You Are Listening To + Radio Net

Roman Mars (RM): You are listening to 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

You are listening… you are lisss…

Eric Eberhardt (EE): My name is Eric Eberhardt and I am the creator of the site You Are Listening to Los Angeles.

RM: And You Are Listening To Chicago, You Are Listening To New York, You Are Listening To Montreal, and You Are Listening To San Francisco.

EE: Last year, after the Giants won the world series, I was out in the streets of San Francisco, checking out all the different celebrations going on, and when I got home, I was looking on Twitter and I saw a lot of people were posting links to what’s happening in their neighborhood, people were out lighting bonfires, and one thing that kept coming up was, hey, check out this San Francisco police radio on SomaFM. So I started listening to it, it was cool, and got bored after a couple of minutes and started putting on some of my music in the background. And something about that- there was a synergy between the police scanner and like the music I was playing that really sounded cool and I wanted to share that with people so that’s where I came up with the idea for the site.

RM: And since it came online on March 6, 2011, I’ve spent what might be considered an inordinate amount of time listening to You Are Listening To.

EE: Some people think it’s peaceful. Some people think it’s creepy.

RM: I think it’s mezmerising. And its elegance is in its simplicity.

EE: So when you load the page, there’s a little javascript file

RM: That pulls in an audio stream from radio reference.com, they provide the police radio audio.

EE: A playlist from Soundcloud, which is a music sharing site

RM: which has been screened by Eberhardt so that playlist only has these dreamy ambient soundscapes that compliment the police scanner audio.

EE: and it also loads the background image.

RM: which is coming from Flickr.

EE: Those are the three main parts. And they’re all coming from sites other than my own.

RM: And it’s all legal and free and only possible because each of the companies provide simple web APIs

Application Programming Interface

RM: That specifically promote this kind of sharing and mashing up.

EE: You can create something new that might not be what the creator intended.

RM: The design choice being made by these sites, the thing that You Are Listening To is exploiting, is a relinquishing of a little bit of the control of their data, in order for that data to spread across the web in ways that they never could have imagined. In this way, outside and independent developers like Eberhardt can act as a kind of R and D department. Radioreference and Flickr and Soundcloud and the artists offering creative commons, royalty-free music on Soundcloud did not imagine this use of their content.

EE: But they do have an API.

RM: They just created a shareable architecture that taps into remixing culture where new ideas can flourish.

EE: Since the site has launched and, word gets around, it’s very popular, I’ve been contacted by lots and lots of artists from Soundcloud. And they all want to be part of it, they all think it’s cool. And they’re asking me, can I have my music included on your site. Now they’re not getting anything out of it. They’re not getting paid, there’s no royalties, there’s nothing like that, but they are getting exposure. I think these are people who posted their music up there because they wanted to share it with people, and now they’re finding they’re sharing it with a lot more people. So it’s kind of like a virtuous cycle I guess where I created something, I’m not looking for anything in return, the artists are getting something out of it, Soundcloud and Radioreference are getting something out of it, because more people are becoming aware of their services. So really, at zero cost to me or the artists, we’re all building something together that really enhances everyone’s work.

RM: Designing for openess allows others to answer the questions that you don’t have the answers to. But its greatest power may be that it allows others to answer the questions that you haven’t even thought to ask.

RM: 99% Invisible was produced by me, Roman Mars, with support from Lunar, making a difference with creativity. It’s a project of KALW, The American Insitute of Architects San Francisco, and the Center for Archtecture and Design. To find out more and subscribe to the podcast, go to 99percentinvisible.org

RM: Hey it’s me, Roman Mars again. We’re done with the radio portion of 99% Invisible and we’re on to the podcast bonus content of the show that people seem to be pretty happy about so I’m going to try to keep doing this if I can. I had another question for Eric Eberhardt about future plans and he brought up an old radio piece that I did. So we’re going to listen to his answer about the sort of evolution and things he wants to do with You Are Listening To, then he’s going to mention something very special to me, here at the end of this clip. So here you go.

EE: Moving forward, I’d like to find a way for people to be able to contribute to this site. So I’m experimenting with more APIs, more services online that allow people to share audio, post their thoughts and their writings about stuff, and then I want to find a way to be able to integrate those into the site, into the audio stream, so that ultimately you can choose between police radio or maybe like the audio equivalent of Twitter. What did you have for breakfast? What was the last thing you watched on television before you went to bed? Because I think all those things mashed together would create an even more interesting kind of mashup of experiences and sounds and textures. I was looking at your website and one of the things was this thing, Radio Net, which that kind of- I’m like oh look someone’s already done this with different technology 20 years ago, but that’s kind of right where I was aiming. Being able to take people’s little short snippets of speech and just throw it in there and see what happens.

RM: So that thing he mentioned, Radio Net, which is by Max Neuhaus, who I was obcessed with, especially in about 2005. I was working for the Third Coast International Audio Festival. I had to track Max Neuhaus down and interviewed him about his various public engagement art project on public radio that he did decades before. So here is the piece that I did for the program Re:sound and so the voice that you’re going to hear is the host of Re:sound, Gwen Macsai. And then you’re going to hear me talking and you, know, it’s about six years ago so it’s a little looser, it’s uhh, not a perfect radio story, but you know, I was still learning. So I hope you enjoy it. And I’ll join you at the other side of this piece.

Gwen Macsai (GM): Basically, radio is a one-way medium. We talk. You listen. Sure, there are public radio call in shows that are meant to sound live, but more often than not, they’re highly edited and reproduced. Listeners hate to hear that. But it’s true. But there have been brief moments in the history of the medium where the airwaves really were a free-for-all, and completely new forms of sound were born. Max Neuhaus makes soundworks that are neither music nor events. He coined the term “sound installation,” and has been the engine behind all sorts of new ways of thinking about and experiencing sound. Our producer Roman Mars tracked Neuhaus down in Italy. Now Roman is responsible for the sound of Re:sound. All the music, voices, odd sounds and effects that you hear in between pieces. And that, I can tell you, is no small task. But when you actually hear Roman on the air, talking, you know it’s because he’s become obcessed with something.

RM: For the show I create these mixes. These sound collages comprised of layered elements that relate to the themes of the program. And one of the elements in this mix, the one that you’re hearing right now, is actually one I use a lot on lots of different shows. But to be able to hear it, we’re going to have to turn down some of this other stuff. So let’s take down the transmissions from Saturn- I don’t know if you recognize those, those are transmissions from Saturn. And theYankee Hotel Foxtrot woman. And the music. That’s the band Miwon. They rule. This. Right there. That’s Radio Net. And for two hours, this played on 200 National Public Radio Affiliate stations in 1977, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. It’s a composition with 10,000 contributing musicians. It’s a sound entity, really. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Radio Net is part of a continuum of broadcast works by Max Neuhaus. Starting with Public Supply I in 1996.

Max Neuhaus (MN): I’m Max Neuhaus. I work with sound as an artist and as an inventor sometimes even. I have done so for most of my adult life, so for the last, let’s see, almost 50 years.

MN: I was asked to do an interview, a radio interview on WBAI in New York and I thought, rather than doing an interview, why don’t I try to do a work that would be for the radio. This was in 1966. At that time there were no radio college shows. So the idea of connecting the telephone network to the radio station, which I wanted to do to make a two-way space out of the radio broadcast rather than just a one-way one, was unheard of. And it was difficult to do, in fact the engineer was so sure that we would have so many bad words broadcast that he refused to consider the project except as an interview. So he said, in the end he would put the microphone in the studio for two hours and what I put into the microphone was up to me. So I got ten telephone lines installed into this WBAI studio and built a kind of Ruth Goldberg automatic answering system because in 1966 there were no answering machines either. Which allowed me to, from a homemade box, a homemade mixer, uh, control, uh, pickup the phone and mix sounds. Which I put into an amplifier and put a loudspeaker in front of his microphone. And when it was time to go on air, he went on air.

MN: It was just like a funny kind of party but everybody wasn’t seeing eachother, everybody was listening to each other. And the way I describe it now is kind of a live- it was a wild, live sound collage with people. Aso hearing their own voices on the radio was, you know, a startling thing. At that time, not many people had tape recorders so hearing your own voice was a revelation. So it’s quite exciting. Yes, I mean it was raw and wild. In fact there wasn’t any swearing and WBAI kept its lisence.

RM: There were a couple iterations of Max Neuahus’ public supply, including a Peabody Award-winning broadcast on WFMT in Chicago, where collage voices activated special instruments in addition to coming through clearly, so that what they were saying could actually be understood. And what do people say when they’re given the opportunity to be on the air for the very first time? The answer is: kind of the same ‘hi mom’ hand waving goofy sorts of things that they do when they’re given the opportunity today.

RM: A few years later, a fairly new and compared to today, much more experimental NPR came calling. And offered Max the opportunity to do the exact same thing, but on a nationwide scale. Which brings us back to Radio Net.

National Public Radio presents Radio Net. A live, nation wide composition by Max Neuhaus.

MN(?): Radio Net is a piece of music. In this case we’ll be using the National Public Radio network to actually generate a piece of music from sound material phoned in by anyone from anywhere. I think the most important thing for the listener to realize is that we’re making a piece of music and all one really has to do is listen with an open mind.

NPR now invites you to become part of Radio Net. Dial any one of the following telephone numbers…

MN: At that point I was really fighting, you know, this idea that music could be made another way. This idea of really activating a lay public and inventing their own music. It was from Mars!

RM: Radio Net sounds different from Public Supply for a number of reasons. Neuhaus took advantage of the NPR distribution syste of the time, called a Round Robin, which connected all the 200 stations. And how this was normally used was that a station would feed a program to all the others by breaking into this Round Robin telephone line and sending it around the loop. So Neuhaus picked five cities: New York, Dallas, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles, and subdivided the network into five loops, each point having its own automatic mixer, which selected fractions of the sound that were being fed in by the phone callers. So during the broadcast, sounds phoned into each city passed through its self-mixer and started looping. With each cross-country pass, each sound made another layer overlapping its self at different pitches, until it gradually died away. It was the activation of an entire continent into a sound transformation box that was literally 1,500 miles wide by 3,000 miles long, with five ins and outs, emerging in Washington DC, where Max Neuhaus sat and mixed them all together, controlling this five-headed animal so that it didn’t spin off into a massive feedback loop.

MN: It was a fantastic moment. I mean, to go from one station with a twenty-mile radius to transcontinental in eleven years, its quite amazing, yes.

RM: So Max, what was NPR’s take on this? Because it was live, so they had never heard it before so, I mean, I imagine their collective jaws were just on the floor.

MN: It was risky and they were really in shock after it was over. They didn’t want to do it again, they were really terrified. In the beginning- all these pieces terrorized people because they’re afraid there’s going to be one minute of dead air. I mean like this. How horrible! 30 seconds and they’re in panic! I mean, Radio Net is really quite beautiful and it’s not hard to listen to. But still, two hours, for them, of prime time Sunday afternoon on the Sunday after New Year’s really put them in shock, but in a way I had them and they had me. We were there for two hours. But there was nobody talking about a repeat performance in 1978. They were like, god, we lived through it, we’re going to have to cover our asses somehow! They were in shock. NPR was in shock.

RM: Well Radio Net was definitely a moment in time, along with Public Supply. But, do you think that there are bigger lessons for radio in these works?

MN: Certainly radio did take this idea and it shaped it to fit its own. The idea of a call-in show now, even though it’s on the other end of the spectrum, at least it’s two-way and it’s instantaneous. You know, if you put out a call for callers to call in, you get immediately what certain people who are willing to call in are thinking about. Even though it’s very controlled and moderated. And that, I think, is very positive.

RM: The irony of all this work is that, at the time, Max Neuhaus forbade these conversations from being recorded. His idea was that they existed as entites that any listener should be able to modify what they were hearing by contributing to the composition-something that couldn’t happen if it was a music recording. He was very strict about this. No recording was to be made. And as best I can tell, not one engineer at WBAI or WFMT or National Public Radio listened to him. Which is the only reason why they’re availible to be heard today. Because you can violate a lot of rules. You can turn a one-way medium like radio into a two-way communication device and synthesizer. You can put people’s voices on the air, unmoderated and unfiltered, but under no circumstances can you stop a radio engineer from recording a sound.

GM: Our producer, Roman Mars, talking with sound artist Max Neuhaus. The next evolution in Max Neuhaus’ broadcast work is called Auracle. That’s A-U-R-A-C-L-E. And it’s sort of an online version of Radio Net. But it’s 24 hours a day and anyone can play. You can find a link on the Re: sound page at thirdcoastfestival.org.

RM: So that’s the story of Radio Net and Max Neuhaus. Max died a couple of years ago. I think he’s just the greatest so I’m really sad that he’s gone. I’ll have a link to Max Neuhaus’ website, as well as the Third Coast International Audio Festival, that I worked for for just over three years. And they’re great and they have a program called Re: sound that I helped work on for a long time. Their website is amazing and they’re just a great group and if you want to stay on top of all the really amazing things in radio, you should go to thirdcoastfestival.org. Alright. that’s the show for this week. I’ll talk to you next week. We have lots of cool stuff, I guarantee it! Take care.

Comments (3)

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  1. Rick

    What is the track during the You Are Listening To segment with the mellow almost celestial whistle? This is going to drive me crazy!

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