Some of the strangest and most puzzling mysteries are all around us right now, buzzing through the air right past us without us ever even being aware of them. For years the airwaves have been the haunt of bizarre signals, transmissions, and broadcasts that have called out into the atmosphere and pervaded the space all around us unbeknownst to all but the most intrepid radio enthusiasts equipped and willing to hunt them down. These transmissions carry with them enigmatic messages that defy all attempts to understand them, and which have origins shrouded in secrecy and shadows. We don't know where they come from, who they are meant for, or what they are saying, but they continue to taunt us and whirl about us on their inscrutable agendas. Here we will look at some of the more infamous and bizarre of these weird broadcasts from nowhere.
Perhaps the most well-known mysterious radio transmission is an enigmatic and very persistent broadcast from Russia that has come to be known as station UVB-76. The station was first recorded in 1982, although it is surmised to have been around since the perhaps the mid-1970s, and has continuously produced a wide range of odd and perplexing transmissions that continue to baffle to this day. For years this elusive station transmitted a series of strange beeps that repeated unabated, after which in 1992 it graduated to a signal consisting of an incessant, nasal buzzing noise, at times accompanied by inexplicable tones, beeping, and other unidentifiable noises repeated approximately 21 to 34 times per minute minute on the frequency 4625kHz, and continuing for around a second each time, with the pitch and intensity sometimes fluctuating. Indeed, it is this dominant and mysterious, nonstop buzzing drone overlaid across everything which has earned the broadcast the nickname “The Buzzer,” and it is thought to be manually generated for some inscrutable reason we have yet to understand.
Very, very rarely this buzzing transmission has been punctuated by the sudden appearance of an almost ghostly Russian voice which blooms out of the cacophony of noise to eerily and clearly recite numbers and names before fading away back into the fray of sounds; a voice which is presumed to be stating some sort of code, although no one has any idea of what it means. On occasion, the transmission has even mysteriously cut out entirely for no apparent reason, going silent, only to continue again hours or even days later as if nothing had happened. In 2010, after nearly two decades of this continuous, seemingly meaningless jumble of nonsensical noise and spooky voices, the station abruptly interrupted its usual broadcast to feature a snippet of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, which played clearly and lasted around 40 seconds before fading back into its usual chaotic buzzing and beeps. Not long after this musical transmission, the station began to every once in a while intermittently feature various bangs, thumps, rustling, shuffling, and what appears to be the faint ghost of garbled, unintelligible conversations in the background, which suggests that the microphone was switched on and picking up things live that were going on in the room around it. Swan Lake would also occasionally pop up again, either featured in the broadcast or heard faintly floating about in the background.
The location of the UVB-76 signal was eventually determined by some intrepid urban explorers to be in the town of Povarovo, and they even actually claimed to have found the very building from which the broadcast leapt out onto the airwaves, yet when the building was entered it was found to be an abandoned husk, with no sign of what or who could have been sending the signal. Nevertheless, UVB-76 continued to inexorably drone on, sending its incomprehensible message out into the air, only this time the source had seemingly been relocated. From there it continued to dutifully and enigmatically carry out its shadowy purpose, never faltering or deviating from its continuous, mostly unchanging cycle and gathering around itself a cadre of short range radio enthusiasts who have constantly listened in and recorded its every move to this day.
On September 7, 2010 something weird happened when a male voice announced that the call sign was changing to "Mikhail Dmitri Zhenya Boris," or MDZhB, followed by some new numbers and codes that had not been heard before, but it is still mostly known as UVB-76 and it still continues to blare on to this day, sending out its unknown message as thousands sit at their radios transfixed, futilely trying to decipher it and yearning to understand what it all means. Even now no one has any idea of what UVB-76's purpose is nor even where exactly it is being transmitted from, and Russia has always denied that it even exists at all. Yet still it pierces out over the airwaves, ever fulfilling its unknowable duty and sending its dark, enigmatic message out into the ether for those with the the means and the will to listen to and ponder, perhaps until the end of time. The infamous signal has been theorized to be many things, including a secret code, a military emergency channel, or even a so-called “Dead Hand system,” meaning a last resort failsafe measure in which a nuclear retaliatory strike would be launched in the event that the signal was ever cut off due to a catastrophic war.
The most likely theory on what the mysterious UVB-76 signal could be is that it is what is called a "numbers station." A numbers station is an unregistered, illegal radio broadcast set to a specific frequency that is designed to transmit secret information to spies or other operatives in the field through sophisticated codes, and utilizing everything from voices, buzzes, beeps, clicks, and other noises, to Morse code, sound clips from TV programs or movies, and music. To the average listener stumbling across one of these stations it may appear that it is all just noise and nonsense, but to a spy in the field it all makes perfect sense. If a citizen tunes into a numbers station, hears a load of gibberish, and changes the channel, then the station is doing its job well. The transmitted codes are highly encrypted and are for the most part unbreakable, they are cheap to send and receive, can be picked up over a large range, and since radio waves are being used, it is very difficult to pinpoint where the source lies. Transmitted since World War I, numbers stations are so shrouded in mystery that governments do not even acknowledge that they exist at all. You can listen to a live feed of UVB-76 here.
Russia would not be the only one to make use of these enigmatic numbers stations, and indeed they are blamed for being the source of a wide variety of strange transmissions in far flung countries. There was another notorious mysterious radio signal called the Lincolnshire Poacher, which permeated outwards into the airwaves from Cyprus and has gathered just about as much attention and fame as its cousin UVB-76. The Lincolnshire Poacher transmission started in the 1970s and utilizes some bars from the old English folk song of the same name as an interval signal, which is followed by an electronically synthesized female voice with a British accent reading off a series of numbers and putting stress on the last word. The station uses an extremely sophisticated code which can be broken down into around 200 different parts, each one of which was repeated every day, and it has never been decoded. The Lincolnshire Poacher is notable for its powerful, clear reception and its uninterrupted, unwavering consistency and precise schedule for decades. It is believed that this transmission originated from a British RAF (Royal Air Force) base located in Cyprus and was operated by the British Secret Intelligence Service, but since it ceased in 2008 we will probably never know who transmitted it or what meaning it held, if any. The Lincolnshire Poacher transmission can be heard here.
England itself is also host to a rather bizarre station, thought to possibly be a numbers station, which is called simply The Backwards Music Station, or also Whalesong. You may think that the name pretty much describes what can be heard in the broadcasts, and while some have reported that this is what it sounds like to them, in reality it really sounds more like pulsating static and a strange whirring accompanied by an eerie, screeching metallic buzz like grinding metal. Although this station has been heard by shortwave enthusiasts all over the world for decades, its signal is said to be particularly pronounced in England. It is also rather powerful in the United States, particularly in Florida, suggesting that it is emanating from two separate locations or is utilizing transnational communications technology. Its true purpose and meaning have never been uncovered and both governments have denied that it even exists at all. You can hear The Backwards Music Station here.
One strange transmission that is also thought to be a numbers station is definitely known to originate in the United States. Called the Yosemite Sam Transmission, it was first picked up in December of 2003 in the vicinity of the Laguna Indian Reservation, which is in the desert badlands near Albuquerque, New Mexico. Named after the famous America cartoon character, the bizarre broadcast starts with a spooky buzzing noise and then earns its namesake by featuring a sound clip from a Looney Tunes cartoon from the 1950s called “Bunker Hill Bunny,” in which Yosemite Sam shouts “Varmint! I'm a gonna blow you to smithereens!” This series of buzzes and the sound clip starts precisely 7 seconds after the top of the hour and is repeated on the frequencies 3700 kHz, 4300 kHz, 6500 kHz, and 10500 kHz, graduating from one frequency to the next highest, with the entire cycle lasting approximately 2 minutes. No one has ever been able to decipher what it means, but it is thought to have been sending out data bursts of encrypted information, although no one knows who the intended audience was. What it actually said is anyone’s guess, and since its last transmission was in 2004 we will probably never know. You can hear the Yosemite Sam transmission here.
Other countries have their own mysterious stations that are likely numbers stations as well. Another one of the more famous ones, and probably the creepiest to listen to, is a bizarre broadcast known as the Swedish Rhapsody Station. Despite the name, this transmission originates in Poland, and first was detected in the 1960s. The broadcast begins with several bars of music, which are often described as being from composer Hugo Alfvén’s Swedish Rhapsody No.1, but have been found to actually be from the Luxembourg Polka, composed by Emile Reissdorf, with the section of bars played being identical in both songs. The music is played from a music box, giving it a strange, childish quality, and is repeated over and over again for approximately 5 minutes, and when it stops, what sounds like a synthesized little girl’s voice reads off three separate five figure numbers which are repeated three times. This is followed by 3 messages, each with a different header, with the first two messages being fixed-length messages of 100 five-figure paired groups and the last being a 50 five-figured paired groups, all of which are punctuated with the German word “Achtung” (Attention). The entire transmission lasts 38 minutes, and is delivered in that ghostly child-like, almost unearthly voice, making it rather unnerving to say the least.
Although this was the typical transmission, there was also a variant that occasionally played, in which the music plays three times and there is only a single message which says the numbers “12345 67890 12345 67890” repeated for 5 minutes. From 1988, the broadcast schedule dramatically changed and several other versions began to appear, including an English language version that utilized the same voice. The original broadcasts ceased altogether in 1998, and have had people scratching their heads ever since. One of the main theories is that the Polish were perhaps getting help from the CIA in the form of encrypted information sent through the numbers station, but what the messages say and why they are delivered with that unsettling childish voice are unknown. The Swedish Rhapsody broadcast can be heard here.
In the Middle East there was a strange numbers station transmitting from Egypt which began with a piece of music called Overture Apregiator, by French musician Jean Michel Jarre, which was then followed by a voice saying in Arabic simply “Forty Four D” twice, then a series of numbers, followed by “Again, Again,” then another series of numbers, before ending with the same section of the song with which it had started. It is known for having a grainy and faint, poor quality transmission on an AM channel and an erratic time schedule, unique for the normally very precisely timed stations. Usually referred to as The Magnetic Fields station, it is no longer active and it is unknown who was behind it, although most theories point to an Algerian intelligence agency sending out secret information to its operatives. You can here Magnetic Fields here.
It is perhaps no surprise that the reclusive nation of North Korea has also long made use of numbers stations to send encrypted information. In 2016, there has been cause for concern when a long inactive numbers station that had not broadcast since 2000 suddenly jerked to life and went on the air again. The transmission begins with a female’s voice calmly saying: “From now on, I will give review work for the subject of mathematics under the curriculum of a remote education university for exploration agents of the 27th bureau." The voice then goes on to say: "On page 459, question number 35, on page 913, question number 55, on page 135, question number 86, on page 257, question number 2…" repeating for approximately 12 minutes.
Considering North Korea’s aggressive stance, missile testing, calls to use terrorist attacks in South Korea, and general saber rattling in recent years, the sudden reactivation of this station has caused quite a stir in its southern neighbor, where encryption efforts have been scrambling to try and figure out what the broadcast means and who its intended target is. So far they have not been able to crack the code, and it could be anything from a relatively innocuous simple command, to more sinister information such as intended terrorist, assassination, or espionage targets for sleeper agents in South Korea, information for missile launches, or even an announcement to get ready for war. What is known is that there is definitely some type of information being sent to someone over the station, and the timing of the station's reemergence seems to be rather unsettling and disturbing to say the least. We might not know what it all means until it’s too late.
Another reclusive country that has made use of numbers stations is also the first country that has ever been actually formally and publicly accused of using them to send information to spies and is a case which would go all the way to a U.S. federal court espionage trial. What is typically known as the “Atención” broadcast originated in Cuba and begins with the word “Atención,” (Attention), followed by a woman’s voice calmly and monotonously reciting a list of numbers in Spanish over and over again before starting a new list of numbers. On occasion, music from Radio Havana also is interspersed with the messages.
In 1998, a network of five suspected Cuban spies known as the Cuban Five was arrested in Miami, the culmination of an investigation that had began after authorities had found evidence in 1995 that the group had been copying numbers down transmitted from Atención and decoding them on laptop computers with decryption codes. The decryption instructions were used by the FBI to decode several of the messages and present them in court as evidence against the group. Even with the messages decoded, they are cryptic and make little sense to the casual listener. Of the three messages brought to the trial, one says “prioritize and continue to strengthen friendship with Joe and Dennis,” another reads “Under no circumstances should [agents] German nor Castor fly with BTTR or another organization on days 24, 25, 26 and 27,” and the final one says “Congratulate all the female comrades for International Day of the Woman.” Even when decoded the messages are gibberish.
It was still enough for a conviction, and the five men were charged with a slew of crimes, including conspiracy to commit espionage, acting as an agent of a foreign government, and even conspiracy to commit murder, among others. Even with the convictions, it was not until 2001 that Cuba would actually come forth and admit that the men were indeed spies that had been sent to the U.S. for intelligence work, and Atención would remain on the air all the way up to 2013. The case of the Atención broadcast is unique in that a government actually admitted to using a numbers station to transmit secret information, and was officially charged with it. Additionally, it is also unusual in that in this case the code was actually broken, which is odd considering that when used properly numbers station transmissions are largely thought to be indecipherable due their heavy use of a randomized encryption process called “one-time pad,” which makes them nigh impossible to decrypt.
There are many more numbers stations out there, with their shadowy messages creeping out along the airwaves to parties unknown. There are far too many to go over all of them here, and I have only touched on some of the more well-known examples. Numbers stations have attracted a large amount of interest from amateur sleuths, with legions of short wave radio enthusiasts actively trying to track them down, record them, and indeed try to glean some meaning from their shroud of secrets. Indeed, there have been so many of these stations that they have their own classification system, and an extensive 5-CD set of recordings of these mysterious broadcasts was compiled by numbers station enthusiast Akin Fernandez, called The Conet Project: Recordings of Shortwave Numbers Stations and featuring recordings of nearly 200 different numbers stations. It is by far the most extensive collection of these enigmatic broadcasts ever put together in one place, and is a must listen if you are interested in such things. The collection has become popular among musicians, many of whom have used samples of the eerie recordings in their music.
While the broadcasts we have looked at here so far are almost certainly numbers stations, there are other mysterious transmissions on the air that seem to be harder to classify. One particularly weird broadcast that may or may not be a numbers station has come to be known simply as “Old Tape.” The strange transmission allegedly intruded on regular programming for the commercial radio station WKCR 89.9 New York in 1995, and was recorded by a 4chan user and uploaded to the site’s message boards. The recording itself starts with a couple bars of unknown music that are followed by a sudden very loud and high pitched grating sound like heavy, raspy breathing, after which a garbled female voice eerily chants a list of names and dates, all while the unearthly sound of chimes or bells rings in the background. This spooky, unsettling recording was apparently only broadcast once as far as anyone knows, and has been claimed to be everything from a hoax, numbers station, or signal hijacker, to ghosts, or even an alien transmission, but we will probably never know for sure. Some have claimed to feel physically sick or disoriented while listening to the recording. The whole, somewhat disturbing transmission can be heard here.
Even more bizarre still is a broadcast with a decidedly paranormal angle that was allegedly picked up on equipment that was not even working. In 2010, some people serving and volunteering at the RAF Montrose Air Station in Scotland were startled when a dusty old vintage Pye valve wireless radio that was kept on display suddenly leapt to life and began broadcasting World War II era transmissions and music, sometimes for up to 30 minutes straight, despite not being attached to a power source. This was not a one-time occurrence, and in the years since the old radio is said to on occasion randomly blurt out speeches by Winston Churchill and big band music by the Glenn Miller orchestra. In all cases the dusty, 70-year old radio is unplugged, and an examination of the radio by technicians has found that it is full of dust and spider webs, lacking key components, and would likely not work even if it was plugged in. The radio is in such bad shape that one person from the base said "It would probably explode if it were actually switched on." It should be completely silent, but it still keeps on with its ghostly broadcasts, which have been heard and reported by various reliable witnesses on the base.
The strange broadcasts joins long list of high strangeness at the Montrose Air Station, and it is often mentioned as one of the most haunted places in Great Britain. Here there are numerous reports of disembodied voices, strange sounds such as footsteps, spectral voices, and even the sound of phantom aircraft engines, as well as sightings of full blown apparitions, often in full old fashioned pilot uniforms. Yet the bizarre, unexplained radio broadcasts continue to be among the spookier phenomenon here. The secretary of the base’s heritage center, a Peter Davis, has said of the matter:
It is most odd and we cannot understand it. The station has a very abnormal presence. Several paranormal groups have been in to investigate various things, but the wireless has everyone including our radio technicians stumped.
Although in most cases these strange transmissions have remained a complete mystery and fertile ground for conspiracy theories, conjuring up talk of secret government organizations and spies or ghosts and aliens, on occasion one gets solved and turns out to have a more or less more mundane origin. Between 1976 and 1989, a bizarre, incessant tapping noise originating in Russia blasted out over the airwaves with considerable force, often interfering with commercial radio stations and even aviation communications all over the world.
The strange signal, which would come to be called The Russian Woodpecker, drew to itself an intense amount of speculation and conspiracies due to its clear and powerful worldwide signal and its unintelligible and eerie repetitive tapping, theories which range from the rational to the bizarre. For some it was another numbers station sending out secret information, but others believed that it was a doomsday countdown, a mind control device of some kind, a device for controlling the weather, or even an attempt to contact or communicate with UFOs. Eventually it was found that it was none of these things, but rather the signal from a massive abandoned radio array called Duga-3, which was once connected with a radar base in Ukraine and meant to be an early warning system in the event of a nuclear strike, which is still fascinating but certainly not as colorful or far out as the wild theories that had been whirling around it. It serves to show just how much of an irresistible, almost spiritual pull these transmissions can have for some people at times, to the point that the mystery can overcome the reality. You can give a listen to The Russian Woodpecker here.
As solved as the Russian Woodpecker may seem to be, the vast majority of these strange transmissions remain a complete enigma. Who or what is behind such transmissions? Who is listening in who can understand their mysterious messages and what do those messages say? In this day and age of the Internet and online connectivity why would anyone even bother to keep using the seemingly relatively archaic medium of radio to send their shadowy information out into the field? Numbers stations and other, less definable bizarre broadcasts continue to be heard to this day, blasting through the air all around us and keeping their secrets close. Those who tune in to listen have little more idea as to what they are than those who blissfully remain unaware that these transmissions are swirling about them at this moment. They are a mystery for which we may never have an answer, and the ones sending them likely prefer to keep it that way.