Thursday, May 16, 2013

Numbers Stations

There was a movie out recently by this name. I haven’t seen it and hear it isn’t very good. However, I’ve always been interested in the phenomena itself if for no other reason than the fact that they’ve been around possibly since at WWII, and all anyone can guess about them is that they carry various kinds of coded messages used by various governments. These stations number in the hundreds.
Do you own a short wave radio? If so, you may have noticed that from time to time you can tune-in to a station that has no other on-air activity except to have a tape recording of someone repeating a pattern of numbers (sometimes with letters mixed in) over and over and over. You’re undoubtedly thinking, “Boy, that sounds just like the woman’s repeated broadcast from the island on the TV show Lost.” You’d be right. That tidbit in the show was based on numbers stations.
But are they secret coded messages? If so, are they really something that various countries use for espionage purposes? There are some very odd things about them if that is the case. One of the strangest things The Internet Archive has ever been associated with is collecting recordings from numbers stations and posting them at their website in something they call the Cornet Project. (In fairness I should also point out that they sell some CDs of the recordings too.) Here are some of the questions they pose:
One might think that these espionage activities should have wound down considerably since the official end of the cold war, but nothing could be further from the truth. Numbers Stations (and by inference, spies) are as busy as ever, with many new and bizarre stations appearing since the fall of the Berlin wall.
Why is it that in over 30 years, the phenomenon of Numbers Stations has gone almost totally unreported? What are the agencies behind the Numbers Stations, and why are the eastern European stations still on the air? Why does the Czech republic operate a Numbers Station 24 hours a day? How is it that Numbers Stations are allowed to interfere with essential radio services like air traffic control and shipping without having to answer to anybody? Why does the Swedish Rhapsody Numbers Station use a small girls voice?
These are just some of the questions that remain unanswered.
Here's a video from a news broadcast in 2006 on the subject and on the Cornet Project:

For more see The Internet Archive’s Cornet Project.


  1. You reminded me of this story from last month:

    I saw it on the website originally. I'm a radio geek going back to when I was a kid with the longwire antennas strung out across my parent's roof, listening to shortwave at night. These stations were a staple of Cold War intrigue. It makes sense that they'd still be in use today. For all our wildly sophisticated technology, when it comes to transmitting secret information nothing beats simplicity. This system had been around for such a long time because it works.

    I listen to shortwave all the time still today, though I use my HF radio to do it with my inverted V antenna out back. I would have loved to have had a radio like the one I have now when I was a kid. And the commie stations are still just as entertaining to listen to as they used to be. Especially Radio Havana. Sounds like a meeting down at the union hall.

    In last few weeks I've been talking to stations from Croatia to Hawaii, Canada to Mexico. There's been quite a bit of solar activity which has made the noise levels fairly intense, sometimes shutting the bands down entirely. But still, nothing better than grabbing a cup of coffee or a beer and playing radio for a while to relax the body and mind.

    1. I still have a very nice old Grundig and a newer Radio Shack short wave. I don't listen to them like I used to though. They're a lot more fun when we're in a major war. It's amazing the news you can pickup out of Europe before it ever hits the States. Same with disasters of various kinds.

      Interesting article on NK. Of course it's a month old and the none of the scenarios played out; nevertheless, it's thought provoking.

    2. It WAS N. Korea, after all. In the old Cold War days we would have called that transmission and all the hype that led up to it disinformation. With the NK's I think we could just call it a wildly active imagination. Or hubris...or insanity.

    3. I was wondering about the disinformation end of things too. The North Koreans DO soooo enjoy stirring the pot!