January 25th, 2018

Love That Muddy Ether: Pirate Multiculturalism and Boston’s Secret Soundscape (Cluster Mag Repost)

This is a repost of an article originally published at the now defunct Cluster Mag back in December 2011. I’m grateful to Max Pearl for the platform, to metaLAB for commissioning the project initially, and to the Internet Archive for keeping it online since the mag went down. I’ve been revisiting the mix/project over the last few years as a soundscape/radio example in my technomusicology classes, and I’m now struck that it serves as a sort of memorial given that some of these signals, especially vulnerable pirate stations, have since disappeared. (FYI, I previously reposted my other Cluster Mag pieces here on the blog. Read about / listen to the Lambada mega-mix here, and see / hear about Bump con Choque here.)

wild backyard sunset

Love That Muddy Ether: Pirate Multi-culturalism and Boston’s Secret Soundscape
27 December 2011

By Cluster Mag columnist Wayne Marshall, with his own original audio collage of the Boston radioscape.

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Over the last decade Boston has become a Caribbean radio hotspot. Reggae and soca seep through the unlicensed openings in the local spectrum, vibrantly occupying foreclosed frequencies. In a landscape dominated by ad-driven automated playlists angling for their share of the middle of the road, a new wave of low-power and largely illicit broadcasters imbue the local soundscape with color, carnival, perspective, and polyrhythm, all while addressing pirate publics who find themselves on the same wavelength. Or close enough. (Some static is unavoidable.)

A casual scan of high-wattage FM fails to pick up frailer signals, making Boston sound at first blush no different than any large US city. Tuning into Anglo-Caribbean FM pirates or Spanish-Caribbean AM stalwarts, on the other hand, offers another angle on the Boston soundscape and on Boston itself. What takes shape is a city that’s far from the Boston seen on TV, closer to the one seen on the T. The right numbers on the dial open windows into worlds where DJs talk about voting and disaster relief efforts when they’re not debating local sports, hyping next weekend’s parties, breaking new releases, or revisiting pull-up-worthy classics that would never find their way back into corporate playlists. Imagined community organizing, with music at its core. Dance music, rap music, here music, there music. All, undeniably, part of the sound of Boston.

The rise of Boston pirate radio suggests a yet existing promise for local, open, peer-level communication. As Tim Wu recounts in The Master Switch, the early days of radio witnessed effusive utopian odes to the medium’s ability “to inspire hope in mankind by creating a virtual community” (39), as if “a great social interconnectedness via the airwaves would perforce ennoble the individual, freeing him from his baser unmediated impulses and thus enhancing the fellowship of mankind” (38). Radio’s proponents were inspired by its remarkable, ethereal powers of communication and by its low barriers to entry: a mail-order kit was sufficient. “It was amateurs, some of them teenagers, who pioneered broadcasting,” writes Wu. “They operated rudimentary radio stations, listening in to radio signals from ships at sea, chatting with fellow amateurs” (34). During its infancy in the 1920s, radio was essentially “a two-way medium accessible to most any hobbyist” whereas today, Wu notes, at a moment when radio is “hardly our most vital medium,” it is practically “impossible to get a radio license, and to broadcast without one is a federal felony” (39).

Due to its nature, radio has always been a local medium, but the degree to which content has been locally determined has shifted with the winds of commerce and technological change. In the earliest days of the medium, with no ability to connect to other stations or broadcast further, “radio stations made a virtue of the necessity to be local” (40). During the ’30s and ’40s, the development of AT&T’s national network and ad-driven model created what Wu calls an “irresistible incentive…to control and centralize the medium” (76), not to mention the emergence of national broadcasting companies like NBC and CBS. Later, with the advent of television quickly capturing national advertising campaigns, the pendulum swung back as radio once again found its local calling, fostering an explosive DJ-listener feedback loop that would fuel the ascent of rock’n’roll. Since at least the 1970s, however, the prevailing trend has been toward corporate consolidation, especially after the profound de-regulation of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, with the rise of such industry giants as Clear Channel Communications (which owns close to 900 stations nationwide).

It didn’t have to be this way. As Wu points out, “the FRC had a real choice of whether to back more low-power stations, or fewer high power stations” (83), but long ago the Federal Radio Commission (now the FCC) chose to carve up the airwaves in a manner that favored big commercial broadcasters, freeing up “clear channels” for stations that transmitted across large distances while penalizing small stations who dared interfere. This official enclosure of the ether forestalled radio’s future as an open and democratic medium. While recent legislative efforts to make more room for (noncommercial) low-power FM broadcasting might give hope to some, I wonder whether radio’s lost community promise might yet be heard in the imperfect and decidedly commercial noise of DJs yelling over dancehall loops about the dress code for the big holiday bash.

For all its promise, Boston’s burgeoning Caribbean radio scene faces serious constraints. Even illicit radio stations have operating costs, and that can bring odd bedfellows to the block party—ambulance-chasing lawyers, for instance—while otherwise shaping the public soundscape in unpredictable ways. Based in and around Dorchester, the longtime center of Boston’s multilingual Caribbean community, Anglo-Caribbean FM pirates often attempt to cast a wide net even with their limited reach. (Only half-joking, one local DJ told me that a station transmitting from Codman Square can hardly be picked up in Dudley Square, just 3 miles away.) “If you know somebody that’s Spanish,” announced a well-meaning DJ over the air one afternoon, pausing to clarify, “somebody that, you know, doesn’t speak English — whatever their language is — tell ‘em to tune in, man: Monday through Friday, 12pm to 4pm!” And yet, even such occasionally awkward improvisations and arrangements are clearly attempts, and organic ones at that, to address a local public — often one in search of a local station that actually speaks its language, shares its accent, knows its songs.

Dorchester, Mass. via

At least half a dozen such stations are operating today in Boston, and the results are audibly vibrant, if not always so audible — especially the farther one gets from Dorchester. (It can be pretty hard to pick up certain stations in Cambridge, where I live, depending which side of town you’re on.) To share a suggestive slice of Boston’s secret and ever-shifting radio soundscape, I’ve put together a thirty-minute collage drawn from my own “pirated” archive of Boston’s so-called pirates (as well as licensed broadcasts). Boston Pirate Party is an attempt to offer a more direct, if obviously very mediated, representation of Boston’s airwaves. As such it extends my previous projects concerned with this town’s sound, the Boston Mashacre and Smashacre (as well as my Jamaican Radio Edit, a similar piece recorded in Kingston); ironically, and to its credit, Boston Pirate Party offers a far more accurate representation of the sound of Boston than any collection of music recorded by people who happen to be from here.

This project commenced with an invitation from Harvard’s metaLAB this summer. The basic structure of the mix—triggering of loops + FX—was performed live at Open_Lab3 on September 7, 2011. It contains about 125 sonic slices all told, cut from a total of 1.3 hours of ambient recordings I made on August 24th and 29th while sitting in my car, parked at home in Cambridge. There are a few longish samples (10-15 seconds) to help provide context and to give emphasis to the pirates and AM stations, but mostly one-shot samples and auto-scan fragments I’ve managed to forge into little loops. There’s a fair amount of static, hum, distortion, and other audible indices of power. Low-power FM and AM are both fraught with signal loss, whether fuzzy or muddy. The conspicuous and shifting noise-signal ratio also registers the distance of my vantage point, the limits of listening from across the river.

I have attempted to give a sense of the gamut in as compact yet contextual a way as possible, but I’ve also taken deliberate liberties, playing further with these contrasts and questions of quality in order, again, to bring the low-power to the fore. Since the initial performance, I have replaced certain recorded audio excerpts—notably, some of the murkier I captured—with full-color 320k mp3s. With this recurring procedure, I provide a series of surrealistic close ups through the fuzz, utopian eruptions on the staticky crawl down the dial. So, sometimes you hear it as I actually heard it in my car in Cambridge; sometimes you hear it the way I imagine it could sound. To put it another way, I employ this technique to highlight the issues of distance and power I’ve attempted to describe here — and to effect their transcendence.

And what exactly do you hear beyond static and signal? Among other things: Irish jigs and avant jazz, MOR rock fragments and bachata loops, Rick Ross grunts, reports of accidents in Ecuador and raids on Santeria barbershops, Boston-accented Wall Street numerology, a Brazilian-accented “Boston,” Junior Rodigan’s sui generis Iranian-Londonian-Jamaican-Bostonian brogue, an inevitable (and apt!) instance of the “Lambada,” Christian cheerleading, ads for things that end in “punto com,” ignorance and nonsense and “gar-bajh” of stunning variety, and a wicked lot more than you might expect.

Download Wayne’s radioscape audio collage, Boston Pirate Party, here.

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Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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