My Life in Two-Way Radio

Uniden, Radio Shack, Kenwood, Icom and more; I don't have a favorite brand, but certain radios have stood out as the best over the years.
Uniden, Radio Shack, Kenwood, Icom and more; I don’t have a favorite brand, but certain radios have stood out as the best over the years.

As some of you might know, I am a licensed amateur radio operator. My FCC-assigned call sign is kc5tfz, which is also the custom license tag on my Nissan Rogue. I have several friends who are licensed “ham” radio operators, like Michael (kc5und), Michelle (kd5auy), and Dennis (kc7feq). Almost universally, we use our amateur radio privileges less and less. I got my license originally to aid in storm spotting, but like most communications in the 21st century, amateur radio has been, or is in the process of being, replaced by the Internet, or more fundamentally by the “datastream.” Even our personal two-way radio needs are better met by Family Radio Service handheld radios available everywhere. Abby and I each carry one when we hike.

I have made a few antennas in my day, like the occasional j-pole or quarter wave, but I was never all that into it. I am actually pretty good at identifying antennas on towers and vehicles.

As I was driving to Utah a few weeks ago, I had lots of time on my hands, so I decided to make a list of all the police scanners I have owned. It was no small number, due in some part to improvements in technology and changes in the scanning environment, but also due to scanners wearing out and dying. Sometimes even boredom takes a role, and I’ll pick up a scanner as a bargain from a pawn shop or a garage sale just to play with it.

This was my communications stack in the mid 1990s. Most of the scanners in this image have died and been replaced. There is one scanner in one of the cubbies in this image I can't identify. The computer at the top was dug out of the trash at the office of friend of mine - I kept it in my stack for looks.
This was my communications stack in the mid 1990s. Most of the scanners in this image have died and been replaced. There is one scanner in one of the cubbies in this image I can’t identify. The computer at the top was dug out of the trash at the office of friend of mine – I kept it in my stack for looks.

I have a vague recollection of picking up some scanner traffic on an analog multi-band radio I got as a birthday gift when I was a young teenager. I was 15, because I noted it in my journal. “Does this subject want to breath or bleed?” I quoted in my writings. The question was asked to determine if a DUI suspect wanted to take a breathalyzer test or a blood test. I suspect this was on an unpublished frequency, since my radio didn’t pick up the UHF band used at the time by Lawton police.  That was my first experience with listening to public safety communications.

In 1982, I got an internship in a newspaper in Lawton, and there was a scanner in the newsroom, and one in each of the cars the paper owned that we photographers used. I recall that the scanners were the venerable Bearcat III 8-channel crystal-controlled units. They were getting long in the tooth even then, with the emergence of microprocessor-controlled scanners, but they got the job done, since Lawton only used about four frequencies on a regular basis.

I was so enamored of the notion of “spying” on the police and fire departments (which prior to that I thought was illegal) that for my July birthday I asked for a scanner, and my parents obliged. Thus began a hobby that has lasted to this day. The list of scanners I owned throughout the years goes something like this (red ones are dead):

  • Bearcat BC-150, 10 channel (birthday gift 1982.)
  • Radio Shack 4 channel crystal scanner (scanned VHF great, but very poor for UHF, which it was supposed to do.)
  • Bearcat III, 8 channel crystal (garage sale, installed in my first car, a 1973 VW.)
  • Bearcat BC-100, 16 channel, the first ever programmable handheld scanner (bad battery setup, bad antenna design.)
  • Uniden 10 channel with Service Search (installed in VW and later Renault Alliance.)
  • Radio Shack 10 channel handheld (big radio that used six AA batteries, hard to carry, but nice and loud.)
  • Radio Shack Pro-2021 200 channel (scans too slowly; in my car for a short time in the early 1990s, currently in the garage.)
  • Cobra SR-15 100 channel handheld (with leather case, one of the best handhelds I ever owned.)
  • Regency MX-3000 80 channel (slanted front, blue display, worst receiver circuit of any I owned.)
  • Uniden BC760XLT 100 channel mobile (died in stages over about five years.)
  • Uniden 16 channel with 2-digit display x2 (very cheap, good speaker – one was destroyed in a crash in 1990.)
  • Sporty’s Pilot Shop A300 aviation band transceiver.
  • Uniden 500 UBC9000XLT 500-channel (most expensive scanner I even bought, died within three years.)
  • Radio Shack Pro-2026 200 channel (currently in Grand Am, one of the best mobiles I ever owned.)
  • Bearcat BD144XL 16 channel (pawn shop, gave to a friend.)
  • Radio Shack Pro-23 50 channel handheld (bought for next to nothing from a coworker.)
  • Radio Shack Pro-94 1000 channel handheld (confusing “trunk” radio programming, terrible battery performance.)
  • Radio Shack Pro-2035 1000 channel (currently installed at home in our office – an excellent base scanner; fed by a Cushcraft AR270 dual band antenna on the roof)
  • Radio Shack Pro-2039 200 channel (currently installed at home in our office; fed by a Cushcraft AR-2 antenna on the roof. )
  • Alinco DR M06TH 6-meter amateur (not really a scanner, but will scan 30-50 Mhz in addition to 6m; at home, fed by Cushcraft AR-6.)
  • Cherokee AH-50 6-meter amateur handheld (not really a scanner, but will scan 30-50 Mhz in addition to 6m; not in use.)
  • Radio Shack HTX-202 and HTX-404 handheld 2m and 70cm transceivers (not scanners.)
  • Icom IC-207H amateur dual-band + public safety (not currently in use – thinking about putting it in Abby’s truck.)
  • Icom IC-2350H amateur dual-band + public safety (currently installed in Nissan Rogue.)
  • Kenwood TH-79A amateur handheld + public safety
  • Kenwood TH-22A amateur handheld + public safety
  • Uniden BD175XL 16 channel (not in use; given to me by Abby’s late father.)
  • Radio Shack Pro-2030 80 channel (installed at my office; fed by a Radio Shack quarter wave.)
  • Radio Shack Pro-2028 50 channel (installed at my office; fed by a Radio Shack quarter wave.)
  • Uniden BC72XLT “Nascar” handheld 100 channel (one of the best handheld scanners I own because of its small size.)
  • Radio Shack Pro-2055. After installing an additional quarter-wave on the roof, I poked around a couple of pawn shops and found this radio for next to nothing. It will scan trunked radio systems, though most of the agencies in my area are still using conventional channels.

As scanner listeners know, the FCC has mandated that all public safety radio users migrate to a newer band plan designed to use the spectrum more efficiently. Called “rebanding,” this effort requires public safety entities to use less bandwidth and/or digital communications, and signifies a change in the scanning hobby. I don’t know when or how this will affect me, but Ada Police Department has already switched to a digital system that is unscannable using any current consumer products. Our newsroom has a radio that can hear it, but it required permission from the PD and an expensive radio.

The Radio Shack Pro-2055 was added to my home stack July 2012. Although it is not able to be rebanded, its low pawn shop price makes it a good choice for local listening in my area.
The Radio Shack Pro-2055 was added to my home stack July 2012. Although it is not able to be rebanded, its low pawn shop price makes it a good choice for local listening in my area.

I had a few Citizen’s Band (CB) radios over the years, and found them to be just as useless as most of the internet is today, littered with vulgar, ignorant, undisciplined chatter.

Even as I wrote this post, I heard dozens of dispatches, including one that prompted my newsroom into action (though it proved to be less serious than we initially thought.) My wife is annoyed by the daily chatter of the scanner, but I am able to filter it very effectively, and my ears perk up every time I heard a code that corresponds to something that might be newsworthy, like an injury accident, house fire, missing person, high-speed chase, severe weather, and more. The best example of my brain filtering scanner traffic was one night in March 2000. I kept the scanner on at a very low volume level, so that I could barely hear the routine comms, but sirens or urgent voices would wake me, as did, that night, the very urgent words, “The roof of the Ada Evening News is on fire!” After hearing that, I was downtown covering one of Ada’s biggest fires, of the Evergreen Feed Mill, in about three minutes.

So as long as I am able, I’ll be listening.

My main source for scanner frequencies is http://www.radioreference.com/

Nothing says "Get out of bed!" at three in the morning like an urgent voice yelling that downtown is on fire.
Nothing says “Get out of bed!” at three in the morning like an urgent voice yelling that downtown is on fire.
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