What do the 'The Lincolnshire Poacher,' 'The Buzzer,' 'Cherry Ripe,' 'Wop Wop,' 'Three Day Mystery' and 'The Workshop' all have in common?
Well, if you immediately know the answer to that question, you're either a shortwave radio enthusiast or a spy.
All of these are the nicknames of some of the dozens of bizarre number stations which appear from time-to-time on shortwave radio frequencies. No one officially knows where they come from because no one officially takes responsibility for the often strange, repetitive and, admittedly, creepy broadcasts.
What Are Number Stations?
Number stations are believed to be powerful radio transmitters which broadcast strange transmissions at various times and on various frequencies. Common elements of number station broadcasts involve synthesized human voices reading lists of numbers, live human voices delivering dialogue, musical tones and other odd sounds. One number station, nicknamed 'Yosemite Sam,' even includes a loop of dialogue from Looney Toons.
Dozens exist around the world, with their numbers reaching a peak around the 1980s. Many of the most famous number stations have now been discontinued, but some still exist to this day.
What Are Number Stations For?
Due to official denial that number stations even exist, no one has actually come forward to explain their use. Despite this, a number of assumptions can be made.
It's widely believed number stations are used to transmit clandestine information to various government agents or outposts. High frequency radio signals transmitted at low power can potentially travel around the world, and can be received with normal receivers and antennas. This makes them an ideal low-tech method of communicating with undercover agents.
Another belief is that they are operated by criminal organizations and well-funded drug cartels. This could be true, although the fact some transmissions have been traced to government facilities means at least some of the number stations are operated by governments.
How Do They Work?
Of course, since anyone can listen in, the transmissions must be coded, hence the frequent use of numbers. It is believed agents on the receiving end will utilize special decoding devices known as 'one-time pads' to turn the string of random numbers into a comprehensible message. Theoretically, this provides perfect security as only someone possessing the one-time pad will be able to decode it.
Let's take for example, one of the most famous number stations, 'The Lincolnshire Poacher.' This number station, believed to be operated by Britain's MI6 out of an RAF airfield on Cyprus, was relatively unique in that it used several bars of the famous English folk song, 'The Lincolnshire Poacher,' to show it was about to broadcast a message.
(Skip to 0:56 for the number readout)
Although no one can be sure, enthusiasts have attempted to work out the sequence of these transmissions. In the above case, the music signals a message is imminent.
Following this is the announcement of which one-time pad should be used, in this case 3-9-7-1-5. Due to the importance of getting this right, it is repeated several times.
After this comes several tones which indicate the actual coded message will be read out, which then comes in sets of 5 numbers. Each set is read twice, and the high inflection of the voice at the end indicates that set has finished. Tones at the end once again show the message is over, and then it's back to the haunting music.
Other Examples: 'The Buzzer' and the 'Chinese Robot'
Other number stations use a different system. For example, another famous station, this time a Russian one known as UVB-76 or 'The Buzzer,' appears to be nothing more than a microphone sitting in front of machine that creates a monotonous buzz (sometimes you can hear additional noises in the background). Very rarely, a live human voice comes on the air and reads out numbers. Check it out one such message below:
Other than on a few occasions, the UVB-76 has been buzzing since 1982, and you can listen to it right now! For example, if you head to this online radio receiver and type '4625' into the 'Frequency' box, you'll hear him buzzing away.
The last time a message was heard from UVB-76, it came less than 24 hours after the Crimea voted to join the Russian Federation. Generally, it is believed UVB-76 is used to test the readiness of Russia's strategic nuclear weapon forces.
Other stations use radio transmissions to deliver burst data transmissions (very short, high frequency compressed messages) or contain tones which change over time to indicate some kind of unknown variable. Others are simply noise which is thought to be used to jam the signals of other number stations on the same frequency. Furthermore, another station, known as 'Chinese Robot' is thought to be linked to China's air defence system:
How exactly, I'm not sure.
The Creepiest Of All: 'Swedish Rhapsody'
One thing is for sure though. Despite - or perhaps because of - their monotonous messages, there is something inherently creepy about number stations.
But none of them are as creepy as 'Swedish Rhapsody,' a number station which first started broadcasting out of Poland in the 1970s. It features a music box version of Hugo Alfvén's Swedish Rhapsody Number 1 followed by the voice of a young girl reading out numbers in German.
Indeed, perhaps because of this creepy element, number stations have featured in several films, television shows and video games, most notably Lost and Fallout 3. I'm not quite sure, but the fact these things exist, and no one's really sure why is certainly quite unnerving.
What do you think number stations are used for?