Had I heard of the Numbers Stations? A friend on Twitter wanted to know. This is how it all began, how I fell down this rabbit hole. That late night conversation on Twitter got me thinking. Not only had I never heard of these things, but it had never occurred to me that spy radio would even exist. I was about to dive headlong into this world and I would soon find myself obsessed.
Numbers Stations are those which are transmitted via shortwave radio and are said to contain encoded messages. These stations have existed since World War I. Sometimes these transmissions are simply Morse code. Other broadcasts might instead use an alphanumerical sequence with soundscapes or music to verify the transmission source.
In certain circles, some of these transmissions have become widely known, even given nicknames.
The first thing I looked into was the signal known as The Buzzer (also known as UVB-76). This signal is still on air to this day. If you go to 4625 kHz on a shortwave radio you should be able to hear a buzzing tone. This buzzing sound intermittently repeats itself at about a rate of 25 tones per minute.
The Buzzer has been transmitting 24 hours a day, 365 days a year (with the occasional broadcast glitch) since at least 1973. Despite knowing the source of this transmission comes from Russia, the function of The Buzzer is still disputed. Theories range from it being a channel marker to the grim prospect of The Buzzer being a dead hand signal.
Since I have personally heard this signal a few times and have managed to record it, I have a few thoughts on UVB-76. In my opinion, the channel marker theory holds the most water. I also agree with the theory that UVB-76 is a tone generated in front of a live microphone. Tones produced by the buzzer, are not always identical, there’s an inconsistency between them. There have also been reports of background sounds and overheard conversations on this channel.
A recording of The Buzzer, which I made very recently.
Another well-documented numbers station is Cherry Ripe (aka E03a). Tales of transmissions from Cherry Ripe go back to the early 1970s. The last observed radio broadcast was in December 2009.
Rumour has it, that MI6 were responsible for the Cherry Ripe transmissions. Broadcasts for this station were first transmitted from Guam. Cherry Ripe then apparently moved the transmitter location to Humpty Doo, Australia in September of 2009. Rather than having one, set frequency to broadcast on, Cherry ripe had a programme schedule. These broadcasts moved between six different channels.
Cherry Ripe used an old folk song of the same name for its interval signature (a jingle or song that some radio stations use as an identifier) which is how it got its nickname. The format was always the same and full transmissions took 45 minutes. Each one started with the first two bars of Cherry Ripe repeated twelve times, followed by a five-figured header message which was repeated five times, then six chimes. The main message would then follow. A cheery, English accented woman would read 200 separate groups of numbers. Each block of numbers was five figures long. Then more chimes and repeats of the Cherry Ripe tune would announce the end of the transmission.
Cherry Ripe transmission recording from the Internet Archives.
Lincolnshire Poacher or E03 was a sister station of Cherry Ripe. This means that the formatting, sounds and varying frequencies to a set schedule were very similar in nature to Cherry Ripe. MI6 are also rumoured to be behind the E03 broadcasts. The transmission source was located to Akrotiri in Cypress (which is a Royal Air Force Base) by enthusiastic, amateur sleuths.
Recording of the Lincolnshire Poacher from the Conet Project at the Internet Archives.
Lincolnshire Poacher began broadcasting on shortwave radio in the mid-1970s and continued up until June 2008. You might assume that to be the end of the tale. The end of the Lincolnshire Poacher. Well, it would appear not. In my humble opinion, this is where things start to get interesting.
The New Lincolnshire Poacher?
It would seem that the Lincolnshire Poacher has changed format and now exists as a phone messaging service. In 2013, The Daily Dot published an article looking into The Buzzer. It would appear that after the after the article was published, the Daily Dot were given an anonymous tip-off. They were given a phone number to call, which greeted them with a recorded message. One which, to me, sounds exactly like the original Lincolnshire Poacher transmissions.
The Daily Dot’s call to the Lincolnshire Poacher
In a follow-up article published by the Daily Dot they revealed the information given to them by their tip-off and the phone number of the new, Lincolnshire Poacher. Readers contacted the Daily Dot a few days later to let them know the message had now changed. Instructions on the recording advised callers to go to “backup channel romeo x-ray three nine” then the call promptly ended. Callers then received a text message to their phone, which read “This number is restricted, please do not call again.”
The Poacher has now changed location.
As luck would have it, a Numbers Stations enthusiast called Akin Fernandez recorded a lot of what he heard over his shortwave radio. Collected together, these recordings became known as The Conet Project and eventually released as albums.
These recordings have influenced many musicians with their eerie, unique soundscapes. So any musicians or anyone interested in sound production might also want to look into this. Best news of all is the fact that these recordings are available to buy or download for free. Wait, what…free? Yes indeed, and there are even two places to legally download from.
There is a way for you to listen to live, shortwave radio and try to capture sounds for yourself. A modern way round, with digital dials and browser-based. Wide-band WebSDR is a web controlled radio receiver, run by an amateur radio club in the Netherlands. It’s fairly easy to understand and lets you make recordings, which you can download.
Where to start? Well on WebSDR, at the bottom of the page, there’s a log book tab. Often people will leave comments there if they have found anything of interest to tune in to. Another wonderful resource are the pages over at Spy Numbers. This is another place where listeners can tell each other about frequencies of intrigue.
Finally check out Enigma 2000, as they are a veritable fountain of knowledgeable on all things shortwave.
Any readers who find themselves recording anything fun or spooky on their adventures, please let us know. We’d love to hear about it.