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It's rush hour in South Florida, and reports of car accidents, nasty traffic jams, and petty crimes blast at boom-box strength in John Wolmer's Oakland Park home office. Surrounding him on a u-shaped desk are 40 noisy scanners spitting out police chatter picked up from West Palm Beach to Miami. The sound of so many voices is overwhelming, particularly because it's combined with ear-splitting squeals and computerized buzzing meant to catch the attention of dozing cops. Wolmer has listened to this headache-inducing background music day after deafening day for 23 years.
Every once in a while, those scanners deliver something that catches Wolmer's ear. Maybe it's only a dead body; there are plenty of those. Or maybe it's a plane crash, though he's rarely that lucky. Most likely, it's an Interstate 95 pileup or a domestic dispute turned violent. "You have your average Dade County shootings -- you might have ten a night," Wolmer drones. "The real cool things are planes down, fires through roofs, major accidents."
When he hears a noteworthy transmission, which he says happens about 15 times a day, Wolmer, a blue-eyed, balding 55-year-old with a pleasant smile, punches a few lines of text into his PC. Seconds later, the message appears on cell phones carried by reporters and editors from a dozen South Florida news operations.
TV news directors and newspaper editors have hired Wolmer to take over what has long been considered the newsroom's dirtiest job: listening to the mind-numbing chatter on police radios. Companies like Wolmer's News Busters have existed for decades in some major cities, including Washington, D.C., and New York, but they generally employ people who respond to police scenes and sell photos or footage to the highest bidder. These firms have prospered because many TV news operations have reduced staff while increasing the number of minutes of broadcast time, says Al Tompkins, an instructor at the Poynter Institute, a training center for journalists in St. Petersburg. In addition, new technology has made it more difficult for newsrooms to keep track of police activity. "It used to be that any boneheaded reporter could pick stuff up off scanners," Tompkins says. "But it's gotten a lot harder."
Wolmer started News Busters with his wife, Janet, in 1979 after a chance phone call. The couple ran a bait business out of their home and listened to police scanners to pass the time. One night, they heard a report of a plane crash and called WPLG-TV (Channel 10), which broadcast a story on the event. After that, he says, Channel 10 paid him about $25 every time he called in something that made the air. For the next year, Wolmer recalls juggling both businesses, often phoning in the news while coated with fish guts. Then he says he realized the financial potential of scanner monitoring and dropped his bait business. He has since spent $50,000 on equipment, including a 35-foot tower behind his home that set him back $6000.
He's earned far more. Wolmer won't say how much news outlets pay him, but he claims to make more than $50,000 a year. He has a Corvette in the garage of his home, which is appraised at $250,000, and a $167,000 vacation home upstate. Still, Wolmer says his work isn't something others should covet. "This is a horrible business," he says in his living room, the two portable scanners in his lap and the macabre song of the radios drifting from his office. "I wouldn't wish this on anybody."
Wolmer wasn't the first person in South Florida to try monitoring scanners for a living. Bob and Carol Sherman started a similar business five years before Wolmer, back in 1974, in their North Miami Beach home. But they acknowledge that they have lost much of their business to Wolmer in the past few years and now serve only the Herald and a few TV stations.
A feud began between the two companies about five years ago when Wolmer aggressively outbid him, Bob Sherman says. "He promised to put me out of business," claims Sherman, who says he used to be a freelance photographer for major magazines. Sherman gets angry when asked who's better at listening to the scanners. "I have journalism background coming out of my ears. This guy has fishing line coming out of his."
Wolmer concedes he has no background in journalism but insists news directors and editors asked him to expand his service because the Shermans were failing. He says he works with the Boca Raton News, the Herald's offices outside Miami-Dade County, the Sun-Sentinel, WIOD-AM (610), and channels 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 23, and 25. He asserts that the Herald's office in Miami is the Shermans' only remaining customer.
The dispute between Sherman and Wolmer hasn't always been civil. Sometime after news organizations began switching to Wolmer, his phone was flooded with hang-ups all day and night, according to court records. Wolmer says he put up with it for nearly two years before asking police to put a trace on his line. The trace, and then a search of phone company records, showed that the Shermans had made hundreds of hang-ups. Bob Sherman pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge in June 1998, and a judge sentenced him to six months of probation and 50 hours of community service.