Maybe someone you knew as kid had a short wave radio. So one day you snuck down to listen to it only to be startled by a strange squeal and a creepy voice possibly with an accent reading off numbers or even stranger names. If so you didn’t happen to find aliens from some far off planet but one of the many strange radio broadcasts known as number stations.
A number station is an odd radio broadcast that at semiregular times will send a message in code often it’s just numbers, letters or names. The broadcast is sent by short wave radio where they can be picked up from a very long range, so far that if the weathers good they can reach clear across the planet. This really means that if you tune into the right radio frequency at the right time even in the heart of Kansas you might be able to hear a person with a thick Russian accents reading off random numbers.
So what are they actually saying then? There are many theories as to what these broadcasts might be for. Some think they are being sent out by drug smuggling organizations for drug drops or by terrorist organizations and resistance groups to send out battle plans. The words could be times and coordinates. However these theories though don’t really account for the fact that many of the broadcasts have taken place for decades and at regular times. While sneaky modern technology allows governments to find the rough area a broadcast was sent from. All this making it very likely that the governments of the countries where these broadcasts are being sent from approve of their existence.
So it’s probably spies. These broadcasts closely resemble messages encoded by a method called a onetime pad. One time pads are a kind of disposable code dating back to the before the 1920’s where an agent can receive a message decode it and then destroy both the message and the key leaving no trace behind . All an agent would have to do is somehow sneak in a radio capable of picking up short wave frequencies. Then tune it in at the right time and write down the message which would tell them where to drop information or what information had already been received. The agent would then use their one time pad and decode the message. Since it’s impossible to tell who is actually listening to a shortwave broadcast it’s so simple and covert that number stations still seem to be used today. Also number stations happened to be more common during Cold war and many heard ones with both ones with British, American, and various Soviet accents but they seem to have declined somewhat since the fall of the Soviet Union.
The Lincolnshire Poacher. It starts with a song by that name and then starts to read a series of numbers in a British accent. This broadcast has been tracked to somewhere around Akrotiri Cyprus where a UK air force base just happens to be. This wouldn’t be a bad place to talk to Middle East operatives.
Attention! Was a Cuban number station. In 1998 a group of Cuban spies were arrested in their apartment in Miami and were found to be listening to and recording messages from Attention! They later found a digital version of a one time on their computer. They were able to decode a few messages such as “prioritize and continue to strengthen friendship with Joe and Dennis” and “Under no circumstances should [agents] German nor Castor fly with BTTR or another organization on days 24, 25, 26 and 27.”
Yosemite Sam is a really weird one that plays audio from the famous cartoon for some time and then moves on to a different frequency doing the same thing several times. The frequency comes from near the white sands missile range. It might be used to hold radio frequencies for communication to the range during a nuclear war.
Whatever their purpose they are certainly strange and it’s crazy to think spies might be talking and anyone can listen in.
Numbers Stations: Mystery Over The Airwaves by NPR
Spy Radio: Numbers Stations by Brian dunning
How to Listen to Real Spy Broadcasts Right Now by Alan Hennery
Discovering Secret “Numbers Stations” by The Modern Rogue