TowerWhen the world was a far bigger (not to say more mysterious) place than it is today, information on a subject that didn’t receive mass media coverage was often acquired from some dusty volume in the local library – if you were lucky. Some subjects, it appeared, remained uncovered and unnoticed. Take what could be found on the outer limits of the wireless. Before the colonisation of the family home by FM units incorporated into swanky hi-fi sound systems, the humble portable radio had several options at the flick of a switch that FM ultimately downgraded.

There was medium-wave, which was the option of the masses – home to all four national BBC radio stations, not to mention the local BBC ones, wherever you happened to be in the country, and the ILR alternative. There was long-wave, primarily the choice of the cricket devotee tuning into ‘Test Match Special’, as well as providing the BBC with split slots when glamorous new FM began to reserve the popular programmes for itself. And then there was the enigmatic poor relation, shortwave. I was always intrigued by shortwave because its presence on the airwaves made no sense. Medium-wave, long-wave and FM schedules were listed in the Radio Times – nothing on shortwave was. It seemed to be a repository for the odd, the eccentric and the quirky; and, needless to say, I found it fascinating.

I remember early family holidays on the Continent, furtively moving the dial around the radio that had come along for the ride, trying to pick up Radio 1 or anything broadcasting in English; I usually located the World Service at various times, but it was prone to drifting in and out of hearing as though the transmitter was fixed to a pendulum. The snap, crackle and pop of the reception, the atmospheric SOS of the Morse code messages that could be discerned in the distance, and the strange stew of foreign tongues that babbled for a handful of seconds before disappearing again created a uniquely alluring and anarchic audio mosaic that seemingly had no structure whatsoever. Even when music was stumbled upon, it was usually in French or German and had more than a touch of the Eurovision about it.

Those wonderful old radios had the names of stations printed in a little panel on the front, where turning the dial moved what resembled the clapometer from ‘Opportunity Knocks’, gliding in and out of the stations listed without them ever actually being situated where the panel claimed. Nevertheless, the names themselves were in possession of a curious, archaic exotic quality that is utterly redundant today. FM rendered them redundant to a degree, and relegated the old family radio to my bedroom, where I had free rein to explore the parallel universe of shortwave. It was during this period that I began to come across some sounds that were disturbingly weird even by shortwave standards.

I wasn’t to know then that shortwave’s ability to broadcast across far greater distances than any other radio frequencies meant that I was picking up stuff from thousands of miles away, though what sounded to me like distorted Russian voices certainly suggested I was hearing something emanating from the wrong side of the Iron Curtain. I began to notice these voices regularly, usually in the early evening; sometimes they sounded more Chinese than Russian, but always they had a detached and chilly element to them that evoked all kinds of spy movie clichés, particularly as the Cold War was still in full swing. They were often infiltrated by what my imagination pictured as flying radioactive jellyfish falling from the sky and landing on the earth’s surface – well that was the image that entered my head whenever the voices were interrupted by an alien sound I had no reference point for. On other occasions, what I can only describe as Tom & Jerry incidental music being performed by a Krautrock band would break up the voices. At the time, I had no idea I was listening to ‘Jamming’; but at the time I had no idea what I was listening to at all.

The voices were almost robotic; even if I’d been able to speak the lingo, I suspect I’d have struggled to decipher what was being said. One thing I could make out, however, was that numbers were being recited and repeated with unwavering monotony night-after-night. I thought I was the only person on the planet tuning into this bizarre medley of spoken word gibberish, and though I often recorded some of it onto a cassette, I couldn’t imagine anyone else doing likewise.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I now know I most certainly wasn’t alone. Thanks to the internet, I discovered the sounds I’d been tuning into were unofficially recognised as Numbers Stations, the means by which secret service agencies communicated with their spies in the field behind enemy lines. No government has ever publicly admitted they exist, but there is now a plethora of information and background out there on this clandestine phenomenon. And while many of the old ones have subsequently vanished from the airwaves, an outfit called The Conet Project have released several CDs of recordings over the last ten-fifteen years, many of which are far creepier than anything I heard when I used to tune in.

If some of us not involved in the spying game have just cause to sometimes suspect we’re being monitored by anonymous nosy parkers, the Numbers Stations can be viewed as symbolic of a more innocent age, an age when only those operating in an arena one entered into with full knowledge of its dangers could expect to be exposed to the all-seeing eye of the secret state.

© The Editor

12 thoughts on “THINK OF A NUMBER

  1. Between 1974 and 1976 I spent a lot of time listening to short wave radio. I was living in Istanbul at the time and it was the only way to get English news. I do vaguely remember Numbers Stations but assumed they were test transmissions. Two stations I do remember were Radio Tirana from Albania which broadcast Rock music presented by a girl with a strong Australian accent and a great line in the “Imperialist revanchist running dogs of Fascism” style and news broadcasts (of a very biased nature) from Radio Jerusalem. This presenter also had a curious accent which sounded almost Geordie.

    World News was available via the Middle East transfer station based on Cyprus. It was possible to follow this if you had their schedule. They changed their frequency regularly and this was never announced however it was possible to get a copy of this schedule from Bush House. The only other station which we could get was AFN. There was a large American air force base the other side of the Sea of Marmara and I assume that it came from there.

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      1. When you consider its location, within e-earshot of some of the most sensitive sites on the planet, then it’s no surprise that we’ve hung on to bases in Cyprus so long, nominally for the RAF – but then Menwith Hill is nominally an RAF station, but there’s precious few UK flyers resident there, just a whole host of US spooks going about their furtive, if necessary, eavesdropping business.
        (Now that M*nw*th H*ll has been mentioned, this blog will become subject to extra scrutiny by dark forces – be careful out there, guys & gals).

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      2. I do remember seeing the ‘golf balls’ at Flyingdales (I think) from a distance on a Sunday drive in the 70s. Architecturally impressive to me at the time, though it was only later I learned of their actual purpose.


      3. On my last trip that way, Fylingdales had been reduced to a single, cunieform structure, rather like a large wedge of Cheshire cheese, which I presume does that same job but with the benefit of modern miniaturisation. Nowhere near as impressive as the old ‘golf-balls’, just a tad more subtle.


  2. As an unreformed radio-addict, in my travelling days around 30 years ago I bought a brilliant Sony set (ICF SW07, for anoraks) – not cheap, around £250 from memory, but a small, clam-shell device which came with a fold-out dish antenna and powered booster-pack. It travelled the world with me, successfully delivering World Service, VOA etc. pretty much anywhere. It’s still lurking in the loft somewhere.

    However, I often wondered what hotel staff and other guests thought when I installed the dish-antenna outside the window as soon as I checked in – I suspect many imagined that I had a far more exciting job than was the truth. By co-incidence at the time, one of my company ID Cards happened to have the serial number ‘007’ – that’s the closest I got to Pussy Galore, but I live in hope.

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    1. In the early 80’s I had to make trips to the Morwenstow site which was part of Project Echelon. A truly surreal experience. I had to have high security clearance even to be invited to a meeting there. Once inside I was accompanied everywhere I went. Nobody at the meetings had names, they were known only by the initials of their job titles. They had “Customers” for their “product” which were never identified.

      The most amusing thing was that the “Canteen” was run as a private enterprise operation by the Head Cleaner. At the time the only published information on this topic was an unauthorised history of the NSA called “The Puzzle Palace” by James Bamford (

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    2. I used a Sony ICF-SW7600 (I still have it) when I was travelling. At the time it was the recommended Best Buy by the World Service. It was claimed that it was also used by President Bush (Senior).


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