Radio Days: What is a Numbers Station?

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Oxenfree’s “Radio Days” continues, this time with a primer to Numbers Stations.

Ever wonder what Yankee Hotel Foxtrot means? It’s not just the title of a Wilco album – it’s part of a broader spy shorthand used in shortwave transmissions since World War I, where each word can be substituted for it’s first letter. In this case, Y,H,F.

Anonymous, blasé voices, often young women or children, would utter messages using this method across secretive radio channels, called numbers stations.  While anyone with the right radio could tune into these stations, what you were actually hearing was a strange, seemingly nonsensical string of words and sounds, as the messages themselves were coded.

During numbers stations’ heyday, you could expect to hear bleeps of Morse code, or a British voice reciting random numbers, or maybe the shrill serenade of children’s music.

To the untrained ear, it would sound random and strange, maybe a little chilling.  To foreign interlopers the messages were a maddening taunt, impossible to crack.  But to the agents receiving these transmissions, holding the all-decoding one-time pad, the series of sounds might foil a plot or save a life.

While the Cold War found numbers stations being used extensively across the globe, their prominence quickly declined with the fall of the Soviet Union.  That said, they are an efficient means of transmitting sensitive information, and as recently as the 2000’s Castro’s Cuba was allegedly using numbers stations to communicate with agents.

We can’t say if Edwards Island, where Oxenfree takes place, has anything to do with the spy world. But there is a decommissioned military base there, and Alex’s radio sure acts weird.  You just can’t get a signal, and if you do manage to find one…

Bonus Links

99% Invisible: Offers another podcast episode which surmises the story of Numbers Stations.

The Conet Project: Has compiled and issued a multiple CD release of Numbers Station recordings, which have been sampled wildly in the last few decades.

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