Finding Beauty in the Hypnotic Sound of Police Scanners

A window into the steady rhythm of first responders in a major city.

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Eric Eberhardt has long since realized that cities have their own sound across the crackle of the police scanner. "The first thing that jumps out,” he says, "is that the dispatchers will have different accents." Boston, for one, is unmistakable. And Eberhardt added Montreal to his collection early on just to listen to the patter of live crime narrated en français.

Other cities are distinguished by the tempo of activity that hums across the scanner. Portland, Oregon, as you can imagine, sounds somewhat sleepier than Los Angeles. The L.A. feed also includes some odd operations dispatches, discussion of logistics at the parking lot at LAX. “Chicago is definitely very much the police, drug busts and chasing murderers,” Eberhardt continues. “The one I have for San Francisco right now is the Highway Patrol, so they have a totally different perspective, just pulling over speeders.”

Eberhardt broadcasts the police scanner audio from 17 North American cities on his hypnotic website, which remixes the live feeds with strangely complementary ambient music. If you’ve never stumbled on the site – youarelistening.to – it’s an eerie and wonderful way to animate your cubicle on a winter afternoon.

You may also want to hop on before all the good stuff gets encrypted. Police scanners have long been in the public domain (Eberhardt got his first one as a kid growing up in Chicago: "It was sort of a weird, niche-y thing," he says, "not quite maybe as extreme as Ham radio"). But modern technology has made the old-fashioned-sounding dispatches suddenly accessible over the Internet to anyone. Eberhardt draws his feeds from a website called RadioReference.com devoted to the medium (as of this writing, 27,422 people were online there listening, the largest share to the Chicago Police and Fire feed). Many police departments have reacted, not surprisingly, by buying encrypted radios.

So for now, while you can still listen in on Los Angeles and Chicago and Baltimore, Eberhardt’s site offers a window into the steady rhythm of police duty in a major city. The resulting sound is made up as much of white noise and house calls as breathless car chases. But the charm of the site is the mellow background music that blends all of the incidents – cinematic and mundane – into one endless and almost tranquil track. The effect messes with our natural expectation that soundtracks should rise and fall according to the action.

"I totally get what people are saying when they say sometimes that it seems a little creepy to listen to stuff like this," Eberhardt says. "So I certainly don’t sit there for 24 hours a day listening in on peoples’ scanners. But every once in a while, you really get kind of hooked on it, because you hear something on there, and you’re like '…and then what happened?'"

Police scanners, in that way, are practically storytellers. So go ahead and give a listen. We don’t think it’s creepy.

Top image: SSokolov/Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.