Humanity in your headphones (Radio Garden)
You really should check this out: radio.garden. This gem of a site allows you to hop around the world and ‘drop in’ on local radio stations. There are thousands of them, playing in seemingly every country on earth. A quick tour this morning took me to Radio Aku-Aku in Chile playing deep techno/electro at 4am, to Bais City in the Philippines where they were discussing, of all things, the introduction of the ultra-low emissions zone in London (Radyo Natin Bais City), then on to the a rock station in Alaska around midnight (XRock 95dot9). It is like a beautiful digital tapestry of humanity itself, chattering and signing away all over the globe. Seriously, try it.
There’s a curious emotional resonance to this product, one belied by its functional design and layout (it feels like it’s been designed more from a practical search / discovery perspective, like how Spotify helps you find and follow new music). It is surprisingly intimate as a format, to drop in on a radio station in Pondicherry, India, and hear people chattering away in an exotic language you don’t understand a word of. It is redolent of something you do have a vague sense for though — which is your assorted, impressionistic jumble of understanding of what that place is like: the heat, the religion, the culture, the nation, the money. The audio format allows your imagination some room to play, and the effect is powerfully evocative. In fact — when it gets it right, i.e. you stumble upon the right sort of radio station — it really is remarkable at giving you a profound and instant sense of connection to that place. And that’s what’s so wonderful about it — to sit at home and dial up the world in an instant, through a browser window.
The ‘aggregation’ level of this is just right — listening at people’s homes would be — besides being clearly absurdly invasive — too random, too idiosyncratic against the scale of humanity. On the other hand national radio goes too far the other way, it is too centralised and much of the colour, diversity, authenticity and richness that make it so endearing would be lost. T.V is too over-produced and heavy; written text too slow and flat (not to mention incomprehensible often). The format and ‘aggregation level’ are pitched just right to create something really quite special.
But more than that there is some kind of magic that happens when the product is so broad as to encompass almost all of the people on the planet. What is a feeling of a connection with a very particular place — a smallish town in south east India — is also the potential to connect with any peoples, anywhere, and so it carries this feeling of connecting with all of humanity. Carl Jung considered that ‘The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not?’. There is a little splash of that in this product, like an http thread through to the great show of life on earth.
Audio obviously is on a tear right now, epitomised by the breakout start-up of recent months, Clubhouse. There is a logic to the argument that audio is coming to the fore because it allows you to listen while you’re doing other things — cleaning the house, driving, cooking; when attention is the most valuable commodity on earth its almost inevitable that treats this more respectfully would gain traction. But there is also something about audio that is curiously intimate in a way no other format is. It gives you a sense of immediate connection to the speaker, without ever having met or even seen them. If I were to speculate I’d say this might be because audio is the dominant sensory form of our first few months of life. As babies our sight isn’t strong and it is probably difficult to find patterns with our eyes initially; by contrast the sound of voices might be simpler to process, and recognise. Human voices are there from day one, pattering your young mind. In fact it is even minus numbers, because you can hear music and other sounds in the womb.
All of this makes the space around audio and ‘instant connection’ so fascinating. I wrote previously about how ‘one-shot’ audio could be used as a new format to power products where fast connection is of the essence — such as dating apps. The difference here of course is they are participatory, not just listening, and clubhouse quite possibly is giving a lot of people there first taste of general broadcast speaking (up until now it was pretty much just radio phone-ins that anyone would ever have done). It feels like Audio is pretty young still, a surprising come-back perhaps for a format that doesn’t at first seem particularly native to the internet.
The only thing Radio Garden needs is a “Spin Me” button. Just take me anywhere, I don’t care where. As Dave Morin would say, the devil is in the default, and the default here is that you have to go looking for something. Yes its kind of fun to explore but the ask also brings your ego and analytical brain to the fore, colouring the experience with your biases and limiting it with the inevitable narrowness of your own mind. The sense of connection is more pure somehow if this is pushed away — if it could allow you to get yourself out of the way — which would allow you to be exposed to humanity in a purer, more immediate, and more emotional form.