Numbers Stations

Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Speaker: Radio transmission.

Speaker: Thank you.

Speaker: The handle or name you adopt should be one of a kind based on something special in your life.

Speaker: This is [inaudible]1973.

Speaker: All you nice people living in the middle of America, the beautiful.

Speaker: Everything is beautiful.

Speaker: We are talking about radio. Meaning you do not see the picture, you hear the voice. There is something called the vox humana, you hear the human voice.

Speaker: The point is radio, involve the audience far more than television ever did.

Speaker: This is WJAK, Monday, March 12th, 1973. Thank you and here’s some more hit music.

Speaker: It is 8:20 now, people. This is big Jack.

Speaker: On our way to Canaan Land. Here we go.

Roman: Podcasting for lack of a better term, has been good to me. But there’s something about the transmission of radio signals that I love. For billions of years, the electromagnetic spectrums populated only by radiation from natural objects. And then all of a sudden, the air was filled with voices, and codes, and dots, and dashes, and music. My romance with radio began decades ago. But one of the key stories that captured my imagination at the very beginning of my radio career was the Shortwave Numbers Mystery produced by David Goren, The Kitchen Sisters, Lost & Found Sound series. It is one of my favorite stories about one of my favorite subjects of all time. So I’m gonna play it for you. The Shortwave Numbers Mystery was first broadcast in May of 2000. Here’s David Goren.

David: The first time I heard a Spanish numbers lady, I was a kid lying in bed, tuning around on my uncle’s old shortwave radio. I was baffled by the solitary voice. She is still on the air, and even though I have heard her in one form or another since the early ’70s, the sound of her voice continues to haunt me.

[radio sounds]

David: Ever since I was 13, I have scoured the shortwave bands for exotic signals. It is hard not to stumble over a numbers station. When I first heard them, no one seemed to know anything about them. By the end of the ’70s, they acquired a following. A hardcore group of listeners continued to obsessively tape and analyze these stations. They gave them catchy nicknames like, “The Bored Man” and “Bulgarian Betty.” Hugh Stegman tracks the numbers for Monitoring The Times, a journal for hardcore radio listeners.

Hugh: They are encrypted messages to somebody. We think it is to spies. We hope it is just to spies and nothing more sinister than that. A numbers station is defined as any of several hundreds shortwave radio broadcasters all of which are using high powered big transmitters, large antennas, global coverage of the entire planet, which do nothing except broadcast meaningless strings of numbers. They never say why they are doing it. They never say who they are.

[music]

David: My take on the numbers transmissions is that their the evil twin of a standard shortwave station. They have announcers and programming of a sort. They even adhere to a vintage shortwave tradition, the interval signal. This is a little ditty played few minutes before the main broadcast to help the listener find and fine tune the signal. [music] Next comes the header.

Header : 3-9-7-1-5

David: It could mean who the message is for. It could mean there is not any message. The header is followed usually by something that lets people know the header is over, the CIA likes to beep, other stations do other strange things.

Speaker: Ready. Ready. 3-5

David: Then they usually go into the message which is a series of number groups, four or five numbers.

Speaker: 1-3-8-0-3

David: I am envisioning myself as a lonely agent sitting in the basement in some urban area. I have no friends. I am far from home. I am far from family, and this is my communication. This is my link back to my world. So I am very carefully recording this message. Tell me something.

Speaker: I say again.

Roman: I asked Bruce Schneier, a leading academic cryptographer, why an intelligence agency would communicate with an agent in the field in such an open way.

Bruce: It seems to be a relic of the Cold War. We always think of the radio as mass broadcast. You speak on the radio and everybody listens. This is an example of radio being used to talk to one particular person. You encrypt the message, which allows you to use this public broadcast medium to send a private message. That is really very pretty.

HUgh: The CIA does it. Russia does it. Cuba does it. The British do it. Everybody does it.

David: Hugh Stegman.

Hugh: Okay. Evidence. That is a problem. There is never anything that hard.

David: I have always assumed these are using a one-time pad or a variant, which are theoretically unbreakable given the assumptions of only having the ciphertext or only having what is broadcast on the stations.

David: A one-time pad is a page of random numbers, which is the key used to encrypt and then decrypt the message. The sender and recipient each have a copy. The pad is used once and then destroyed.

Hugh: It is pretty much untraceable. The operations have been compromised over and over again, people are captured, people changed sides, people just gets sloppy. Many, many times they have seen the code pads, they have seen the receivers. The fact that the other side knows that this is how they do it, does not give them any more access to the information. It is a perfect system in that respect.

David: Some stations get jammed presumably by rivals who pinpointed the transmitter site using sophisticated techniques. A numbers enthusiast has to rely on intensive listening to pick up any clues.

Hugh: Most of that you hear in the United States does come from Cuba. The Cuban stuff started right after a Castro got in and started getting tensions in that area. It has gone on since. The engineering is sloppy, tapes stop in the middle, tapes were played backwards, they play Radio Havana by mistake, Radio Havana plays them by mistake. You get the idea, they are just barely on top of the situation, but they keep at it.

David: There is another Spanish numbers lady who is widely heard in North America. Some numbers monitors claimed to have traced the signal to a government transmitter sight in Warrenton, Virginia. They call her Cynthia, as in starts with C and ends with IA.

Hugh: Havana Moon just came out of nowhere. He just started writing one day about the shortwave numbers and the stuff was extremely provocative, and it seemed to come from straight inside. The only thing he would ever say about himself was that he was a retired intelligence-type, a real trench coat, cloak and dagger spook.

Male Speaker: There is some connection between the operations in Warrenton, Remington, and the CIA, and maybe the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Hugh: Havana Moon was a gentleman named William Godbey. He was a retired naval personel and he was just a very nice gentleman to know.

David: Havana Moon, who died in 1996, found a co-conspirator in John Fulford, an ex-police intelligence officer with an interest in radio’s dark side. During the late 1980s, they roamed around Florida with a radio direction finder.

John: He confided in me that he suspected there was one possibly two transmitters sites in South Florida. He had an idea where a couple of them were. We took some equipment out. I set the direction finder up. We took some bearings over a couple of weeks, where the bearing lines crossed. It was right around a military transmitter site located in one of the airports here in South Florida. We drove right to the airport when the transmitters came on, the radio that it jumped out of our hands and the signals was so loud. So we figured, right there, we have it.

David: During the day, the Navy sent standard traffic over this transmitter. Located at West Palm Beach International Airport, its frequency was just 3 kHz away from the numbers transmission.

John: The antennas were beaming down into the Caribbean, who sent the traffic? Would have no idea; it is an unmanned sight, sent over a telephone line from the parts unknown, I would have no idea. Obviously, one of the intelligent agencies.

John R. Winston: My name is John R. Winston. I am the Assistant Bureau Chief of the Enforcement Bureau, Federal Communications Commission. We do have intent to discuss these stations, if any exist at all, and I am not saying they are. If you are trying to say, there are those that are transmitting in this country, we know of enumerable ones outside of this country. Our only interest is, if they are causing interference, we then work with the country of transmission to seek solution.

Bruce: Well, you cannot hide a transmitter.

David: Cryptographer Bruce Schneier.

Bruce: Now remember what the numbers station is doing. It is hiding the location of the recipient. The location of the transmitter is not necessarily a secret. The person who is receiving it is somewhere and we do not know where.

Simon: Every night in a week in Europe, you could hear these weird gongs, some like, some sort of church bells out of tune. That was part of the stars and stations.

David: Simon Mason discovered the numbers in much the same way I did. By the mid-80s, he had become to seriously document the European number scene from his home in Kingston upon Hull in England.

Simon: There has been this spy uncovered in my home city, and I know what he was listening. So I think it was under the control of the stars. It is German super place. God knows what his wife and kids though when they heard these gongs come out of his kitchen hut.

David: Five months after the Berlin Wall fell, the gong station went off the air forever.

Simon: By and large, a lot of the big players in the cold war era have gone now. There’s a lot of activity now in the far east.

Hugh: The strangest one of the lot has got to be the one from Taiwan.

David: Writer Hugh Stegman.

Hugh: It is called New Star Broadcasting and it has this lady, who they tell me even in that culture is way, way too enthusiastic and she has been computerized and she comes out of the machine. She says things like, “Good morning, please decode your message.” This is all in Mandarin, of course. She says things like, “Thank you very much for decoding today’s message. I hope you have a nice day.” I mean, she is being nice to the spies, you gotta love it.

David: That this station is so over the top, leads Stegman to think that the purpose is less for transmitting secret messages and more for spreading disinformation.

Hugh: Just as colossal diversions so that the Mainland Chinese will think that Taiwan has put hundreds and hundreds of agents into that country, which they might or might not have done. I would say that is maybe why half of these agencies do it this way. It makes two guys in a government office in some crummy building without water somewhere, sound like they’re on level with the CIA. Everybody sounds the same on shortwave.

David: Most monitors seem sure that the numbers stations are a part of international espionage, but some signals remain elusive.

Hugh: There are few strange stations I must admit, like the buzzer on 4625 kHz. Maybe just keeping this frequency open in any case some sort of world disaster happens and then they can take off with just a simple software setup. After all the satellites have been blown off the sky. Just like a notepad and paper left behind in case your computer crashes.

Simon: I think it’s just a biggest conceptual art project, unintentionally or otherwise that anybody ever made that puts Christo and those guys to shame, it is planetary.

David: I listened to shortwave these day with a bit of a pang. It is fading out. Regarded as archaic by many international broadcasters. Yet the numbers stations persist. Sometimes when I hear one, I write down some of the groups and wonder who the message is for and what it might say, “Meet your contact.” “Blow up the bridge.” “Don’t blow up the bridge.” “Maybe it is just, keep listening.”

[foreign word]

Roman: Atencion: Seis Siete Tres Siete Cero: The Shortwave Numbers Mystery was produced by David Goren in 2000. Special thanks to Hugh Stegman, Simon Mason, Chris Smolinski, Jonathan Marks, Tom Sevart, Akin Fernandez of The Conet Project, and Karyl Wheeler . It was produced for the The Kitchen Sisters’ Lost and Found Sound project on NPR in the year 2000. I caught up with David Goren in 2013 and asked him about what was going on with a number of stations today.

David: They are still there. They are still on the air. I still like to go out there and hung around and invariably, you can stumble across the station. What’s changed is the countries involved. A lot of the action has moved to the East: China, Russia and North Korea. Cuba keeps going on too and in a way, there is sort of mirrors of what is happening on shortwave. In general, we have countries no longer using shortwave as a means of communicating their message or propaganda to other countries, so it is still being used, and it is kind of comforting and also kind of creepy. Because when I tune across them, you know, it is like the world tilts a little bit, you know, it is just a very odd thing to encounter.

Roman: David Goren’s current project is called Shortwaveology, which I highly recommend. You can find it online at shortwaveology.net. You can also find it on Facebook and Soundcloud. While we were putting this show together, we were reminded of an episode I produced back in 2011, episode number 23 of this radio program about one of my favorite websites. So I thought I just type this on in here for your enjoyment. In case you missed it, you will definitely hear the connection.

You are listening to 99% Invisible. I am Roman Mars.

[music]

Dispatcher: EPA for IO. Guardian is 20 minutes.

Erik: My name is Erik Eberhardt and I am the creator of the site, You Are Listening To Los Angeles.

Roman: And You Are Listening To Chicago, You Are Listening To New York, You Are Listening To Montreal and You Are Listening To San Francisco.

Dispatcher: There is 1125 rolling northbound [inaudible] it’s a white pickup truck, with the tailgate down. There’s apparently a dog in the back of the vehicle that has no leash or collar. I am afraid the dog will fall out.

Erik: Last year, after the Giants won the World Series, I was out in the streets of San Francisco checking out all the different celebrations going on, and when I got home, I was looking on Twitter and I saw a lot of people were posting links to what is happening in their neighborhood, people out lighting bonfires and one thing that kept coming up was, “Hey, check out the San Francisco police radio on SomaFM. So I started listening to it, it was cool and got bored after a couple of minutes and started putting on some of my music on the background, and something about that there was like a synergy between the police scanner and like, the music I was playing that really sounded cool. I wanted to find a way to share that with people so that is where I came up with the idea for this site.

Roman: And since it came online on March 6, 2011, I have spent what might be considered an inordinate amount of time listening to You Are Listening To.

Erik: Some people think it is peaceful. Some people think it is creepy.

Roman: I think it is mesmerizing, and its elegance is in its simplicity.

Erik: So when you load the page, there is a little javascript file.

Roman: That pulls in an audio stream from RadioReference.com, they provide the police radio audio.

Erik: A playlist from Soundcloud which is a music sharing site.

Roman: Which has been screened by Eberhardt so that the playlist only has these dreamy ambient soundscapes that compliment the police scanner audio.

Erik: And it also loads the background image.

Roman: Which is coming from Flickr.

Erik: Those are three main parts, and they are all coming from sites other than my own.

Roman: And it is all legal and free, and only possible because each of the companies provide simple web APIs.

Woman Speaker: Application Programming Interface.

Roman: That specifically promote this kind of sharing and mashing up.

Erik: You can create something new that might not be what the creator intended.

Roman: The design choice being made by these sites the thing that You Are Listening To is exploiting, is a relinquishing of a little bit of a control of their data in order for that data to spread across the web in ways that they never could have imagined. In this way, outside an independent developers like Eberhardt can act as a kind of R&D department. Radio Reference and Flickr, and Soundcloud, and the artists offering creative comments, royalty-free music on Soundcloud did not imagine this use of their content.

Erik: But they do have an API.

Roman: They just created a shareable architecture that taps into a remixing culture where new ideas can flourish.

Erik: Since the site is launched and word gets around, it has been very popular, I have been contacted by lots and lots of artists from Soundcloud, and they all wanted to be part of it. They all think it is cool and they are asking me, “Can I have my music included on your site?”. You know, they are not getting anything out of it. They are not getting paid. There is no royalties. There is nothing like that. But they are getting exposure. I think these are people who posted their music up there because they wanted to share it with people and now they are finding their sharing with a lot more people. So it is kind of like a virtuous cycle I guess where I created something I am not looking for anything in return. The artists are getting something out of it. Soundcloud and Radio Reference are getting something out of it because more people are becoming aware of their services. So really, at zero cost to me or to the artists, we are all building something together that kind of enhances everyone’s work.

Roman: Designing for openness allows others to answer the questions that you do not have the answers to. But its greatest power maybe that it allows others to ask the questions that you have not even thought to ask.

Dispatcher: [inaudible] 11:05, time now 11:10.

Police: Thank you.

Dispatcher: You’re welcome.

Roman: This is Roman again in 2013. Youarelistening.to has grown into dozens of pages now including one that features the number stations actually and probably the radio chatter of a city near you. These local radio transmissions are passing through your body right now. So you might as well tune in.

Dispatcher: [inaudible] 1-43-31 [inaudible]

Police: It could be 99-15-4 and be in [inaudible].

Dispatcher: 1-43-31 [inaudible] 99-15-4 [inaudible]

Roman: 99% Invisible is Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufelman and me, Roman Mars. We are project of 99.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and the American Institute of Architects in San Francisco. We are now produced out of beautiful downtown Oakland, California. The home of radio. Thanks to our friends at the architectural firm, Arcsine, for giving us a place to call home, a place to hang our hats and a place to hang out with real architects. They are really talented and kind group of people. Get to know them at Arcsine.com.

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  1. OK, seriously… this was my favorite show yet, and that’s saying a LOT because I thought it didn’t get any better than Heyoon! I listened to this show on the way to a meeting today and couldn’t wait to get out of the meeting so I could listen again. Also, I’m currently scouring Amazon for a good shortwave radios. OMG

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