Hear-Here—Radio by anyone and everyone

August Black

August Black moderates a live, collaborative broadcast.

What do people say when given an opportunity to speak on the radio for two-seconds?

They count. They list the names of cheeses. And they play instruments and sing.

We know this because of Hear-Here, a crowdsourced, crowd-directed electronic space where anything goes, as long as you can say it, sing it or play it in two seconds. During broadcasts/recording sessions, anyone who wishes to participate simply has to load a web page, wait for their turn and then start making sound.

August Black, technologist-in-residence at the University of Colorado Boulder’s ATLAS Institute, developed the application that allows multiple users from remote locations to input live sound from their browsers to an FM station and a live streaming audio feed. He presented his research during the Audio Mostly 2017 conference in London, August 23–26.

“People are used to just listening to the radio,” says Black, who has a PhD in Media Arts & Technology from University of California, Santa Barbara. “With Hear-Here, anyone can contribute. They are not just being consumers.”

Hear-Here’s novelty lies in its simplicity and its direct overlapping of radio and Internet methodologies, says Black, who developed the initial prototype in 2015 during a 10-day Wave Farm residency, where artists experiment with broadcast media and the airwaves.

The system connects users in a browser-based, peer-to-peer network using WebRTC, a free, open source project that provides browsers and mobile applications with Real-Time Communications capabilities. A master server collects the input from participants and broadcasts it live on FM radio and online. 

Anyone who wants to participate simply accesses a webpage that shows the number of current participants and their own position in the line-up.  When it’s their turn, they have two seconds of air time.

Black, who began his academic career in sculpture and painting at Syracuse University, became interested in the intersection of radio and the Internet in 1996 while interning with the National Radio of Austria’s art-radio program. At the time the Internet was in its infancy, but the Ars Acustica Experts group of the European Broadcast Union built radio infrastructure to broadcast radio events simultaneously in different parts of Europe.

In 1998, Black wrote streaming software that allowed him to broadcast his live radio program simultaneously on the Internet and radio from different locations, including from an underwater location in the historic city center of Linz, Austria. At the time, most people did not have access to the Internet and data speeds were too slow for listeners to interact, but it was novel to overlap the Internet with radio, he said.

In 2002, Black developed software for a virtual mixing console so users could upload and mix audio together simultaneously online while being on air. Recent Internet advances in web sockets, which allow users to send requests and respond back and forth, and WebRTC, which allows browsers to send audio, video and data without a server, made Hear-Here possible, he says.

“The two seconds creates an environment in the same way a speed bump defines speed on the road, or a fence delineates space in a city,” he says.

Black plans to do further research with Hear-Here, including reducing the time between turns to nanoseconds so voices overlap, and increasing speaking time so participants have the opportunity to say entire phrases.

“The interesting part about making art on the radio is that you don’t see your audience and are speaking to everyday folks—they could be truck drivers or people cooking in the kitchen,” Black says. “The end result can be very surprising.”