The following article was published in N-SPHERE April 2011 issue.


A radio is a box with tiny people making music inside of it. No, no, let me try again. A radio receiver is an electronic device comprised of an antenna and various filters to make out the valid portion of a wireless signal, using demodulation and decoding to translate said signal into things that pleasantly tickle the ear.

However common and quaint and easily ignored the radio is today, the fact of the matter is that this entity, with all of its vices and devices, set up, nearly a century ago, the birth of an age in which mass distribution of art, audio art in particular, was no longer a crazy idea. Why should this be important? Because whether you float through the waves of mainstream or dive into the depths of underground, none of these cultures would exist should it not be a way to globally distribute their beacons. The radio was the beginning of a new era in entertainment, the stepping stone of all today’s music industry, although the premises of such endeavours were completely different.

The ancestor of radio, spark–gap telegraphy, was widely used at the beginning of the 20th century, especially in seafaring vessels and messages were transmitted with the use of Morse code. The first radio broadcast using amplitude modulated signals happened in 1910 when the performances of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci were transmitted into the ether, only to be received by a select few. The public population only started having mass access to radio broadcasting after WWI. In 1920 the first radio station was established, following the broadcasting experimentations of soldiers in WWI, which were using their military radio equipment to broadcast music (1919, the Telephone Engineer).

During the interwar period, the rise of radio broadcasting was exponential, and by the beginning of WWII, most households would have a receiver. Though making possible for a single song to be instantly heard in millions of homes, the radio also became a political instrument for propaganda and mass control. For instance, Japan used female broadcasters, commonly referred to as Tokyo Rose, for propaganda purposes during the war. Radio played an important part in WWII, surpassing telegraph communication (using cables that were often sabotaged), and distributing specific music for troops’ control and morale.

An instrument of control, an entity that signalled globalization, radio, like television later on, gained its global independence only in the aftermath of the cold war. The brink of the third millennium brought the search for life in the outer space, and there are stations that pick up radio signals from outside the atmosphere or even send out messages via radio waves. Terry Bisson imagined the leader of the fifth invading force speaking with the commander in chief (1991, Terry Bisson, They’re Made Out of Meat):

“They’re made out of meat.” [...]
“That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?”
“They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines.”
“So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact.”
“They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines.”
“That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat.” [...] “Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?” [...]
“Officially, we are required to contact, welcome, and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in the quadrant, without prejudice, fear, or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing.”
“I was hoping you would say that.” [...]
“So we just pretend there’s no one home in the universe.” [...] “so that we’re just a dream to them.”
“A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat’s dream.” [...] “Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the universe would be if one were all alone.”

Artwork: Harris & Ewing. 1910-1920. Radio. courtesy of the artists

by Vel Thora

Full article here.