Number Stations

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When I was six or seven, I used to play with an old radio that belonged to my dad. I remember it vividly. I think it was classed as a portable as it had a handle, but it was very heavy and very big. It had a light behind the dial – no LED display, this bad boy was analogue all the way. I used to love scrolling through the numbers to hear the weird signals and noises.

Every now and then, I ‘d come across a voice announcing news or the next song, in a fast paced, foreign language. There’d be weird (to my young ears) music or songs. I was transfixed. I think the concept of people existing in different, exotic locations that I didn’t know existed, appealed greatly to me. It’s one of the reasons why I used to love (and still do) to listen to the shipping forecast. I used to imagine people frantically scribbling down the bizarre, random numbers being read out – all the while sitting in windswept and wild locations with beautiful names such as North Utsire, German Bite, Finistere, Rockall, Shannon.

Which brings me to the subject of this blog. One of my most vivid childhood memories was listening to the shortwave radio one early evening – it must have been in winter as I remember it being very dark in my bedroom and I had the lights out. I accidentally came across a strange, haunting polytone tune repeating the same bars over, followed by a voice reading out groups of numbers. All of this, while listening in the dark just added to my fear. I was seriously creeped out. Which of course made me search for more once the broadcast had ended. I found more in the coming days, but I never did find the original one I had heard.

Over the years, my interest in radio waned but never fully disappeared .Fast forward to last year when I discovered one of my favourite podcasts – Last Podcast On The Left. I was binge listening to episodes in a an effort to catch up. There was one that focused on mysterious sounds and recordings. In it they included number stations and played the exact same polytone tune I had heard all those years ago. This time it had a name and I finally knew what it was. It sparked off an obsession. I listen out for them and try and record them – essentially it’s train spotting for the radio.

Number stations are shortwave broadcasts that transmit the following: groups of numbers, letters or teletype signals which are then later decoded. They’re believed to be intelligence and/or military in origin, broadcasting to agents in the field, instructions to be decoded with the use of possibly a one time pad. They date back from before the first world war, making them among the earliest radio transmissions. Anyone with a short wave radio can listen in on these broadcasts, but in order to decode them they need access to the one time pad. If the pad is used correctly and discarded after each use, then these codes are considered unbreakable.

There are several that have become famous, the most famous have become stuff of legend as they are no longer transmitting. The Lincolnshire Poacher, The Swedish Rhapsody, Cherry Ripe, can all be found here at the Conet Project – an archive of all the stations. Some are still broadcasting, such as the buzzer, the pip, and the squeaky wheel. These (and more) can be found on the Priyom site. This is my favourite go to site. It provides links to the transmissions, transmission schedules, history of each signal, podcasts and blog. It also uses the WebSDR radio site which is the site I use.
There are other sites such as Enigma 2000 (who’s parent group created an ID system of the stations) and Numbers and Oddities.

Hope this is of some interest to at least some of you!
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