Voices on/of Radio. To Imagine, to Make Manifest.

Kate Donovan reflects on the summer camp RADIOTOPIA: »There‘s so much to take-over. So much to imagine otherwise.«

Here is a memory I sometimes return to, of a game called scramble.1 It was played by pubescent boys in the school yard of my childhood. Somebody would call out scramble! while throwing a copper coin and the boys would go in for it, piling up in a big heap of shoes and uniform, fists and elbows and knees. Only one person could get the coin in the end (and apparently they were also the one to get the biggest kick up the arse… though I’m not sure this fits with my analogy, unless it means that the throwers do not have the best interest of the receivers at heart). Sometimes the coin would be prized out of the winner’s hand, chucked into the scrambling pile again.

Both radio history and radio spectrum allocation remind me a bit of scramble.

The Western history of radio technology tells of the grown-up men fighting tooth and nail over the first patents: only one can get it. And so it is a singular winner that is championed throughout radio history (think of the progression noted by the accreditation of Marconi, Fessenden, Edison, etc), and perpetuated through radio terminology (think Morse code, Hertz cycles per second, Schumann resonances, Van Allen belts…). Yet none of these achievements were ever reached alone, there is always hidden labour. Or, as Lorraine Code has said, knowledge is never made individually, but always in dialogue with others.2

I wonder if the classic story of radio history is unjust to the actuality, whether it was the act of historicising that simplified it into singularity, or whether capitalism dictated the naming of a singular entity. I wonder if, in reality, there was some sense of generosity, a sharing of knowledges and ideas, a conviviality. On the other hand, perhaps this — scramble — is even a rather generous analogy, perhaps more than elbows and fists were used to grab the right to ownership. 

The gaps built through the act of historicising lead to such wonderings.

I have spent a lot of time listening to the radio spectrum, including the amateur radio band. Usually, among the static and noise, it is like the sound of a group of men* of a certain demographic in the back room of a bar, chitchatting about radio equipment, what’s for dinner, and reminiscing about earlier times on the air. 

Aboard the MS Stubnitz during the Radiotopia summer camp in Hamburg, a few of us tried out the 11m band, a part of the spectrum in which even unlicensed hobbyists can legally transmit. We could hear two men speaking with English accents. Unsure whether they could hear our call, we tried anyway. There was no response to our female* voices. We explained that we were transmitting from aboard the MS Stubnitz in Hamburg, and suddenly appeared to be mocked »oo-oooh!«; it seemed they could hear us, yet they would not respond to us directly. We tried some more, and they ignored some more. Later, still listening, we heard them laughing while calling »Hello Germany!«. It was the same sensation as going into that back room of the bar, trying to engage in conversation, and being simultaneously mocked and ignored. This is not unusual, as many people have noted,3 and the continuing cultural tradition of referring to women* as YLs—Young Ladies (and of course the binary opposite of OM—Old Men) is a sign of the social hierarchies at play. In terms of the human voice, it has been argued that radio technology was designed and developed around the acoustics of the male* voice, literally rendering female* voices ‘shrill’, which obviously does not help.4

And so, despite, in theory, being one of the most open parts of the radio spectrum, this band does not feel like an open space, available to anyone with the technical know-how and equipment. There is an unspoken rule, based on ‘history’ and tradition, about who can participate in backroom conversations, who can play scramble. And in the same way that amateur radio is only part of the radio spectrum, the gender issue is only part of the problematics of radio.

There is so much to ‘take-over’. So much to imagine otherwise.

One of my favourite personalities of radio history is Vera Wyse Munro (1897 – 1966), whose life and work has been brought to light by Celeste Oram. Oram locates Munro’s creative activity with the medium in the technological history of early telegraphy and radio, along with the societal changes that dictated the roles of men and women during the first and second world wars, and the national history of New Zealand’s broadcasting within an international wartime context. 
I like that Munro listened, she listened intently and durationally to the intricacies and delicacies of radio static, to the noises of radio as evidence of transmission in relation to atmospheric conditions, to topologies, to specific space-times. She used the punctuation of morse code to mimic bird calls in clandestine transmissions. She played a self-made violin to mimic and compliment the sounds of radio static, on the radio. She used transmission as a way to improvise with others far away; she embraced the idea of instantaneous long-distance collaboration that, back then, radio technology allowed for the first time. She brought together hundreds of amateur radio practitioners to collaborate on the Skywave Symphony.5 And she transmitted musical improvisations made with the first satellite, Sputnik.    

The history of Vera Wyse Munro is significant because it is imagined,6 and this imagining reveals gaps. It reveals gaps in history, and it reveals gaps in amateur radio praxis, specifically as creative, collaborative and open. It imagines a more diverse — an other — way of doing both radio and radio history, which implies or opens out the possibilities for an other way of thinking and doing radio.

This imagining is a kind of take-over, a form of piracy, a signal-jamming.

As the EM spectrum fills up with transmissions and is recognised as a finite resource, it is further divided and sold off — scramble —, while technologies are developed in order to squeeze more signals into it. During Radiotopia, we wondered how it would be if a section of each part of the spectrum was allocated for artistic/creative use.7 In the unlikelihood of this ever happening, we had to imagine a kind of ‘takeover’. Maybe the takeover is also about changing the rules of the game: How can we think of transmission and the radio spectrum outside of the game of scramble? How to change the arena, the rules and participants of the game? And how to name and frame this act of ‘taking over’, how to deal with the necessity without resorting to colonial terminology? Taking over is a kind of piracy, yet, despite its strong connections to radio, piracy implies an unofficial or prohibited use. (Our counter argument could be: »Piracy is an act of thievery but, like the issue of appropriation, its ethics depends on who you are stealing from« (Sawchuk 1994: 215).) 

To takeover is to occupy, to voice.

Turning from the question of which human voices are allowed to transmit, we also ask what kinds of signals can be transmitted. What kinds of ‘radio voices’ are championed, or silenced? How can we use radio as a creative and/or artistic medium, not just in terms of content, but also signal? 

The summer camp RADIOTOPIA - a rehearsal of spectrum takeover was a chance to collectively imagine radio otherwise. We tried to think with and beyond some of the questions and problematics of radio that I have tried to articulate here. We wondered about its use beyond the national/governmental, beyond the scope of the military, or religious, or capitalist endeavour; about a use of radio outside of the constraints of amateur radio culture, outside the conservatism of national radio or the content-driven and underfunded worlds of free- and community radio.
Radiotopia was a bringing together of individuals and collectives in order to think towards making radio imaginaries manifest, toward transmitting otherwise a multiplicity of voices on/of radio.


RADIOTOPIA - a Rehearsal of Spectrum Takeover gathered more than 15 radio artists from Europe and the USA on board the Stubnitz in Hamburg from July 12-16, 2022. An event by MS Stubnitz and STWST. http://radiotopia.stwst.at


Ö1 Kunstradio from MS Stubnitz: Sun, 11. Sept, 23:00, Radio Ö1

Radiotopia is present on the measuring ship Eleonore as part of STWST48x8 DEEP. 48 Hours Disconnected Connecting: https://stwst48x8.stwst.at/radiotopia 

Franz XAVER, Silvia Eckermann, Gerald Nestler and Guests
minus delta-t‘ and the Red Thread of Media Art 

Experiment, Critique and Conversation

Ship Eleonore / Sun, 11. Sept, 10:00 - 14:00
Meeting point for the boat shuttle: STWST entrance area 

minus delta-t‘ - An experimental setup in electromagnetic space - time dilation by hydrogen radiation from other galaxies and the role of observer status in the information society. Franz XAVER 

The basic idea of the radio experiment on Eleonore is that the simultaneously arriving hydrogen signals of the universe testify to events that can originate from different times. This is how the significance of an observation position is derived. Seen from the position of art, it can be assumed that this physical insight can also be applied to information systems or number systems. Everything becomes dependent on the position in a relative frame of reference. Art stands for us in an imaginary number system and information outside Shannon‘s information theory and has the task of giving our information society new perspectives. 

The Red Thread of Media Art - Experiment, critique and conversation at Sunday, 10.00 - 14.00 at lunch with Silvia Eckermann, Gerald Nestler, Franz XAVER. a.o.

How to get to the ship Eleonore:
Boat shuttle: STWST-Eleonore-STWST
Meeting point: STWST entrance area or DeckDock Donaulände in front of the STWST.  
Departure of the boat shuttle: 10.00 and 10.30 a.m. 
Return: 14.00 and 14.30. 
Registration under SMS +43 676 61545930. 
Fare: 6 Giblings - Free with valid NFP (More to Gibling as NFP)

The experiment will be held at the Eleonore in the Harbor of Desire in Continuation to Radiotopia. RADIOTOPIA - A Rehearsal of Spectrum Takeover took place in Hamburg on the MS Stubnitz from July 12 to 16, 2022. A short presentation and talk about this Radiotopia Summer Camp will also take place at the same time on the Eleonore. 

[1] Not to be confused with telecommunications scrambling, which is a method of randomising data before transmission.
[2] Code, Lorraine. Ecological Thinking. The Politics of Epistemic Location. Oxford University Press, 2006.
[3] Including Sasha Engelmann, who notes that female-presenting voices on the amateur band often cause a so-called ‘pile-up’. Engelmann, Sasha. ‘Planetary Radio’. The Contemporary Journal 3 (March 02, 2021). [https://thecontemporaryjournal.org/strands/sonic-continuum/planetary-radio]. Also noteworthy, the Shortwave Collective was formed as a result of this phenomenon: https://www.shortwavecollective.net
[4] Tallon, Tina. »A Century of ‘Shrill’: How Bias in Technology Has Hurt Women‘s Voices.« The New Yorker, 3 Sept. 2019, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/a-century-of-shrill-how-bias-in-technology-has-hurt-womens-voices.
[5] Skywave Symphony was initially composed for two musicians (one performing long-distance) and 100 radios: »The amateur radio community throughout New Zealand would be mobilized to broadcast on individual wavelengths the sound of their own reception static. (Radio reception and therefore the sonic properties of radio static differ significantly according to geographical characteristics like groundwater levels, atmospheric charge, topography, etc.) The 100-strong troop of onstage radio operators would then tune through these static broadcasts according to a specifically arranged frequency and volume score« (https://verawysemunro.nz/the-Skywave-Symphony).
[6] See: https://verawysemunro.nz/about-the-Munro-archives
[7] See also: Radio Amatrices, »FemSat : propositions féministes dans l‘espace radiophonique / FemSat: Propositions for Feminism in Radiophonic Space.« Espace (Montréal), n°130 (Hiver/Winter 2022)  p.58-63.