Last year I took an elective that touched on the study of sound design, or the ways in which sound is organized — or unintentionally disorganized — in various settings. A big philosophical topic of interest in this field is the use of headphones by individuals in personal transit. By using headphones, are we effectively silencing the natural soundscape of a place? This initially seems like a rather pedantic point, one best mulled over in a musicology elective. Yet, shouldn’t we be worried about so many people dismantling the collective identity of a place, just as we are worried about climate change or the tearing down of the Nines?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. One time, as I was tearing across the Arts Quad, headphones blasting, I ran into the professor of this elective. “Forging your own soundscape, are we?” he said. I begrudgingly ripped the headphones out of my ears. I wanted to listen to music. Despite missing out on whatever track on Spotify I was enjoying, if I concentrated and listened attentively enough, I could hear music, almost as if it was pulled out of the air…
For the sake of transparency, I should mention that a friend and I have recently launched our own radio show on CornellRadio.com. Our program is called Songs for Dads, and it airs every Wednesday night from 9-10p.m. Instead of adhering to a specific thematic format, we simply conduct some prior emotional research and play the songs we love the most on any given Hump Day. It is both a blessing and a wonder to be endowed with such a platform, and we greatly appreciate any of you who may have spent the hour enduring our angsty tunes and less-than-witty banter.
But enough with my shameless plug. Being involved with a radio program for the first time has made me realize how much I once took the radio, any radio, for granted. Back in high school I would listen to a few local stations. I can recall occasionally tuning in to a few classic rock shows that transmitted from Philadelphia, or cruising around in my car to the experimental noise which emanated from Princeton’s public station (not always the best driving music). Once I came to Cornell I essentially stopped listening to any radio whatsoever. Perhaps this is to be expected. Of course, the radio as a source of music and entertainment has declined as we move further into the digital and streaming era. Entire parties are sustained by someone’s Spotify playlist, and it is difficult to imagine an era when people had to play cassettes or vinyl records for fun, let alone gather around a radio.
On the other side of the speakers, however, I am beginning to see the vibrant culture in which radio DJs dwell. A significant amount of work goes into producing even the most innocuous shows. Curating a playlist and engaging in live dialogue are not merely functions that lead to some output, but rather they are modes of performance. In picking a song to play and discuss, a DJ is broadcasting something of personal significance and this is not so far off from performing an original piece of music written to convey some meaningful sentiment. Nevertheless I push even further the profundity that I see in radio, for ultimately it transcends the more artificial act of programmatic performance. I assert that radio broadcasts are as natural as the physical climate from which they originate.
Really! Radio waves are all over, especially in Ithaca. We can not see them, but they are there, constantly, soaring at a blazing pace over the town, up East Hill and down South Hill. They penetrate the gorges and bounce around, and maybe they rush to Cayuga and mingle with the other waves on the shore for a while.
Through all of my metaphysical clamor, I mean to indicate that the physical traits of radio waves literally represent how significant radio culture is to the identity of a local place. And what robust culture defines Ithaca! There is of course WVBR and CornellRadio.com. While WVBR branded itself as a classic rock station for decades, it recently just expanded to a more alternative format to better represent the diverse environment it serves and reflect the wide variety of tastes and impressions that form the community. WICB, Ithaca College’s station, transmits a rather stunning mix of music and talk programs. Rewind 107.7 offers aural snapshots of what came before us, playing classic pop and running spots like “did you know a [dissolved chain business] used to be in Collegetown?”
I implore you to listen to the wide variety of Ithaca’s local radio stations. Sometimes, when driving around listening to the radio, I find my student anxiety quelled as I am welcomed into a part of Ithaca’s identity, like I am a part of the scenery, and I hope for you to find this ease as well.
Nick Swan is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. His column Swan’s Song runs alternate Thursdays this semester.