Radio Immaculates: the good, the bad & the digital


A lecture/performance speculating on the advent of the digital age in radio broadcasting from the point of the view of the radio contortionist. As digital technology collapses our present notion of radiospace, we will not longer be on the air but through it, as in two digits fingering their way to you. We will no longer need to clean our ears, for all that we will hear will be clean, immaculate. The contortionist, as performance persona, here constructs a series of simple radiophonic situations to illustrate the present context.

Performed for ON THE AIR: art in the public data-space, October 14-17 in Innsbruck, Austria. Presented by Transit and KunstRadio.

The ON THE AIR catalog published in 1995 includes this text.

The founding obsessions of the Center for Radio-Telecommunication Contortions are the disarticulation of the original, the intimacy of disembodiment and the creative mapping of the radiophonic body are now joined by critical dabbles in dab and microscopic scrutiny on imperceptible incisions. The upcoming 5th annual report will continue to not show dividends nor conclusions. Don’t stay tuned, detune!

[lights off, strike matches into bucket with water, then play chrisstewartgenedbeckyandfriends on full speakers]

When things need expurgating man seems to go a bit barmy and over the top, cleaning up where there’s nothing to clean. We got what we wanted, I suppose – the cull, the surgical removal of all things cancerous. It was done so clinically. We became the perfect killing machine. Michael Harding 1

[stage table light on]

Scream bits, I wonder if we could. I wonder, if dada artists had predicted art in dataspace, would they have screamed louder. Both dada- & data- spaces just as absurd as the other. The former, a reaction to the carnage of World War I; the latter, the site of the acceleration towards perfection –a drive endemic to the end of the twentieth century. As world war is waged savage against the environment rendering it inert, we develop media of the pristine by tweaking error detection and correction codes. The death-clean drive mauls us; we used to disinfect the wounds, now we forget how to bleed –nothing easier to clean up than something clean.

[play bits of check 1,2,3 as background, room speakers]

As we eliminate the spurious noise of all communication machinery we might look forward to having CD-quality conversations with friends at the kitchen table. We will no longer need to clean out our ear, for all it hears will be clean. We will speak in 20bit 44.1Khz saliva-less, speech impediment-corrected sound. We will speak as clear as a bell, sounding off in pure tone and always making sense. Commemorating the new reign of the algorithm, we can crown bit allocation, dynamic quantization and entropy encoding as the new rulers of audio and radiospace.

Thankfully, as pristine as technology becomes we can still be sinners and add noise to our heart’s content. Now noise becomes a choice. The sophisticated technologies we develop to eliminate noise, can also be used to inject it -noise enhanced by and despite inhibiting algorithms. Even some popular artists have released CDs, those immaculate disks, where the nostalgic vinyl pops and clicks have been deliberately added. Noise is becoming an aesthetic at a technological level.

[play end of old record on old turntable]

We increased the dust-to-signal ratio to intentionally dirty up tracks. We were playing stuff and trying to make it sound like it came off a record. Shane Farber and Mike Mangini, engineers for the Digable Planets CD: reachin’ (a new refutation of time and space) 2

The Digable Planets refute time and space by utilizing state of the art technology to get dirty. They are causing Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) to anagram itself back to BAD.

[fade in Mciheal Jcaksno on desk speakers, put up transparencies on clothes line]

The Center for RadioTelecommunication Contortions (C.R.T.C.) in this, its 4th annual report, wishes to present the various contortionists and immaculates populating the broadcast space. The former ones contort in order to keep the medium pliable, the latter others seek radio’s immaculate reconception as radio, its offspring same in name only. If “radio existed long before it was invented” (R.Murray Shafer)3, I propose that bit will exist long after it will disappear.

Imagine radio that sounds as good as a compact disc – no hisses, no pops, no signal or interference, none of the horrors music lovers associate with radio reception. reporter for Le Devoir de Montréal 4

Imagine radio with no radio, the definition of radio without the physicality of radio. Radio defined as undefined, another invention of the century finally without walls. “The telephone: speech without walls; the phonograph: music hall without walls; the photograph: museum without walls; the electric light: space without walls; the movie, radio, and TV: classroom without walls” (Marshall McLuhan). 5 The parameters of its physique were always in question anyway. Imagine radio without itself. With digital audio broadcasting we will no longer be on the air but through it, as in two digits fingering their way to you. Can future radio as it miraculously thrusts itself in the space of your home, car, mind without the intervention of the air be called ‘radio’? Digital radio will collapse our present notion of radiospace. Thus, bit by bit, the language of radio will have to re-hyphenate how it splits and define the human relationships it communicates.

The literature on DAB (“no hisses, no pops, no signal or interference”) does not predict, let alone encourage the noise as choice scenario outlined earlier. In fact, DAB makes possible a space with no choice at all.

More aggressive forced tuning techniques: within a few years, radio listeners will be wearing a small electronic device that will automatically note the station to which they are tuned. This ‘personal people meter’ will dramatically alter what we hear on the air. Stations will become more aggressive than ever about convincing listeners to hang in, minute by minute. Howard English 6

We are not as far from this totalitarian scene as we might think. The governmental agendas and the commercial market forces present formidably tight hoops for the contortionist to squeeze through. The Canadian radio landscape, for example, is saturated with flags waving.

[play rag winds, room speakers]

The radio frequency spectrum is used to protect life and property and to ensure our sovereignty. Department of Communications (DOC) 7 The current Broadcasting Act declares that the Canadian broadcasting system should safeguard, enrich and strengthen the cultural, political, social and economic fabric of Canada. Robert E. Babe 8

Pierre Eliot Trudeau can be referred to as, among other things, Canada’s first digital Prime Minister.9. He gave us the middle digit in August 1982. Barbara Hughes said “It was the most amazing thing, he looked directly at me and gave me the finger, there’s not too many people who can claim to be given the finger by the Prime Minister.”10 Coincidentally, that was also the time compact discs were being introduced. What is extraordinary is not what you do hear but what you don’t -noise that we have taken for granted.”11 We can, therefore, suppository Trudeau’s middle digit into the first CD and, Just watch me!, Trudeau becomes the first CD player. Trudeau, in this CD release, broadcasted his unclean (for its analog rudeness) message in a clear (for its digital rudeness) manner.

That fuck-you one-fingered salute continues to be government’s attitude in manners of broadcasting (albeit now in a subdued way). It’s a tacit policy which mismanages state radio, relinquishes power to commercial radio and ignores community radio. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (the ‘official’ C.R.T.C.) as governmental regulatory body mumbles and jumbles through absurdist and antiquated regulations to keep themselves shuffling. For instance, a memo from the C.R.T.C, asks us to identify ourselves absolutely clearly: “the Department is aware of the use of catchy logos and phonetic combinations built around their call signs. However, the regulations are clear on the proper use of authorized call letters for on-air purposes.”12 We are also still expected to think 7 seconds before we speak. The 7 second-delay protects us from libel and obscenities and cleanses the air. No danger with such antiseptic at work.

[play 7 x CRTC = delay, desk speakers]

With the advent of digital broadcasting the electromagnetic spectrum again becomes territory over which to assert national sovereignty. The allocation of a band for digital broadcast has been a contentious issue between the U.S. and Canada. Canada is a proponent of the Eureka 147 European system utilizing the L-band (1452-1492MHz). The U.S. Air Force utilizes the L-band for missile telemetry and U.S. broadcasters are pressuring the FCC to pursue in-band digital systems. In-band systems are interesting in two respects: a receiver could switch from digital to analog (and back) should any one of the signals fail, and at this developmental stage the digital signal is difficult to receive due to jamming by the analog signal. This dialogue, if not indeed in the second case this argument, between analog and digital would be a perfect manner for radio to shed and contort into its new skin. A bout where winner takes half. Back to the other round, if the two neighbors continue to pursue different standards, we might foresee a border erect itself with incompatible technologies. One tuner needed to listen to the U.S. radio stations another to receive the Canada stations. After all, “Canada became a flag and a nation through an extensive negation of what it is not: the USA. We can’t tell you who we are, but we can tell you who we are not.”13 Nevertheless, separated by bandwidths is an unexpected binary opposition. Although, it is doubtful it would ever become a reality, it would befit a Trudeau at his most devilish.14

[play Pain 1, desk speakers; play Pain 2, room speakers]

Plus/minus, 0/1, truth/false, male/female, good/evil, left/right. The harmonies resulting in an alternance between + and – electrical impulses of the analog/human model would not seem too far from the 0/1 binary model. On/off, noise/silence, noise/music, in/out, zig/zag. What is sinister about digital radio are not the two digits but the terminology and underlying rhetoric surrounding its development and implemention and the actual constraints of compression into limited spaces.

Digital is bit hungry, gobbling up too much bandwidth and disk storage space. This inefficiency must be significantly reduced in order to implement DAB. “Data reduction is carried through the examination of redundancy and irrelevancy in the music signal.”15 One can imagine a weapon strapped to the hip, set to aim and fire at redundant music. The weapon turns out to be our ears. Codes such as MUSICAM, ASPEC, and ISO/MPEG utilize psychoacoustic curves based on the architecture of our hearing to reduce the signal. Thus, what we cannot hear is deemed “irrelevant” information. Should I be concerned that my ear has not been asked for its curve let alone its opinion? It is hard to say if our ears will adjust the technology or if the technology will bend our ears. Blink your ears and tell me you want to hear clearly. Our ears are also a bit hungry, we want to hear everything everywhere.”To see badly, says Neitzsche, is to see too little; to hear badly, is to hear too much.”16In an era of anytime, anywhere communications we are hearing too much, but is that enough?

Tomorrow, with the aesthetic and logic behind the disappearance of the architectonic, we will live everywhere, that is a promise. Paul Virilio 17

The collapse of distinctions between space and time is old news to astronomy and microscopy. At the macro end we have Cygnus A, a radio galaxy, powering its symmetric (ear)lobes with radio jets emitting collimated beams of particles.18 Certainly, a candidate for the title “the first contortionist” as it emits from a distance of 650 million light-years.

[play twirlers]

From one barely perceptible geometry to the other, we find other contortions in Sol Yurick’s conception of our flesh as transmitter.

Radio Therapy is based on the theory that human flesh is a congealed electromagnetic wave, a soft crystal composed of a multiplex of frequencies, each organ, each protein, nucleotide having its own little rhythm, the whole body being a tune of tunes, a meta-song, a Found Chord, harmonic of the as-yet-uncomputed music of the spheres. The body is a transmitter; it broadcasts electro-magnetic waves (weakly) and receives them. In time all cure would be frequency-therapy. Sol Yurick 19

Radio’s future need not be purely digital. As an old saying goes, when given only two options (0/1) choose the third. From Sol Yurick’s faraway fantasy to the fantastically preeminent we encounter Radio Fugue’s Mosquito-free radio, the Hearers, Malamud’s Internet Random Access Talk Radio, Auditory displays, and Tesla’s Sentient being. A series that would challenge digital as the new kid on the block 20.”Radio Fugue FM in France says it will broadcast at a frequency of 16 kilohertz (ultrasound), which is inaudible to humans but is the same as that emitted by male mosquitoes. This signal will chase away female mosquitoes (the ones that bite) and be broadcast along with regular programming.”21 At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Hearers,the Hummers, also known as the Low Frequency Noise Sufferers Association who are haunted by a low rumbling (33-80 hertz). One of the sufferers, Richard Hubbell says: “We believe we are getting the fallout of a highly electronic age.”22 Carl Malamud defines his project as “random access radio. Our listeners can start, stop, rewind or otherwise control the operation of the radio station.” His version of radio is downloadable on Internet and turns the desktop into a ‘smart’ receiver. Paul Saffo, a computer analyst at the Institute of the Future says that “this is proof that the era of mass media is past.”23 In a different concrete computer application, “earcons” (sound icons) are now being used as aural cues (essentially as complex Geiger counters) for various diagnostical purposes in the development of the next generation of computers.24 With Tesla we have the great wireless imagination electrocuting his way to the omniscient one.

What I contemplate is not a simple transmission of messages without wires to great distances but it is the transformation of the entire globe into the sentient being, as it were, which can feel in all its parts and through which thought may be flashed as through the brain. Nikola Tesla 25

[turn on radio receiver in audience]

Radio with these myriad projects is developing upon Marinetti’s predictions for radio as “the immensification of space, the synthesis of infinite simultaneous actions, the art without time or space without yesterday or tomorrow.”26 Of all the above, DAB remains the invention everybody seems to have ordered, to paraphrase Brecht backward. The optimistic scenario much touted for DAB is that difference and distance will disappear, all stations at equal power all equally receivable everywhere. Yes, programming will remain as the definite difference marker. We are just changing the machinery. Nevertheless, community radio under pressure to raise enough money for the switch to digital might feel compelled to clean itself up and appeal to a broader audience. Radio art, in this case, might be the first to go.

[read last paragraph via 1 watt transmitter to receiver in audience]

Perhaps, we will be left with AM and FM all to ourselves. We’ll have swimming transmitters, constantly detuning and retuning and casting messages onto equally fluctuating receivers. We’ll use discarded 100kW transmitters to broadcast 1watt conversations. We’ll interfere with each other, we’ll identify ourselves silly, we’ll give you a transmitter. In our clandestine forays into digital radio we will unsmart the smart receivers by calling ourselves whatever is ‘smart’ selected: TOP 40, Country, Talk, CBC, community. We’ll send the left channel all the zeros and the right all the ones. We’ll even bring turntables and play vinyl. After we make radio disappear, radio will return to the imaginary. It will…

[lights off, play danger neighborhood 1 on portable deck, walk around audience with deck and play danger 2 on 1watt transmitter]

…Well, why did they hang up? I have no one to talk to … Ay aya ay, it’s lonely out here in the middle of nowhere… (phone rings…) Oh! We’ve got a friend… Hello, hello. (… and rings) … My phone does not seem to be working. oh oh (phone gets through on air) I heard you were all alone, so I thought I should call and say something. I was all alone in radio land, it should never happen. Well actually, you are never really all alone in radio land, you know. I felt all alone, no one was here to save me.27

NOTES (text)
1 Micheal Harding, “The Expansile”, in Vagabond, 1 (1992), p.15.
2 Jeff Forlenza, “Digable Planets’ Jazzy Rap”, in Mix magazine, Aug 1993, p.147/155.
3 R.Murray Schafer, “Radical Radio”, in EAR Magazine, Feb/Mar 1987, p.18.
4 reporter from le Devoir commenting upon audition of Eureka 147 DAB prototype in Broadcast & Technology magazine, 1990.
5 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1965), p.283.
6 Howard English, “Personal People Meter will bring Dramatic Change”, in Broadcast & Technology, April 1993 vol.18 no.7, p.31.
7 First Choice, Communications: path to the future, March 1985 vol. 4 no.1, p.52-3. [Department of Communications document].
8 Robert Babe, Telecommunications in Canada: Technology, Industry, and Government, (Toronto: U of T Press, 1990), p.260.
9 comment first heard on CBC Radio’s Morningside program, April 28, 1993.
10 Toronto Star, Monday August 9, 1982.
11 Mary MacNutt, “The Sound of Silence”, in Maclean’s, August 1982, p.36.
12 W.R. Dormer, Director of Broadcasting Regulations Branch at the DOC in memo to CKUT-FM Montreal, March 25, 1993.
13 Christof Migone, “Sound Government: a longitudinal story of a Canada you can’t touch”, in EAR Magazine, Nov. 1990 Vol.15 No.7, p.16.
14 “The Trudeau government elevated national unity to a political ideology following the October crisis” [granted this was a result of another threat but later in 1977] “the CRTC found sources of discontent with the CBC that could not be blamed on the ‘separatist bias’ … Canada was ‘a marginal society’ alongside its gigantic neighbour, the US and [needed] to preserve a distinct Canadian identity.” Mark Raboy, Missed Opportunities: The Story of Canada’s Broadcasting Policy, (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 1990), p.207 & 251.
15 Ken C. Pohlmann, “The New Perceptual Standard”, in Mix, July 1993 vol.17 no.7, p.18-22.
16 Jean-François Lyotard, “Several Silences”, in Driftworks, (New York: Semiotext(e), 1984), p.91.
17 Paul Virilio, “The Last Vehicle”, in Looking Back on the End of the World, eds Dietmar Kamper & Christoph Wulf New York: Semiotext(e), 1989), p.115.
18 George K. Miley & Kenneth C. Chambers, “The Most Distant Radio Galaxies”, in Scientific American, June 1993 vol.268 no.6, p.54-61.
19 Sol Yurick, “The Great Escape”, in SF, eds Peter Lamborn Wilson, Rudy Rucker & Robert Anton Wilson, (New York: Semiotext(e), 1987), p.118.
20 “Digital radio is the sound of the future” in booklet published by the Task Force on the Introduction of Digital Radio (Canadian Ministry of Supply and Services 1993) p.5; and from a 1990 DOC, CBC and CAB (Canadian Association of [commercial] Broadcasters) press release: “There will soon be a precocious new kid on the block in the Canadian broadcasting industry. His name is Digital radio, he comes from Europe and he will soon become part of the Canadian mosaic.”
21 “Mosquito-free radio”, in Toronto Globe & Mail, June 27, 1993.
22 John Donnelly, “Mysterious, baffling ‘Taos Hum’ real-life detective story”, in the Montreal Gazette, July 10, 1993.
23 John Markoff, “Talk Radio on Desktop Computers”, in New York Times, March 4 1993.
24 “Earcons”, in Scientific American, July 1993, p.103-107.
25 Velimir Abramovic, “Tesla’s Point of View”, in The Tesla Journal, 1989/1990 no.6/7, p.43.
26 F.T. Marinetti, “La Radia”, in Wireless Imagination Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, eds Douglas Kahn & Gregory Whitehead (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), p.267.
27 “Danger Neighborhood”, transcript of a section from live radio program ‘danger in paradise’ on CKUT-FM in Montréal May 1992, later used as material for “Hole in the Head”.


NOTES (audio)
chrisstewartgenedbeckyandfriends (1993) (4:30).
check 1,2,3 (1993) (background).
Mciheal Jcaksno (1990) -Michael Jackson heard through radio detuning.
Rag Winds (1993) -flags from Pierre Allard’s exhibition ‘vivre’ (Galerie Oboro, Montréal, 1993).
7 x CRTC = delay (2:36) (1992-93) -with Dan Lander as co-host and callers to Danger in Paradise (CKUT-FM, Montréal, June 1992).
Pain 1 & Pain 2 (1993) -original versions used during “Metal God” performance with Tammy Forsythe at Espace Tangente (February, 1993).
danger neighborhood 1 & 2 (1992-93) (immaculate mix) -another version also used for “Hole in the Head”, a work commissioned by New Radio and Performing Arts for the New American Radio series.