Mike stopped me before I closed one of the tabs he had open. "No, read that," he told me. I clicked to read it. The title went something like "The Buzzer (UVB-76) has stopped transmitting! UH-OH!"
And I got sucked right back in.
When I lived in Georgia, which is on the eastern seaboard, I had an average shortwave radio. No antenna on the roof, for instance, and it was all slide-rule (before digital was the standard). I would listen to the radio at night when I could tune in all over the world, and at the time (1988-1990) it was an interesting world to tune into. I listened to, essentially, the fall of the eastern bloc countries. I fell in love with BBC-style programming (news at the top of the hour, random stuff the rest of the time, oh, maybe we'll read a chapter from Frankenstein tonight...).
And then one night as I was looking for something to listen to (remember, I had nothing to go on but my notes from previous nights and a little pamphlet from the radio manufacturer), I found a little something like that:
Foxtrot - Romeo - Kilo - Kilo - Golf
All in this mechanical female voice. Well, I couldn't just stop with that. A little music interlude and then numbers. The whole thing repeated and then the station. Went. Away. I tried tuning back in the next night, and then the same weeknight, with nothing. Never came back.
But of course, in my emerging weirdness, I copied the message (I kept pen and paper by the radio to record things like "Radio Kiev heard, faintly, at such and such frequency)--it's somewhere in a box of stuff from high school.
Then I forgot about it until after I was married and listening to NPR and there was a segment on numbers stations. They're used for clandestine communication to spies in the field. Anyone can hear them...but nobody knows what they mean except the person with the decoder. And even if you found the decoder ring (actually, a tear off one-time pad), you wouldn't be able to use it unless you matched it to the correct broadcast. This has never been confirmed by any of the countries that use these stations, but it is well known that this is what is going on. And that's what I must have heard sitting in my bedroom in 1989.
That was creepy as all get-out to begin with. But with the internet, I was able to find a whole community of folks with shortwave radios who spend their free time searching these stations out. The stations have names: Cherry Ripe, Attencion!, Lincolnshire Poacher. I heard a recording of one that starts with a clip of Louis Armstrong and then falls into Czech numbers. Voices are garbled and mechanical. The stuff is freaky. It's one of those "the world is bigger than I thought" kind of things.
Also in reading on the internet, I learned about other stations that they don't quite understand. Stations with nicknames like "The Squeaky Wheel" and "The Buzzer". Nobody talks on these stations (well, maybe 4 times in 30 years), and they are there all the time. Nobody explains them away. They sound like their names--I've heard both, live, although I let my obsession slip many years ago.
They intrigue and mystify people. What could they be for? If they are numbers stations, how come the dang buzzer is always the same since 1982? Why do some people hear voices in the background of the buzzer, speaking in Russian, but saying things like "There's some work on the hardware"? I don't know. Maybe it's just me, but these sorts of things freak me out.
So to read that it had stopped, well, that kept me up an hour past my bedtime. Because most radio anoraks seem to believe one or more of the following theories about the buzzer:
1. It's simply an ionosphere research station, nothing more, sending a constant signal up and away to do science stuff.
2. It's a numbers station (it certainly seems to have been used for such things at least 3 times) but not used often
3. It's part of the Dead Hand system (a dead man's switch, if you will, that is triggered to launch nuclear warheads back at those who have killed off all the Soviet government).
Now, if it's 1, the only thing that bothers me is that nobody's been forthcoming about this fact--of course, nobody would believe them...If it's 2, then I can shiver and move on. But the idea that it is part of some soviet era "if you kill all of us, you're dead too" mechanism (also called "Hand from the Coffin" or the Perimeter System) is enough to stop you cold. I mean, we've all read about the demise of Soviet power and the mess it has left behind. The idea that this low power radio station might be a domino in a chain of events that could lead to the destruction of, well, everything we know...is troubling. So having it go offline suddenly is also troubling.
But it's back up. I listened to it for about 5 minutes just now on global tuners (an online collection of shortwave receivers around the world). UVB-76 is still with us. There's no explanation, of course, no well-modulated voice apologizing for the outage. Was there a storm in Povarovo? Did they switch out some old microphones? Did the cleaning lady kick something over? Who knows. But it's back up.
I don't think it's part of Dead Hand. I also don't buy the ionosphere research station theory. My thought, which isn't original, but something I'd read ages ago when I first got interested in shortwave, is that the buzzer is simply a placeholder in case most of society collapses, that kind of thing. This station is open and you know how to find it and if we need to, we'll have something to say. Sort of related to Dead Hand, sure, a post-apocalyptic kind of vision, but in the event that society collapses but someone somewhere still has batteries in their radio, the Russians might have something to tell us.
On Global Tuners, I'm new and it took me a while to figure out how to actually tune an online shortwave radio, but on my 5th try I got it out of Hannover. About 5 minutes into the broadcast (which is, remember, 25 tones a minute that sounds like, well, click the video below), someone got onto the chat program and said, "gosh the buzzer is popular tonight." I felt kind of ashamed to be listening to something like that, at least without my tinfoil hat on, and I let the guy know he could go ahead and tune to something else....