“A focus on listening [with technology] shifts the idea of freedom of speech from having a platform of expression to having the possibility of communication” (K. Lacey)
One of the biggest social media event of the past decade, #metoo stands out as a pivotal shift in the future of gender relations. Despite its persistence since October 2017, #metoo is still under-theorized, and since its permutations generate countless hashtag sub-categories each passing week, making sense of it presents a conceptual quagmire. Tracing its history, identifying key moments, mapping its pro- and counter-currents present equally tough challenges to both data science and feminist scholars.
Meta-communication about #metoo abounds. Infographics and visualizations attempt to contain its organic growth into perceivable maps and charts; pop news media constantly report on its evolution in likes, counts, and retweets, as well as—and increasingly—in number of convictions, lawsuits, and reports. At the same time, #metoo has arguably created a discernible listening public in the way that Kate Lacey (2013) argues emerged with national radio: women’s stories have never been listened to with such wide reach and rapt attention.
The project I discuss here takes ‘hearing’ #metoo a step further into the auditory realm in the form of data sonification so as to to re-imagine an audience compelled to earwitness not just the scope but the emotional impact of women’s stories. Data sonification is a growing field, which from its inception has crossed between art and science. It involves a conceptual or semantic translation of data into relevant sonic parameters in a way that utilizes perceptual gestalts to convey information through sound.
Brady Marks and I created the #metoo sonification you’ll hear below by drawing from a public dataset spanning October 2017 to the early Spring of 2018 obtained from data.world. Individual tweets using the hashtag are sonified using female battle cries from video games; the number of retweets and followers forms a sort of swelling and contracting background vocal texture to represent the reach of each message. The dataset is then sped up anywhere between 10x to 1000x in order to represent perceivable ebbs and flows of the hashtag’s life over time. The deliberate aim in this design was to convey a different sensibility of social media content, one that demands emotional and intellectual attention over a duration of time. Given Twitter’s visual zeitgeist whereby individual tweets are perceived at a glance and quickly become lost in the noise of the platform the affective attitude towards “contagious” events becomes arguably impersonal. A sonification such as this asks the listener to spend 30 minutes listening to 1 month of #metoo: something impossible to achieve on the actual platform, or in a single visualization. The aim, then, is to interrupt social media’s habitual and disposable engagements with pressing civic debates.
A critique of big data visualization
To date, there have been more than 19 million #MeToo tweets from over 85 countries; on Facebook more than 24 million people participated in the conversation by posting, reacting, and commenting over 77 million times since October 15, 2017. In a global information society ‘big data’ is translated into creative infographics in order to simultaneously educate an overwhelmed public and elicit urgency and accord for political action. Yet ideological and political considerations around the design of visual information have lagged behind enthusiasm for making data ‘easy to understand’. At the other end of the spectrum, social media delivers personalized micro-trends directly and in real time to always-mobile users, reinforcing their information silos (Rambukkana 2015). Between these extremes, the mechanisms by which relevant local, marginalized or emergent issues come to be communicated to the wider public are constrained.
With this big idea in mind, the question we ask here is what would it mean to hear data? Emergent work in sonification suggests that sound may afford a unique way to experience large-scale data suitable for raising public awareness of important current issues (Winters & Weinberg 2015). The uptake of sonification by the artistic community (see Rory Viner, Robert Alexander, among many others) signals its strengths in producing affective associations to data for non-specialized audiences, despite its shortcomings as a scientific analysis tool (Supper, 2018). Some of the more esoteric uses of sonification have been in the service of capturing what Supper calls ‘the sublime’ – as in Margaret Schedel’s “Sounds of Science: The Mystique of Sonification.”
Who’s listening on social media?
Within the Western canon of sound studies “constitutive technicities” (Gallope 2011) or what Sterne calls “perceptual technics” embody historically situated ways of listening that center technology as a co-defining factor in our relationship with sound. Within this frame, media sociologist Kate Lacey traces the emergence of the modern listening public through the history of radio. Using the metaphor of ‘listening in” and “listening out,” Lacey reframes media citizenship by pointing out that listening is a cultural as well as a perceptual act with defined political dimensions:
Listening out is the practice of being open to the multiplicity of texts and voices and thinking of texts in the context of and in relation to a difference and how they resonate across time and in different spaces. But at the same time, it is the practice and experience of living in a media age that produces and heightens the requirement, the context, the responsibilities and the possibilities of listening out (198)
According to Lacey, a focus on listening instead of spectatorship challenges the implicit active/passive dualism of civic participation in Western contexts. More importantly, she argues, we need to move away from the notion of “giving voice” and instead create meaningful possibilities to listen, in a political sense. Data sonification doesn’t so much ‘give voice to the voiceless’ but creates a novel relationship to perceiving larger patterns and movements.
Our interactions with media, therefore, are always already presumptive of particular dialogical relations. Every speech act, every message implies a listening audience that will resonate understanding. In other words, how are we already listening in to #metoo? How and why might data sonification enable us to “listen out” for it instead? In order to get a different hearing, what should #metoo sound like?
Sonifying #metoo: the battle cries of gender-based violence
It is unrealistic to expect that your everyday person will read large archives of testimony on sexual harassment and gender-based violence. Because of their massive scale, archives of #metoo testimony pose a significant challenge to the possibility for meaningful communication around this issue. Essentially drowning each other out, individual voices remain unheard in the zeitgeist of media platforms that automates quantification while speeding up engagement with individual contributions. To reaffirm the importance of voice would mean to reaffirm inter-subjectivity and to recognize polyphony as an “existential position of humanity” (Ihde 2007, 178). This was the problem to sonify here: how to retain individual voices while creating the possibility for listening to the whole issue at hand. Inspired by the idea of listening out, myself and artist collaborator Brady Marks set out to sonify #metoo as a way of eliciting the possibility for a new listening public.
The #metoo sonification project intersected deeply with my work on the female voice in videogames. My choice to use a mixed selection of battle cry samples from Soul Calibur, an arcade fighting game, was intuitive. Battle cries are pre-recorded banks of combat sounds that video game characters perform in the course of the story. Instances of #metoo on Twitter presumably represent the experiences of individual women, pumping a virtual fist in the air, no longer silent about the realities of gender-based violence. So hearing #metoo posts as battle cries of powerful game heroines made sense to me. But it’s the meta layers of meaning that are even more intuitive: as I’ve discussed elsewhere, female battle cries are notoriously gendered and sexualized. Listening to a reel of sampled battle cries is almost indistinguishable from listening to a pornographic soundscape. Abstracted in this sonification, away from the cartoonish hyper-reality of a game world, these voices are even more eerie, giving almost physical substance to the subject matter of #metoo. Just as the female voice in media secretly fulfils the furtive desires of the “neglected erogenous zone” of the ear (Pettman 2017, 17), #metoo is an embodiment of the conflation of sex with consent: the basis of what we now call ‘rape culture.’
Sonifying real-time data such as Twitter presents not only semantic (how should it sound like) but also time-scale challenges. If we are to sonify a month – e.g. the month of November 2017 (just weeks after the explosion of #metoo) – but we don’t want to spend a month listening, then that involves some conceptual time-scaling. Time-scaling means speeding up instances that already happen multiple times a second on a platform as instantaneous and global as Twitter. Below are samples of three different sonifications of #metoo data, following different moments in the initial explosion of the hashtag and rendered at different time compressions. Listen to them one at a time and note your sensual and emotive experience of tweets closer to real-time playback, compared to the audible patterns that emerge from compressing longer periods of time inside the same length audio file. You might find that the density is different. Closer to real-time the battle cries are more distinctive, while at higher time compressions what emerges instead is an expanding and contracting polyphonic texture.
Vocalizations of female pleasure/affect, video game battle cries already have a special relationship to technologies of audio sampling and digital reproduction as Corbett & Kapsalis describe in “Aural sex: the female orgasm in popular sound.” This means that the perceptual technics involved in listening to recorded female voices are already coded with sexual connotations. Battle cries in games are purposely exaggerated so as to carry the bulk of emotional content in the game’s experiential matrix. Roland Barthes’ notion of the “grain of the voice”—the presence of the body in (singing) voice—is frequently evoked in describing the substantive role that game voices play in the construction of game world immersion and realism. In the #metoo sonification, I decontextualize the grain of the voice—there are no visual images, narrative, or gameplay; the battle cries are also acousmatic, in that there are no bodies visually represented from which these sounds emanate.
The battle cry in this #metoo sonification is the ultimate disembodied voice, resisting what Kaja Silverman (1988) calls the “norm of synchronization” with a female body in The Acoustic Mirror (83). As acousmatic voices, these battle cries could be said to exist on a different conceptual and perceptual plane, “disturbing the taxonomies upon which patriarchy depends,” to quote Dominic Pettman in Sonic Intimacy. (22). In other words, the sounds exist in a boundary space between combat sounds and orgasmic sounds highlighting for the listener the dissonance between the supposed empowerment of ‘speaking out’ within a culture that remains staunchly set up to sexualize women; something one can hardly ignore given the media’s reserved treatment of #metoo.
Liberated from the game world these voices now speak for themselves in the #metoo sonification, their sensuality all the more hyper-real. The player has no control here, as the battle cries are not linked to specific game actions, rather they are synchronized autonomously to instances of #metoo confessionals. In fact, the density of the sonification as time speeds up will overwhelm listeners with its boundlessness; echoing how contemporary media treats the sounds of the female orgasm as a renewable and inexhaustible resource, even as reports of sexual harassment and gender-based violence continue to pile on in 2021. Yet we intend that the subject matter resists pleasure, rendering the sonic experience traumatic as the chilling realization sets in that listeners are hailed to accountability by #metoo. The experience should instead be unsettling, impactful, grotesque, and deeply embodied.
Listening both metaphorically and literally goes to the very heart of questions to do with the politics and experience of living and communicating in the media age. In her paper on the sonic geographies of the voice, AM Kanngieser notes in “A Sonic Geography of Voice“: “The voice, in its expression of affective and ethico-political forces, creates worlds” (337). It is not just in the grain but in the enunciation that battle cries find their political significance in this sonification. As the hyper-real gasps and moans of game heroines animate individual moments of #metoo the codification of cartoonish voices resists being subconsciously “absorbed into the dialogic exchange” (342) of habitual media consumption. Listening to the sonification is instead an experience of re-coding the voice, reconfiguring the embedded meanings of game sound to a new and contradictory context: a space that challenges neoliberal appropriations of radical communication and discourse (348). This is not data sonification that delights the listener or simply grants them access to ‘information’ in a different format; rather it calls on the listener to de-normalize their received technicity and perceptions and to connect to the emotional inter-subjectivity of this call to action.
Most importantly, the #metoo sonification invites the auditeur to listen in, to take an active role in the reconfiguration of meanings and absorb their political dimensions. These are the stories of #metoo; these are the voices of women, of men, of marginalized peoples, emerging from the zeitgeist of Twitter to ask us to earwitness gender-based violence. We are a new listening public, wanting and needing to create new worlds. A critical bandwidth is the smallest perceivable unit of auditory change, in psychology terms. This sonification begs the question, how many battle cries will it take for us to end gender-based violence by fostering equitable worlds?
Milena Droumeva is an Assistant Professor and the Glenfraser Endowed Professor in Sound Studies at Simon Fraser University specializing in mobile media, sound studies, gender, and sensory ethnography. Milena has worked extensively in educational research on game-based learning and computational literacy, formerly as a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Research on Digital Learning at York University. Milena has a background in acoustic ecology and works across the fields of urban soundscape research, sonification for public engagement, as well as gender and sound in video games. Current research projects include sound ethnographies of the city (livable soundscapes), mobile curation, critical soundmapping, and sensory ethnography. Check out Milena’s Story Map, “Soundscapes of Productivity” about coffee shop soundscapes as the office ambience of the creative economy freelance workers.
Milena is a former board member of the International Community on Auditory Displays, an alumni of the Institute for Research on Digital Learning at York University, and former Research Think-Tank and Academic Advisor in learning innovation for the social enterprise InWithForward. More recently, Milena serves on the board for the Hush City Mobile Project founded by Dr. Antonella Radicchi, as well as WISWOS, founded by Dr. Linda O Keeffe.
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Hearing Eugenics—Vibrant Lives
Learning from other scholars’ work on Haitian radio was, and still is, one of the greatest pleasures in the process of writing Isles of Noise: Sonic Media in the Caribbean (UNC 2016). People living in or from Haiti widely acknowledged and almost took for granted radio’s outsized role in public and political life. Edwidge Danticat and Jonathan Demme also understood this and paid tribute in Claire of the Sea Light and The Agronomist respectively, but historians remained largely fixated, understandably, on pivotal moments in Haiti’s rich history. Radio is different. Not pivotal, but witnessing the pivotal. Less dramatic and more long lasting and adhering to the same format for days, years, decades. It speaks to people who wouldn’t read newspapers or books. It floods private and public space with the sounds of music, talking, ruling, dissenting, explaining, satirizing, creating, crying, testifying, lying. But it leaves few archival traces. This is why the work of the five scholars in this series is so important. They allow us to hear a little and honor the listeners who make the medium what it is.
To start the series, Ian Coss gave a finely tuned account of a “day in the life” of a radio station in Cap Haïtien that follows the programming rhythm of days and nights. Then, Jennifer Garcon recounted one of the pivotal points in the relationship—its near breakdown and ultimate survival—also a turning point for a 19-year-old Jean Claude Duvalier, newly proclaimed President for life. Last week, Laura Wagner, who listened to each recording Radio Haïti-Inter and its archive (now at Duke University) and wrote its archival descriptors, writes of the work itself, the emotional, financial and intellectual challenges involved, and the reason this archive is essential to anyone interested in Haiti, or radio, or racial justice.
We continue the series in Brooklyn this week, where amidst gentrification and millennials seeking upscale vegan quesadillas, the ‘culture of the transistor’ is alive and well. Pirate radio stations broadcasting music and news in Haitian Creole have loyal followings, mostly of an older generation for whom radio was the primary medium during their youth. Listening brings back memories of a prosperous 1940s and 50s Haiti that recent narratives centered on catastrophe tend to bury. David Goren, who has not just written about but also mapped Brooklyn’s pirate stations, reminds us that these aural communities connect past and present, and perhaps future as well.
Guest Editor– Alejandra Bronfman
Click here for the full series!
‘A lot of these stations, especially the Haitian stations, they have such an extensive music library that a song will come on the radio and all of a sudden my mom is like, ‘Oh my God! Your grandma used to have this record and she played it every Saturday!’ says Joan Martinez, a young Haitian-American born in the US and a former program host on some of the unlicensed Kreyol language stations. “Now she’s transported back to being on the island, with the big radio that’s a piece of furniture in the living room. People are chatting, little drinks are flowing about, my grandmother milling about in a gorgeous dress. It’s kind of like that whole nostalgia era that unfortunately was probably lost because of the political turmoil in Haiti. So it’s harkening back to a good time, to a simpler time, a better time, a more carefree era.”
Every day, the skies of New York City fill up with unseen clouds of radio signals spreading over immigrant neighborhoods. These culturally charged clouds of radio energy burst with a flow of content that continually shifts and transforms, following the lifecycle and rhythm of the streets.
From clandestine studios tucked behind store fronts, DJs transform time and physical space with Konpa, Reggae and Soca music, mixing the sounds of ancestral homes with the thump and challenge of adapting to a new life in the United States. Jolted by electrified fingers of Signal, the old radio poetry of hiss and hum leaps from a scattered forest of antennas connected to transmitters hidden away inside rooftop sheds. In Brooklyn, the signals alight on Flatbush Avenue, blasting from radios in dollar vans, bakeries, churches and on street corners and kitchen tables. By accessing an analog technology that (outside of the radio itself) is essentially free for the listener, economically marginalized communities avoid the subscription and data fees built in to the conveniences of the digital life. Listeners, often the elders of the community, extend metal antennas and position the radios just so, trying to catch the elusive vibrations of crucial music, news and information that are seldom felt in New York City’s legal and mostly corporate owned media soundscape.
“These underground, unlicensed or pirate stations have been around for as long as there has been radio,” Martinez says. The legality of radio stations stems from The Communications Act of 1934, legislation that created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the agency tasked with penalizing unlicensed stations and shutting them down. “The focus really was on the listeners.” says Rosemary Harold, chief of FCC Enforcement ‘because what had happened before licensing became what we know as today, was that listeners weren’t able to consistently hear radio broadcasts. And now we’re kind of in a modern iteration of that.”
Others, like pirate radio historian John Anderson, see the Act as unfairly slanted towards commercial interests, awarding “the highest powers and clearest channels” to stations that sold advertising, tilting the medium away from serving specific communities. “By privileging commercial speech over non-commercial speech and by basically saying if you are a special interest, we will not award you a license.” Anderson says. “You create the conditions for there to be dissension over the media policy, which will lead people into radical actions, like putting stations on the air without permission.” In Flatbush, stations broadcast primarily to Haitians, Jamaicans, Trinidadians, Grenadians and Orthodox Jews. The Haitian stations are particularly active in East Flatbush with just under a dozen broadcasting daily in Kreyol to the large Haitian community.
“I came across it at a very young age. There was this really popular station back in the late 80s, Radio Guinee, and it was based in Brooklyn.” Joan Martinez says. “Nobody knows where it was, there are suspicions. But all I know is from Friday night all the way to Sunday night, you would just hear a series of these stations every weekend and it would be the place where you could listen to the latest in Haitian pop music, rap music. It was also the news, my parents and their friends would all sit around the radio and they would just be politicking in the living room getting really loud, you know, dancing, singing along that sort of thing. It was just like a meeting ground and the radio was guiding it.”
This phase of New York City pirate radio rose from the ashes of a previous scene dating to the late sixties: a dozen or so stations sporadically run mostly by white teenagers: a mix of hippies, radicals and electronically inclined misfits. By 1987, this loose collective of friends and rivals devolved into infighting after a short-lived attempt to broadcast from international waters off Jones Beach. This created room for new pirate radio voices from diverse communities that were increasingly being pushed off the legal airwaves by high costs, format consolidation, and “the low power desert”, an FCC-led phaseout of small community broadcasters. The local pirates joined a growing national wave of progressive pirate radio activity taking advantage of a new generation of cheap FM transmitters imported from China or homebrewed in makeshift workshops by free radio activists.
By the early 90’s, immigrant community-focused broadcasters In New York City flipped the unspoken rules of the earlier pirates who broadcast mainly late at night on a few pre-determined “safe” frequencies, instead filling the FM dial from bottom to top, day and night. In 2000, under pressure from a nationwide increase in pirate radio activity, the FCC introduced a new license class: Low Power FM (LPFM) but opposition from National Public Radio and the National Association of Broadcasters shut down the issuing of new licenses. That severely limited LPFM’s availability in major urban markets due to rules requiring LPFM’s to be “three click aways” from existing stations. Local pirates felt they had no alternative but to continue broadcasting and some stations in Flatbush have been on the air for decades. Despite the passage of the Local Community Radio Act in 2011, opening a new licensing window with relaxed spacing requirements, few new frequencies were available in NYC due to an already crowded dial. The continued pirate presence is enabled by a sort of safety in numbers, an FCC enforcement team hampered by a low budget and a bureaucratic process of enforcement.
Though the stations exist to serve their communities with news and culture and maybe make a little money for their owners and dj’s, they can and do cause interference for listeners of licensed stations, particularly low-powered non-commercial broadcasters like WFMU, a beloved freeform music station. Interference near their frequency has inspired the Brooklyn Pirate Watch Twitter group to keep a wary eye on pirate operations.
Interference aside, FCC commissioners and staff publicly fume at the pirates for a range of potential public safety violations, some more theoretical than others and claim they are somehow harming their own communities, and wonder finally, why don’t they just stream on the internet. By viewing radio piracy purely from a legal perspective, critics miss the cultural and historic forces driving the Haitian pirates. During the Duvalier dictatorship (1957-1986) Haitians had access to only two stations broadcasting in Kreyol, rather than French, the language of the elite. One was Radio Lumiere, a religious station and the other Radio Haiti-Inter, a fiercely independent voice whose director Jean Dominque was assassinated in 1999.
“The peasant in Haiti, while he’s working on his farm you know he had a transistor.” Says Dr. Jean Eddy St. Paul, Director of the Haitian Studies Institute at the City University of New York. ‘And many peasants, they don’t have money to buy tobacco to smoke, but they will have money to buy the battery to put in the transistor. The first generation of migration, in the US, was during the 1960s and for many of those people the culture of transistor was part of their everyday life, so they’re still maintaining the culture of transistor. For them, having a radio station is very important.’
In July 2019, on a side street in East Flatbush, I met a man calling himself “Joseph” aka “Haitian” (“because I’m a pure Haitian!”), part of a group that keeps Radio Comedy FM on the air. “There’s no owners and committee. It’s a bunch of young guys”. Joseph says, “We have to do something positive for our community. Right now the Marines are in Haiti and we don’t know what’s next! CNN don’t show you this! BBC don’t show you this! So what we do, we have people in Haiti that call us and tell us what’s going on and will send us pictures. This is how we get our information. And bring it to the people…. I have family over there, my mother’s still there. So I have to know what’s going on.
At this point in the digital age, it’s an open question how long these analog pirate stations will remain relevant, as their audiences age, neighborhoods gentrify and younger listeners gravitate to social media platforms. The answer seems to lie with their elderly and impoverished listeners. “They don’t have enough money to buy the newspapers understand?.” Joseph says.” For him that makes it worth it to keep Radio Comedy on the air despite a crackdown from the FCC backed by the PIRATE Act signed into law in 2020 that increases fines to $100,000 a day up to $2 million. But the legislation lacks funding to enforce the new regulations. With a federal statute still in place reducing fines down to the ability to pay, it’s unclear whether the PIRATE Act will be anything more than another in an escalating series of scare tactics.
“If they don’t want us to do it just make it easy for us. Let’s make a meeting with those guys [the FCC],” Joseph says. ‘We’re going to provide the air for you. A frequency. You’re going to pay for example, $500 a month even $1,000 a month.’ We will be more than happy to do it. “
Though the FCC has recently suggested the possibility of a new round of LPFM licenses in the future, the already crowded nature of NYC’s FM band makes it unlikely that new frequencies will be made available to the current pirate stations. In addition the FCC doesn’t want to be seen as rewarding illegal activity by granting a license to former pirate broadcasters, which was a prohibition in LPFM’s earlier licensing periods. And for the moment, Joseph, who’s been running unlicensed stations since 1991 (‘it’s an addiction’) is equally unlikely to cede the airwaves. He sees Radio Comedy as not just a radio station, but a community lifeline.
“You know many children we save? There was a bunch of guys…Jamaican, Trinidadian, Haitian trying to form a gang. We talked to them, bring them to the station. Most of them have a diploma now. Without the radio, most of them probably get locked up or dead.”
Even with the PIRATE act on the books, the number of stations on the air in Brooklyn has remained steady with an average of about 25 per day and the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic has only sharpened their mission. In March 2020 as the spread of Covid-19 lead to NYC’s lockdown, the unlicensed Haitian broadcasters and the other West Indian stations in Brooklyn took a step closer to their listeners, increasing their air time and enhancing their formats to deliver information about the virus both in New York and in their countries of origin amid the heavy toll it took on the community.
Featured Image: Antenna in Flatbush, courtesy of David Goren
An award-winning radio producer, David Goren has created programming for the BBC, Jazz at Lincoln Center Radio, the Wall Street Journal Magazine, and NPR’s “Lost and Found Sound” series, as well as audio-based installations for Proteus Gowanus Radio Cona and the Ethnographic Terminalia Collective. In 2016, he was an artist-in residence at Wave Farm, a center for the transmission arts.
Since 2014, David has been recording New York City’s prodigious pirate radio activity and researching the evolution of this grassroots community radio movement resulting in the release of “Outlaws of the Airwaves: The Rise of Pirate Radio Station WBAD” (2018) for KCRW’s “Lost Notes” podcast, New York City’s Pirates of the Air for the BBC World Service (2019) and the “Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map 2.0” (2020) which was featured in The New Yorker. He presented “Tracing Neighborhoods in the Sky,” as part of the Fall 2019 Franke Lectures at Yale University. In January 2021, the Brooklyn Pirate Radio Sound Map became a partner of the Library of Congress’ Radio Preservation Task Force.
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