Experimental sound art pieces commissioned by New American Radio, weekly radio program distributed to public radio stations from 1987-1998, became available online this past spring. At some point, New Radio and Performing Art, Inc., the organization responsible for this great resource, hopes to make over 300 works by artists such as Pauline Oliveros, Christian Marclay, and Terry Allen available through its site.
The expansion of the NAR website provides a good opportunity to examine reasons why radio has held such fascination as a medium for many artists, and how relocating to the Internet affects work designed specifically for radio. Part of the appeal of art made for radio is in the tension created when an experimental artist tries to subvert the medium's mainstream status while simultaneously leveraging its capacity to reach a wide audience.
Radio, like all "new" media, is charged with meaning, i.e., unlike canvas, it is not neutral material, nor does it easily shed its association with mass culture. When it first appeared, it was originally heralded as a tool to aid democracy. This vision quickly changed when a dramatic increase of radio sales in Germany in the early 1930s signaled an opportunity to the fascist regime for a new method of distributing propaganda. "With the careful administration of the daily programming the scene was set for authoritarian control," Bruce Barber wrote of radio's history in 1990. "The emancipatory potential of the new communications medium had been denied in favour of its limitless capacity to order information in such a manner as to ensure the unilateral demonstration of power."
The trick for artists is in learning how to embrace the medium's tics while downplaying the message. John Cage was one of the first artists to whom traditional radio programming appealed on a purely aural level. In 1956, he composed a piece titled Radio Music that included up to 8 radios playing simultaneously. It is interesting to note how deeply Cage, from the perspective of a composer, appreciated the radio. "There's one station now on the radio, in New York, that reminds me of Satie and that is WINS," he said in an interview in the early 80s. "It's a continuous news station, and the program, if you listen long enough as you are driving along the highway, more or less repeats itself in the same way that the Vexations of Satie would be repeated, because you come back to the weather at regular intervals and, in fact, to the same headline news." Anyone living in the New York area will be familiar with the importance of repeating elements to the identity of 1010 WINS as a radio station: there is the constant grumbling static running underneath everything, the insistent, falsely energetic force of the announcer's speech, the relentless iterations of the station's slogan ("give us 10 minutes and we will give you the world"), the weather and traffic details. Cage heard the potential for art in the sounds made by the station as well as those it couldn't control. The intermediary sounds of radio broadcasting famously also drew the attention of the Futurists, who demanded that La Radia should utilize "interference between stations."
Other artists have capitalized on radio's political possibilities. In the late 1960s, artist John Giorno created the "Radio Free Poetry" project, in which he set up guerilla radio stations at St. Mark's Church and the Jewish Museum in New York City. Activist sentiment fueled the operation. Giorno hoped to inspire others to do the same, and circumvent FCC regulations in order to broadcast alternative points of view as well as literature that was not easily embraced by mainstream media. Giorno's work foreshadows today's telecommunications systems, and prefigures a possibly Utopian view of the Internet as presenting an opportunity for anyone to become a cultural producer. Tetsuo Kogawa, the Japanese radio artist who pioneered the idea of "micro radio," transmitting radio within a limited area of signal, wrote that increasing FCC constraints preventing pirate radio are best circumvented through the Net; in fact, he believes that even "big" radio will soon be obsolete. "Sooner or later, large and global communication technologies will be integrated into the Internet," he writes. "Radio, television and telephone will become local nodes to it."
Putting the NAR archives online raises many questions that are impossible to answer now. The sounds of static and station interference may one day disappear with the advent of digital FM radio. Will a work of sound art that features these standard radio tics sustain its power as these sounds fade into ancient history? Listening to radio art online implies that interest in the process of radio recording is waning, and artists are turning to new technologies. As it continues to make its archives available, perhaps the New American Radio website will provide answers to these questions and others that pertain to radio art. It is interesting to reflect on the history of radio art, while sound art on the Net continues to turn up new complications that echo issues raised in the past, and still grapples with challenges raised by the Futurists long ago. Honor Harger is one artist actively exploring the complexity of sound art on the Net. Of r a d i o q u a l i a ' s use of Real Audio, in 1998 Harger wrote that, "We celebrate the hidden spaces where the alchemic transference of intent and error happens." Now that New American Radio has been put out to pasture, so to speak, emerging artists coming into contact with its constructions may be further inspired to stake out territory for sound art on the Net as the artists on NAR did with radio.