The Friday Fillip

Summer got in the way of the last few Fridays, but I’m back with something completely irrelevant, as ususal. This week it’s numbers. Numbers that make no sense to anyone with the exception of two people in the world. So why would we want to pay attention to something so…cryptic?

Because it’s all about secrets, the sort that spies have. And about numbers stations that are still today used to broadcast shortwave messages to those spies.

All over the world unlicensed broadcasts occur at various points on the shortwave band, most at rigorously regular times, some at apparently random times, and all broadcasting five number strings. These number strings are likely made intelligible through the use of one-time code books, making them impossible to decrypt even with modern supercomputers. (Isn’t it nice to know that some things are computer immune?)

This sort of clandestine use of radio has apparently been going on for as long as there’s been shortwave, and the likeliest explanation is, as I said, that these broadcasts are a means that governments have of talking to their spies abroad. It has been suggested that drug cartels and various businesses make use of this technique as well.

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, here’s a recording of a numbers station that has been identified by afficiandos as belonging to Mossad; a female voice reads alphanumeric clusters:

Broadcasts of numbers happen in all languages, and most now use computer generated voices. Those who listen to these… less than stimulating radio shows, have given regular broadcasts some special names. Thus there are the Spanish Lady, the Swedish Rhapsody (for the piece of music that introduces the number strings) and The Lincolnshire Poacher (again, for the intro music). This last seems to emanate from Cyprus and is thought to be the work of MI5. (For a much longer list, look at the Conet Project page on the Internet Archive.)

Now let me direct you from the quintessence of boring radio to a rather more interesting programme — still on numbers stations of course. BBC 4 did a show in 2005 on the topic and made it a very engaging 30 minutes, well worth listening to (in WMA format) as part of your podcast routine.


  1. This is an article on the person who did The Conet Project:

    Its a superb read.

  2. Great find, James. Thank you.