A station on shortwave radio which only broadcasts a voice reading numbers in various languages. They are believed to be connected to intelligence organizations. The numbers are a code, but it is probably a one time pad, making it well nigh impossible to crack.

As improbable as it seems, numbers stations are real. There are probably a few hundred in operation around the world right now. The Department of Trade and Industry, which regulates the airwaves in the UK, has all but confirmed the long-suspected theory -- that numbers stations are used by intelligence agencies for communication with spies. It is entirely possible that they have been in use since World War I. The general format seems to be numbers and codewords repeated over background noise by vocoderized and sampled multilingual voices.

Transmitted between 2MHz and 26MHz on the shortwave band, these messages, transmitted throughout North America and Europe by the likes of the CIA, KGB, MI6, and MOSSAD, have a definite ambient quality. Combining the low-fi cryptic spookiness of Aleister Crowley's 1920s wax recordings with the synthesized German voices and experimental ambience of Werner Meyer-Eppler's 1950s 'Nachtmusik' radio program and Radio-Activity era Kraftwerk, these stations are as haunting as a nursery rhyme played out of tune. In fact, one of the more famous numbers stations transmits a German folk tune played by glockenspiel, followed by the sampled voice of a young German or Swedish girl reading numbers.

If Cold War relics like the Voice of America and Moscow Radio are your kind of thing, or if you're into electronic music of the dark ambient or highly experimental varieties, you'll become as addicted as I am. Most of the North American numbers stations are broadcast out of Cuba. Other ones are broadcast out of Florida and Virginia. One station, known as "The Buzzer", has been transmitting timed buzzing noises for more than 20 years.

I like the idea of an agency publicly broadcasting its most secret of codes, knowing full well that no one else can possibly crack it. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if many of these stations are operated merely for intimidation. Cuba can transmit as many of these as they want, duping America's intelligence community into thinking their spy presence is much bigger than it actually is.

I'll leave you with Meyer-Eppler's "Stimme der Energie" poem (ripped off shamelessly and effectively by Kraftwerk's "The Voice of Energy"):

This is the Voice of Power
I make it possible for you to have
Electric light and radio and television
This is a giant generator speaking
I am both your servant and your master
So beware of how you use me
This is the Genie of Power.

The format of each numbers station varies among the broadcasters, but the usual format is some sort of signal at the beginning, such as a plain five-digit number, three letters of the phonetic alphabet or a message such as "Atencion, grupo 52". Then comes the body of the message, which usually consists of 4 or 5 number groups. After twenty to forty minutes of that, depending on the station, the station will signal the end of the message in some way (most will, anyway) and vanish into static.

If you count the Morse code numbers stations and the "noise" stations, (which most numbers enthusiasts do) there are well over a hundred types of numbers stations. Many, if not most, have long since been absent from the airwaves. The Enigma classification keeps track of them all. (Enigma being a numbers station newsletter that has ceased publication and was replaced with the Enigma 2000 and Numbers and Oddities newsletters.)


English stations (E*):
  • E01- "Ready Ready". Female voice that seems to be affecting a fake English accent. She will start the broadcast with a five-figure identifier and repeat it for five minutes. She will then state the number of number groups that will follow, say "Ready ready" and begin into the numbers. Comes from the same broadcaster as S2, Drums and Trumpets.
  • E03 and E03a- The Lincolnshire Poacher and Cherry Ripe. Female voice with an English accent. Comes from the UK, has been around since the 70s. Broadcasts in USB. Broadcasts for about 45 minutes. Each broadcast begins with a piece of British folk music, the first few notes of the tune "The Lincolnshire Poacher", repeated twelve times, then the 5 figure identifier read ten times. That process is repeated five times, then three chimes will ring and the message will start. The message always consists of exactly 200 groups. E03a follows the same format but begins with the song Cherry Ripe instead of The Lincolnshire Poacher.
  • E05- The Counting Station. Female voice. The voice behind E05 is sometimes referred to as Cynthia by numbers station listeners, because one can divine the name of E05's broadcaster by looking at the first one and last two letters of her name. Transmissions begin on the hour. Cynthia will repeat the numbers "1234567890" and then a three-digit identifier until ten past the hour, when ten one-second tones are played, Cynthia says "count 123 count 123" (where 123 is the number of groups in the message) then the message will be sent. Cynthia will then say "repeat count 123 count 123" and repeat the process, then say "end" and fall silent. (3/7/05: I recently learned that Cynthia is no longer operational, unfortunately. A real shame.)
  • E10- MOSSAD. E10 is Israel's numbers station. Female voice. E10 has a very interesting format. They mostly use the phonetic alphabet. First, a three-letter identifier is repeated for about three minutes. For instance, one of the common identifiers is EZI. The voice will repeat "Echo Zulu India" for a time, then start into the message: "Message, message. Group 34, group 34. Text, text. APKNC BNVGT OLIUY..." then she will say "repeat repeat", repeat the message, and finish it off with "end transmission. end transmission."

German stations (G*):
  • G1- Tyrolean Music Station. Sadly inactive, G1 was a very interesting station. Every weekend at 11:30 UTC German music, with brass band accompaniment would play until 11:59 at which time seven notes from the "Internationale" were played. On the hour a male German voice would announce several German names then say "Achtung!", read a short list of 5-figure groups and finish with "Ende." Occasionally the song was different, which was a warning for different messages. In this case, the announcer would be live- a rarity in numbers stations. The live announcer would follow the same format up until he was supposed to read the groups. He would instead read off a message such as "The sunshine has faded" or "Our hen has laid one egg".

Various language stations (V*):
  • V2a- "Atencion". One of my favorites, Atencion is an easy listening catch. Broadcasts a female Spanish voice. V2a starts out "Atencion 11111 22222 33333", and repeats that for three minutes. The numbers are 5-digit identifiers. A long message will then be read off consisting of 5-digit groups. At the end the voice will say "Finale. Finale. (slight pause) Finale." There is also a V2 which is slightly rarer, has a different voice, and minor format differences. V2a is broadcast by Cuba. V2a is also famous for its ineptitude. Compared to the professionally-done Lincolnshire Poacher broadcasts, V2a has a history of mistakes and gaffes. For instance, several years ago during a V2a broadcast, Radio Havana music could be heard in the background, establishing conclusively the origin of the broadcasts. Instances of broken or skipping tapes as well as the tape suddenly rewinding to the start are not uncommon. The sound of a telephone being placed into the cradle can be heard at the end of many broadcasts. Sometimes the transmitter is accidentally placed into LSB mode instead of the normal AM. Several times a M8 tape was broadcast instead of a V2a tape. (M8 being a Morse code member of the V2 family.) Operators have also been reported heard talking in the background.
  • V13- New Star Broadcasting. New Star is broadcast from a location in eastern Asia, most likely China or Taiwan. Whereas most numbers stations seem to discourage listening if you are not one of the intended recipients, according to the New Star Unofficial Home Page: "New Star is not your run-of-the mill number station. It features fancy presenters, hip music, and cool announcements like "We wish you health and happiness," to get you through the day." New Star cheerfully identifies itself at the start of its transmissions: "This is Channel Four Broadcasting Station in Taipei, Republic of China, on 8300 kHz". There's even a picture of one of the presenters at the New Star homepage.

This is by no means a complete list. It's just some of the more interesting or common stations that exist. There are several other classes, such as Slavic language stations (Enigma code S*) most of which are inactive. There are also Morse code stations (Enigma code M*) of which there are over 80. There are also miscellaneous stations (Enigma code X*) which usually broadcast some sort of encrypted signal that sounds like noise, like XSL, the "slot machine". It does sound something like a slot machine.


Sources:
http://www.simonmason.karoo.net/page30.html- Shortwave Espionage. Info and recordings of many numbers stations.

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/enigma2000/- Enigma 2000's Yahoo discussion group.

http://home.luna.nl/~ary/- the Numbers and Oddities newsletter. N&0 comes out regularly and always contains the latest info on numbers stations.

http://www.spynumbers.com- SpyNumbers.com contains a gigantic searchable database of numbers loggings.

http://ns4.swl.net/radiochina/newstar/newstar.html- the Unofficial New Star Broadcasting Station home page.

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