Imagine you’re an amateur radio operator in the 70s for a moment. You’ve just purchased a high-tech gadget that lets you talk with people vast distances away simultaneously without any need for wires. As you dial through different frequencies, listening to people speaking with ships and foreign tongues chatting away, you hear a ghostly musical tone through the static before a monotone voice announces: ‘Eight, nine, OneEight, Nine, OneTwo three, seven…’ it repeats it a few times before the static drowns it out. You wonder for a moment, “what was that?” Then the music plays again, and man repeats himself.

Not knowing quite what to think, you get a little scared. You move on, and when you come back to that frequency later, you hear nothing but static and question whether you ever heard anything at all. That ghostly radio station is called The English Man. Not only did it exist in the 70s, it’s still broadcasting today!

Static Spys

This was the experience of many amateur radio operators of the 70s; they’re called number stations and many believe they are strings of secret code being broadcast to spies across the world.

In short, a numbers station is a short-wave radio broadcast transmitting an incomprehensible series of letters or numbers believed to be part of secret instructions to undercover operatives. The idea would be that spies working undercover could use easily attainable short-wave radios to receive information and commands.

In 1998, for example, a network of Cuban spies in the US were caught decoding messages from the station, Atencíon. Decoded messages made public during the trial included: “Prioritise and continue to strengthen friendship with Joe Dennis.”; “Under no circumstances should German nor Castor fly with BTTR or another organization on days 24, 25, 26, and 27.”; and, my favorite, “Congratulate all female comrades for International Day of Woman.”

A tribute to the ‘Cuban Five’ on a street in Varadero, Cuba. Credit: BarryNL Via Wikimedia Commons.

Number Stations may be relics from as far back as World War I, but thousands are still in operation to this day. What are stations like Bulgarian Betty, The Lincolnshire Poacher, Atencíon, Cherry Ripe, and The Russian Man broadcasting today?

The End of an Era?

As recently as 2010—as far as the public is aware—Russian spies embedded in the US were being directed via these shortwave coded radio transmissions. An FBI counter-spy program called Operation Ghost Stories culminated in the arrest of 10 sleeper agents who were in deep-cover assignments to gain access to US secrets. They were even able to make contact with an intelligence official and a scientist who worked on bunker-busting bombs. The 10 agents were arrested and charged with espionage but were eventually freed in a prisoner exchange with the U.S.

So, if these stations are still broadcasting in 2022, are there still spies listening? With cyber security and advanced data encryption advancing so quickly in the face of new technologies, it’s almost romantic to think that somewhere out there a spy is scribbling down short wave radio codes. Nevertheless, analysts and experts point out that these stations have not really lost any of their original usefulness. Though a thumb-drive or encrypted message across the internet may be able to provide more information than a radio message, the message itself hasn’t lost any of its effectiveness at providing expeditious contact in an area where consensual communication is denied or dangerous.

Do you think spies are still listening? Let us know in the comments below!


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