For this assignment, I recorded voices on three frequency bands of radio:

  • FM broadcast (87.5-108Mhz),
  • Very High Frequency (30Mhz to 300Mhz),
  • Ultra High Frequency (300Mhz - 3 Ghz).

Unencrypted radio is unique among modes of communication / conversation in how messages are passed from individual to individual. Messages are usually broadcast for all to hear and it is up to the intended recipient to decide which messages they should receive (through both analog and digital systems) and respond to. In walkie-talkie style radio – as opposed to broadcast radio – only one person can speak at once, choosing when to release their microphone so that others may speak (‘Push-To-Talk’). How does this affect the flow of conversation over radio? Within larger pools of radio users, have the voices on the radio ever met in person or are their relationships solely performed ‘on-air’? I was interested in how this change in the typical affordances of conversation affected stories played out over radio, and what level of listening and background knowledge was required to access these stories.

In the FM Broadcast recording, we hear commercial (and public) radio for an extremely large listening audience. These broadcasts are regulated by the FCC, paid for by advertisers (and listeners like you…) and require extensive infrastructure of equipment and personnel to run. Individual broadcasts are sometimes comprised of well produced and well told stories. Yet often their intended purpose is not to tell compelling stories, but to fill the airspace of listeners' commutes and work-a-day activities. In this second case, story arises at the meeting point of different broadcasts. Sweeping through the frequency band and hearing dozens of different broadcasts highlights the diversity of listenership within range of NYC’s radio transmitters. Placed next to each other, these broadcasts tell a story of New Yorkers through the voice of those who are trying to entertain, educate, preach or advertise to them.

In VHF, amateur radio communications often happen over repeaters – powerful radios which re-broadcast incoming messages to allow individuals with handheld radios to communicate over a larger area. These repeaters become like rooms in which amateur radio operators can gather and talk to one another. Within these rooms, there is no information parity: it is possible to listen without transmitting or making your presence known. In this particular room, we hear the story of a friendship between two individuals told on an open airwave, and later invaded by a cast of local characters who turned out to be listening all along.

In UHF, messages might be intended for a large listening audience (i.e. a precinct) or a single individual. Digital systems (trunked radio) as well as analog systems (i.e. an official radio jargon of short, coded messages) ensure that all communications can happen simultaneously on the same band. As an outside listener untrained in this jargon, there is a level of obscurity over the simple facts of what is being said, by whom and for what purpose. Answering who, what and why of a given message requires experience with the systems in place. The stories hidden within these messages are sometimes dramatic tales of deeply human events, and yet they are told within a language built for expediancy and clarity.

Link to files