Ode to the Old Police Scanner
As billions of people around the world suddenly realize all that personal information they've given Facebook may not be a good thing, another story about privacy hit me a lot harder in the last few days.
Police services, fire departments and paramedic units across Alberta will soon receive more privacy, because new technology will allow traditional police scanners to go silent, at least for the ears of the media. The police scanner, or police radio as some call it, has been a staple in newsrooms across the country for generations.
I always felt I was eavesdropping on conversations between police and other first responders when I was in the radio business, but it was a powerful tool to learn about breaking news.
Was It Really 40 Years Ago?
I started working in the CHQT Radio newsroom in Edmonton 40 years ago this month.
I know, I can’t believe it either.
I still remember some of legendary News Director Ed Mason’s first words to me as he showed me around the tiny newsroom that was about the size of a bedroom. “This is the police scanner. I never want to catch you with it turned off” he warned. Ed went on to spend over 50 years working in radio news, most of it in Edmonton.
If there was anyone who loved the police radio it was Ed and there was nobody better in the country at using it, along his long list of police contacts to scoop every reporter in Edmonton on breaking crime news. To this day, I count my blessings every time I think of Ed, because he was the best mentor a young radio journalist like me could have.
Ed had no need to worry he would catch me with the radio off. I loved that thing too. The scanner pulled in most conversations police officers, firefighters and paramedics were having with dispatchers. If there was breaking news in the city, it was on that scanner and all you had to do was listen, piece together what you were hearing and then wait right for the right time to call police to get your story confirmed.
For three years in the late 70’s and early 80’s, I worked countless evening and weekend shifts in that newsroom. On far too many occasions I knew I didn’t have enough fresh, impactful content to air a decent newscast, but I knew the next one was at the top of the hour and I needed to be prepared. That’s the way it was when you didn’t have reporters feeding you stories.
Working those shifts, you were on your own. The old business line about “eating what you kill” was true when it came to working weekend and evening shifts in newsrooms back then. That left me listening to the scanner, hoping to get a lead on a breaking story, such as a fire or bad accident.
I know it sounds morbid. Let’s just say I wasn’t hoping for bad things to happen to people, but if they did, I wanted to hear about it, because I could sure use a fresh story to lead off my next newscast.
The Art of Listening
Listening to the scanner became quite an art. Long before the days that anyone used the term “multi-tasking”, I was doing all kinds of multi-tasking as I kept one ear on the scanner and the other on a recording of the competition’s latest newscast to see if they had anything that I didn’t (didn’t happen often). While doing that I also was either writing stories, editing tape, or ripping wire copy.
I managed to acquire a sixth sense to differentiate general police or fire chatter and something that really was urgent. Normally sirens were in the background as a police officer or firefighter, with an excited tone in his raised voice, communicated the latest information to dispatch.
About a year or so after working at ‘QT, there was an opening and I got moved up to the slightly better shift that allowed me to work in the mornings and leave in the early afternoon on weekends. I was no longer the newsroom rookie.
One Saturday afternoon, the young guy who now was the rookie and doing my old shift bounced into the newsroom as I was ready to leave and proceeded to turn the scanner off. Just not down, but off. I’m pretty sure I had a shocked look on my face and I asked him what he was doing. “I don’t have that thing on when I work. I like it quiet in here” he said. I responded by saying that he must not like his job which was my gentle way of suggesting he should turn it back on because he didn’t want to suffer the consequences. He didn’t last long, but I’m not sure if his preferred quiet newsroom led to his departure.
A Big Loss for the Media
That was then and this is now and due to new technology, communications on what used to be an old black box with some knobs on the front will no longer be available to media outlets and people following along at home.
All emergency responders in the province are moving to a centralized radio system. It will be closed and encoded and people using scanners in newsrooms, or in private homes won’t be able to hear what’s going on, according to police.
Will it make a difference to the media? Sure it will.
There are now just a few outlets that have newspeople monitoring police scanners during their shifts to get the latest info from emergency responders. However, police scanners are still a goldmine for daily newspapers, television newsrooms and the odd radio newsroom as well.
Gone will be the days of hearing about a police or fire emergency on a scanner and sending a reporter to the scene, or giving police a call for confirmation and more details. Social media helps get some of this information to newsrooms and reporters, but it doesn’t have the same ability to pass along information that news organizations now get as it’s happening.
As police forces become more restrictive about the information they give to the media, this will be another way of tightening the info released. Police will soon get fewer calls from the media, since they won’t be able to hear breaking news on scanners.
Information gleaned from scanners now also helps the media ask police about specific details from police incidents. When those scanners go silent, reporters will have to take what police give them.
It brings to mind the philosophical line - If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?