Bad News Beepers

Considering the reputation that pagers and beepers had as a tool for drug trafficking, especially in schools. Did it smother a legitimately useful technology?

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: There’s always a point of constant debate that happens in education around the smartphone. As anyone who has played Candy Crush or dragged a thumb through TikTok can tell you, it is a highly distracting tool, but it is also basically impossible to extract from the hands of teenagers these days, for one important reason: Parents want them to have it, so they can reach them—a discussion point of a recent Atlantic piece. “I asked why they couldn’t just ban phones during school hours,” writer Jonathan Haidt, an ethicist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, wrote. “They said too many parents would be upset if they could not reach their children during the school day.” But it was not always this way, and in fact there was a period where mobile electronics were effectively banned in most schools. And one of the most interesting devices of this type to be banned was the beeper or pager. For those of you who don’t remember when beepers ruled the land, today’s Tedium offers a primer. — Ernie @ Tedium

(Thanks to Dave Weigel for posting something that led me to this idea.)


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The year that Al Gross, an inventor of radio technology who also has early claims on the creation of the walkie-talkie and Citizen’s Band radio, first developed the pager, a device that was built specifically for doctors, who clearly had a need to be contacted in the case of medical emergencies. Doctors were skeptical of the devices at first, but it didn’t prevent them from being implemented in a NYC-area hospital within a year of their invention.

Early Beeper

While we’ve mostly moved to cell phones in most other walks of life, doctors still use these things. (Hades2k/Flickr)

The problem with pagers is that they could be used by anyone—and “anyone” included drug dealers

When I was in the 8th grade, I watched a substitute teacher dress down a student who had a beeper in his pocket. It was the late ’90s, just a few years before cell phones ruled the land. (Surprisingly, I was a late bloomer on the mobile-phone front: I didn’t get one until 2003.)

The teacher, walking through the aisles, was made aware of the vibration on the guy’s leg. He had clearly forgotten that he had it on him. But it was clear that the dude was getting disciplined for what he had. I’m sure he got suspended.

In a vacuum, in any other setting this would sound insane—a guy who had a device on him that made a basically silent notification that he wasn’t responding to when he was there—but the cultural climate played a big role in this fairly ugly interaction.

See, by this time, the pager had gained a reputation as being a tool primarily for drug dealers, especially when one appears in a school. There was an immediate assumption that these devices, originally designed for doctors, were only good for drug dealers to contact one another. This reputation seems to have picked up nationally in the late 1980s, when Time Magazine picked up on the trend in 1986.

“Beepers are the single most common tool of the drug trade,” Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Curtis Hazell told the magazine.

A turning point in the trend came in the summer of 1988, after The Washington Post wrote about the phenomenon specifically tying drug dealers with beepers to local schools, which appears to have kicked off a national trend in media coverage, based on the growing number of mentions of the subject after the story’s release. As the piece by Jonathan M. Moses notes:

Sales of paging devices in the Washington area and across the nation jumped 25 percent last year, according to industry officials. In fact, the use of beepers, which confer status among young people, has become so prevalent that the Prince George’s County and Baltimore school systems prohibit students from wearing them at school.

The increased use of beepers as part of the drug trade has caused Washington area beeper services to devise methods for weeding out illegitimate clients, such as tightening credit checks for potential buyers. Similarly, law enforcement officials have begun to refine tactics for combating the use of beepers in drug transactions -- including monitoring beepers and issuing subpoenas for devices seized in drug arrests.

One number cited in the story by Moses, an estimate from federal narcotics agents, suggested that 90 percent of drug dealers used pagers in the field, and were introduced to them through the Columbian drug trade.

The thing is, though, while beepers were getting used by drug dealers, the real problem is that they were being used by every walk of life—just like cell phones are. Some of the earliest stories about the topic made this exact point. As an August 1983 piece from New York magazine put it:

Doctors, construction workers, repairmen on service calls, and pilots and stewardesses were early beeper users. So were drug dealers and prostitutes, says David Post, chairman of PageAmerica, one of the faster-growing companies in the field, “but doctors were the sole high-status users.” Today, the market is expanding so fast and becoming so chic that Time magazine sees beepers becoming “the most popular portable electronic devices since the Sony Walkman.”

Pay Phone

In at least one case, touch-tone pay phones, like the device above, were replaced with rotary pay phones just to discourage the use of beepers. (Robin Jonathan Deutsch/Unpslash)

Was there smoke to the fire about this? Certainly, the anecdotes, both from law enforcement, phone companies, and the sellers of the pagers themselves, suggested that there might be.

A few examples I found:

  1. One recent Minnesota transplant told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in the 1987 that, when he was working in Florida, nearly half of his devices went to drug dealers.
  2. In nearby St. Paul, the phone company U.S. West actually went to the step of replacing tone-dialing pay phones with rotary phones, in an attempt to prevent drug dealers from dialing pagers.
  3. A police sergeant, speaking in a 1992 piece from the Ventura County Star, said that pagers were so common at drug arrests that it was actually more surprising to not see them. “I can’t think of one recently when they weren’t involved,” the officer said.

The reputation of pagers as a tool of the illegal trade carried through to entertainment as well. In one article, a narcotics officer specifically blamed Miami Vice and other TV shows for making pagers popular with criminals. “They see the crooks on TV using the stuff, so they think it’s a good idea,” the officer said.

Maybe there was a case for it. For example, The Wire got a whole episode out of the idea of tracing pagers.

In the modern day, this reputation has shifted somewhat, with later shows like Better Call Saul leaning more on untraceable burner phones, which Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman sold as an employee of a mobile phone store.

But to be clear, these devices carried cultural cachet beyond simply committing crimes. They were a status symbol, something that famous musicians like Sir Mix-A-Lot and A Tribe Called Quest played into.

As Tribe’s “Skypager,” a key part of the landmark album The Low End Theory, opens: “Do you know the importance of a skypager?”

From a reputational standpoint, the problem with pagers was ultimately that not enough people knew the importance of skypagers—and that created myths that damaged their reputation, arguably unfairly.

The pagers were an external symptom of an unrelated problem.

“The uses of pager systems have seemingly become as varied as the human imagination.”

— A 1982 UPI wire piece, one of the earliest to make a direct association between pagers and the illicit acts of drug dealing and prostitution. Jeff Prough, the director of sales and marketing for the pager firm Ram Beepers, told the wire service that there was nothing they could do about illicit uses—at least before the purchases were made—as they would not conduct criminal background checks on customers for ethical reasons. “Occasionally we get beepers in the mail that police confiscated in (drug and prostitution) raids and send back to us,” he said.

Beeper Examples

A collection of beepers from different eras. (Hades2k/Flickr)

But why were pagers specifically seen as dangerous in schools?

When broken down, pagers didn’t do very much—especially compared to modern smartphones. In many ways, they were essentially the equivalent of pinging someone with a very limited text, often just numbers.

They just happened to have a reputation with being used with one specific industry because they were useful for that industry, and that reputation, for years, cast a pall over the entire category.

And given that we were in the height of the war on drugs, at a time when schools were trying to sell students on DARE, it makes sense that the reaction was heightened. A 1988 article from the Chicago Tribune discussing a beeper ban in the city’s schools highlighted this point. The city banned beepers at public or private schools, with the risk of a fine between $200 and $500. (Exceptions were made for police, fire, or medical personnel.) Alderman William Beavers, a longtime member of the Chicago City Council, sponsored the bill.

“If kids have beepers, it means they are dealing drugs,” Beavers said. “I know that because I come from the streets. If a kid has a beeper and isn’t a doctor or lawyer, then he must be a witch doctor.”

Beeper Ban

An example headline discussing this topic, from the Chicago Tribune circa 1988. (via

This sentiment wasn’t unheard of outside of big cities, either, and it led to aggressive rulemaking. In Newport News, Virginia in 1996, a 5-year-old received a long-term suspension because he brought a beeper to school and showed it to his classmates—with the suspension only cut because the aggressive punishment received media attention. This led to a district-wide rethink of a rule that had grown increasingly controversial.

The situation reflected a shifting point of view on the devices: Pagers were, in fact, legitimately useful for regular people who didn’t know the first thing about drugs. All the arguments made about pagers at this time ignored the basic fact that, before the pager, we had no easy way to contact people in real time when necessary.

Everything critical said about pagers at this juncture could basically be said about any kind of communication technology, if seen in a certain light. Phones can be used for drug deals, as can the internet. The problem with beepers was that, because of some legitimate concerns about one illicit use case, public leaders were smothering all other legitimate use cases before they actually got off the ground.

(Could you imagine if school districts prevented the internet from taking hold because of the risk that someone might send a questionable email?)

Over time, the reputation of pagers, at least in some school districts, started to soften. They gained a reputation as a mere status symbol, rather than a sign that illegal activity was about to go down.

A 1995 piece in the Spokane, Washington Spokesman-Review offered a useful contrast to the school administrators who took a blanket-ban approach to pagers. Fittingly, it was written by a teenager who later would become a professional writer herself, Sharma Shields. The title of the piece says it all: “From The Hip: Students Wear Beepers For Many Reasons—They’re Not All Dealing Drugs.” In the piece, Shields (who went by Sharma Shields Ferris at the time) pointed out the many, many legitimate use cases for them:

“Different people own them for different reasons,” said Charlie McMichael, a senior at Rogers. “If you don’t know what that reason is, you shouldn’t label them.”

McMichael bought a pager when he started working for the Spokane Police Department as an Explorer.

“It’s easier for the commanding officer to get ahold of me,” he explained. “If I wasn’t an Explorer, I wouldn’t have it.

“Everyone pages me, though. My parents and friends find it convenient since I’m never home.”

Beepers have other uses, too. Stephanie McLeod, a Deer Park freshman, received her beeper so her mother, who has severe arthritis, could call her in case of an accident. Others, for the most part, bought them because of their busy schedule.

“It’s been great,” McLeod said. “Everyone can contact me, no matter where I am.”

Some of these more positive responses to the rise of the pager even hit the mainstream press, including a long Associated Press feature that highlighted the fact that many fields that had nothing to do with drug dealing had come to embrace these devices. The piece spoke of a mother who had a babysitter share information about her daughter’s blood-sugar levels to ensure that her diabetes was being properly managed, and restaurants that would hand pagers to diners waiting on a reservation.

In many ways, the AP piece highlights both the technophobia and the discriminatory nature of beepers that led them to be blocked in schools and elsewhere:

Many people forced to carry beepers for work consider them a pain. Technocritics call them strangling electronic leashes. But those who get beepers mainly for personal use—about half of new subscribers, according to the Washington-based research firm Economic and Management Consultants Inc.—say their beepers set them free.

One factor that likely helped the pager’s image rehabilitation was a concerted effort by the pager industry, particularly Motorola, to start promoting these devices as something that would specifically benefit communication between parents and their kids. A couple of commercials from the mid-1990s highlight this point in action:

The first shows a busy mother attempting to navigate the complexities of her schedule with a trio of school-age kids, something she was clearly struggling with. The commercial ends with one of the daughters passing along a pocketable electronic device by “Mom, I’ve got a better idea: We’ll page you,” the daughter says.

The second, meanwhile, shows a teen attempting to convince his father that a pager has many positive benefits for tracking him down when he’s out and about. The dad buys the argument, but tells him he needs to shave—because as everyone knows, the second-most-stigmatized cultural phenomenon in the ’90s was the high schooler trying in vain to grow a beard.

This obviously worked well enough that the pager ultimately started to be accepted some places—though I’ll note that they were still banned from my own high school when I graduated in 1999.

I don’t think educators, administrators, or politicians were trying to block a useful type of technology thoughtlessly, but by painting pagers in a corner, that’s what ended up happening. It took the pager industry standing up for its technology, and for larger swaths of people finding use cases for this tool, to defeat this closed-minded approach to a legitimately useful technology.

Good thing, too, because it was entirely possible that reputation would have carried through to cell phones.


The year that Motorola released the first two-way pager, the Motorola Tango, which greatly shifted the use cases for pagers over time. This proved to be an important bridge device, as texting became a key use case of most mobile devices released after that point. Suddenly, returning a phone call after a page was no longer necessary.

I think there’s actually a deep irony in the current conflict over cell phones in classrooms, given the past tenor of the discussion around beepers near the end of the 20th century.

While I don’t doubt to some degree school districts actually had problems with beepers in the ’80s and ’90s, there appears to be an actual point at which the cultural reputation came to reshape the true functionality of the devices—especially when in many cases, the pages were one-way communication devices.

Honestly, if the problem is that kids are too distracted by smartphones, maybe the real solution is to rethink the beeper. We have better technology than we did 35 years ago, and that technology could be used to minimize distractions. Think, for example, of a pager with a screen made of e-ink that limited the number of contacts in a given day parents could make to their kids, and limited who could be added to the pager itself. It could even be attached to a device that would be impractical to get sucked into throughout the day, like a backpack, to discourage its use at inopportune times.

The problem with beepers was never the technology, which solved a legitimate problem for many people, but the social stigma that was unfairly attached to them. That made authority figures see them as a dangerous problem, rather than a device that could have realistic benefits for certain use cases.

Ultimately, if pagers didn’t exist, the behavior that critics were attacking would have existed in society anyway. And while it might have solved some crimes to target it, for example, it might have limited the spread of a tool that could have arguably improved safety in many cases.

The rise of the cell phone as something that even children own highlighted the truth: Parents would want a way to contact their kids that wasn’t purely orchestrated by the school. It was a way to cut out the middle man—if you wanted to call your mom, no need to find a payphone or go to the principal’s office.

In some ways, I think the beeper was a signifier of a loss of control for school districts—one that would be further exacerbated, and couldn’t be prevented, by the cell phone. While conceding that, yes, drug dealers probably used these devices, beepers carried a social stigma that the cell phone didn’t.

And I think one could make the case that, now that the world has seen the uptake of a multifunctional device that does create real distraction issues, there may actually be a window where the pager, or at least something like it, makes sense again in certain settings where it once might have been verboten.

The problem was never the tech. It was the reputation we gave the tech.


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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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