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Number Stations: The Creepiest, Unexplained Things on the Airwaves

What Are Number Stations?

A numbers station is a type of shortwave radio station characterized by unusual broadcasts, reading out lists of numbers or incomprehensible morse code messages. The voices are often created by speech synthesis and are transmitted in a wide variety of languages. The voices are usually female, although sometimes men's or children's voices are used. Some voices are synthesized and created by machines, however some stations used to have live readers.

In the 1960s, Time magazine reported that the numbers stations first appeared shortly after World War II and were imitating a format that had been used to send weather data during that war. It is widely assumed that these broadcasts transmit covert messages to spies. This has not been officially acknowledged by any government that may operate a numbers station, and, with a few exceptions, no QSL responses have been received from numbers stations by shortwave listeners who sent reception reports to said stations, which is the expected behavior of a non-clandestine station.

The best known of the numbers stations was the "Lincolnshire Poacher", which is thought to have been run by the British Secret Intelligence Service.

In 2001, the United States tried the Cuban Five on the charge of spying for Cuba. That group had received and decoded messages that had been broadcast from Cuban numbers stations. Also in 2001, Ana Belen Montes, a senior US Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, was arrested and charged with espionage. The federal prosecutors alleged that Montes was able to communicate with the Cuban Intelligence Directorate through encoded messages, with instructions being received through "encrypted shortwave transmissions from Cuba". In 2006, Carlos Alvarez and his wife, Elsa, were arrested and charged with espionage. The U.S. District Court Florida stated that "defendants would receive assignments via shortwave radio transmissions".

In June 2003, the United States similarly charged Walter Kendall Myers with conspiracy to spy for Cuba and receiving and decoding messages broadcast from a numbers station operated by the Cuban Intelligence Directorate to further that conspiracy.

It has been reported that the United States used numbers stations to communicate encoded information to persons in other countries. There are also claims that State Department operated stations, such as KKN50 and KKN44, used to broadcast similar "numbers" messages or related traffic

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.


Although most numbers stations have various nicknames which usually describe some aspect of the station itself, M. Gauffman of the E.N.I.G.M.A. numbers stations monitoring group originally assigned a code to each known station. This takes the form of a letter followed by a number (or, in the case of some "X" stations, more numbers). The letter indicates the language used by the station in question:
E indicates a station broadcasting in English.
G indicates a station broadcasting in German.
S indicates a station broadcasting in a Slavic language.
V indicates all other languages.
M is a station broadcasting in Morse code.
X indicates all other transmissions such as polytones in addition to some unexplained broadcasts which may not actually be numbers stations.

There are also a few other stations with a specific classification:

SK - Digital Mode
HM - Hybrid Mode
DP - Digital-Pseudo Polytone

For example, the well known, defunct Lincolnshire Poacher station has the designation E3 (or E03), the Cuban "Atención" station has designation V2 (or V02). The most recent station to be given a designation is theVietnamese language station V30.

Some stations have also been stripped of their designation if they are discovered not to be a numbers station. This was the case for E22 which was discovered in 2005 to be test transmissions for All India Radio.

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