Ben Shayne of Scan Baltimore
(J.M. Giordano)

The scanner radio sits against the windowsill, its antenna pointed upward, its face glowing. The Uniden BCD396XT doesn't look much different from a walkie-talkie, small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, with a silver face and black trim along the sides. Black wires stretch from the sill along the off-white office wall, connecting the scanner to a computer drive lying on the blue carpet. Though the speaker grill is silent, the audio feed—police dispatches, scene descriptions, and other general radio chatter from the Baltimore Police Department—streams through the computer to Scan Baltimore (scanbaltimore.com), a website which exists to stream "live Baltimore City Police Department (BPD) radio transmissions for all to hear."

Ben Shayne, the 38-year-old Woodberry resident who operates Scan Baltimore, has always had an affinity for technical hardware, with a special connection to police scanners in particular. Sitting in a booth near the entrance to Frazier's, Shayne says it started with visits to his maternal grandfather, who purchased a police scanner when his mother first moved from Brooklyn to the city to attend Notre Dame of Maryland University. "Growing up, I would spend nights at my grandparents' house, and he always had the scanner on," says Shayne. "I would fall asleep listening to the police scanner as background noise. It was always very comforting for me."


Later, Shayne's interest in scanners continued as he made his way through various information-technology-related jobs, including his current one handling IT and security management for Johns Hopkins University. Eventually, he purchased a scanner for himself, but didn't begin sharing his audio feed through Scan Baltimore until around 2006, when he decided to do a favor for a friend of his who was a local crime blogger with Baltimore Crime (baltimorecrime.blogspot.com). "She would often lament that she couldn't get one working at home and listen to it there," he says. "Working with computers and IT, I thought to myself, 'Why couldn't I stream over the internet?' That's where Scan Baltimore started."

He has continued maintenance on the site since then, but says that it's mostly a side hobby he doesn't think about too often. But Shayne, who once owned the nationalbohemian.com domain name, admits that he enjoys "having a site that attracted Baltimore fans."

He does receive occasional emails, most of which he says are supportive, though a few are critical or claim that keeping the website up is breaking the law. According to the Federal Communications Commission's current interpretation of Section 705 of the Communications Act, however, "mere interception of radio communications" related to emergency services such as police or fire departments is legal, leaving those who operate scanners such as Shayne's in the clear unless the scanners are being used in the commission of crimes such as recording wireless phone conversations or stealing cable, for example. As for local law, it depends on the state or jurisdiction, and Maryland and Baltimore currently do not prohibit the use or ownership of scanners for noncriminal purposes.

Still, Shayne is sensitive to some of the critical emails he’s received. “I’m not trying to get anybody hurt, and I’m not anti-police,” he says. “There are some transmissions I don’t broadcast, like transmissions for the narcotics squads or special squads. All you are hearing is the standard district traffic, and that is to keep things on the up and up. I just kind of keep it generic.” (The Baltimore Police Department did not immediately respond to emails asking for comment and they recently asked Ian Duncan to cease live tweeting their scanner during a protest.)

Many of the site's supporters are actually  family or friends of police officers who like to hear if their loved ones are OK. Other supporters share Shayne's interest in scanners and technology. "Most of the emails I get are from people asking how to setup their own scanner," he says. "The vast majority of my correspondence goes, 'I have a scanner. Can you help me?'"

One of the people Shayne helped was Justin Fenton, a crime reporter at the Sun. In 2013, the BPD upgraded its radio equipment, which rendered the Sun's scanner equipment useless. "As far back as anyone can remember, we got our equipment through the Police Department," Fenton writes in an email. "But they wanted to charge us thousands of dollars, and that wasn't going to happen. Instead I bought a Radio Shack scanner, and Ben was really helpful in talking through what to expect."

Having access to the scanner is essential to Fenton's job. "With the degree of difficulty these days in getting information through official channels," says Fenton, whose questions the BPD refused to address for a period of time last year, "the scanner is an important tool, and I think Ben provides a public service by putting it online."

Eric Eberhardt is the Oakland, California-based creator of youarelistening.to, a website which streams audio from online police scanners based in different cities across the country and couples them with jazz and electronic music to create ambient soundscapes. The Baltimore version of the site uses Scan Baltimore's feed, which Eberhardt happened across while adding feeds to his site. "Many people who have contacted me about the site seem to be kind of shocked that listening to scanner audio is legal," Eberhardt writes in an email. "And I think it's interesting to consider why people would make that assumption in a country founded on principles of free speech, government transparence, [sic] and similar ideals."

Though Shayne didn’t start Scan Baltimore for such high-minded reasons, he does like the transparency of  hearing what the city’s public servants maybe up to or dealing with, even if with some modesty. “It comes in handy living in Baltimore City,” he says while finishing up his pint of Guinness. “I like to have access if there’s a bunch of police on my street, and I like to know what’s going on. So I turn on one of my radios, but outside of that, it’s not a big deal.”