Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Numbers Station Return - to the Silver screen

We all love a good spy story. Even if the world of espionage is very far from the image portrayed in films. May be it is because of the huge success of the James Bond movie Skyfall that we're seeing a whole wave of programmes that deal with spies and the techniques they use. For instance, I see a recent  BBC series is up on YouTube, (Part Two here) though for how long I can't guarantee it will be there. I'm guessing that because the two programmes put the intelligence services into a good light that no-one is anxious that it is taken down. And it gives the UK media and intelligence services a chance to swipe at the Americans. So may be its appearance on YouTube is not an accident but part of a plan.

The BBC film talks about sleeper cells and hints that agents of at least some countries (e.g. Russia) get their instructions using rather sophisticated communications equipment. If true, then times have certainly changed since agents in the field used to listen out for number codes as broadcast on a shortwave radio.

Now, at the end of April 2013, a film called The Numbers Station starring Malin Akerman and John Cusack is coming to theatres. First time I have seen these number stations as the centre of the plot. It's nice to think that the numbers were broadcast by a live announcer. But in fact they were always recorded.

Here's a radio programme I made for Radio Netherlands about the number stations in 1997. That was at the time the Conet project was being launched. The mystery of the spy number stations has been a recurring theme in Media Network. Perhaps the most elaborate project to catalogue them was a 4 CD project set up in 1997. I see it's still listed in Wikipedia. The edition of Media Network talked with the producer of the CD is in the second half of the show. We also looked at how radio was seen in the dim distant past (Remember the TM Century Punk Country Campaign?) and Jim Cutler threw in a surprise T-shirt competition. Perfect proof that the nineties weren't boring, even though no-one had a smart phone.

BBC Radio 4 had a nice documentary on number stations in 2005 called "Tracking the Lincolnshire Poacher". Simon Fanshawe also talked to the people behind the Conet Project, a series of recordings of the strange number stations heard all over the shortwave bands. Simon digs into the mystery of these stations, although they don't actually reveal who is behind it. I believe Simon Mason made most of the recordings. Simon's website has this interesting video sequence of him tuning in the Lincolnshire Poacher.

On the 27th February 2000, the Cyprus Broadcasting Corporation (CyBC) broadcast a TV story on Numbers Stations. With help from Cypriot radio amateurs, reporter George Georgiou managed to prove, using signal strength and direction finding that the "Lincolnshire Poacher" is transmitting from an RAF Unit on the huge Akrotiri base. But, as DF showed, there could be another two, smaller transmitters somewhere in the Middle East. The website on that story is long since gone. But the antenna farm is still there. Anyone heading out to the RAF Base passes right through this RAF station. You are not allowed to stop. I have never seen so many log periodic antennas in my life.

The first time we devoted most of the programme to the strange voices shouting numbers was on August 2nd 1990. So turn back the clock 20 years and find out what was intriguing international radio listeners before the Internet had any form of mass appeal. The item on number stations starts around 11 minutes into the programme.

We also looked back at number stations in late August 2000 just a few months before the programme left the airwaves. This programme starts with the news of a fire in the Ostankino TV tower in Moscow, a blaze that later turned out to be very serious indeed. Vasily Strelnikov went off to investigate and was surprised at the extent of the blaze. We talk about security on the web comparing it with spy number stations! Love the Marconi radio joke. Also the Lincolnshire Poacher recording was crystal clear. 

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