Downtown neighbors create a radio network using hand-held walkie-talkies.
LEWISTON – It wasn’t clear whether they came to help or to watch a fight, but when Skydiver put out the call last Wednesday, his friends came running.
“Hey, you guys, you better get down to Kennedy Park right away,” a breathless Skydiver, otherwise known as John Emerson, said into his walkie-talkie. He’d just punched a radio rival, who goes by the on-air nickname “Gimpy,” in the mouth, and he wanted to talk about it.
About a dozen people descended on Kennedy Park, but the fight fizzled.
“He punched me, I punched him back and it was done,” Emerson said later.
But for the rest of the afternoon, Emerson’s radio friends and rivals chattered on channel 7, gossiping about what they saw or what they missed.
Emerson and his impromptu network rely on cheap hand-held radios to keep up to date. They gossip, argue, flirt and shout to each other 24 hours a day.
“We watch out for each other,” Emerson said. “If anything goes down, there’s a whole bunch of people we can tell. We have our eyes out everywhere.”
The radios cost less than cell phones, and there are no monthly fees.
“Most of us down here don’t have a phone,” said Whitney Stevens, who goes by the on-air nickname “Lil Bit.”
For $40, you can get a pair of plastic walkie-talkies. They’re not toys, and manufacturers boast they can have a range of up to 12 miles.
The radios use the Family Radio Service, or FRS, frequencies. That’s a band of 14 UHF channels set aside by the FCC for free, general use. No licenses are required. The radios have been popular for years with families hiking, camping or trying to keep track of each other at sporting events and shopping malls.
Road crews, restaurants and hotels use them as well. Emerson picked up his first pair working as a flagger on a road-construction crew. He’s been listening to the radios at home since last September, but the downtown Lewiston network didn’t really jell until about February.
“First one person got one, than another, then another,” said Billie Jo Hawkes, who alternately answers to the nicknames “Pebbles” and “Sweetness.” She guesses there are 50 people with radios tuning into the Lewiston chatter at various times.
“The radios might be quiet, but there’s always somebody listening,” Stevens said.
Some users are shut-ins whose only contact with the outside is by radio. Others monitor police scanners, relaying information about police activity back to the network.
Sometimes, they help police.
“One time, we saw five guys go after another guy, and we had someone call the police,” Emerson said. He likens the network to a neighborhood watch group.
Police may not see it that way. They don’t want the radio listeners to gather and gawk at crime scenes or to warn away criminals. But, on the whole, they are seen as benign.
“I have not been on a call and had them be helpful or hurtful, either way,” said police Sgt. Mike Parshall. “They haven’t really done anything.”