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Tuning in to number stations

Number stations are one of the great radio mysteries – shortwave radio stations broadcasting apparently-random sequences of numbers being read aloud (by a human or a synthesised voice). Their purpose is not confirmed, but widespread theories include undercover broadcasts from government agencies and espionage – whatever their origins, they’re a fascinating listen and there are several across our Shortwave Transmissions project.

Our first recording is a UNID number station recorded by Bruce Atchison:

“This is a spy numbers station I recorded in the summer of 1993 but I forget the frequency. I used my Kenwood TS-690S transceiver and I believe the time was around 05:00 UTC.”

Alex Hehir reimagined this recording, transforming it into the composition “Numbers Game”:

“I started by mangling the source material and extracting small snippets of sound to create much of the rhythm of the composition.The spy station numbers run throughout the piece to create a complex random ever evolving pulse to the piece.The big dubbed out bass line and supporting melody came from a modular system.”

Next up, a Spanish number station recorded by Don Hibschweiler, who writes:

“The period before 1980s,1950s and 1960s were very active in terms of espionage. Many declassified documents tell us about CIA and SIS operations in Baltic States, Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and elsewhere using Morse code messages. Then there is a case of Operation SOLO of FBI infiltration in the American Communist Party and Soviet secret service, where numbers transmissions from the Soviet Union were involved.

Numbers stations were in the air and there were people listening to them. So this brings to the subject of this sound: an authentic tape recording of several transmissions of Spanish language Five Digit numbers station recorded in 1966. What we have here is a recording of supposedly male voice Spanish language numbers station. The technical issues and specifics of the broadcasts may point to Cuba. Cubans in 1980s to early 2010s used voiced five figure stations with characteristic “Atencion” at the start of the broadcast. This is was known as V02 and V02a before moving on to hybrid digital and voice station HM01 This station however has no such prefixes. It could be old predecessor to Antencion station. CIA was caught using four figure numbers station in Spanish language, so CIA involvement also cannot be ruled out.”

Tom Thompson writes of his composition based on this recording:

“An original 1960s tape recording of shortwave Spanish language numbers stations is cryptically woven into this original musical composition of a reimagined spy network broadcast.

In addition to the numbers broadcast, you are listening to musical Morse code-like transmissions, and bursts of short wave static.The frenetic changes in musical passages occur as spymasters discover their codes are compromised and the realization dawns that they may have to eventually face the music.”

One of the best-known number stations is known colloquially as “The English Man”, captured here by Thomas Witherspoon, who says: “I caught and recorded the numbers station often referred to as the English Man. He was found in the pirate radio watering hole (of 6,925-6,990 kHz) on 6,949 kHz. After sifting through more spectrum recordings taken the following evening by the Microtelecom Perseus, I realized that I caught him once again at the exact same time and frequency.”

The English Man was reimagined by Berenice Cancinco, who describes her composition:

“A shortwave transmission renders distant numbers folded in mystery. We hear them over and over again, unable to decipher them. Repetitive as they may be, the sound of these numbers is never the same, changing according to the spaces and perceptual practices through which they are heard. Thinking of number stations and the notion of repetition as an impossibility, this piece places a shortwave numbers station transmission in conversation with other “repetitive” sounds. Crafted, traveling sounds, and the aural qualities of shortwave transmissions are intersected by these puzzling numbers. The “repetition” is also subject to interruption, being invaded by imagined spaces and distant shortwave sounds that speak of other cyclical enigmas, other revolutions and other forms of listening. In returning to sounds that can only evoke similarity, each moment of listening is acknowledged as distinct and unrepeatable.

Additional shortwave sounds courtesy of: (”