Hi, fellow curious weirdos! Following the discussions in comments to Olivia’s open thread last week, it occurred to me that I am not the only person who regularly falls down internet K-holes reading about conspiracies, mysteries, and other weird spooky crap that I don’t actually believe in, yet am transfixed by nevertheless.
Oddly, until now it never occurred to me that others could benefit from this habit, or that I could actually do it for work, and so I’m embarking on what I hope to make a regular series of articles taking a properly skeptical but slightly agnostic view on some of the subjects I’m fascinated by, even when they have Perfectly Rational Explanations.
For the first installment, I’m starting with one of my favorites: NUMBERS STATIONS.
You might have heard of them before, in a random movie or TV show (Olivia tells me they feature in "Scandal"). On their most basic level, numbers stations are what they sound like: radio transmissions that consist mostly of numbers (or some other encoded message) being read. Traditionally, the transmissions take place at a specific time on a regular basis, and the they are broadcast over shortwave radio from unlicensed -- and therefore mysterious -- sources.
Need an example? Here’s a recently recorded transmission from a station referred to colloquially as The English Man, which is believed by some to be located in Russia, and features a man with an indiscernable accent reading off a list of numbers in English:
Creepy, right? If that’s insufficiently spooky for you, consider this recording from the so-called “Swedish Rhapsody” station, which features the same few bars of its namesake played repeatedly, interrupted by the voice of a young woman -- some say she even sounds like a child -- reading off numbers in German.
But let’s back up. Numbers stations may have been around for as long as radio broadcasts have existed, although their precise origins are shrouded in mystery. The Conet Project is a five-disc collection of carefully curated numbers stations recordings -- which are also available for free download and streaming on the Internet Archive, in case you need to freak yourself out RIGHT NOW -- and their research suggests that numbers stations may have been in use as early as World War I. The fact that no one has ever taken credit for their transmission means we have little firm data to rely on, although by the Cold War era their use seems to have expanded significantly.
The most likely purpose for these often bizarre numbers stations is that they are transmitting encoded messages to spies. This explanation became even more likely when, in 1998, the US government’s espionage case against a Cuban spy ring in Miami actually referenced a Cuban numbers station as evidence -- a fact that, in spite of the continued reluctance of any government official anywhere to acknowledge it, would seem to indicate that this what these transmissions are for, no matter where they’re taking place.
So how are these things discovered and recorded, given that they are not intended for the public, are not easily identified, and often transmit on erratic schedules, occasionally going silent for long periods of time? For that we turn to the high intensity nerdery of amateur shortwave radio enthusiasts, folks who listen around on various frequencies in search of pirate radio broadcasts or other unusual transmissions, whose interest in numbers stations was often first piqued when on a routine scan they suddenly came across a mysterious, almost mechanical-sounding voice reading off a series of words in a foreign language. Many numbers stations fans take these stations as a challenge to either decrypt the message being relayed -- a difficult prospect at best -- or locate their origins via radio geek powers I cannot begin to understand.
While it may seem counterintuitive to put super-secret spy stuff right out there where literally anyone with a handheld receiver can hear it, numbers stations are actually pretty brilliant. They can be picked up over vast distances without complicated equipment, and even if outsiders hear them, all they get is a list of numbers that could mean anything.
Unraveling the codes is a daunting effort given that it is widely believed that numbers stations employ a one-time pad, a randomized form of encryption that, when used as intended, is literally impossible to crack without a copy of the solution (that’s the “pad,” which once was a literal pad of paper containing the randomized keys, although today -- as in the Cuban spy trial -- such things are likely electronic).
An even more mysterious subset of numbers stations are the noise stations, which broadcast curiously repeating buzzes, taps, rattles, and other inexplicable stuff.
Just a few years ago, in August of 2010, one of these stations generated some attention when, after twenty years of transmitting a repeating buzzing sound 25 times a minute -- which earned it the nickname, “The Buzzer” -- it suddenly relayed a human voice, speaking in Russian, listing numbers and a sequence of names (actually, the Russian equivalent of the NATO phonetic alphabet):
A month after the August message in 2010, the station played a 38-second snippet of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, then a few days later, two more voice messages, one from a woman counting from 1 to 10, another from a man.
The Buzzer had interrupted its transmission only a handful times since it began transmitting the regular sequence of tones in 1990 (the station itself has allegedly been broadcasting as early as 1976). So people were pretty excited when, following this initial message, The Buzzer suddenly began to play host to a whole bunch of new sounds, from snippets of garbled conversations to thumps and rustles, leading some to surmise that the station site has an open microphone that is picking up activity in the room.
The meaning of the initial message remains a mystery -- the numbers may correspond to coordinates in the Barents Sea, the site of Russian weapons testing, leading many to surmise that it’s some kind of military communication.
Better yet, some have suggested it relates to the readiness of Russia’s Cold-War-era Dead Hand system. The Dead Hand is a fail-safe trigger designed to automatically launch Russian nuclear weapons even if Russian leadership was destroyed by a first nuclear strike from the US, ensuring mutual destruction of both nations. Basically, if the system detects certain changes in light, pressure and radioactivity, it assumes Russia has been hit and launches ICBMs without needing pesky decision-making on the part of living humans to be involved.
So you’re probably thinking, Wow, that’s terrifying, it’s a good thing the Cold War is over! Maybe don’t relax yet though, since this system was allegedly still functional -- if not turned on -- as recently as 2009.
What does this have to do with The Buzzer? Not much -- the notion that the August 2010 transmission was relating the readiness of the Dead Hand system is pure speculation. Still, now you know something new and terrifying about the world we live in! Isn’t that nice?
Another curious noise station that inspired a lot of nutty ideas but ultimately had a mundane explanation was the famed “Russian Woodpecker,” an unusually strong signal of a repetitive tapping sound that interefered with many legitimate radio broadcasts, including commerical radio and aviation signals, between 1976 and 1989. The conspiracy theories around this transmission were unusually doomsday-ish, given its incredibly strong worldwide signal, with some people asserting that it was a Soviet mind control device, and others that the USSR had successfully built a device that could alter planetary weather patterns.
The truth turned out to be even more interesting: the Woodpecker signal was transmitted by Duga-3, a massive radio array for an over-the-horizon radar system located in Ukraine, meant to spot an incoming nuclear strike at the earliest possible moment. If that weren’t fascinating enough, the now-defunct array stands within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, the 30-kilometer area around the Chernobyl nuclear plant, which suffered a catastrophic meltdown and explosion in 1986, the worst nuclear accident ever (for reference, even the 2011 Fukushima accident, which was significant, only released between 10 to 30% of the radiation emitted at Chernobyl).
Of course, this doesn’t stop intrepid souls from visiting the unimaginably tall Duga-3 array and photographing it. And even, apparently, climbing it. Because it’s human nature to be drawn to the weird and unusual, especially when we’ve been told to ignore it.
So there’s numbers stations explained for you: a curious mystery with a simple explanation that somehow makes it no less spooky and fascinating. And learn from my mistakes: do not listen to any of these recordings -- especially the one below -- while alone in a dark room unless you know exactly where your cat is.
What other conspiracies, mysteries, and weird bits of history would you like to see me unpack in this series? Let me know in comments, on Twitter, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.