“MDZhB” has been broadcasting since 1982.
By Zaria Gorvett 2 August 2017
Reposted By: Layne, AE1N
In the middle of a Russian swampland, not far from the city of St Petersburg, is a rectangular iron gate. It is thought to be the headquarters of a radio station, “MDZhB”, that no-one has ever claimed to run. Every few seconds it’s joined by a second sound, like some ghostly ship sounding its foghorn. Anyone, anywhere in the world can listen in, simply by tuning a radio to the frequency 4625 kHz. It’s so enigmatic, it’s as if it was designed with conspiracy theorists in mind. Today the station has an online following numbering in the tens of thousands, who know it affectionately as “the Buzzer”. It joins two similar mystery stations, “the Pip” and the “Squeaky Wheel”.
Anyone can listen to the Buzzer, simply by tuning a radio to the frequency 4625 kHz. “There’s absolutely no information in the signal,” says David Stupples, an expert in signals intelligence from City University, London. The frequency is thought to belong to the Russian military, though they’ve never actually admitted this. Today it’s transmitted from two locations – the St Petersburg site and a location near Moscow. Bizarrely, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, rather than shutting down, the station’s activity sharply increased.
No questions asked, just total nuclear obliteration on both sides. There are clues in the signal itself. The system was originally pioneered in the Soviet era, where it took the form of a computer system which scanned the airwaves for signs of life or nuclear fallout. As Russian president Vladimir Putin pointed out himself earlier this year, “nobody would survive” a nuclear war between Russia and the United States. Could the Buzzer be warding one off?
Like all international radio, the Buzzer operates at a relatively low frequency known as “shortwave”. This means that – compared to local radio, mobile phone, and television signals – fewer waves pass through a single point every second.
While you’d be hard pressed to listen to a local station such as BBC Radio London in a neighboring county, shortwave stations like the BBC World Service are aimed at audiences from Senegal to Singapore. Both stations are broadcast from the same building.
If the “dead hand” system did not detect signs of a preserved military hierarchy it would automatically trigger a retaliation. Higher frequency radio signals can only travel in a straight line, eventually becoming lost as they bump into obstacles or reach the horizon. But shortwave frequencies have an extra trick – they can bounce off charged particles in the upper atmosphere, allowing them to zig-zag between the earth and the sky and travel thousands, rather than tens, of miles.
As you might expect, shortwave signals have proved extremely popular. Today they’re used by ships, aircraft and the military to send messages across continents, oceans and mountain ranges. But there’s a catch. The BBC World Service already does this. The Buzzer doesn’t. Another idea is that the radio station exists to “sound” out how far away the layer of charged particles is.
To analyze the layer’s altitude the signal would usually have a certain sound, like a car alarm going off – the result of varying the waves to get them just right. Intriguingly, there is a station with some striking similarities. The “Lincolnshire Poacher” ran from the mid-1970s to 2008. Just like the Buzzer, it emanated from an undisclosed location, thought to be somewhere in Cyprus. And just like the Buzzer, its transmissions were just plain creepy.
At the beginning of every hour, the station would play the first two bars of an English folk tune, the Lincolnshire Poacher.
“Oh ‘tis my delight on a shining night. When I was bound apprentice in famous Lincolnshire. ‘Twas well I served my master for nigh on seven years…” After repeating this12 times, it would move on to messages read by the disembodied voice of a woman reading groups of five numbers – “1-2-0-3-6” – in a clipped, upper-class English accent.
The All-Russian Co-operative Society (Arcos) was an important trade body, responsible for overseeing transactions between the UK and the early Soviet Union. After the Arcos raid in London, the Russians realized they needed a better way to communicate with spies hiding abroad. In May 1927, years after a British secret agent caught an employee sneaking into a communist news office in London, police officers stormed the Arcos building. The basement had been rigged with anti-intruder devices and they discovered a secret room with no door handle, in which workers were hurriedly burning documents. To justify the raid, the prime minister had even read out some of the deciphered telegrams in the House of Commons. Almost overnight, they switched to “one-time pads”.As long as the key really is perfectly random, the code cannot be cracked.
Enter the “numbers stations” – radio stations that broadcast coded messages to spies all over the world. Instead, officers in London found an ingenious solution. They’d hang a microphone out of the window on Oxford Street and record the traffic. The sound is unique, it will never happen again,” says Stupples.
“We discovered that the Russians used the out-of-date sheets of one-time pads as substitute toilet paper in Russian army hospitals in East Germany,” says Glees. Needless to say, British intelligence officers soon found themselves rifling through the contents of Soviet latrines.
There was the colorfully named “Nancy Adam Susan”, “Russian Counting Man” and “Cherry Ripe” – the Lincolnshire Poacher’s sister station, which also contained bars of an English folk song. In name at least, the Buzzer fits right in. The FBI announced that it had broken up a “long term, deep cover” network of Russian agents, who were said to have received their instructions via coded messages on shortwave radio – specifically 7887 kHz.
On 14 April 2017, the broadcaster at Radio Pyongyang began: “I’m giving review works in elementary information technology lessons of the remote education university for No 27 expedition agents.” This ill-concealed military message was followed by a series of page numbers – No 69 on page 823, page 957 – which look a lot like code. It only becomes a numbers station in moments of crisis, such as if Russia were invaded
It’s a compelling idea: the Buzzer has been hiding in plain sight, instructing a network of illicit Russian spies all over the world. There’s just one problem. The Buzzer never broadcasts any numbered messages. This doesn’t strictly matter, since one-time pads can be used to translate anything – from code words to garbled speech.
To send information over the radio, essentially all you’re doing is varying the height or spacing of the waves being transmitted. For example, two low waves in a row mean x, or three waves closer together means y. When a signal is carrying information, instead of neat, evenly spaced waves like ripples on the ocean, you’re left with a wave like the jagged silhouette of an ECG. During the Cold War, Soviet spies were instructed via shortwave radio.
This isn’t the Buzzer. The constant drone is just a marker, saying “this frequency is mine, this frequency is mine…” to stop people from using it. It only becomes a numbers station in moments of crisis, such as if Russia were invaded. Then it would function as a way to instruct their worldwide spy network and military forces on standby in remote areas.
The mystery of the Russian radio may have been solved. But if its fans are right, let’s just hope that drone never stops.
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