99% Invisible: You Are Listening To

Take a listen to BART’s radio stream, and aside from the occasional protest, BART communications is a little boring. But when you add one more layer of sound, it becomes a live experience that’s both simple and unexpected.

On the web, it’s called “You Are Listening To,” and it’s built out of three parts: a live radio stream, an ambient music playlist from SoundCloud, and a cool photo from Flickr. Everyone involved – from the BART drivers, to the music composers, to the photographers – never thought that their voices, or music, or images would ever be brought together in this way.

But in this episode of 99% Invisible, called “You Are Listening To,” radio producer Roman Mars explores the world of this sharable and mashable artform. 

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ERIC EBERHARDT: My name is Eric Eberhardt, and I’m creator of the site You Are Listening to Los Angeles.

ROMAN MARS: And you are listening to Chicago. You are listening to New York. You are listening to Montreal. And you are listening to San Francisco.

POLICE RADIO STREAM: Time is 11:35 ... There’s a white pickup truck with the tailgate down. There’s reportedly a dog in the back with no leash or collar ... People are afraid the dog might fall out.

EBERHARDT: Last year, after the Giants won the World Series. I was roaming the streets of San Francisco, checking out all the different celebrations going on. And when I got home, I was on Twitter, and I saw a lot of people were posting links of their neighborhoods, people out lighting bomb fires. One thing that came up was, “Hey, check out the San Francisco police radio on SomaFM.

So I started listening to it. It was cool, but after awhile, it started getting boring. I put on my music in the background. Something about it … there was energy between the police scanner and the music I was playing that was really sounding cool. And I wanted to share it. So that’s how I came up with the idea for this thing.

Since it came online on March 6, 2011, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time listening to You Are Listening To. Some people think it’s peaceful. Some people think it’s creepy. I think it’s memorizing. And it’s elegant in its simplicity.

EBERHARDT: So when you load the page there’s a little java script file that pulls in an audio screen from radioreference.com. They provide that police radio audio.

You can get a playlist from Sound Cloud, which is a music-sharing site, that’s been screened by Eberhardt so that the play list only has these dreamy, ambient soundscapes that compliments the police audio. It loads a background image…

EBERHARDT: …which is coming from Flickr. Those are the screen main parts. And they’re all coming from sites other than my own.

And it’s all legal and free because each of the companies provide simple web APIs –application programming interface – that specifically promote this kind of sharing and mashing up. You can create something new that might not be what the creator intended. The design choice being made by these sites, the thing that you’re listening to, is exploiting, is relinquishing a bit of control of their data to spread across the web in ways they couldn’t ever imagine. In this way, outside and independent developers like Eberhardt can act as an R&D department.

EBERHARDT: RadioReference, Flickr, SoundCloud, and the artists offering Creative Commons royalty free music on SoundCloud could not imagine this content.

But they do have an API. They created a shareable architecture that taps into a remixing culture where new ideas can flourish.

EBERHARDT: Since the site was launched, it’s floated around and has become really popular. I’ve been contacted by lots and lots of artists. They all want to be part of it; they all think it’s cool. They’re asking me, “Can I have my music on your site?” They’re not being paid. There are no royalties. I think these are people who just posted their music up there because they wanted to share it with people. And now they’re finding that they’re sharing it with a lot more people.

So it’s kind of like a virtuous cycle where I created something, I’m not looking for anything in return, the artists are getting something out of it, SoundCloud and RadioReference are getting something out of it because more people are getting something out of their services … so really, at zero cost to me or to the artists, we’re all getting something out of it that enhances each other’s work.

Designing for open allows others to answer questions that you don’t have the answers to. But its greatest power may be that it allows others to ask the questions you may not have thought to ask.

99% Invisible is produced by Roman Mars, with support from LUNAR. It’s a project of KALW, the American Institute of Architects, San Francisco and the Center for Architecture and Design. To hear more, visit the 99% Invisible website.