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Mysterious Numbers Stations

Updated on August 29, 2011

Since the end of the Second World War and the start of the "Cold War" , there have been a proliferation of so called "Numbers Stations" transmitting on unlicensed short wave radio frequencies throughout the world. They have become a subject of fascination, particularly by short wave enthusiasts, as officially they do not exist and no government or organisation have openly acknowledged their own involvement in these transmissions.

So what are Numbers Stations?

Number(s) Stations are short wave radio transmissions, often on different frequencies, that usually conform to a strict time schedule, provide a recognisable "signature" tune followed usually by a synthesised human voice (be it a male, female or even a child's) issuing a seemingly random sequence of numbers. although there are variations on this theme.

Over the years, the various broadcasts have had names attached to them by enthusiasts, usually based on their signature tune or distinctive characteristic, for example, one of the more famous broadcasts was the (now defunct) "Lincolnshire Poacher" due, unsurprisingly, to the opening/test transmission of the English Folk Tune of the same name, you can here an recording of this broadcast here;

Other well known transmissions are "Cherry Ripe" (the signature is based on the nursery rhyme/english folk tune) - See Below;

The somewhat disturbing "Swedish Rhapsody" (don't listen/watch this one if you are of a nervious disposition!) plus there are "Spanish Lady" , "The Buzzer" and "Atencion", to name but a few.

What purpose do these "Number Stations" serve?

Officially, nobody specifically knows, however it is the widely supported theory that these transmissions are made by government "intelligence" organisations to operators in the field (i,e Spies) and it is suspected that the receiver is able to decode the transmissions using a "one time encryption pad", a common technique used by Intelligence services for over a century, which if used correctly, is impossible to decipher. Tenacious enthusiasts have been able to trace the transmissions to various government owned transmitters (for example, it is now well documented that the now defunct "Lincolnshire Poacher" was traced to a transmitter in Cyprus and it is widely assumed that the broadcast was being transmitted by the British Secret intelligence service, whilst other transmissions have been traced to Russian transmitters). In 1998, in what was perhaps one of the first high profile public acknowledgements of their existence, US Federal prosecutors accused Cuba of transmitting the "Atencion" numbers broadcast to Cuban Agents in the US. This was detailed in the "Cuban Five" Espionage trial when the FBI had confirmed they had been able to translate the codes after "obtaining" the encryption key from one of the defendants, without their knowledge.

It is perhaps the ease of accessibility that opens the gateway to the secret world of espionage, that makes Numbers Stations so fascinating for many people and for some short wave radio enthusiasts it has become an obsession.

This article barely hints at this fascinating subject and there are some excellent websites that explore this subject in great detail.

For further reading, I would highly recommend the Conet Project at http://www.irdial.com/conet.htm. This is a project set-up by a UK record producer which resulted in a large archive of Numbers Transmissions be recorded and even resulted in 4-disk CD being produced. The site has a large number of example recordings to listen to.

The excellent BBC Radio documentary "Tracking the Lincolnshire Poacher" from 2006 also provides a well documented overview, you can listen to a copy on YouTube ; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wvr6o7fBcTY

YouTube also has a large database of recordings and if you are previously unaware of this subject, type "number stations" into google and it will open up a whole new world to you.

If this all seems vaguely familiar and a few years ago, you watched the TV series "Lost", the underground bunker was supposedly a "Numbers Station" and from where, Hurley's (un)lucky lottery numbers were broadcast .

Intriguingly, in a time when governments are becoming much more open about their Secret Intelligent Services activities (in recent years here in the UK, they even have open adverts in the national newspapers for jobs as "spies"!) along with ending of the cold war and the deluge of autobiographies of former "agents" from various countries, there has been a notable absence of information on the role of this particular subject, which appears to add further to the mystery.



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