Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

How a Webcam Pointed at a Police Radio Won the Internet Friday


The events in Boston — starting Monday with a pair of explosions that killed three and injured 176 near the finish line of the Boston Marathon — came to a dramatic close Friday night with the capture of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of two brothers suspected of carrying out the attacks. He had been hiding out in a boat parked in the backyard of a house in Watertown, Mass.

A furious citywide manhunt brought Boston and surrounding towns to a standstill, and there was little else to do all day but watch the live TV coverage. All day, reporters repeated what they knew, which was precious little beyond the bare facts. One suspect was dead, the other on the run after an intense gunfight with police. The “Breaking News” banners became meaningless, because throughout the day there was not much actual news breaking other than that the search continued.

Not 30 minutes after a news conference during which local officials told Boston residents they could probably go outside again, police engaged in a firefight with the suspect hiding in the boat.


It was at this point that a quarter of a million people, including me, tuned in to the streaming video image of Uniden Bearcat scanner radio picking up publicly available police communications traffic in Boston.

As anyone who’s ever worked at a local newspaper can tell you, the real “breaking news” is often heard on police scanners. And, with right kind of radio, it is perfectly legal to listen in on how cops on the beat and firefighters conduct their business. Listening to the scanner is often how reporters and camera crews know where to go when there’s a story breaking.

The scanner in question was set up in an anonymous home in Framingham, Mass. The owner had inexplicably placed his radio in the bathroom at the base of the toilet, trained a live Webcam on it, and streamed it to Ustream.

Police scanners are so common that enthusiasts have been streaming live audio from the airwaves to the Internet for years. And apps that tap these livesstreams are common on iOS and Android devices.

During a week in which professional media organizations like CNN and the Associated Press had so often failed to meet the standards to which they hold themselves, reporting arrests where none had occurred, the desire for a raw feed and clear information was understandable.

Those listening to the scanner audio naturally turned to Twitter and Facebook, relaying news of the capture to the world, and allowing the city of Boston and the rest of the world to breathe once again. Some thought the scanner stream was not a very good idea. The suspect might have been monitoring social media, the thinking went, and might be tipped off to the movements of police. Unlikely, as police were bearing down on him while he was bleeding in the back of a boat after two exchanges of gunfire during the day.

Space Rogue on Twitter was one of those listening and, at 8:42 pm ET, had the first tweet I saw containing the news:

“Suspect in custody but nobody inside the perimeter, still a hot scene”
Space Rogue

Here’s what the live audio of the capture sounded like. The audio below lasts three and a half minutes, and begins with some routine-sounding traffic. At about the 50-second mark, you’ll hear someone say, “no other elements on the boat, HRT only,” referring to a hostage rescue team that had been called in, presumably to talk to the suspect and negotiate his surrender, if necessary. Then there’s a long, agonizing silence, broken up by indistinct radio noise. At about the 2:45 mark, you’ll hear the first reference to “still a hot scene,” followed by the confirmation “suspect in custody,” and a call for a medic. The cheering of local residents started soon thereafter.

Update: UStream has just published a corporate blog post on this video feed, saying that at its peak, 265,000 people were watching, and that throughout the day more than 2.5 million people tuned in. Half of them were on mobile devices.

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