Surfin’: Radio by the Numbers
By Stan Horzepa, WA1LOU
This week, Surfin’ explores the mysterious world of numbers stations.
Norman Wald, W9VQ, alerted me to a new film called The Numbers Station that tells the story of a black ops agent (played by John Cusack) assigned to protect a young female code announcer (played by Malin Akerman) at a remote, top secret station.
Remember numbers stations? Typically, a numbers station features an artificially generated female voice speaking strings of numbers, but shortwave listeners have also heard male and child announcers, and the contents of the messages are not always numbers.
Although the numbers station is often considered a Cold War phenomenon, numbers stations are still on the air today, transferring covert messages to spies around the globe via the short waves. As recently as 2009, for example, a married couple -- Walter and Gwendolyn Myers -- was arrested as spies in Washington, DC, after three decades of spying for Cuba. Their keepers in Cuba communicated with them via encrypted shortwave radio messages in Morse code or by a voice reading numbers in a sequence.
Over the years, I have heard numbers stations on the air. If you search up and down the low bands tonight, you may encounter one or two of these stations yourself. Or you can sample recordings of numbers stations on The Numbers Game, as well as YouTube and other online file sharing services. Many of the recordings found on YouTube are from The Conet Project, a legendary CD collection of numbers station recordings that has achieved cult status.
For more information about numbers stations, visit the excellent website Number Stations. You also might want to check out the following online articles:
- “Secrets in the Static,” from Esquire magazine
- “Dark Side of the Band,” from Wired magazine
- “Counting Spies,” from Salon.com
- “Stranger Than Fiction: The Airwaves Are Filled with Coded Spy Messages,” from Reelz.com
Until next time, keep on surfin’!