Adrienne LaFrance is the editor of TheAtlantic.com. She was previously a senior editor and staff writer at The Atlantic.
Radio Garden is a meditation on connectedness and what broadcast technology does to local culture.
The idea for the Golden Record was always as absurd as it was romantic—which is to say, utterly human.
Isn’t it just like our species to conceive of such a project? To decide to record a strange and wonderful mixtape of eclectic songs and sounds, strap the album to a spacecraft, then send the whole apparatus billions of miles into the cosmos where it might soar through the vacuum of space for eternity? The alternative to an endless flight into the depths of space, of course, is that the Golden Record might actually be found in the unknown light of another world—on some distant planet, by some other species that could hear the record and begin to know humanity as a result.
Radio Garden, which launched today, is a similar concept—a way to know humanity through its sounds, through its music. It’s an interactive map that lets you tune into any one of thousands of radio stations all over the world in real time. Exploring the site is both immersive and a bit disorienting—it offers the sense of lurking near Earth as an outsider. In an instant, you can click to any dot on the map and hear what’s playing on the radio there, from Miami to Lahore to Berlin to Sulaymaniyah and beyond.
The result is the best kind of internet rabbit hole: Engrossing, perspective shifting, provocative, and delightful.
The Golden Record is now more than 12 billion miles away from Earth, somewhere in interstellar space. Here on Earth, Radio Garden allows you to travel not just through space, but through time—or at least time zones. So when it’s 5:08 a.m. in Nome, Alaska, and the local radio station is playing “Mercy Came Running,”—a song by the Christian trio Phillips, Craig and Dean—it’s also 5:08 p.m. in Moscow, where Haddaway’s 1993 hit “What Is Love” is on the radio.
At the same time—as in literally at the same time—you might find Bruno Mars’s “Grenade” playing in Rome, where it’s 3:08 p.m., and Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” playing in Honolulu, where it’s 4:08 a.m, and The Talking Heads’s “Wild Wild Life” playing in Buenos Aires , where it’s 11:08 a.m. (That’s in addition to all the songs in languages other than English playing everywhere from Ghana to Egypt to Mexico.)
Looking at (and listening to) the planet this way can leave you feeling paradoxically detached while still connected—like an omniscient observer finding familiar sounds in unfamiliar places. For one thing, radio as a medium often has a similar sound. That’s not just because American pop music in particular is a global export, but because of similarities in how radio is produced around the world. Local stations, wherever they are, often broadcast a mix of music, ads, traffic, and weather reports—and deep-voiced announcers adopt a similar tone across cultures. The aesthetic of the Radio Garden site—which uses satellite imagery rather than maps with political borders—helps further promote this feeling of connectedness. That was deliberate: Jonathan Puckey, who runs the interactive design firm Studio Puckey, told me that he and his colleagues wanted to leave people with the sense that “radio knows no borders.” (Besides, he points out, click around enough and you’ll find you can “tune into an Ethiopian spoken station in the middle of Kansas and an American station in the middle of South Korea.”)
There are some limitations to how Radio Garden represents radio stations on our planet, however. The site depicts far more stations in the United States and Europe than in Africa and Asia, an imbalance that’s partly technical and partly cultural. “In certain parts of the world it might be representative of the accessibility of the broadband internet connections needed to host these streams,” Puckey told me. “We noticed that especially in Asia, many radio streams are using proprietary streaming codecs which are sadly not supported by web browsers.” But also the team that made Radio Garden is based in Europe and consists of mainly English speakers, which made it harder for the site’s designers to find and curate non-English streams. “We would love nothing more than to grow our collection in the parts of the world that are now missing,” he said.
Yet Radio Garden still has a way of enhancing one’s perspective of the planet, making it seem simultaneously big and small. “The internet sometimes gives me the feeling that physical locations no longer matter,” Puckey told me. “But as I tune into these stations and zoom into the towns they are broadcasting from, it heartens me to know that there are all these local radio stations broadcasting about things that are of local importance.”
Which is why, hearing the sounds of another place at the same moment in time doesn’t just satisfy idle curiosity. It ends up being a new way of seeing the people of Earth—a view of humanity in the abstract, and also at the individual level.
Perusing Radio Garden, you begin to imagine the people listening to music as they make coffee, the people sitting in offices and in waiting rooms, the people dancing at the bar after last call, the people cooking dinner for their families, and the people driving to work before dawn. Some of these people look like you. Some do not. Some of them know different truths and have different values. Some live in the lands of your ancestors, but speak languages you cannot understand. Though you may never meet these people, you can begin to know them this way—by listening to what they hear.
“We don’t know whether human music will mean anything to nonhuman intelligences on other planets,” wrote Timothy Ferris, who helped produce the Golden Record in the 1970s, in Murmurs of Earth, a collection of essays about how the record was made.
But that was okay. They could listen to what we hear, and begin to know us that way. And just as important as the music, Ferris argued, was the gesture: Launching the record into space, he said, was the act that would reveal who we are. “The record says: However primitive we seem, however crude this spacecraft, we knew enough to envision ourselves citizens of the cosmos,” he wrote. “It says: However small we were, something in us was large enough to want to reach out to discoverers unknown, in times when we shall have perished or changed beyond recognition. It says: Whoever and whatever you are, we too once lived in this house of stars, and we thought of you.”
If the Golden Record is a way to convey to intelligent life elsewhere that we share with them a house of stars, then Radio Garden says this to our own species: Whoever and whatever you are, we too live on this spinning planet, and we are thinking of you.