"Numbers stations" are real-life phenomena that arose in the Cold War era and are far too bizarre for fiction to pass up on.
Simply put, numbers stations are shortwave radio stations that broadcast long strings of numbers, usually read by a synthesized female (or occasionally male) voice. It is generally assumed that the numbers are messages encoded using the one time pad technique, sent by intelligence agencies to their agents in the field. No agency has acknowledged these transmissions, and decryption of a one-time-pad encoded message without the key is impossible. Mostly.
Aside from their use in Spy Fiction, many works of fiction will try to explain these broadcasts as part of some secret plan by a government or other sinister organization, and the Conspiracy Theorist or radio hobbyist will be obsessed with decoding them. Beyond that, they can be used for the creepy effect of having a static-y radio with a lone automated voice repeating gibberish endlessly. One popular theory has it that the creepiness is their entire purpose: plant one next to a country you don't like, and their paranoid government will waste a lot of time and money decrypting total nonsense.
- In Banshee Chapter, numbers stations are broadcasted from another dimension and contain the chemical formula of DMT-19, a (non-existent)note drug that was used in the MK-Ultra experiments. DMT-19 turns the brain into a radio receiver so that otherworldly beings can inhabit humans and "wear them".
- The 1982 West German film, Der Westen Leuchtet ("The West shines") shows an agent called Harald Liebe receiving a number station transmission via a Sony ICF-7800 radio. He is then shown decoding the message using his one-time pad.
- In The Numbers Station, CIA assassin Emerson Kent is reassigned to one such station in Suffolk, England for refusing to kill the daughter of a witness during a botched assignment.
- The Colombians that seize the Regis High School in Toy Soldiers use number stations to communicate between the school and their home base.
- Cameron Crowe used recordings from number stations in Vanilla Sky to "convey a sense of confusion".
- In the novel As Simple As Snow by Gregory Galloway, the narrator's girlfriend Anna is obsessed with codes of all sorts and spends hours at a time listening to numbers stations on a shortwave radio. After she vanishes under mysterious circumstances, the narrator starts doing it too, and he's convinced that one of the voices reading the numbers is her.
- In the John Gardner James Bond novel Icebreaker, Bond gets rescued by a contingent of Finnish spies who unbeknownst to him are working alongside MI 5. They send coded messages by shortwave via Blipvert. (Also unknown to Bond until the rescue is that his girl-when-he's-in-Helsinki is a top Finnish spy.)
- In the The Americans episode "Mutually Assured Destruction", Elizabeth (a KGB agent in the US) is seen listening to a numbers station and decoding sequences with a code book to receive orders.
- Covert Affairs episode "Walter's Walk". Annie is assigned to talk to "walk-ins" aka conspiracy nuts. The one story that she takes seriously is from women who says that her son cracked a hidden code from listening to numbers stations and now believes his life is threatened.
- The Fringe episode "6955 kHz" involved a numbers station that transmitted a Brown Note that erased peoples' memories, and the number code translated to coordinates for the location of the components to the Wave-Sink Device.
- In Lost, the Island has a radio tower that broadcasted a man's voice reading the Arc Numbers 4 8 15 16 23 42 over and over, until Danielle replaced it with her distress call. The Alternate Reality Game The Lost Experience explains that the numbers are the core numerical values in the Valenzetti Equation, an equation that predicts the amount of time remaining until the human race destroys itself. The DHARMA Initiative built the broadcasting tower to transmit the numbers to their backers and if the numbers changed it would prove that DHARMA's work on the island could manipulate the equation.
A radio transmitter has also been erected on the island broadcasting in a frequency and encryption known only to us. The transmitter will only broadcast the core numerical values of the Valenzetti Equation. When, through your research, you manage to change the numerical value of any one of these factors, when you have created through science the [inaudible] ... We will know that the one true way has been found.
- Briefly appeared in flashback in the Person of Interest episode "Blue Code". Reese thought CIA could update his orders, but his partner was skeptical.
- The Machine's "voice," individual words taken from recorded conversations and strung together, was inspired by recordings of numbers stations.
- Scandal: In the "Spies Like Us" episode, Huck contacts his former colleagues from the secret CIA agency, B6-13 via a coded message sent over a numbers station after he finds out that someone is going to make their identities and what they did public.
- Seventeen Moments of Spring features the protagonist spy, Stirlitz receiving orders through numbers broadcasts and decoding the messages using a book.
- Spooks episode "Nuclear Strike". A numbers station is used transmit a message to a Russian sleeper agent to detonate a nuclear bomb in Grosvenor Square.
- "Transmission" from Neil Cicierega's second mashup album is a sort of Stealth Parody of numbers stations. The song is nothing but radio fuzz followed by a voice spelling out "SMASH MOUTH" in alt key code. The riff from "Space Oddity" is used to indicate the space between the two words.
- "Gyroscope" from the Boards of Canada album Geogaddi contains samples of a numbers station, sampled by Sean Booth of Autechre.
- "Secret Message" from the third Doctor Steel album, People of Earth ends with a number station recording.
- The Porcupine Tree song, "Even Less" from their fifth album Stupid Dream ends with the numbers, "0096 2251 2110 8105" read aloud by a woman. This is taken from a numbers station recording.
- The title of Wilco's fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot comes from a number station recording that is sampled in the song, "Poor Places". This led to the singer, Jeff Tweedy being sued by the company who had originally recorded the numbers station for copyright infringement and he settled out of court, reimbursing them for their legal fees and paying royalties for use of the recordings.
- The Protomen album The Cover Up has a mock numbers station as Hidden Track exclusively on the cassette version after "In The Air Tonight" (which is the last track on side 1), which decodes to "We can hold out through the endless dark, all a fire needs is a single spark. Oh, and remember to drink your Ovaltine.'
- The Silverstein song "In A Place of Solace" off the album This is How the Wind Shifts begins with sounds from a numbers station. Since the lead singer is the ghost a murder victum witnessing his own funeral confused and afraid, the inclusion of the numbers station may have been used to further convey the sense of confusion.
- Mage: The Awakening: "Summoners" features as a potential plot hook mysterious numbers stations that seem to be broadcasting an arcane signal. While it would seem they're serving some nefarious purpose, it's the opposite - they generate a signal that's keeping gigantic worm-like entities from entering from the realms beyond, and if the mages try to interrupt the signal, well...
- Issue 18 of The Unspeakable Oath had an article called "The Branchly Numbers Edit" for modern Call of Cthulhu settings like Delta Green. The titular edit is a compilation of number station recordings made by a man before he burned everything else in his mansion, including himself and his servants. Those who listen to the edit can glean unearthly knowledge but at the cost of their sanity.
- Shadowrun: The 4th edition "Spy Games" discusses Numbers Stations and gives a few suggestions to the possible origins and purpose of the mysterious transmissions. Possible explanations include: an attempt by Artificial Intelligences to manifest in our world, communications from the future or Another Dimension or even the thoughts of being formed from the entire Matrix.
- According to his 2007 G.I. Joe Collectors' Club filecard, Sparks runs number stations for the team.
While he serves many vital functions, his specialty is operating so-called "secret numbers stations," sending shortwave radio transmissions to covert operatives throughout the free world in English, Spanish, German, French and Slavic languages in a variety of electronically-altered voices.
- Batman: Arkham City has three, left by Scarecrow. The numbers can be deciphered into the messages: "I Will Return, Batman", "You Will Pay For What You Have Done To Me" & "Fear Will Tear Gotham City To Shreds".
- In Call of Duty: Black Ops, Alex Mason is forced by the CIA to decrypt the message from a numbers station and reveal the location of the transmitter. He was implanted earlier with the ability to understand the numbers and is the only surviving person on the good guys' side with the ability to decode them.
- The Conduit: One of the channels on the radios you can listen to is a numbers station and the last two transmissions of the hippie, Autumn Wanderer turn into a stream of numbers that are a simple substitution code.
- Fallout 3. There is a somewhat bizarre Urban Legend of Zelda, that says under the right circumstances, Galaxy News Radio would turn into a numbers station and the numbers could be translated into predictions of events in Real Life.
- The Secret World. Number stations are mentioned in relation to the Buzzing, the mysterious force that empowers the Player Characters.
Buzzing Lore #4: You've heard shards of our voice in the phantom-radio code of a numbers station
- Radios in the Submachine series are generally tuned in to a numbers station. The significance of this is yet to be revealed (assuming it's not just a general Mind Screw).
- The Killing Floor 2 map "Farmhouse" has a radio in the basement tuned to a numbers station in Czech.
- The third episode of Stories Untold, "The Station Process", involves tuning to several numbers stations from a remote weather station in Greenland, and decoding them to input lines of computer code. Being a horror game, things get weirder as you go along.
- Welcome to Night Vale: The "The Drawbridge" episode reveals the city of Night Vale has its own Numbers Station, WZZZ, broadcast from a mysterious antenna on top of an abandoned gas station. In the "Numbers" episode, the computer program reading out the numbers gains sentience and takes the name Fey. Cecil is unable to help her gain her freedom and she is reset to original state.
Take WZZZ, our local numbers station, broadcasting from that strange and tall antenna built out back of the abandoned gas station on Oxford Street. Did you know that it broadcasts a monotone female voice reading out seemingly random numbers interspersed with chimes twenty four hours a day, seven days a week? As you can imagine, that kind of work doesn't bring in a lot of money—unless it does. To be honest, here at Night Vale Radio we don't know exactly what that station is for, or what master it is serving.
- "Night Milking", a Skin Horse text side-story, set during the time Unity was working for Temporary Emergency Food Assistance, reveals that TEFA supposedly broadcasts its full mission dossiers on a radio station called Lambton Worm, but all Unity ever hears is Jethro Tull and "some bored chick reciting numbers".
- Every episode of the podcast Ars Paradoxica ends with a stream of numbers between 1 and 26.
- SCP Foundation
- SCP-270 ("Secluded Telephone"). On this telephone can be heard a voice speaking messages encrypted in a variety of forms, include patterns of numbers like a numbers station.
- SCP-1316 ("Feline Espionage Device"). For 4 years, every day SCP-1316 broadcast a transmission consisting of 80 numbers, making it a living numbers station.
- SCP-1965 ("Radio-Based Sentience"). The entry mentions the numbers stations used by both the SCP Foundation and national governments.
- SCP-2132 ("Most Dangerous Fighting Exhibition and Obstacle Resort"). Every 5-6 hours, SCP-2132 broadcasts the artificially created voice of a male child reciting numbers and a list of colors. The reading is different each time. Between the numbers/colors readings the station broadcasts songs from the 1920s through the 1950s.
- SCP-2187 ("Jugo Nova"). The SCP Foundation has a global network of numbers stations masking the broadcasts of the artificial satellite SCP-2187-B.
- SCP-2558 ("Horseshoe Beach First Baptist Church (Relocated)") creates one of these from a National Weather Service station.
- SCP-3034 ("The Counting Station") is a distorted broadcast of a girl who, rather than giving random numbers, counts down from 200 and only stops if an "all is well" reply is received. Nobody's sure what will happen when she finishes, but nobody is in a hurry to find out, either, considering what happened when a researcher tried to communicate.
- "The Hyacinth Hymnal" is an audio recording taken from rare spoken interruptions in a numbers station.
- The Conet Project is a five CD compilation of Number Station recordings.