- Re-Enchanting Radio
When I was young, radio measured the day. My mother listened to the talk radio channel of the national public radio station on a transistor receiver during the week: the jingles of various shows marked the top and bottom of the hour, an urgent fanfare warned when the news was imminent, and the voices of various hosts chattered away from distant rooms in the house as my mother carried the radio around to accompany different tasks. As I grew older, radio launched the day from my bedside clock radio, but radio also began to propose the night. With the volume on low, I lay awake late while the house was asleep, listening to stations with weak signals and late-night programs filled with unusual sounds, and I felt that strange, impersonal intimacy of a voice from the radio, in my ear, in the dark, as I [End Page 138] gradually developed an awareness of other ears and barely audible voices, sharing darkness; a radiophonic night that could not be easily quantified.
None of these experiences led in a straight line to the art practice that I would develop years later, but they did strongly inform my desire to explore invisible but audible spaces and to conjure and compose unusual sounds and voices of my own, first as a programmer at an independent radio station, and eventually as a professional sound and radio artist. For the past decade, I have been creating self-reflexive radio art works where radio is the source, subject, and medium of the work. From the childhood fiction of “the little people in the radio” to documentary remixes of live political events, I aim to create dynamic, atmospheric works equally able to reflect upon public media culture or to reveal interior landscapes, which I broadcast on radio, as well as perform live or install using low-watt FM transmitters and receivers. I want to re-enchant radio, and in this, listen deeply for what is often missed or missing; I want to think beyond the formats to which radio has been confined and naturalized to wonder what radio might have been or might be. I will take the opportunity here to explore some of the persistent themes that preoccupy my radio art works, namely notions of transception, embodiment, resonance, and the strangely intimate distance of radiophony. Along the way, I reflect upon two very different but related solo pieces: the pirate intervention and performance The Clandestine Transmissions of Pirate Jenny (2000–2003) and a recent installation entitled You are far from us (2006–2007).1
Experimental radio has never been easy listening, and so it has flourished in micropolitical forms: from licensed independent campus/community stations, to temporary clandestine low-watt broadcasts, to online collaborative networks. My own work as a radio artist has developed within such independent or appropriative contexts as Canadian campus/community radio, artist-run culture, and unlicensed interventions, with a focus on the critical (re)use of terrestrial radio technology. Though independent radio is largely volunteer-based, the relative or complete lack of overhead institutional structure has also fostered a unique and eclectic radio art practice that is able to move radio into unexpected territories.
Canadians enjoy a measure of access to radio broadcasting unheard of in many countries in the form of campus/community (c/c) radio. The long-standing c/c radio sector distinguishes itself from the public and private (for profit) radio sectors by being single-station operations run mostly or entirely by volunteers, claiming nonprofit status, supporting multiple modes of address and style on air, broadcasting in multiple languages, reflecting the different needs of urban or rural broadcast, and often broadcasting on low-power or even micropower transmitters. These very diverse stations share a mandate to supply programming that is absent from the mainstream, so in addition to featuring Canadian music and culture, no more than 4 percent “hits” may be played in the music programming, and stations are licensed only with a significant commitment to promote cultural, gender, and ethnic diversity reflective of the community in which the station intends [End Page 139] to broadcast. C/c radio has notably also been...