The world's radio stations are now at your fingertips, making it easier than ever to move from listening to Japanese pop-punk on Burnaby, British Columbia's CJSF, to drum and bass and techno playing on Anadyr Russia's Radio Purga, just by dragging a virtual globe.
Launched earlier this month, Amsterdam-based web project Radio Garden uses a 3D interface to allow users to explore the world's offerings of radio stations, shown as plotted points on a map. Currently, there are over 8,000 stations to listen to in real time. Country, province, state, and city names are absent from the map, as are borders, encouraging users to get lost in the world of sound that awaits them.
In addition to listening to stations in real time, you can also go back in time to hear radio history, like the 1977 broadcast from Bologna, Italy's Radio Alice, as police tried to break down their door and cease the station's activities and support for a local student uprising. There's also a thorough and fascinating history on the origins and varieties of radio station jingles.
The project is a collaboration between Studio Puckey, who were responsible for the design of the live portion of the site, and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, who handled the original research and historical sections. We recently spoke with the former's founder, Jonathan Puckey, via Skype about the site's concept, its viral success, and more.
THUMP: The continued power of radio seems to be its ignorance of borders. It's interesting that new, supposedly "forward-thinking" services like Spotify and even YouTube, provide media that's determined by where you live in the world. How important is it to you that media be able to move freely across borders?
Jonathan Puckey: There's really nothing I find more annoying than the fact that my Spotify gives me Dutch suggestions all of the time when I'm looking for new music to listen to. It's really annoying. Same with iTunes, I'm really sick of it. Whenever I can turn something like that off, I do. If I want to listen to local music I'll do so, but I'm also super interested in other cultures and music. And I think that's what works and is quite surprising to see how enthusiastic people are about sharing these stations from across the world with each other.
There's 8,000 stations available right now on the site?
And growing. We're adding hundreds a day.
So you're having a pretty positive response from the stations themselves, then?
We're being harassed by radio stations. They're calling me on the phone, adding me on Facebook, they're adding me on WhatsApp, it's crazy.
I guess the scope of the project didn't really anticipate that this would become a kind of service for stations to reach out to new listeners necessarily, but that's changed since the site's gone viral.
I was expecting more radio stations asking to be removed from the site, I wasn't expecting them to ask to be added. I just saw a nice YouTube clip from this 12-year-old-girl talking about Radio Garden, she did this little vlog about it. That's really sweet to see someone talk about music across the world, and being amazed by being able to listen to music from other cultures.
How do you hope people will use this tool over time?
To be honest, I don't know if they're going to. I don't know what this thing is yet. It's going viral right now, but will they still be there in a week? I see through my site statistics that 30 percent are coming back, which is very good, but right now we can't pay for all the hosting costs. It's going to cost us $15,000 a year just to host the site and keep it going like this. We're going to have to figure out a way to pay for these costs and I don't know what that is yet.
So I guess in the meantime you're continuing to add more stations to the live element of the site, but what about the archival material? Is new information also being added?
Yes. Funnily enough, the researchers starting working really hard the moment it became successful [laughs]. They were taking it quite easy until it became viral and now they're really hard at work adding stuff. I think the jingle section is especially looking really great. Something that was really surprising to us is that 80 percent of the users are using mobile phones. We only built in mobile support at the last minute. I thought I'd just spend a bit of overtime getting this thing as good as I can get it, and I'm happy I did because there are so many mobile users.
I never thought about that, but that makes perfect sense, and I guess speaks to the most common ways in which people are listening to music today.
Yeah it's surprising to me. When it went viral in Saudi Arabia, there especially, everyone was on mobile. The countries where it's popular right now are like India, Mexico, Brazil, places where we don't have a lot of content initially, but we're receiving a lot now. Places I don't know too much about.
I was curious about your own experience using the site. I'm sure you see things a bit more critically because you built it, but what's surprised you the most?
I spent some time going through the US, and what I found quite surprising there is all of these Christian talk shows and talk radio. When I'm coding I just tune into different stations, and I spent a few hours in the US and within that time I heard several stations all talking about sex before marriage [laughs] and that being a topic. And that makes me think wow, this is a really different country from the one that I know from LA, San Francisco, Portland, and New York. It felt a bit like when you're going on safari or in the rainforest, looking at all of these strange, exotic animals.
I also thought it was really interesting to tune in to a lot of these far away places to hear American music, or pop music in different languages that sounds really Western. It's confronting in a way to hear how much culture sounds the same in lots of places. It reminds me of this guy Buckminster Fuller who wrote this book called Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth. He had this idea that if we could convince people around the world that we're on a spaceship together, and the ship is travelling through the galaxy, that people would be more kind to each other when they stop believing they belong to these countries and that they belong to the earth. I don't mean to say that we had that intention when we started this project, but sometimes when I follow the conversations I get that feeling a bit—that people feel a bit more connected.
Michael Rancic is on Twitter.