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This Website Turns Live Police and Emergency Responder Radio into Timely Ambient Music

We talked to the creator of You Are Listening To Los Angeles about the impetus and politics behind his open-source project.

by Michael Rancic
12 December 2016, 12:40am

Photo by Jake Kivanc. This post ran originally on THUMP Canada.

Jake Kivanc

There's a long history of electronic artists using found sounds and field recordings in their original work to both represent and distort ideas of physical places: from the World Soundscape Project's compositions made up of sounds recorded in different Canadian cities during the 70s, to the KLF's imagined journey from Texas to Louisiana on their 1990 album Chill Out, or James Ferraro's Los Angeles-themed 2015 LP Skid Row. Eric Eberhardt's website, You Are Listening To Los Angeles, builds on that tradition, combining live audio from first responder scanners with ambient music, resulting in either a creepy or calming portrait of a city, depending on who you ask.

When the Oakland, California native—who works by day at a comic book publisher—started the site in 2011, he paired audio from a LA police department scanner with a SoundCloud playlist of ambient tracks, and photos of the city sourced from Flickr. Eberhardt chose LA simply because it had the most radio scanner activity, but since then You Are Listening To Los Angeles has grown to also feature police, fire and ambulatory stations from over two dozen cities including New York, Montreal, St. Petersburg, and more.

Today it's a popular destination, with users being able to create their own combinations of ambient sounds and scanners. Eberhardt's turned it into a monthly radio show on NTS and has plans to develop it into a live show. We recently spoke to him over Skype about the impetus for the project and the politics of setting police scanner audio to ambient music.


THUMP: What was your relationship to found sounds and ambient music before you started You Are Listening To Los Angeles?

Eric Eberhardt: I was always a huge fan of electronic music and ambient music in particular. I'm a huge fan of chill-out albums and chill-out rooms, even before I started working on the site. Are you familiar with the album Chill Out by the KLF? It's fantastic. A lot of the stuff the KLF did used found sound. A synth pad that goes on for 30 minutes and in the meantime throw in some birdsong, recordings of people's conversations at a bar, and stuff like that. I definitely was a fan of it, and felt like I found this unique angle on it and wanted to share it with people.

So listening to those artists gave you a kind of language to understand how you could apply it yourself.
Yeah, exactly. And of course there's definitely a lot of direct precedence for this site as well. There's the guy Scanner, who worked in the late 80s, early 90s or something like that. What's amazing about some of the work he did was that he was working before cordless telephone had been digitized and encrypted, so he'd pick up little snippets of people's private conversations. A whole other level of voyeurism I guess.

Was the concept for the site something that you had been developing over time, or was it a discovery by chance?
Yeah. The particular combination of elements that I put together, I discovered because it was I think it was six years ago now, that the baseball team in San Francisco won the World Series. Of course there were parties, people going crazy in the street, lighting trash cans on fire, and causing mayhem. I'd been out that night watching the game with friends, and didn't see any of this personally, I just rode my bike home. When I got home I was on Twitter and people kept sharing links to a web radio station SomaFM, based in San Francisco, and they were rebroadcasting a stream of the San Francisco police scanner radio. I was listening to it for maybe like 20 minutes and was like, "This is really cool," but I got kind of bored, so I started playing music in the background, leaving the window with the scanner audio open.

As soon as I put those two things together, I thought, Woah, this is awesome! I'm not sure if I remembered at that point, Oh this is just like that KLF album. This was before Spotify was ubiquitous, so being able to put those together in an easy way for people to consume was difficult. Eventually I found two resources that were amazing, one was SoundCloud, which has tons and tons of free audio available for streaming especially electronic and ambient music, so I put a huge playlist together there. Then there was the San Francisco police radio I was getting from SomaFM, but after doing some research I found another site called Radio Reference, which I think is now known as Broadcastify. They had police scanner radio from every city in the US, so you could pick and choose what you wanted to hear.

So after messing with that for a couple days, I decided let's start with LA, because it definitely had the most activity. Over the course of putting things together, the name came to me. "You are listening to Los Angeles" is a reference to this Soul Coughing song called "Screenwriter's Blues," where he repeats "it is 5 AM and you are listening to Los Angeles." I loved that song, and that's exactly what you're doing, sitting listening to what's happening in the city.

Has anyone's understanding of the site surprised you or have people used it in ways you didn't expect?
I didn't have a lot of expectations going in. Like I said, once I heard that combination of things coming together on my computer, I thought it was cool and interesting. Some people have said that it's creepy, some people have said it's incredibly peaceful and calming. The creepy ones make me think about the political aspects, and whether the site is having a positive impact or a negative impact? The calming side I find pretty rewarding, because I've had several people tell me the site is helping them deal with anxiety issues or panic attacks, which I think is great.

I've been a fan of ambient and electronic music for a long time, and I've always used it to achieve those psychological ends of putting myself into a different mood. People making those comments on the site or through social media, it's made me realize that not everybody is even aware of ambient or different types of electronic music, other than what you'd hear in a club. I wasn't necessarily expecting that because I was in my own bubble, but it's been really great exposing more people to it.

And the music you used started out as Creative Commons, but since then people have also submitted music for you to use, correct?
At this point the whole thing is still driven off of SoundCloud. At least for now it's a really easy platform. Even if someone's sounds are not on SoundCloud, it's quite convenient for them to put them up there. I started off literally just by doing a search for "ambient" and there are some great filters on SoundCloud that allow you to filter not only just by "Creative Commons," but by "Creative Commons, OK for reuse with modifications," you could really narrow in on stuff.

I was really worried about that upfront. I could just go on YouTube and find all my favourite ambient records and embed that player, but I was thinking that if this thing does become even the least bit popular, I don't want to have to deal with DMCA takedown notices. I think it turned out to be a really good decision for that reason, but also because the people I found through narrowing it down to that checkbox, they were all really happy to be involved. These aren't people who have some sort of organization or agent or manager, everyone's in it together, to make people more aware of ambient music. Once I got started, I got a lot more people contacting me directly through the site or through Twitter asking if their stuff could be included, and found even more stuff that way.

There's a real consistency in the project from you sharing police scanner audio, to using Creative Commons-licensed music, to your addition of user-generated channels. Could you talk a bit about your feelings towards transparency and how they relate to this project?
Lots of countries don't have a legal framework that allows people to listen to and share police scanner audio. Of course the United States has a long tradition of free speech and freedom of the press, and I think that's reflected in that. One thing I've always said when talking about the site when I'm asked about whether there are any political or ideological aspects to it, or if I'm trying to shine a light on police brutality, is yes I am, but what I also find interesting about it is if you listen to just the recordings of police officer-involved shootings or riots, then you'll get a perspective that is one-way.

But if you just tune into the site on a random Tuesday and listen to what's going on in LA, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, it's much more mundane. People going about their jobs, there's some violent and dramatic stuff that happens, but most of it is cat stuck up in a tree, homeless people on the street needing assistance, etc. It's one case after another of people being like, okay we have a problem, let's go fix it. That to me is an interesting reflection of that transparency. You put all that stuff out there so that yes, people can go and dig into the dramatic stuff and have that accountability, but also if they really take the time to listen to what's happening on a day-by-day basis, they can form a more complete picture.

There's definitely a banality to the day-to-day stuff, which reveals how persistent and systematic every aspect of policing is, even the brutality. I was thinking about whether it's dangerous to turn what's often real life situations and trauma into background music, but you're showing how constant it all is.
That's another good point as well. The intention is not to belittle or minimize what's happening, but it's things that are really happening, and that's one reason why people definitely have different reactions to the site. It can even depend on what happens the first time that they listen. If you happen to tune in and there's some bad stuff going down, in your neighbourhood even, or you somehow feel connected to it, then you'll have one experience. But if the first few hours you spend listening to it are more banal, going about your business types of things, then you have a different impression. Those impressions can be challenged when the switch does flip. It's about putting it all out there on the table and trying not to comment on it as much as possible, and seeing what people's reaction is.

It's interesting to think about having this kind of window into police activity, especially when there's such a strong call for more accountability through surveillance like body cams. But then you look at the recent case of Walter Scott, or even an event that's not police-related like Trump and the Access Hollywood scandal. In both cases, having actual documents of wrongdoing didn't do anything to hold these people into account. So I was wondering what your thoughts were on the place surveillance, or "watching the watchmen," has in a "post-truth" kind of world?
That's a tough one. In the case of Trump, there's just some people who seem to benefit from bad publicity. He seems to be the ultimate case of that, where his support, his base seems to almost revel in that very iconoclastic "fuck you" attitude towards things. It'll be interesting to see how things happen, both regarding Trump and issues of police brutality and officer-related shootings, over time. On one hand, you assume that all of this evidence will eventually build up, right? There'll be a cumulative effect, because there are just so many examples. It's not just something that happens once or twice, it's something that happens systematically, over time.

But on the other hand with what we've seen with just gun violence in general, it doesn't have that cumulative effect where people finally get fed up, it almost just becomes more background noise. On the one hand you want to present more and more evidence, because it makes a very strong and compelling point, but on the other, how do you prevent presenting all of that evidence over time from just wearing people out and wearing them down in terms of their outrage? It's a tricky question and I'm not sure I have the right answer to it, but it is something that I've thought a lot about.

Michael Rancic is on Twitter.