In honor of International Podcast Day on 30 September, Sounding Out! brings you Pod-Tember (and Pod-Tober too, actually, now that we’re bi-weekly) a series of posts exploring different facets of the audio art of the podcast, which we have been putting into those earbuds since 2011. Enjoy! –JS
Last month, Gimlet media released the audio-feature length podcast The Final Chapters of Richard Brown Winters, starring Catherine Keener, Parker Posey, Bobby Cannavale, Sam Waterston, and Darrell Britt-Gibson, many of the same cast members from their critically-acclaimed podcast Homecoming, and also co-written by Eli Horowitz, Homecoming’s co-creator and co-showrunner. Along with the podcast’s famous move to Amazon TV in 2017, Gimlet’s podcast reunion prompted me to re-listen to Homecoming, trying to figure out how its signature use of audio—characterized by Horowitz as “letting the scenes and the conversation create the action instead of describing the action”—propelled the series to its success in the first place.
Homecoming concerns characters connected with afictional military rehabilitation facility in Tampa, Florida, that ostensibly prepares soldiers suffering PTSD for a return for civilian life. The soldiers are subjects of an experimental drug treatment program devised by the US Defence Department-affiliated Geist Group to erase traumatic memories of combat and eliminate resistance to re-deployment. Set in a specifically post-9/11 political milieu, the series plays out in the implied real world context of multiple and on-going US foreign military interventions. Homecoming foregrounds the sonic/auditory modes associated with war–in particular covert electronic surveillance–working to create an atmosphere infused with suspicion, secrecy and deception. In Homecoming’s dissonant sonic/narrative environment ‘home’ is as perilous as the frontline.
Dissonance and displacement inherent in the auditory experience are overarching themes in Homecoming and manifest in an atmosphere of uncertainty regarding temporality, memory, identity and ideas of “home” itself. The sonic world of Homecoming is infused with a sense of discord—recorded audio is subject to manipulation and misinterpretation—and the voice is a site of multiplicities that destabilise concepts of identity and reality. The podcast’s pervasive “out of tune-ness” produces a heightened state of listening – a hypervigilance – both in Homecoming’s characters as they attempt to decipher multiple conflicting aural “intel,” and in the podcast’s audience as we do likewise. It is this dissonance that compels Homecoming’s listeners to prick up our ears and listen more keenly.
The series’ distinctive non-linear, explicitly sound technology-mediated storytelling style takes the form of an “enigmatic collage” of sound artifacts: recorded therapy sessions between Heidi Bergman (Catherine Keener), a case worker/counsellor at the Homecoming facility, and Walter Cruz (Oscar Isaac), a soldier whose recovery she is monitoring; fraught phone conversations between Heidi and the heavily-compromised senior management at Geist; covert surveillance tapes of interaction at the facility between Walter and fellow soldier, Schrier (Babak Tafti), and between Walter and Heidi; and a series of voice messages ostensibly left by Walter on a mobile phone he has given to his mother.
In “Mandatory,” Homecoming’s opening episode, in a fragment of a recorded counselling session between Heidi and her client Walter Cruz, the second in a succession of these fragments that play out over Series One, Heidi tells Walter that her objective is to help to get him “situated” now that he’s back. Through abrupt temporal shifts between the recorded past and the present, the series reveals that this objective was always already thwarted and that Walter’s “situation” in the present is unfixed, unknown and potentially unknowable. Homecoming’s specific atmospheric aural/narrative mode conveys an unsettling sense of fractured selves in an ever-more fractured sonic landscape. Walter functions in this landscape as a reflexive site of multiple sonic presences. At once static and mutable, fixed and shifting he “exists” and is transmitted across a range of sound technologies. Though captured by these recordings, at the same time he evades capture by those seeking him out.
In Homecoming, Walter’s presence is constructed through absence, which positions him as a kind of acousmêtre, described by Michel Chion in The Voice in Cinema as “one who is not-yet-seen but is liable to appear at any moment” (21). Chion has described how “an entire story… can hang on the epiphany of the acousmêtre”…the quest to bring the acousmêtre into the light” (23). In considering the podcast form, being “seen” can be understood as the conveying of presence, that is, the technical and affective means through which a character is felt or experienced. In Homecoming’s specific reflexive use of sound technology to construct Walter as present yet “unseen,” Walter is everywhere and nowhere, always there but at the same time always not there. The series finds a means of achieving what Chion has suggested is unachievable in radio and, by inference, in the podcast – “playing with” presence, partial presence and absence (21). This affective ‘play with presence’ works too to challenge concepts of the ‘disembodied’ voice and speaks to Christine Ehrick’s call in “Gendered Soundscapes” for a more nuanced exploration of the voice/body relationship. As Ehrick puts it – “if the voice is not the body, what is it?”.
In “Mandatory,” Walter is specific about his willingness to adhere to the conditions of his treatment: “I want to be in compliance,” he tells Heidi. Yet Walter’s multiple itinerant sonic selves seem to resist compliance. Though his presence in Homecoming is constructed through a series of seemingly fixed recordings that might suggest change is precluded, Walter is, paradoxically, a site of radical change. In his technology-contingent presence in the series, Walter, having removed himself from circulation, becomes a ‘soldier-body’ in revolt, resisting placement, compliance and commodification. Goldberg and Willse have identified the “soldier-body” as a “temporary” conduit of “the networks of technoscience and capital [that allows] these networks to adapt and survive” in “Losses and Returns: the Soldier in Trauma” (266-267). It is an argument that manifests in Homecoming in Geist’s covert pharmacological strategies to remediate the psychological fragmentation of war trauma in order to render the ‘soldier-body’ utterly compliant and redeployable. Walter’s perpetually withheld presence revokes his soldier-body’s viability as bio-capital and is framed in the series as an existential threat to the military-industrial complex.
“IF WE’RE NOT IN FLORIDA, WHERE ARE WE?”
Ideas of place and presence, particularly in relation to the non-compliant soldier-body, are further problematized in Homecoming in the sole interaction we hear between Walter and Schrier, another returned soldier, in yet another mode of voice recording. In Episode 2, “Pineapple,” within an internet-based call, Heidi’s boss Colin plays her a surveillance recording from the Homecoming cafeteria, one of several instances in the series of the multiple-layering of sound technology. We listen in as Walter and Schrier eat the pineapple-based dessert they’ve been served and debate Schrier’s “pineapple-induced” doubts about their actual location. For an agitated Schrier, pineapple is pineapple-no-longer but a repository of a sinister excess of meaning – a sign that “they,” the military, are “really laying it on thick with this Florida shit.” Are they in Florida or not? Schrier demands evidence: “the only reason we think we’re in Florida is because that’s what they told us”. These duplications, both actual (the recording) and suspected (a fake Florida), produce an atmosphere layered with dissonance and uncertainty.
While Shrier’s suspicion of a fake Florida proves unfounded, this other duplication (the surveillance recording) has catastrophic consequences for him. In Episode 6, “Hysterical”, we learn that after being dropped from the Homecoming treatment programme, Schrier was abruptly taken off the medication that was being administered to him without his knowledge (via the pineapple, as it happens). In yet another fraught call with a distressed Heidi, Colin matter-of-factly recounts the disastrous aftermath for Schrier: “he bit off a chunk of his tongue, spit it at an orderly, then he tried to hang himself. They’ve got him in restraints.”
Not only do the Homecoming soldiers bring traces of war home with them – traumatic memories and symptoms of PTSD – but the place to which they return turns out to bear traces of a war zone. The America of Homecoming is a liminal space, an environment that harbours hidden dangers. While ostensibly home turf, America is a space that functions, in an orchestrated clandestine manner, as an outpost of war, or rather, encompassed within what Ben Anderson has identified as the borderlessness of “total war” (169-171). For Schrier, sonic capture within the Homecoming surveillance recordings pre-figures further physical capture. Ultimately, he ends up hospitalised and literally restrained.
“HEY MA, IT’S ME, IT’S WALTER…”
Though carceral, a place of enclosure that gestures toward the enclosure inherent in the idea of “total war,” the sonic space of the recorded voice artifact in Homecoming exists also as a site of resistance. Walter’s presence in Season Two manifests via a series of voicemail messages left on a cell phone he has given to his mother, Gloria (Mercedes Ruehl). In Episode 8, “Cipher,” Colin, masquerading as a lawyer taking a class action against the government on behalf of the soldiers maltreated at the Homecoming Facility (one of several fake identities he assumes), persuades Gloria to hand over this phone. As if also infected with Walter’s restlessness, the audio files of these messages migrate from Gloria’s phone to the Geist Server to Heidi’s laptop before we actually hear them. The messages provide a cartographic trace of Walter’s movements west, then north, then south and provide those tracking him, Colin and Heidi, with the first hard evidence of his possible whereabouts. Or at least they seem to.
Again Homecoming draws attention to technologies of reproduction and their influence in how we “conceptualise the voice and its powers” as Weidman states in her essay on “Voice” in Keywords in Sound (236). Walter’s phone is understood as an extension of his affective presence. When subsequent faked messages are left on the phone—the first constructed by Gloria to throw Walter’s trackers off the scent, the second by Heidi in order to entrap Colin—it is this aura of authenticity, the misplaced faith in the faithfulness of the sound recording that serves to legitimate the fakes. The messages, both real and faked, carry the aura of the original voice but their increasingly uncertain status signals “the ontological plasticity of the voice” that Nick Prior has articulated in “On Vocal Assemblages” (489), how “the voice sounds out in a social space comprised of a whole panoply of discourses, techniques and machines that objectify and posit it as a particular kind of object and information”(495). In this instance simulation is an act of ‘pushback’ against networks of power, against the seemingly-fixed borders of recording technology, it is an act that for Walter effects a kind of escape. He remains ‘un-situated.’ Perhaps the safest place for Walter, the only place like home, is in the ‘no place’ of the digital recordings in which he manifests.
Farokh Soltani describes the podcasting form as “the key transformative development in the history of audio drama” in “Inner Ears and Distant Worlds: Podcast Dramaturgy and the Theatre of the Mind” because of the way it “detaches drama from the economic, institutional and political requirements of the radio broadcast” (189). The vast trove of alternative, ‘unsanctioned’ voices podcasting has made audible can be said to resonate with the discernible hum of difference, the form itself can be understood as inherently dissonant. Its fundamental alterity imbues it with the affective essence of dissonance that Sean Gurd articulates in Dissonance: Auditory Aesthetics in Ancient Greece (2016) as “extra-audible information…[a kind of] roughness, a richer, grainier, less-polished sound” (11). The sense of palpable auditory/affective ‘roughness’ or dissonance permeates Homecoming sonic world, frequently in the foregrounded presence of sonic ‘dirtiness’ but always in its distinctive non-linear assemblage and in its inherent critique of the far-reaching and devastating impacts of war. Homecoming’s audio and structural strategies, shifting both temporally and between sonic modes, demand too that we, the listeners, like Walter and Heidi, are actively and continually engaged in the urgent process of attempting to find our bearings, to get ourselves ‘situated.’
Featured Image: “American Redaction,” by Jared Rodriguez / truthout (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Miranda Wilson is a Creative Practice Ph.D. Candidate in Film Studies at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her creative and scholarly thesis (Supervisor, Prof. Annie Goldson) interrogates and experiments with the ways in which voice/image positioning in documentary can and might invigorate screen space as a site of common space and counter-space. Her research encompasses strategies of indirect representation, in particular with regard to gender and voice/image relations; ensemble narratives that work to de-centre the protagonist; low/no budget filmmaking methods that democratize the means of production and documentary practice that is as much about interrogating the documentary form as it is about the subject it engages with. The research project seeks to detect and articulate documentary space in which individuals cohere as a citizenry and everyday practices of democracy are enlivened. Miranda also holds a BA Honours (First Class) from the University of Auckland. Her graduate studies have encompassed research into sound and dissonance; sound/image relations; documentary theory and practice; and representations of spatial transgressions in cinema space.
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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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