Wanted/Needed/Loved: Donna Dresch’s World of Radio

By

I’m a Navy brat so we always moved around every year, sometimes even more often. When I was a kid my parents gave me this stuffed animal dog radio. It got AM stations, and I remember at night, which is the best time for radio, I would listen to Dr. Demento. From then on, I was fascinated.

My grandfather and my dad had radios, too. I would sneak down into the basement and mess around with their CBs, short wave radios, and police scanners. I loved listening to all kinds of people—all talking on different “secret” frequencies.

I also pretended I was a truck driver. I even had a CB handle, but I can’t tell you what it was—it’s too embarrassing. Let’s just say that I was really into Dogtown skateboards at the time. The logo formed a cool looking cross DOG horizontal and TOWN vertical, intersecting at the O. My CB handle was a word combination based on that.

One Christmas, sometime around 1987, my parents got me my first handheld BearCat scanner. I needed to know everything that was going on around me. I’d hear police reports, of course, and sometimes private conversations people were having on the phone.

When I lived in DC I heard some really good ones—like there was this one couple who would talk on the phone for hours on end. He wanted to try and get it to go dirty so he would be like, “What are you wearing?” And she just wanted to sing. He would try to do everything he could to keep her on the phone, but she would just start singing again, “The greatest love of all…” These conversations would go on and on until I just couldn’t listen anymore.

As I got more familiar with my scanner, I learned more and more, like what people were saying in code and what the codes meant. For example, 415 (a fight!) in San Francisco is not the same as it is in Portland. Portland uses an entirely different code system. Now that the internet exists, you can just look this stuff up online. But back then you had to listen to learn the lingo or consult this giant book full of frequencies and codes for every city. It was like a nationwide Yellow Pages of radio.

My scanner traveled with me everywhere, and when Team Dresch went out on tour, our van had a kickass CB radio in it. We would talk to truckers, listen to FM stations left of the dial, and pick up some AM stations from really far away. When I was with Fifth Column, I remember driving across the Arizona desert and getting Art Bell or some other weird alien conspiracy radio show broadcasting from San Francisco, and then we would be in Texas and still hearing it.

When I moved to Portland again in 2003, they’d upgraded their scanner system, and my scanner was too old to pick up the transmissions. A new one was about $400, which was a lot of money, so I waited and waited for like ten years but the price never came down. I tried using iPhone apps, which can roughly give you the channels you want, but then for my birthday this year my girlfriend, Sarah, gifted me a beautiful Uniden BCD436hp.

It’s a handheld trunk tracking scanner. It even has GPS, and if I travel it will self-adjust to the channels wherever I am. When I go on tour now, I can hear what’s going on in Durham, in New York, Philadelphia—wherever we happen to be at the time.

Another thing I loved, which is now obsolete, is low-wattage transmitters that operated outside the FCC regulations. People would set up a bunch around the city and link the broadcasts, so one pirate broadcast could cover the whole city and not get busted. Still, I personally like having a handheld radio that lets me know what’s happening anytime, anywhere. If I’m in Portland, but there’s something newsworthy going on anywhere else I can know what’s happening on the ground way more than I can find out by watching TV or reading the news.

Kaia, my Team Dresch bandmate, says I have prepper tendencies and I like to help. At least a couple of times a week I get somebody calling me like, “What’s going on at 53rd and Burnside?” I have a secret Instagram group for people who want to hear this stuff—it’s basically my own personal news channel.

Kaia says that for me radio is sort of like Chainsaw, the zine I made in the late 80s and turned into a record label. It’s about connecting with other likeminded people, near and far. They’re out there somewhere. They want to know what’s really going on. You just have to know how to reach them.

***

Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.

***

Donna Dresch is best known as the founder, guitarist, and bass guitarist of the pioneering punk/queercore band Team Dresch. First active from 1993–1998, the band reformed in 2004. This spring they re-released their back catalogue on Jealous Butcher Records, followed by two new singles including “Your Hands in My Pockets” and “Basket.”


Allyson McCabe writes and produces stories about music for NPR, and her own subscription-based channel, Vanishing Ink. Esme Blegvad is originally from London but is now Brooklyn-based. Her work has also appeared at Rookie and VICE. More from this author →