The Numbers Stations

The Numbers Stations, Documentary BBC Radio4.

As a kid, I used to scan the radio waves at night, trying to find something different or unusual. I even added extra cable to the aerial in an effort to pick up more signal from further away (I don’t know if it worked, I never examined the physics of it!). The heaviside layer moves up as the solar wind is blocked, allowing radio transmissions to travel further. I’d sit there, sometimes with the curtains closed, sometimes with the light off and the curtains open, looking out at the stars, or the glow of Dublin city on the horizon, slowly moving the dial across the bands, the hiss of FM, the whee-whurr-whucks of medium wave, the vast emptiness of long wave.

Sometimes you’d pick up the Dublin based pirate stations on the FM band. Very occasionally, I could hear taxi conversations on their radios at the very end of the FM band, which was fascinating. It felt like I was some sort of spy, eavesdropping on secret chats deep in the night.

Long Wave was dominated by the local Atlantic 252 station, and RTE1 which broadcast on LW at the time.

AM always had a sprinkling of european stations, in all sorts of languages, mostly French and German. Picking out each station from the fuzz of interference, nudging the dial fractions at a time to get a better signal. It also had bizarre stations that broadcast pips, strange sounds and otherworldly noises.

Maybe one of them was a numbers station, sending it’s signal out to some secret agent in Cold War Europe. Who knows? I hadn’t heard of them at the time, it was only years later that I found out about them on the internet. I’m strangely drawn to these enigmatic voices broadcasting out into the ether, with their intriguing names: “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot”, “Russian Man”, “The Lincolnshire Poacher”. I find myself picturing some spy furtively writing down the numbers before using a one time pad to reveal the message they’d been sent.

Even more sinister are the mechanical broadcasts from the Russian station known as UVB-76 (listen), rumoured to be part of a ‘dead-hand’ doomsday device created in the 1970’s. The idea is that even in the event that a surprise first strike that took out all the top Soviet leadership, retaliation would be guaranteed by whatever nuclear forces remained. A chilling concept indeed. Although, as Kubrick pointed out in Dr. Strangelove:

Dr. Strangelove: The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost…if you keep it a secret! Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?!

Russian Ambassador: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

Dr. Strangelove