Tuesday 24 April 2012

The Numbers Game

Imagine if a mysterious radio station broadcast an automated voice reading a seemingly meaningless strings of numbers interspersed with a few bars of an English folk song to the world at large for more than three decades.

Imagine that this radio station was then tracked to an RAF base in Cyprus.

Now imagine that this radio station stopped broadcasting as suddenly as it started.

Actually, you don't need to imagine any of this. The British radio station, which was known as "the Lincolnshire Poacher" after the tune played between code groups, was part of the obscure and mysterious phenomenon known to the world of short-wave radio geeks* as a "numbers station".

These stations, which are almost certainly used to transmit secret messages to spies which are then de-coded using a one-time pad, are also something of a dying breed. "The Lincolnshire Poacher" went off-line in 2008, with its sister transmitter broadcasting from Australia to the Asian continent similarly closing down in 2009. It would seem likely that these transmitters are being replaced by internet drop-boxes and other means of covert communication, in which case they are undergoing the same sad decline that their non-clandestine cousins in the world of short-wave international broadcasting are.

Many of them, however, remain on-air. Cuba's "¡Atención!" which was used to transmit to the "Wasp" spy network is still broadcasting it's messages of international socialist solidarity, the US's "Yosemite Sam" is still transmitting snippets of code and Looney Tunes from somewhere near Albuquerque, New Mexico, and various Russian, Korean, and Chinese stations identified only by a three-letter classification code continue to transmit their mysterious messages into the ether from points around the globe.

In some ways it's kind of comforting to think that our hum-drum world still contains such things, that somewhere there is a secret agent bent over their short-wave receiver transcribing these numbers into something meaningful, which I guess is the main attraction of number stations to their enthusiasts. For me they have something of a nostalgic air to them. If you grew up in the UK in the 80's you would have watched any number of dramas and comedies about the resistance in occupied Europe during the second world war - most famous of which was probably "'Allo 'Allo". These cryptic messages are a more up to date version of London calling "Nighthawk" about the "fallen Madonna wiz ze big boobies", even if in reality they make for rather dry listening.
*Sorry, JR

[Video: A recording of Chinese-language numbers station V13 AKA "Xin Xing", message beginning at 1.02, recorded by Youtube user "First Token" on the 6th of July, 2010. A translation is provided in the comments but I won't vouch for it - it does sound more like danwei ("单位") than san wei ("三位"), and as for the message being a "fishing report" ("鱼政电报"), it sounds more like something to do with a "forecast" ("预报") to me, although I can't tell what the word in the middle is. Can anyone do a better job?]


justrecently said...

part of the obscure and mysterious phenomenon known to the world of short-wave radio geeks* as a "numbers station"

Ha! Seems that Foarp himself is back to shortwave - at least to "shortwave on the internet", is he?

I should add though that I've never been interested in numbers stations. As a teenager, I was interested in getting exotic stations confirmed, but that would be broadcasters, frequently local broadcasters on shortwave. Naturally, you wouldn't get confirmations from numbers stations. Either way, the content always mattered more to me than location.

I'm still into shortwave, only that I'm no longer interested in letters or cards of confirmation. When on the internet, my existing perception and interests guide my searches and findings. When listening to a shortwave broadcaster, I'm usually made aware of things that hadn't previously been on my mind.

Besides, I can keep a radio running while doing all kinds of stuff, at the desk or outside the house - until some people lose their patience and switch it off. Radio isn't as absorbing as the internet - and it steals much less time.

Gilman Grundy said...

Ach, as a science nerd I have my own cross to bear. At any rate radio has always been a cherished medium to me. At least I never found it the kind of brain-holiday that television can be, or the kind of compulsion that the internat sometimes feels like.

Anonymous said...
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Gilman Grundy said...

Chris, like I said before, piss off.