'Radio Garden' Provides A Window Into Another Place, Right Now

The internet is a collection of things that disappear.

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Mar 5 2017, 7:00pm

A Postcard From... is a column by Jack de Quidt about the people, and the places, and the stories in the games we play. 

One summer when I couldn't sleep, I spent a lot of time on a website which helped, and which I have forgotten the name of. It would be four or five in the morning and I'd open up my laptop and load the bookmark and within forty minutes or so, sleep would take me.

The website was very simple. There would be a loud burst of static which filled the whole screen, and then it would begin to play a youtube video, randomly selected, with less than one hundred views. The video would play until it finished or I clicked the mouse, at which point there'd be another burst of static and another low view count video would play.

Before I talk about the videos, which is what I really want to talk about, there are two other technical points that need to be covered, neither of which seem like much on their own but ended up being the cornerstone of this site. First: There was no metatext associated with any of the videos. There were no comments or subscriber counts. There were no titles or uploader names. There was no view count, though presumably it was under one hundred. Further still, there were no play or pause buttons; the only way to stop a video was to click the mouse, and then static, another video. Second: There were no means within the site, that I could tell, that would allow me to bookmark a specific video or get a link that I could share with somebody else.

There was a sensation, too, of a sort of voyeurism.

What the site was saying with these choices became clear straight away: "You are quite possibly the only person to see these videos, and once they're gone, you will never see them again."

Perhaps I'm misremembering aspects of this site. Like I said, I have forgotten its name and haven't been able to find it again.

The apparatus at first seemed somewhat sinister, and a sense of that pervaded throughout even once I became more familiar with it. The late hour probably didn't help. The burst of static was there to mask the loading of the next video, but its harshness and demeanor spoke as much to the videos being intercepted as it did to a sense of channel flipping. And then the idea of low-count videos themselves; this endless stream of inconsequential ephemera pulled down from YouTube that could contain anything. There was a sensation, too, of a sort of voyeurism. The videos were clearly not intended to be viewed this way, or (judging by their low view count) at all, but here they were. Bookended by two loud bursts of static and forgotten almost immediately.

Much of that sinister feeling, though, fell away with the videos themselves, which were remarkable.

I have to assume that a lot of YouTube uploads are made automatically by bots, since a large portion of the clips had that particular, vaguely undefinable aesthetic that, living on the internet in 2017, we have come to identify as belonging to artificial intelligences. There was lots of news footage, frequently from non-English speaking countries, that had been cropped or zoomed in ways that felt arbitrary. Here was half the face of a newsreader talking about a county fair. Here were two people talking in what had clearly been a wide shot of a television studio but was now amateurishly forced into another aspect ratio.

The length of some of these clips, too, suggested either the hand of a bot or a mistake by their human uploader. A fairly standard Minecraft 'let's play' would play for about four to six seconds and then cut suddenly to static as though it had given up. There would be the first third of a teaser trailer for Iron Man. The videos played without a progress bar below them, so their endings would unfailingly come as a surprise, which would be replaced almost immediately by anticipation of what lay beyond the static.

Other videos, though, were clearly made by people. These were my favorite. Some were ludicrously overproduced—fancy motion graphic title sequences would have me leaning towards the screen wondering what would follow, only to sit back confused as they'd cut to low resolution footage of a soccer game. Others were startlingly simple. A hand from behind the camera opening a screen door, and the lens adjusting to the light of a backyard. "Look!" somebody says, and there is a 2010-era digital zoom towards a strip of field in the background. Look! A deer steps slowly, grainily, through the grasses, and it is as I lean forward that the screen cuts to static.

A news broadcast. Static. A swirl of noise and shouting. Static. Stock footage of pedestrians in a shopping center. Static. Forty seconds of a mid-game Bioshock level. Static. Outside, light would just be entering the sky.

We have been trained, in so many ways, to seek and identify narrative in media we consume. Watching the news, or sports, or a serialized television series, we identify its various elements and try and draw threads between them. How is this character related to that one? What does the location tell us about the current action? How are events in the past affecting events currently? We've become pretty good at this. It's a reflex now.

This site, whose name I can't remember, looked this instinct directly in the eye and didn't blink.

The deer, stepping through the field. Was this outside the observer's house? Probably not. They had an air about them of a vacation discovery—"Look!". Why did the video end so early? Was this a botched take, replaced immediately by a second video with a longer look at the animal and a higher view count, recusing itself from the site? Was the observer talking to the camera, or to a second unseen figure? It was either early morning or early evening. The weather looked fine, I suppose. There was a kind of mist rising from the grass in the field.

The motion graphics before the football game. Was this uploaded to the YouTube channel of one of the players? Filmed by a parent or a friend? The footage didn't prioritize a particular figure; if the person holding the camera was filming for a specific player, it wasn't clear who. A local team, then, perhaps? No goals were scored, no dramatic tackles were made. Why package this sequence as a standalone video? 

And then the motion graphics themselves: a username in a block font, swirling out of a blue background in a sequence as overblown as it was long. There are sites you can pay to produce these intros for you. You choose one or two elements from a palette and they put them together automatically. $10, or something. Who paid for this intro and then edited it onto this footage? The email notification telling them their intro was ready. The excitement of seeing the finished product, as ordered, just as ordered. Static.

Oh, don't look at me like that. I've tried to find this site, believe me, and there are a bunch of alternatives. They do the job, I suppose, but they surround themselves with so much of the ancillary detail that was so striking in its absence on the site whose name I can't remember. These other sites show you the title, or let you scroll back through the videos, or enforce a full page load every time the video switches. There's no static. There's so much extra detail. It's strange how these extras fundamentally ruin the conceit. The original site struck such a perfect balance between obscurantism and ease of use, and as soon as it's pitched too heavily in one direction, it all falls apart.

But the other day, at around three in the morning, I saw somebody link to a site called Radio Garden, and I played around with it until I fell asleep. Radio Garden pulls together all the conceptual elements that were striking about the site whose name I can't remember and reinterprets them in a way that works so well.

What Radio Garden does is apparent from the moment it loads. First, a low resolution 3D globe spins slowly, and then like fungi blossoming, thousands of tiny green dots begin to appear all over it. Each of these is a local radio station. And then, zooming in on the globe, you align some crosshairs over one of the dots, and the radio crackles, and there you are, live. There are thousands of radio stations around the world that are on air right now. I know this because I can see them, green, on the radio garden.

Right now, as I type, it's six in the morning in Huixtla, Mexico. The radio is playing energetic Spanish hip-hop as people get ready for work. The music breaks, suddenly and inexplicably, into a banjo solo and just as I begin to get used to it cuts to the DJ reporting on the local weather.

Three in the morning in Alaska. Fairly relaxed jazz on KDLG Public radio. Is anybody in the studio, I wonder? Are they dozing as the music plays? Unlikely. Perhaps they arrive for work in the evening, small talk as the studio changes hands, settling into a chair and slipping headphones on. The person who DJs the early evening slot always sets the microphone so high, gotta adjust that.

...each of these little green dots represents somebody sitting in a chair, leaning forward towards a microphone.

Each radio station has their own jingles, accessible on the site's archive. Many have tiny editorial notes with them about the various stations and their DJs. It's nine in the evening in Kanoya, Japan, and FM Kanoya is playing Japanese language reggae, and it's alright, as radio stations discovered at random from across the globe go. It's alright, I'd tune in.

For the most part, each of these little green dots represents somebody sitting in a chair, leaning forward towards a microphone. The dark line of the terminator sweeps across the globe map.

I have been trying, unsuccessfully, to find a particular radio station that I last heard on a road trip to the very northern tip of Canada's Vancouver Island.

As we drove up past Nanaimo and Courtenay, the number of cars around us thinned and thinned until it was just us and forest roads for miles. Every hour or so, a gravel truck from one of the northern quarries would rumble past. Our phone signals dipped and died, and then the radio signals too, and we bumped through unmaintained roads and slowed as black bears loped from one side of the road to the other. We drove in silence most of the time. Peered out of the windows at the low mountains.

At some point, the radio crackled back to life as we moved into the range of the tiny northern towns. We jumped. It was a man and a woman over a background of bland, palatable stock music, and they were discussing world events. Each of the stories they landed on, briefly, had the tone of those final local news pieces: ephemeral and inoffensive—a particularly large piece of livestock, a local festival or parade, a winner of a race found to have been cheating.

They were local news stories, but not local to this area. The man and woman were drawing from stories from all over the place. At one point, they phoned an audibly sleepy man from Manchester in the UK to talk about a badly organised marathon, listened carefully to him, and then, brightly, moved on to a story from Texas.

We were captivated, and we drove further and further North and the radio signal became stronger and stronger. And then going South several days later, the reverse, the man and woman fading to hours of silence, then the Victoria stations leaping into noise and Bruno Mars and weather reports.

Though Radio Garden shows several green dots in the North of Vancouver Island, I have not been able to find this station. Perhaps one night I won't be able to sleep and I'll align the site's crosshairs just so and there they'll be, their voices carried by the internet to my laptop in Norwich.

"Hi!" Says the woman, brightly. "You're live on air!"

"Oh," says the man from Manchester.

"It's got to be pretty early for you there, huh."

"It's fine, it's fine. I set an alarm."  

The radio waves dancing around the northern pines and quarries.

You can find Radio Garden, made by Studio Puckey in collaboration with Moniker, online in your browser . I can't tell you where to find the site whose name I can't remember, but you might be able to anyway. I hope so. If you do, let me know on Twitter .