Technology December 2007

Radio Free Everywhere

Move over, iPod: Internet radio captures the enduring magic of the medium and makes the local global.

A World in Your Ear made clear that the real glory of Internet radio lies not in the polished programs of the BBC, delightful though they are—instead, it lies in the ability to eavesdrop on local discussions, to hear the world in its various moods and timbres. For most of the 20th century, listeners tried to do this with shortwave radio, but it was difficult, and not just because of the hissing static. Shortwave stations have generally been government operations, designed to show a certain face to the world—they have been remarkably alike in their somber (and untrustworthy) approach. But radio, at its best, is the most gloriously local of all media, hemmed in by the nearest range of hills, signals fading 10 miles out of town. We’ve forgotten much of this in the United States, where deregulation in recent years has allowed a few big players (Clear Channel, Infinity) to buy up thousands of stations and turn them, essentially, into repeaters for their cheap-as-possible broadcasts. It’s impossible to overstate the awfulness of most of this radio. (And to say that Americans have chosen to listen to it is simply not true—when licenses become available, these deregulated giants have the cash to make the best offers, and then their efficiencies of scale force out the remaining competition. There are whole communities whose dial is nothing but that endless round of homogenized music and bellicose talk.)

Which is why it’s so nice to be able to easily listen to what real American radio remains. My tabletop pulls in nearly every public-radio station in America, meaning that the great talk shows on dozens of stations—KUOW (Seattle), KPCC (Los Angeles), KQED (San Francisco), WBUR and WGBH (Boston), WNYC (guess)—are always in range. You can listen to famous music programs, like Morning Becomes Eclectic from KCRW (Santa Monica), but also to dozens unknown outside their home regions. I have no idea why the best early-rock-and-roll show and the best two hours of world beat pour out of public station NCPR in the far- northern New York town of Canton, but they do—Wednesdays and Fridays, three to five in the afternoon. Almost every college station in the country streams its signal, too, which means you can get one of the nicer perks of, say, a Harvard education: Every spring and winter during exam period, Harvard’s WHRB airs music “orgies”—round-the-clock exhaustive stretches of everyone from Beethoven to Keith Fullerton Whitman, whose “hyper-programmed rhythms and concrete sounds, bleeding freakout guitar, Beach Boys–style sweet harmony, eastern euro-prog, vintage synth burbles, classic- era minimalism, early mainframe computer music, fluxus-lineage borderline nonsense, complete and utter chaos, doomy chamber pop, and quiet melancholy” (that’s Whitman’s own description of his music) played for 32 hours over the course of a few days one spring.

Compared with all this splendor, satellite radio is exposed for what it really is: a glorified airline entertainment system—hundreds of channels signifying next to nothing. Signifying next to nothing because satellite comes from nowhere. Just like the Clear Channel stations, it surrenders the thing that makes radio so magical: connection to a community. As a rough rule of thumb, the smaller the community at which a signal is aimed, the more interesting the radio—it scales down better than it scales up. Unlike television, which looks amateurish until you’ve spent large sums of money and so must always aim for a large audience to cover its costs, radio allows anyone with talent and access to a transmitter to create compelling programs for practically nothing. And it gets more compelling—more real—the smaller it gets. So ZIZ, the voice of St. Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean, with Sugar Bowl spinning records in the morning and Ronnie Rascal in the afternoon, manages to conjure up that place effortlessly. A few hours of listening and you feel like you’ve wandered onto the islands, that you have some sense of the country’s mores and rhythms, not to mention its economy, since the station broadcasts a series called Ready to Welcome the World, which aims to teach locals how to offer “world-class service” to vacationers.

Radio is mental travel. Listening to Sirius, even the world-music shows, is like traveling to Club Med. You aren’t going to be disappointed or upset—but you aren’t going to be excited or entertained, either. It’s just like home, except someplace else. Tuning around the local-radio dial is more like staying in an endless string of bed-and-breakfasts, the kind with talkative hosts. Sometimes it’s boring, but boring in an interesting way.

One of my favorite stations, for instance, is WOJB, on an Ojibwa reservation in northern Wisconsin. It programs lots of Native American music and news, and lots of other music you hear almost nowhere else. (Check out At Risk Radio on Friday nights for one of the few programs that can slide straight from Conlon Nancarrow and his player-piano studies into Guy Klucevscek and the “Ping Pong Polka.”) But once a year, it also offers live round-the-clock coverage of the area’s great sporting event, the Birkebeiner 51-kilometer ski race, which draws upward of 9,000 Nordic racers. Hundreds of them get interviewed as they cross the finish line, and the endless parade of flat midwestern voices (“Yep, good race, nice course. We’ll come back next year.”) locates the place with novelistic precision. If you’re looking for a vacation to a place without cynicism, WOJB is for you. If you’re eager to wallow in some sonic vice, tune in to William Hill Radio, usually geared to the betting shops of the same name across the United Kingdom—it’s the only place I know where you’re likely to hear live commentary on greyhound racing. If you want to time-travel back to the politics of a less hard-edged day, try KBOO in Portland, Oregon, or KPFA in Berkeley. Sometimes, when all I want is sound, I’ll turn on Oman FM, for what I think is Koranic chanting—and what I know is simply otherworldly beautiful.

Internet radio has its challenges, of course. Some are technical (stations that refuse to boot up; college stations, predictably, have the best Web connections), and some are political (the recording industry, in its ongoing effort to alienate every possible customer, keeps trying to get Internet stations to pay more than terrestrial radio for the right to broadcast songs, perennially threatening to take them off the air).

And I don’t listen to it all the time. Since I live in a particular place myself, I do listen to the few stations—public, community, college, and even one commercial—that still cover my locale and keep me in touch with my neighbors, my sports, my politics, my weather. But sometimes the summer sun wears me down, and I switch on the CBC Yellowknife service, just to listen to the cool temperatures of the Arctic. The last time I tuned in, someone was reading an obit for a tribal elder who had died the day before, a man who had spent the last decades of his life leading school trips into the wilderness, acquainting local youth with places he’d always known. “It wasn’t unusual for him to tell the same story every night around the campfire,” said one friend. “But always in a different way, so that you got a kick out of it every time.”

Presented by

Bill McKibben is the author of 12 books. The Bill McKibben Reader, an essay collection, will be published next spring.

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