I love Internet radio, I really do. As someone who has recently discovered a love for playing with sound, Internet radio has offered me opportunities that would have been unheard of for someone like me 20 years ago. Massive distribution at such a cheap cost has opened doors to countless artists interested in exploring But I wonder if “Internet Radio” isn’t something of a misnomer. I recently encountered Helen Thorington’s excellent article discussing radio as a medium for art and it’s evolution into the networked world. As I read, I began to notice parallels between the kinds of work she observed being created on the ‘Networked Performance’ blog, and the early days of electronic music – particularly where she says,
“work was being produced by a growing generation of programming-capable artists, artistically minded engineers, architects, academics and others – many of whom did not identify as artists – all repurposing objects from the everyday world, embedding unfamiliar functions in them.”
This sounds a lot like what was happening in the early days of synth or computer music – when music was being made not only by musicians and composers, but by the programmers and engineers themselves – and also strongly echoes Lev Manovich’s ideas on ‘programmer as artist.’ But I digress.
Where Thorington lost me a bit was in her argument that the Internet is simply the next phase in the evolution of radio art. To this I would counter that, while both have their merits and the ability to distribute similar kinds of work, radio transmission is an entirely different virtual space than the Internet, with not only different physical qualities and protocols, but also very different in how it is are situated culturally and economically. When the Local Community Radio Act passed back in January, a friend of mine and I were discussing it and he said something like “honestly, I don’t know why anyone would want to use the airwaves anymore when they could have an Internet radio station more easily and cheaply.” This started me thinking about the differences between the 2 media, and off the top of my head I can identify at least 5 reasons someone would want to use radio instead of the Internet as a virtual space for art:
1. Historical weight. Radio is a comparitively older medium, and the one that a rich history including 2 world wars and has been used not only for entertainment, but for military operations, propaganda dissemination, education, and art. Not that the Internet hasn’t been used for all those things, but the radio airwaves have a much longer legacy of these kinds of communication – thus adding to its (what I call) historical weight (which some may call nostalgia).
2. Sound – The sound of a radio transmission is MUCH different than sound on the Internet. While the latter has an (annoyingly) near-perfect tone, radio always sounds imperfect to me… always somewhat static infused, always reminding us that we are hearing a signal through the noise.
3. Experience – How we experience the two mediums is also wildly different. Radio can be listened to while working, driving, lying in bed. Granted, podcasts can too, but for me radio has a much more ‘sudden,’ ‘live’ or maybe ‘accidental’ quality to it. By that I mean that podcasts imply intent on the part of the listener, i.e. listeners have to search it, download it.. so obviously it must be something that they act with intent towards as part of the act of listening. What I love about radio is that you can “happen upon” a station and hear something you weren’t expecting. This may be the most salient difference, in my opinion. The reason TV is still TV even though the underlying technology has changed radically, is that the experience isn’t radically different (with a few obvious exceptions.. the remote control e.g.). We still sit on our asses on the couch, eat chips and passively consume. When we watch a TV show on our phone, we never say we’re ‘watching TV.’
4. Community – Even simply by virtue of the fact that most radio only covers a limited geographical radius, it implies a geographical community which is obviated when something is broadcast to the entire world on the Internet. One of the reasons I think the Local Community Radio Act is so important is because it is broadcast to such a narrow audience. This limitation will force the programming to be relevant to a geographical community and (hopefully) encourage people to think socially and politically on a more local level than they are used to.
5. Cultural/economic implications – Far more people in the world have a radio (or access to a radio) than have the Internet, which has still only penetrated less than a third of the world population. I was recently looking at documentation of a “radio piece” done at Uniondocs a few years ago called Chorus of Refuge, which was “a sound installation that transmits the stories of six refugees, living in different cities across the U.S. to six radios.” The voices are broadcast simultaneously and synced up so the overall effect is that of a chorus, or symphony of voices. The reason they used radio as a medium is because radio is how many in the refugee communities get their news and information, and certainly is more prevalent than the Internet in Third World countries.
The Chorus of Refuge piece brought up a lot of questions for me about the medium of radio, and specifically about how they used it in this piece. For example, they never really mention where the broadcasts in the installation were originating (or how they synced them up) which made me wonder if they just had some transmitter in the back room that was only broadcasting to the building. If so, then is it really radio? I mean, I know they were using radios (the objects), but is it Radio (the medium, which includes all those things I listed above) or only representing radio?
I don’t have any answers here about the future of radio, or whether it’s a better or worse medium than the Internet. I only think that it’s important to make the distinction between the two and be able to untangle this kind of confluence of mediums. Convergence is exciting, but in order for us to understand it and use each convergent medium in the most beneficial way, we must be able to understand what makes each unique.