What Are Number Stations?

Since I began with the show, we have been getting requests to cover number stations. As more and more of these requests rolled in, I realized I had no idea why people found number stations so interesting. So, today I decided to dive a little deeper into the pool of number stations and figure out just why so many of you are so interested in them.

Link Link Link

We’re going to have to go all the way back to the World War II era to get the beginnings of number stations. During the war, these number stations transmitted coded, secret messages via shortwave radio antennas.  While they served a purpose, it’s not like this purpose could just be announced so when casual radio listeners stumbled upon them they were...freaked out, weirded out, etc. The voices counting out the numbers in strange, monotone voices in various languages. It is believed they also use morse code. Other times, the voices don’t even begin until full minutes pass.

An article by the BBC notes, “Starting with a weird melody or the sound of several beeps, these transmissions might be followed by the unnerving sound of a strange woman's voice counting in German or the creepy voice of a child reciting letters in English.”

Why use such unsettling voices in order to convey the message? This is one question that has me scratching my own head.If you are looking to avoid detection and remain secret and unassuming, why use strange voices, especially the voices of a child which would no doubt be out of place. Wouldn’t this call for attention to the fact that there might be some sort of importance to the string of numbers being read?

Mark Stout, a historian at the International Spy Museum, told NPR “That the stations are unlicensed, which makes it hard to figure out where they're broadcasting from. And the mystery only deepens: No government has ever officially admitted to using numbers stations. No one's really sure when the stations began broadcasting, though they're most likely a Cold War-era invention.” Although Stout claims they may have not even begun until the Cold War, there are some that believe they began even before WWII in WWI.

Today, there are still dozens of number stations on the radio broadcasting these codes. Although code-breakers have been trying to break them for decades, it does not appear that any have been broken. In the age of computers, coded messages sent over a lesser-used media might be the best way to convey top-secret, world-changing information. So, that’s why people are still interested in them today!

The above is an image of Shortwave radio station of Finnish Broadcasting Company YLE in Pori, Finland. Completed 1939, in function 1948-1987. Design by architect Hugo Harmia. It is in the public domain.