Posted on: December 16, 2015

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Although I’m not very technologically-minded, I am geek-ishly fascinated by weird, random radio broadcasts.  There is something so spectacularly spooky about them.

During the Cold War enigmatic broadcasts became an intriguing obsession for shortwave radio enthusiasts.  These broadcasts – thought to be coded military or espionage messages – were often very random to say the least.  Odd snippets of conversation, music and ugly white noise jumbled together.  I’ve listened to some of these on YouTube, and they still send a tingle.  If you do a search for “YouTube Numbers Stations” you should be able to get a selection.

There are several of these weird broadcasts which intrigue radio hams.  There is said to be a Swedish station which constantly plays Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’, a German station which plays ‘Swedish Rhapsody’ on an old musical device, and there is the Backwards Music Station, which does exactly what it says on the tin, and simply plays noises backwards.  That doesn’t sound very spectacular until you listen to it, and then it can sound like an agonised broadcast from the depths of Hell.  Here in Britain MI6 allegedly had a station called the Lincolnshire Poacher, so-named because it would begin it’s broadcasts with that old tune.  To add to the spookiness the numbers stations would sometimes include what sounds like a slightly computerised version of a little girl’s voice.

The most famous and intriguing of the lot though is UVB-76, the first recording of which was made in 1982.  Also known as the Buzzer, it has generated quite a following.  It has even inspired some rock musicians. Located on 4625 kHz, it broadcasts a buzz-tone 24 hours a day, and until June 2010 would also do a time signal on the hour.  Occasionally background conversation in Russian can be heard, and some interruptions led to speculation that it was in fact a live broadcast, not a looped recording.  For instance occasionally a voice would correct itself in Russian by saying “sboj” (error), and then continue.  Lists of names would also be read out, such as Anna, Nikolai, Ivan, Tatyana and Roman.  More unsettling, on one occasion a woman could be heard screaming in the far background.

Originally the broadcasts were traced to Povarovo, a military town near Moscow, but then in 2010 the location changed to Pskov, on the Estonian border.  For one day, on 5 June 2010, the Buzzer ceased broadcasting, leading some to speculate that it had ended, only for it to resume again the next day.   A few weeks later, on 25 August, at 10:13 AM, a series of knocks and shuffles were heard in the background, as though someone was in the room.  In September of that year it even began to broadcast music, with snippets from Swan Lake being aired.  On 7 September a male voice announced that from now on UVB-76 would be known as MDZhB (although it’s usually still referred to by it’s old name).

In December 2014 Russian student Egor Esveev told the Mail Online that he had gone to the Povarovo area to explore the old home of the Buzzer. He came across abandoned bunkers and military buildings, half-submerged.  He said it was a very strange area, in which people behaved oddly.  A man appeared on a bike on the road that led from the forest, and cycled in the direction of an area that contained nothing but fields.  A middle-aged woman also appeared pushing an empty baby-stroller.

Povarovo has been described as “a quiet and lonely dark place, something like a maze with lots of corridors and rooms”.  There is said to be a black hole, once accessible by ladder, which runs at least 10 metres below ground.

There are (naturally) many conspiracy theories about UVB-76, such as that it is a secret homing-device for aliens, or that if it stops buzzing, then we should really worry, as it means a nuclear attack on the West is imminent.  This has been hotly disputed by radio enthusiasts, who say that the Buzzer stopped a couple of times in 2010, and no nuclear attack happened.

Quite what the true purpose of the Buzzer is still intrigues many.  The collapse of the old Soviet Union had no effect on it, in fact since the Millennium it’s broadcasts became more frequent.

In a piece on in 2011, an Estonian computer engineer called Andrus Aaslaid explained the enduring fascination with UVB-76. “People’s lives are so well-planned and predictable.   In some ways, UVB-76 represents the good kind of unpredictability and mystery … Imagine someone with a Morse key or a reel-to-reel tape deck in the Namibia desert, running a shortwave transmitter off a diesel generator and sending music or messages to the ionosphere.  In the middle of the night, it does not get any more spiritual than that”.



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