The World’s Strangest Radio Broadcasts

iStock.com/Big_Ryan
iStock.com/Big_Ryan

We have only the vaguest idea where the broadcasts are coming from, and even less idea where they're going. The sounds are strange—the synthesized voices of women and children mixed with snatches of music, Morse code, or high-pitched buzzing. Sometimes the transmissions appear on a fixed schedule, other times in short random bursts. The only thing they have in common is the eerie recitation of numbers, beamed through shortwave radio signals bouncing across the globe.

These are the "number stations," which have mesmerized conspiracy theorists, radio enthusiasts, musicians and less obsessive members of the public for decades. They’ve been tracked with their own journal, recorded in an influential 4-CD set, and made appearances in lawsuits as well as a Cameron Crowe movie. No government agency has ever explained why they’ve taken over large portions of the shortwave radio dial, and why they’ve done so for years.

One of the most storied of the number stations is "The Lincolnshire Poacher," which began its transmissions with bars from the British folk song. Although it went off the air in 2008, number station detectives believe it was transmitting from a large military site in Cyprus. Another of the best-known stations, the Stasi-connected Swedish Rhapsody, started with a music box rendition of that tune before continuing with the voice of a little girl reciting numbers in German. A station known as the Magnetic Fields opened with the Jean-Michel Jarre's instrumental "Les Chants Magnétique" before broadcasting Arabic numerals and the English phrase "again, again."

The beginnings of the stations are unknown: by some accounts, the broadcasts first began during World War I, although better documentation exists for a beginning during the Cold War. While some suggest that they are the secret communications of drug smugglers, the more likely explanation involves espionage. Court cases, half-admissions, and the memoirs of ex-spies have brought the basics to light—the stations seem to be the broadcasts of intelligence agencies to their spies across the world. Messages are deciphered with a so-called one-time pad, in which a string of randomly generated numbers are mathematically added to text messages in order to encrypt, then subtracted to decrypt them. After each use, the pad is discarded.

While the use of number stations might seem startlingly low-tech for an espionage agency, their one-way nature has its advantages. Listening to the radio can’t be traced the way a telephone call can—because anyone can listen anywhere in the world, no one knows who the message is intended for. Listening to the radio isn’t a suspicious activity (the way carrying around expensive computer gadgetry might be) and doesn’t require much special equipment. Like the use of good old fashioned pen and paper, its simplicity is the key to its utility.

For years, public interest in the number stations was primarily limited to shortwave radio enthusiasts, who communicated with one another via online groups and magazines. A UK-based organization called ENIGMA (European Numbers Information Gathering and Monitoring Association), founded in 1993, tracked the transmissions with its own detailed newsletter for seven years. A radio hobbyist title called Monitoring Times Magazine also wrote about the stations, particularly through the activities of retired naval intelligence officer William Godby, alias Havana Moon. According to the Miami New Times, in the late 1980s Godby used signal-direction-finding equipment to pinpoint several number stations as coming from the "West Palm Beach airport, in nearby Tequesta, and at the Homestead Air Force Base. All were aimed at the Caribbean."

The name most often associated with the number stations today is Akin Fernandez and his Conet Project. In the early 1990s, the London-based Fernandez, who owns an indie music label, discovered the stations late one night while scrolling the dial with his new shortwave radio. When he discovered that no librarian or government agency could tell him what the number stations were doing, he became obsessed. The result, several years later, was a 4-CD set with samples of 150 different broadcasts, and an accompanying 74-page booklet. (Conet, a word Fernandez often heard on the broadcasts, is Czech for "end.") With the kind of treatment usually reserved for aging rock stars rather than secretive government broadcasts, the CDs became cult favorites—sampled by Wilco, who named its 2001 album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot after part of a numbers station broadcast, as well as other music groups, and appearing in the Cameron Crowe movie Vanilla Sky.

The Conet Project also prompted one of the first government admissions of the stations, when a UK government spokesperson told the Daily Telegraph in 1998: "These [numbers stations] are what you suppose they are. People shouldn't be mystified by them. They're not, shall we say, for public consumption."

Around the same time, Cuba’s "Atención" station became the world's first station publicly accused of broadcasting to spies. During a federal espionage trial following the 1998 arrest of the "Cuban Five," U.S. prosecutors claimed the spies were using hand-held shortwave receivers to listen to Atención broadcasts, entering the numbers into their laptops to decode the transmissions. The FBI testified that they'd broken into one spy's apartment and copied the decryption program, which they used to decode several messages. Three of the messages were revealed in court:

  • "Prioritize and continue to strengthen friendship with Joe and Dennis,"
  • "Under no circumstances should German nor Castor fly with BTTR or another organization on days 24, 25, 26 and 27,"
  • "Congratulate all the female comrades for International Day of the Woman."

And while some of the broadcasts might be just as banal as that last one, as Fernandez notes in the Conet Project booklet, part of the thrill of listening (the stations are still going strong) is that you have no idea what messages are being transmitted, or who else might be listening. "How many corporations are being compromised by mailmen who pretend to be listening to football results as they rifle through mail? And is the bus conductor on the no. 22 listening to the radio and writing down the results of the horses, or is he being told who his next murder victim is to be? Are all commuters really commuters? What is that buzzing?"

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

During this weekend's three-day sale on the Mental Floss Shop, you'll find deep discounts on products like AirPods, Martha Stewart’s bestselling pressure cooker, and more. Check out the best deals below.

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Apple

You may not know it by looking at them, but these tiny earbuds by Apple offer HDR sound, 30 hours of noise cancellation, and powerful bass, all through Bluetooth connectivity. These trendy, sleek AirPods will even read your messages and allow you to share your audio with another set of AirPods nearby.

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Sony

For the listener who likes a traditional over-the-ear headphone, this set by Sony will give you all the same hands-free calling, extended battery power, and Bluetooth connectivity as their tiny earbud counterparts. They have a swivel folding design to make stashing them easy, a built-in microphone for voice commands and calls, and quality 1.18-inch dome drivers for dynamic sound quality.

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3. Sony Xb650bt Wireless On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones; $46

Sony

This Sony headphone model stands out for its extra bass and the 30 hours of battery life you get with each charge. And in between your favorite tracks, you can take hands-free calls and go seamlessly back into the music.

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Martha Stewart

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and buying a new pressure cooker, this 8-quart model from Martha Stewart comes with 14 presets, a wire rack, a spoon, and a rice measuring cup to make delicious dinners using just one appliance.

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Jashen

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Evachill

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Gourmia

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Townew

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FenSens

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Noerden

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Prices subject to change.

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Surprise: Cows Poop Corn Kernels, Too

Cows—they're just like us.
Cows—they're just like us.
freestocks.org, Pexels

Hours after chowing down on an ear or two of buttery corn on the cob, you glance down in the toilet bowl and think, “I swear I chewed that.” Many of us have found ourselves in similar situations; the fact that corn kernels appear unchanged by their journey through our bodies is one of humanity’s open secrets.

According to The Takeout, the phenomenon isn’t specific to humans—cows experience it, too. This is somewhat surprising, since cows are ruminant animals whose digestive systems can break down tough materials better than ours can. When cows swallow their food, it softens in a special digestive chamber called a rumen and then gets sent back up for another round of mastication. (This also explains why it seems like cows are always munching on something.) But scientists have discovered that corn sometimes manages to emerge partially unscathed from this process of “chewing the cud.”

Not entirely unscathed, though. As University of Nebraska-Lincoln ruminant nutritionist Andrea Watson told Live Science, it’s only the thin yellow exterior of each kernel that escapes digestion. This is made of cellulose, a durable fiber that helps shield corn from bad weather, pests, and other potential damage. Humans can’t break down cellulose, but cows usually do a pretty good job—a testament to corn’s resilience.

Watson explained that about 10 percent of each kernel comprises cellulose, so whatever corn you detect in your poop isn’t quite as whole as you might think. The other 90 percent—a combination of starch, antioxidants, and other nutritional elements—does get digested. And if you’re consuming corn in a different form, like tortilla chips or popcorn, you can rest assured that the cellulose has already been processed enough that you won’t see evidence of your snack later.

[h/t The Takeout]