Hearing police radio calls with a twist of the dial

While this is a small replica of an old police cruiser, it helps set the tone of the story. It was a gift to a real retired police officer, however.

"Calling all cars… Calling all cars…"

That’s a phrase one in the Cleveland area may have been able to hear on the family radio set in late 1929 or early 1930, provided they happened to have just the right model.

In September 1929, the Cleveland Police Department initiated operation of radio station WRBH on a frequency of 1,712 kilohertz (kHz), which was just above the upper frequency edge of the AM broadcast band. The Cleveland Police Department’s (and region’s) first foray into the then-new world of radio communication with their patrol cars was supposed to be unavailable to the ears of the general public.

As it turns out, though, the frequency originally assigned to their radio station wasn’t quite high enough to escape detection by some AM broadcast band receivers, which either by chance or design were able to tune in signals just a bit beyond the upper frequency limit of the band.

It apparently didn’t take some Cleveland area residents long to discover the enhanced tuning range of their radios. According to an Oct. 3, 1929, story in the Plain Dealer, radio listeners were sending letters to the paper that indicated they found tuning in to police radio dispatches more interesting than the programming carried by regular broadcasters.

To prevent wrong-doers from eavesdropping on radio calls, potentially providing them an early warning of officers' response, in the spring of 1930 (according to a March 8, 1931, Plain Dealer article) WRBH moved to a higher operating frequency, making reception of their signal on a standard radio set impossible.

In those early days of police radio communication the path to officers on patrol was one-way; a dispatcher would send calls out to units in the field but those units could not acknowledge any calls over the air, just hear them on a special receiver installed in their police cruisers. Enhancing their radio communication capability, according to an Oct. 13, 1938, Plain Dealer article, the Cleveland Police Department had just initiated the use of updated two-way radio equipment, giving officers the ability to reply back to the dispatcher or converse between each other over the air.

Cuyahoga County suburbs increasingly relied on WRBH to provide dispatch services for their expanding fleet of police cruisers, until a growing amount of call traffic sent those municipalities on to their own radio systems.

WRBH was initially designed, started-up and run by former shipboard radio telegraph operator, Plain Dealer associate radio editor, talented cartoonist and WHK engineer Ralph C. Folkman. Engineering personnel from broadcast radio station WHK, Mr. Folkman being among them, were instrumental in helping to launch WRBH. Mr. Folkman would end up staying in his role as head of the Cleveland Police Department’s radio room until retiring after 38 years of service.

Dan Hirschfeld

I'm a longtime resident of the Bay Village and Westlake area (Bay 1965 to 1977, then Westlake since) who has always enjoyed living here while seeing lots of change over the years.

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Volume 7, Issue 2, Posted 9:59 AM, 01.20.2015