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When I was a kid, I was fascinated by shortwave radio. I begged my parents to give me a multi-band radio that could not only receive standard AM and FM, but also the aviation band and a limited number of shortwave frequencies. I immersed myself in the world of DXing, practicing trying to attract distant radio signals.

Late one winter night, I found my first "number station".

You know one when you hear one. Usually, the transmission begins with some kind of note or sequence of musical notes. Then a voice is heard that reads what appears to be a series of random numbers. The voice can be masculine, feminine or even infantile. Some even included longer pieces of music.

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Number stations transmit encoded messages to spies and agents in the field around the world. On any given night, you may run into a transmission intended for a CIA ghost, a KGB spy or a Mossad agent. What were these messages? Who were they addressed to? And what were the results of these communications?

If someone told you, they would have to kill you.

Everything was very scary, scary and exciting. You were listening to something clandestine, secret, possibly illegal. Spies Espionage!

But unless I had the key, I had no idea what was happening. It is a communication system as impossible to hack as you can get.

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The number stations first appeared during the First World War, the first days of the radio broadcast, although they reached their peak during the Cold War. They were extremely efficient in communication … whatever. Unlike the Internet, it was possible to locate the source of the transmission, but I had no idea who was receiving it or where it could be on the planet.

The civilian listeners of short wave were intrigued with these mysterious transmissions. DXers around the world began to record the transmissions and share them with each other. There were attempts to triangulate the signals to find their source. When they meet, they would give the stations unofficial names like The Gong Station or Nancy Adam Susan.

This is a sample of a transmission known as The Swedish Rhapsody that appeared every day, except on Fridays.

One of the most famous Numbers Stations was known as the Lincolnshire Poacher, a powerful transmission that seemed to originate in Cyprus from the mid-1970s to 2008.

The best guess that radio fans could find was that it was an operation of the British Secret Service (real things of James Bond!) That announced its presence with some measures of a popular English song called – you guessed it – The Lincolnshire poacher.

A similar station run by MI6 left Australia and was known as Cherry Ripe for the use of an English folk song with the same name. It was in the air until December 2009.

Russian stations have their own charm. During an attempted coup d'etat, a signal emanating from Moscow did nothing more than transmit number five for hours. Why? Nobody knows.

Then there is The Buzzer, a Russian station officially known as UVB-76 that is apparently controlled by the 60th Communication Center (and perhaps also the 69th Center) known as "Vulkan" located near Moscow and St. Petersburg. Officially, it is known as Zhuzhzhalka, which is translated into English as "Hummer".

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Since the mid-70s, the station emits two buzzes every hour, 24 hours a day. During the Russian light hours, the buzzes are followed by a series of diffuse tones at a speed between 21 and 34 per minute. Occasionally, a male voice appears reading a series of numbers (in Russian, of course) or a group of random words or even names ("Anna, Nikolai, Ivan, Tatyana, Roman"). Occasionally, Morse code can be heard. The station has a global fan base that speculates on what its purpose might be.

This continued for years until June 2010, when it suddenly stopped for a day. There was another interruption that August before going crazy with a series of unknown sounds and what appeared to be a small lake of swans by Tchaikovsky. In September, the name MDZhB appeared to change after a male voice declared "Mikhail Dmitri Zhenya Boris". Here you can listen to a sample of UVB-76 (or MDZhB).

One theory is that UVB-76 is a "dead hand" signal. In case Russia is eliminated in a nuclear attack, the drone will stop and a retaliatory attack will begin.

Here is another example of something that comes from Russia.

Something called Proyecto Conet emerged to record these transmissions that are now stored in a fascinating archive. I got so deep into this roll that I bought a very expensive five CD collection with this material.

There are many more resources online, of course. If you want to immerse yourself in this mystery, start with the research and information center of Numbers Stations.

And good luck.

Alan Cross is a station with 102.1 the Edge and Q107, and Global News commentator.

Subscribe to Alan's ongoing story of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

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