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The Secret Code of Spies

Tune in to eerie radio frequencies not meant for civilian ears.


In our era of encrypted emails and clandestine NSA server farms, it’s a trip to imagine numbers stations – those mysterious shortwave radio broadcasts composed of eerie synthesized voices and widely considered to be the secret language of spies. And while the dangerous days of the Cold War may officially be over, these encoded transmissions still pop up every once in a while when you’re turning the dial, trying to find the latest Taylor Swift song.

Numbers stations first appeared at the end of World War II and reached their broadcasting peak in the 60s and 70s. Each message followed a similar pattern: a peculiar melody emerged from the silence of a once-dormant station. Then, patterned clicks began or, creepier still, a ghostly female voice repeated random numbers and seemingly nonsensical phrases.

The strange transmissions transfixed radio lovers, who quickly concluded they were listening in on encoded information. A community of enthusiasts cropped up. Homemade recordings were shared and quirky names given to the most popular stations: The Swedish Rhapsody of Poland; Lincolnshire Poacher out of England; The Buzzer from the USSR; Yankee Hotel Foxtrot from Tel Aviv.

But why would any nation broadcast their secrets so freely, for all of us to hear? Take a look at the technology and it’s easy to see why. Shortwave radio can be received anywhere and is exceedingly difficult to trace; in ideal conditions, broadcasts are able to traverse the globe. Many use the technology to communicate with ships in the middle of the ocean.

Now imagine you’re a government agency with undercover agents embedded deep within enemy territory. How do you send critical information? A carrier pigeon? Forget about it.

Said agencies, of course, will neither confirm nor deny numbers stations despite plenty of evidence pointing to their direct participation in the broadcasts – including an espionage case from 2001 in which the United States accused five Florida men of using shortwave radio to receive messages from Atención, Cuba’s own channel.

When audio archivist Akin Fernandez released The Conet Project, his astonishing collection of numbers station field recordings, a representative from the agency that regulates airwaves in the United Kingdom uttered this ominous threat: “[The numbers stations] are not for, shall we say, public consumption.”

Sorry, pal. So long as these messages emanate from the empty stations at the end of the dial, people will continue to tune in.

Curious how to catch a numbers station broadcast for yourself? It’s shockingly easy. All you need is a shortwave radio – or dive into the incredible archive of The Conet Project, available for free on SoundCloud.

Just try not to get creeped out too badly.

[via BBC; Salon]

Photo by Chaloner Woods/Getty Images