Saturday, 2 January 2016

From the archives: The numbers station game Part 2

With an increase in interest in numbers stations of late I thought I'd reprint my 3 part article I wrote for Radio Active magazine in 2001. Links and frequencies may be out of date- and it was written when broadband was in a minority of UK homes- but it may still an interesting read for some people ...  Part 2 of 3

The Internet is the ultimate tool. Numbers stations and the covert operations that surround them have tried to maintain their secrecy for years, yet can now be accessed from the comfort of your armchair. True, you can’t decipher the coded information they transmit, but you can hear an audio file of a Numbers station, click to read what information has been amassed on it, including suspected origins and schedules, then click again to sometimes see a photo of the transmitter site.

Whether you missed last month’s introductory piece or not, the following paragraph will give you a flavour of where we’re at. It is from an old website in Florida that has long since disappeared into a black hole.

“My first encounter with these mysteries was fairly innocuous. Time was when I would find an open carrier to see what might develop and just go to sleep with the radio on. One morning I awoke to hear the following transmission: ‘5,4,1...8,7...8,3,2.. 9,1..’. My first reaction was one of utter bewilderment. The obvious question arose: Why is this mechanical-sounding female voice reading numbers? Had I discovered some sort of mechanized math exercise? A shuttle countdown gone completely awry? I had no idea. Intrigued, I continued to listen. Sure enough, they continued for about 10 minutes until...silence. There was no "end", no "fin", no fanfare, just radio silence.  It took me a LOT of reading to find out that these transmissions were known as "Numbers Stations", alleged spy transmissions and one of the many ‘Mysteries Of Radio’.  Radio affords a lot of great opportunities for a variety of illicit broadcasting and traffic activity. It's fairly inexpensive. Almost everyone carries a radio in some parts of Europe, so spy activities don't appear unusual. Because of the great cloak of secrecy surrounding most of these operations, the lack of personnel on active duty at each location, and the ability to place a transmitter in the strangest of places, governments have a hard time in locating either the station or its operators. The numbers have been heard in languages, from Slavic to Chinese, but are most frequently in Spanish or English. They're usually announced by a female voice, thanks to a popular psychological study which found that people are more likely to listen to a female's voice than a man's. The voice is robotic, usually produced by voice synthesis (electronic simulation), although one particularly memorable instance was utter havoc- a supposedly drunken male was heard shouting numbers live on-air, with the sound of crashing, doors slamming, and other violent noises in the background”.

Two experts in the cloak and dagger world of Numbers stations are Simon Mason and Chris Smolenski, both of whom have set up informative websites. Simon’s is in the U.K and Chris’ in the U.S.A.

Chris Smolinski's ‘Spy Centre - Spy Numbers Stations’ is an ideal starting point, although personally I find some of the website layout confusing and hard to navigate, with certain features hidden away.

However, there is plenty of incredible material amongst its pages. Probably its most useful and unique feature is its database with over 35,000 logs. You can email your own loggings, try to identify stations, as well as access a very useful schedule, to see what broadcasts are anticipated on the air.
The world’s premier, maybe the only, Numbers Stations Mailing List originates from this website. Called ‘Spooks’, you simply send an email to join, then sit back and read with intrigue as loggings come flooding in from monitors, and all aspects of the undercover world of espionage are discussed. There can be a lot of traffic, but you can always hit the trusty delete key if it gets too much, or unsubscribe. It is well worth subscribing for a few weeks to get a feel for the subject matter.

The case of ‘The Razzer’ is an example of how no new sound on the short wave bands goes unnoticed by this crack group of monitors.  Last winter a strange signal was heard periodically in the U.S.A on roughly 9500 kHz, although it changed to other frequencies too. The general consensus of the monitoring community was that it is a form of over-the-horizon radar. Two samples of ‘The Razzer’ (not to be confused with ‘the Buzzer’ or ‘the Rasper’, which are other mysterious noise stations) can be heard at:

Conspiracy theorists could have a field day with the implications of Numbers stations, but there is little paranoia in evidence amongst the monitoring hobbyists. Some of them have expressed concern, however, in the U.S.A over the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) software called Carnivore, which is designed to monitor email. It is akin to the U.K Regulatory Powers bill that allows the powers that be to intercept emails via Internet Service Providers. The whole business of snooping on emails and Internet use is a contentious civil liberties one, which is closely related to the covert world of intelligence agencies and espionage. It is a topic often raised on the Spooks email list. For more information on Carnivore you can view a recorded video of a presentation by FBI agent Marcus Thomas, at
You can also get the F.B.I view at their Carnivore page

Or a more independent analysis at

Music for Anoraks

There are at least two commercially available CDs of Numbers stations:
In the U.K, The Conet Project was issued in 1997, and consists of recordings of 150 numbers stations dating from 1971. A thorough booklet accompanying the 4 CD set makes an interesting read. It concludes with these chilling thoughts: “ The most worrying feature of the Numbers stations is the implication that we are not truly at peace with the Eastern bloc…When are the sabotage instructions to be sent, and what will the targets be? Will ‘sleepers’ be awakened by a special codeword received whilst on a teabreak from waiting on tables at the Dorchester? How many corporations are being compromised by mailmen who pretend to be listening to football results as they rifle through mail? And is the bus conductor on the no.22 listening to the radio and writing down the results of the horses, or is he being told who his next murder victim is to be? Are all commuters really commuters? What is that buzzing? Is she wearing a walkman or is that a Sony SW-100 E in her pocket? The baby sitter?…The shop assistant…painter.. …accountant..traffic warden..journalist, antique dealer, mechanic…”.

Update 2014, see

Across the pond ‘The Numbers Racket’ is a $25 Multimedia CD-ROM which has recordings and information on stations past and present. Spy stations from all over the world are represented including U.S.A, U.K, Cuba, Russia, Taiwan, Israel and Germany. Background information, how messages are sent, terminology and how to listen are all explained, then you can listen to the sinister sounds of The Babbler, Bulgarian Betty, The CIA Counting Station, The Woodpecker and the Mystery Bleeper, to name but a few.

National Public Radio (NPR) in the States broadcast a programme in May 2000 called ‘Atencion: Seis Siete Tres Siete Cero: The Shortwave Numbers Mystery’. You missed it? No problem, just go to the NPR ‘Lost and Found Sound’ website to read and hear a broad overview with examples. The programme can be heard in Real audio at

To hear some audio files without purchasing a CD, go to The Numbers Game website:

where you will over 30 recordings from this UK based site from the late 1980s and 1990s.

Alongside old favourites such as English Female of presumed Russian/KGB origin and English Female Alphanumeric (presumed MOSSAD), there are a few rare gems; The English speaking station known as ‘Ready Ready’ with a message read by a “nervous" lady and The Tones Station, known as "XPH" with a garbled message. The Buzzer (XB) which transmits its annoying noise through day and night and the C.I.A’s Cynthia with a broken and a jammer. The infamous Swedish Rhapsody with the voice of a child and The Lincolnshire Poacher suffering from some severe and funny audio problems. Just visit the website and have a listen. It’s both humourous yet simultaneously disconcerting enough to make you ill at ease.

Other amusing bloopers can be found back at Simon Mason’s website. It at least makes you feel there is an element of humanity amongst these strange covert activities: Examples of two stations mixing together to make a confusing code even more so,  (E3 Lincolnshire Poacher mixing with G16 "Sierra Bravo", V1 Skylark mixing with E5 Counting station, E3 Jamming transmitter having technical problems, and the final broadcast of V1 Skylark Romanian Transmission.

So if that’s what some of the transmissions sound like, what do the transmitter sites look like? Through painstaking tracking and monitoring, the origins of the Number and Noise stations have been discovered all over the globe. There are a few photo galleries for you to peruse on the web.
The Fylingdale golf balls on the Yorkshire moors are a well-known English landmark. A similar site can be seen on Olympus Hill in Greek Cyprus

Other secretive bases that have been photographed are at Australia's Pine Gap
and there is a Duncan Campbell photo of a dish in Cornwall

Mysterious transmitter masts abound in Frankfurt at
For more photos, mostly from Germany and the USA go to the following site
Click on the photograph of a sign which states ’Photography of this area is forbidden’ then you will have access to plenty of information at

For some great photos of old Soviet Embassies around the world with strange aerials on the rooftops, presumably set up decades ago to receive more than Joe Adamov’s ‘Moscow Mailbag’, there is a selection at Simon Mason’s website:

Secret Agents do of course get caught from time to time, and if caught red-handed they can provide an insight into how their masters operate. The one time pads used by transmitter and receivers of Numbers stations do occasionally come to light. For a revealing picture of a one time pad, and other espionage photos, click on

The one time pads are smuggled through customs in a whole manner of deceptive and ingenious ways. For real-life James Bond type gadgetry have a look at where you can see photos of one time pads smuggled in talculm-powder containers, or hollowed out bars of soap.
Although the location of some Number stations has been identified, many remain unknown. Where are they based? Are they broadcast from a top security military installation, or a down town radio studio?  From secret bases in the distant mountain ranges or from the core of a telecommunications centre? Who actually prepares the material and reads the code into a microphone? Are they agents themselves or a handpicked, security-cleared team of government lackeys? The closest you can get to finding out more details about individual stations is through the analysed material put together by ENIGMA (European Numbers Information and Monitoring Association).

The full ENIGMA designators list referred to last month can be found at, among other websites,

At the second of these you can click on the station of your choice for more information and sometimes an audio recording, to reveal as much as is publicly known. Two examples of old European stations conjure up images of the Cold War, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Numbers stations traffic is as busy as ever in 2001. The ‘Drums and Trumpets’ station (ENIGMA S2) is an inactive station whose transmissons peaked in 1989 and 1990. It broadcast in the Czech language, mostly on 4740, 5500 and 6675 KHz and it’s transmission format is poetically described thus:

“Imagine a scene at a military funeral when the lone trumpeter sounds "The Last Post" and you will have some idea of the musical signal sent by this Czech language number station. This plaintive bugle sounds about an hour before the transmission of the spy messages begins. Just before the actual message starts a different signal is sent. This is played with drums and trumpets and is a very up-tempo military marching tune similar to those played before the beginning of a battle. The woman then announces (in Czech) "Noma 12671, Gruppi 44; Noma 12671, Gruppi 44,  and then goes into the five figure text, ending with the word "Krai". The Czech figures are: "Jedno, Dva, Tri, Ctyri, Pet, Sest, Osm, Devet, Nula."

The ‘Tyrolean Music Station’ (ENIGMA G1) may sound like a Julie Andrew’s song from ‘The Sound of Music’, but the truth stark and frightening. It was a 1970s East German Numbers station operated by the Stasi, using a format of cryptic phrases. Broadcasting at weekends on 6650 and 6425 kHZ, it started at 1130 UTC by playing German beer drinking songs, followed by seven notes from the Communist anthem "Internationale". At 1200,a male announcer then read several names, each name was then repeated, followed by "Achtung", and a series of 5FG groups, followed by "Ende". Sometimes, cryptic messages such as "Our hen has laid one egg" or "The sunshine has faded" were read instead of numbers. The transmission closed with "Auf wiedesehen".

Evidently there were often technical problems, with the incorrect music being played, studio noises being heard, and coughing fits. Not the kind of precision and authority you would expect from one of history’s foremost and most feared secret police organisations.

The website also states that  ‘The operation was believed to be tied in to that of pirate radio station "Radio Northsea International", which was backed by the DDR.’ This is certainly news to me and sounds extremely unlikely. I’d be interested if anyone else had information; it sounds like western propaganda of the time.

Next month we conclude the Numbers stations feature by explaining how the one time pads work and whether they are really unbreakable, investigate Papa November and Havana Moon, look at an individual who thinks Numbers stations are fake, examine some of the Asian Numbers stations and look to the future of Numbers stations.

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