Numbers Stations

7 October, 2018

In my teens, I was an avid listener to shortwave radio. My receiver was an old Grundig model that my old man had acquired at some point, but which had spent years gathering dust in a closet.

Somehow, and I can’t remember how, that radio fell into my hands. I whiled away hours listening to the BBC World Service, the Voice of America, Radio Luxembourg, Radio Moscow, and stations from South America and South Africa.

What fascinated me and freaked me out in equal measures wasn’t the regular programming. At certain times and on certain shortwave bands, I tuned into what I’d later learned were called numbers stations.

Those are stations that play a list of numbers or a combo of numbers and letters, read by a human or created with a voice synthesizer. The most common explanation of these stations was that they were secure communication lines between spies working overseas and their handlers.

At the time, I didn’t understand what those stations were or why they existed. But hearing those voices — sometimes a man, sometimes a woman, sometimes even a child — being pulled from the ether was always unexpected and often chilling. It also offered a thrill. Here I was, in my parents’ modest home in Toronto, Canada, catching snippets of coded messages.

The Cold War, the tail end of which I grew up in, is long over. Most numbers stations have shut down. From what I’m led to believe, there are still numbers transmissions happening. I wonder who’s sending them, who’s receiving them, and what they’re up to ...

Scott Nesbitt