read about number stations.  Omni's description of the phenomenon boiled down to something like this (try to read the following as though it were narrated by Leonard Nimoy on the old In Search Of program):

Since the early 1950s, all around the world, secret anonymous shortwave radio transmitters have been broadcasting long sequences of spoken numbers, and only numbers, around the clock at regular intervals.  Nobody knows who is doing this.  Nobody knows why.

(It's spookier if you read it in Leonard Nimoy's voice.)  That's not a quote, but it's essentially what I took away from the magazine piece when I was 8 or 9.  And it's actually fairly accurate, except that the identity of the broadcasters and their purpose is probably less in doubt now than it was back then.

But anyway, yeah.  Shortwave radio operators have known for decades that these mysterious number stations are out there.  They're very powerful transmitters, and sometimes infringe illegally on frequency bands specifically reserved for other broadcasters.  And, with the exception of brief snippets of music that bookend a broadcast (very brief, and always the same snippet), all they send are numbers.  Long lists of numbers.  Read in a mechanically generated human voice.

How could the nine year old me not find that incredibly fascinating?  Especially when the whole things is framed as a mystery.  When you don't know who's doing the broadcasting, or why, this is another one of those TARDISy mysteries like the Voynich Manuscript— bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.

Just imagine it*:  It's 1968.  You're a ham radio hobbiest in Leeds.  Sick of listening to the BBC and the Voice of America, you decide on a whim to try to pick up Radio Moscow.  But to do that you must wait for the ionosphere to recede after nightfall.   Your garden shed grows quiet and dark.  The world shrinks until it's just you and the static hash coming down the antenna.  It's cold and lonely out there.  With one hand you cup a headphone to your ear, and with the other you gently turn a dial, hearing nothing but static… until a slightly mechanical female voice materializes from the warble of the ether:

…sechs, drei, drei, seiben, eins… fünf, drei, sechs, eins, zwei… neun, acht, acht, vier, drei…

Who is that German robot?  What the hell is she talking about?  And to whom is she speaking?

The fact that number stations proliferated during the Cold War should tell us a lot about their source and function.  As far as I'm aware this has never been officially confirmed (although some knowlegable folks have come close to doing so), but the working hypothesis among ham and number station enthusiasts for many years—and which is undoubtedly correct—is that these stations are run by governments around the world (both east and west of the Iron Curtain, back in the good old days).  And who is listening?  Spies.

The number blocks are a simple and effective means of communicating with undercover agents living in foreign countries.   The numbers probably reference entries in a one-time pad, which means the communicated information is highly secure.  And, if your number station is powerful enough, broadcasting over a very large region that touches multiple countries, there's no way for a foreign government to deduce the broadcast is intended for a particular person living in a particular city.

It's a real-life game of spy-versus-spy, and we all get to listen in for free!  How great is that?

Not surprisingly, given such a cool and fascinating topic, there is a highly organized amateur observation corps of folks who monitor number stations.  They have (or had?) newsletters and databases.  Dozens and dozens of stations have been identified over the years, their frequencies and broadcast times documented in impressive detail. They've given the stations wonderful names, too:  Lincolnshire Poacher.  English Lady.  Swedish Rhapsody.  People have even used direction-finding equipment to track the locations of certain broadcasts to military bases or otherwise secure locations.  Sometimes the stations experience tremendous interference, as if they're being jammed.  (Which, given their nature, they probably are!)  Sometimes the stations vanish, never to be heard from again.  Sometimes, though more rarely now, a new station appears.  Sometimes, on very rare occasions, the stations will break format, either intentionally (as in the immediate aftermath of a major event) or accidentally.

For those of us coming to the party a few decades late, the Conet Project is an unparalleled resource.  This is a four CD set published by Irdial Discs, containing over 150 recordings of shortwave number stations from around the world.  It's eerie, fascinating stuff.  Alas, the physical CDs went out of print a long time ago.  But!  The cool people at Irdial actually released all of the tracks online, and those links are still accessible via the Internet Archive.

I see in the comment thread at that last link that Fringe did an episode about number stations back in November of last year.  So I suppose people will assume I chose this topic because of that.  As it happens I stopped watching Fringe halfway through the first season. (I don't trust JJ Abrams to produce an overall coherent story, much less a satisfying conclusion to a mystery.  Apparently my decision to stop watching Lost many years ago paid off in that regard.)  Number stations figure prominently in the trunk novel I wrote back in 2003.

Some years back, BBC Radio 4 did a terrific program called "Tracking the Lincolnshire Poacher".  You can download the show at that link.  It's fun.

Interestingly, the end of the Cold War didn't bring about the end of the number stations.  Back in the day, you could hear stations in languages from English to Czech to German.  Nowadays there are stations in Spanish and Chinese.  It's possible that modern number stations have found purposes beyond hoary old espionage; narcotraffickers might be using similar methodologies these days.  And it's possible that some number stations continue to broadcast automatically even though nobody is listening: a classic case of obfuscation.  Why alert the enemy that your spies have retired or died or moved on?

All manner of fun speculation swirls around number stations.  Even knowing their purpose doesn't detract from the romance and mystery and whiff of clandestine danger.

I wonder how much longer authentic number stations will stay on the air?  In recent years, people have started noticing Craigslist ads that point to VoIP telephone numbers that recite number groups very much like number stations.

Am I the only person who thinks the most awesome thing ever would be a number station broadcasting a numerological transcription of the Voynich Manuscript?

[*Until the Conet Project came along, I always had to imagine it, because I've never owned a shortwave radio.  For the longest time I had only heard about number stations second hand.]


Steve Halter March 11, 2011 at 1:47 pm
Number stations are also quite cool. Secret messages and spying here in the real world make for fascinating stories (just look at what Neal Stephenson did with Cryptonomicon). The allied breaking of Enigma messages is pretty neat even without any fictionalization.
Victor Milan March 12, 2011 at 12:28 am
... always with the garden sheds....
Ian March 12, 2011 at 8:58 am
The "garden shed" motif is my safe creative space. Actually, I hadn't realized just how much I use that until you pointed it out-- my trunk novel really did open with a guy out in his garden shed, listening to a number station. Oy... But at least there aren't any Nazis in that book.
Ian March 12, 2011 at 9:13 am
The allied breaking of Enigma messages is pretty neat even without any fictionalization. Absolutely! (Speaking of fictionalization and Bletchley Park, have you read "Enigma" by Robert Harris? That's a cool mystery built around the Allied codebreaking work, with a protagonist based on Alan Turing.) I've always wanted to write something inspired by Bletchley Park and Enigma, but I haven't found the motivation to properly educate myself on cryptography. It's a really fascinating subject, but also kind of daunting.
Steve Halter March 12, 2011 at 7:04 pm
I haven't read "Enigma", but it sounds good and its on my list now.
Ian March 12, 2011 at 11:30 pm
I hope my recommendation proves a good one! I liked that book, but then I also liked Harris's "Fatherland", which is a murder mystery set in Berlin in the 1960s in a world where the Axis won WWII. It's somewhat underappreciated, imho, because it rarely gets mentioned when people talk about alternate-history WWII novels.
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