What Are You Listening to When youarelistening.to/losangeles ?

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:His_Master%27s_Voice.jpgEarlier last week I came across this post by GOOD regarding a new site called youarelisteningtolosangeles.com. Eric Eberhardt’s (http://twitter.com/url2la) web creation uses an LAPD radio feed and plays Creative Commons-licensed music in the background. (According to Olsen Bright at NBC Los Angeles, the URL was registered only last week, but since it went live it has gone viral. As of this post, it has links for New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Montreal). The site that has gotten more news coverage has been, by far, the Los Angeles site. Nicola Twilley from GOOD calls it “hypnotic, beautiful, and utterly compelling.” When I first tuned in, I couldn’t stop listening. It is certainly haunting and leaves behind a feeling of uncanniness: the disembodied voices of police dispatchers far away mesh with the soothing sounds of ambiance music.

What caught my eye about the article was Twilley’s description of what it was like to listen to LAPD’s radiofeed:

“To listen to it is to be plugged into the pulse of the city; lost in fragments of someone else’s story. Urgency alternates with frustration and low-level routine; some incidents are reported while others are resolved; and jaywalking tickets are issued in the same breath as lives are lost.”

I like her idea that the site allows you to tune into “the pulse of the city.” The feed is a sonic representation of what is happening on LA’s streets. I had the feeling that I was listening to some subversive channel of LA life, narrated by a police dispatcher. However, there are two things that come to mind: a) the sounds of urban life are being filtered through the police department, and b) what are the sounds we hear on the feed telling us about the sonic dimensions of cities?

This online radio station of sorts mashes up city sounds with background music, but once you pause the music what we get are conversations between police officers. The result is that those sounds (voices, codes, numbers, addresses) filter the soundtrack of the city. When we click on youarelisteningtolos angeles.com we are actually listening to the keepers of peace and order on the city streets. The city has already been distilled for us through a radio dispatcher and officers.

The sounds are haunting. Interestingly, what attracts some listeners is the fact that they can eavesdrop on the police feeds, like we’re tuning into what our neighbors are doing. Others point out how soothing the sounds meshed with the dispatcher feed can be. However, the site serves as an example of how city sounds are filtered to us. We don’t hear the actual people who the dispatchers talk about, but the stories of their actions. In that sense, what we hear about them is really a narrative of order, chaos, authority, and traffic violations. Who is stepping outside of the lines?

But…can we ever really listen to The City? This is why audio projects such as soundwalks are important, because they make that aural experience multisonoral. The same way we must reject single stories (like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie pointed out in her TED talk) we must also bring to light different soundtracks of the city around us, lest the radio feed of a police dispatcher become the one that stands out.

This brings me to my second concern: what are we actually listening to? What was initially problematic for me was that we don’t actually hear urban sounds. We hear voices talking about citizen activity on the streets. Once you mute the music, what you get are voices narrating what is happening on the street level. But then I realized that I was be limiting what sounds are classified as city sounds. In that sense, youarelistening.to is opening up what it means to listen to cities. The citizens also make sounds; their voices are part of the soundscape of the city.

I’d love to hear from our readers from these different cities, see what their reaction to listening to the transmission is.

By the way: can we get a youarelistening.to/kansascity?

Bonus tracks:

Here is Soul Coughing’s “Screenwriter’s Blues,” whose line “You are listening to Los Angeles” provided inspiration for the title. (via laist.com)

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