Two minutes to midnight

Two minutes to midnight. That seems the perfect time to start writing something about too much and not enough. Too much coffee and not enough time. Too much inspiration and not enough work. Too much in and not enough out.

It’s an obvious metaphor but the scales have truly tipped over one way and I could see them going all day. It’s not like I can limit the amount of things that inspire me; say, “thank you – that’ll do”. It just keeps on coming, relentlessly. Audio work. Photography. Writing. Radio. Projects. Writing. YouTube videos. Books and magazines. And these are just the things I want to engage in! Let alone the stuff I *have* to do.

I did manage some of the things I had to do. I worked, of course. I picked up some groceries. I rang my mother. I cooked a nutritious dinner. I ran.

I was hesitant to put that last one – running more often feels like a choice or even a vice, than a chore. It’s not necessarily easy, or particularly enjoyable in and of itself. But it’s something I have control over, and it enables me to explore a place, and in that moment it gives me a single focus. That’s what I appreciate most about it right now: the focus.

There’s a line in Fleabag where she’s having a pretty horrible time. I can’t remember it exactly but it’s basically “I just want someone to tell me what to do.” It’s a heartbreaking line, but I get it. It’s just this need for someone to take control, pick you up and put you back on the track, and send you on your way. And so running is a bit like that. It’s a time where I’m just doing the thing. The running. I can enjoy the view, sure. Sometimes I can listen to music or podcasts or radio. But more often I run without anything in my ears, and I just run.

It’s not aimless – I do usually have a route in mind, or a distance. I need to know what I’m taking on. I can’t really just go out and run – too short and I’ll need to double up or do loops; too long and it’s a slog, and one with logistical issues like “well, here I am, now how do I get home?”. I’ve started to learn some routes of specific rough lengths, like I had done in London. It’s useful to equip oneself with a stock of routes that can be deployed when a specific distance or type of run is needed.

This evening I turned temporarily north, then aimed south for Rock-a-Nore, to run along the beach at dusk, shortly after the high tide began receding. I wanted to see what the waves had churned up. Today was, I think, the first post-5pm sunset we’ve had.

The reality was murkier: by the time I got down to the sea, the light had faded sufficiently to make running on the pebble beach a hazard, and as my eyes adjusted to the gloaming I could make out that the white shapes contrasted against the darker pebbles were in fact small, dead catsharks, dashed onto the rocks by the recent high tide. And there were scores of them. I didn’t fancy running blind through that, the terror in my mind of the sensation of accidentally stepping on a small, dead shark. I cantered back up to the car park and took the shared cycle path past the fishermen’s huts back towards town.

Radiophrenia is back on the air. The ‘phrenia’ jars because I think there’s an insensitivity around using that term to mean something light or faintly amusing or whimsical or just a mix. But I get it – and that issue aside, it’s hard to think of a catchier title for two weeks of solid radio and sound art which jumps from interview to field recording to composition to music to installations.

There is a schedule available online, and I’m glad there is. I can’t simply listen all day, every day for a fortnight. I scan the schedules for names I am familiar with – the Hali Palomobos or the Radio Cegestes of the world. Or I scan for references in the synopsis that sound good to me – anything mentioning field recordings or radio is pretty likely to be in my wheelhouse.

Every time Radiophrenia comes around I kick myself for not having got my act together and worked on something for it. It might be rather bold to assume I could produce something worthy of submission. But it feels like a very inclusive project, and with enough space over two weeks to include a great range or experience or talent. Even some of my existing recordings or compositions would be suitable – I think – for their shorts compilations. But oh, to have produced a whole piece for them and for it to be broadcast? One day.

Some of the stuff I listened to today included field recordings – of a trip from home to a bar, or heading out on a wild swim. Some featured recordings taken from distant radio signals overheard – conversations and pleasantries uttered by people with no knowledge of their being recorded.

And I even listened to one piece which was made up of compositions using SSTV broadcast signals – think somewhere between a dial-up modem and a Spectrum game or similar loading from tape. I think the composer had programmed the pieces to sound good, with rhythm – like very simplistic techno beats. I suspect the transmissions were also encoded so that the SSTV signals would produce an image, but I didn’t investigate this.

I listened to one piece this afternoon which simply featured someone tuning around the AM and FM bands. The synopsis didn’t give me the impression it was live to air, but pictures on the Radiophrenia Instagram make me think it was. It was rather comforting – just half an hour of tuning around. Songs occasionally fading in and out. Snippets of news or debate. Lots of static. Not hanging on to a particular station for too long. And in its way an entirely ordinary, mundane thing. Just tuning around the radio. A sound less familiar nowadays in this age of digital tuning, sure. But a comfortingly familiar sound.

Tuning around the AM dial is something James A. Reeves does a lot. Well, maybe he doesn’t do it a lot, but he’s written about it enough times – and he’s produced music mixes that deliberately incorporate some static fades and snippets that he’s captured live off the radio. It’s nice to hear those recordings and compositions. It’s also fun to read his take on the experience of tuning around the AM dial, and how that practice lends a weird gravitas – a fittingly uncanny companion – to that specific scenario.

Night-time AM radio in the American desert must be… Something else. I spent a small chunk of my childhood, inexplicably, listening to the original talkRadio rather late in the evening. I have vivid memories of James Whale giving someone a telling off, or – and I was aware of it even them – being deliberately provocative on air, which drove the listeners to pick up their phones. But it couldn’t have been all negative or objectionable – Whale and his producer Ash held court and held my attention throughout, with a small white digital clock radio tuned to 1053 or 1089 on the AM band, the volume turned low.

I reflect on this only to say that talkRadio was one of my few touchstones for the concept of late-night AM phone-ins. In this small island nation, we do not have endless AM stations up and down the country, blasting their signal through the night air across deserted lands, each one providing a window into a conversation you wished you hadn’t stumbled on, but somehow you can’t tear yourself away.

I think the nearest example we have might be the local BBC stations which stay on all night, inviting listeners to phone in. Do they even still do this? So many have been consolidated. But they are by their very nature local, and on FM. They don’t travel far. And anyway, as I said above, the UK is a small country. We just don’t have the kinds of AM stations spanning thousands of miles that much larger countries like the US or Australia do.

Merely flicking through even a variety of local FM stations (or doing the same with online streams) simply does not cut it: for the true impact to be felt, these stations must come to the listener veiled in an interference-filled gauze, fading in and out.

And so I will always enjoy reading about what it is like to wade through that endless static and find the voices that are so compelling, no matter how objectionable. That breadth of stations is partly why I feel drawn to shortwave radio.

The diversity of voices is still there, but it’s a shadow of its former self. Back when I was first listening I could find plenty of interest to actually listen to – regular shows I would make time to tune in and listen to (like a write-in show on Radio Canada International – was it called the Mailbag?). Now, it’s more a tool to just use the China Radio International stations as propagation beacons, and see if there are any surprises to be found in between.

Objectionable voices do still appear, even on these broadcast stations: Hali Palombo produced a nice background to the unique Brother Stair, now deceased (Hali was concerned she was somehow responsible), and his voice can still be heard on the short waves – though in time he, too, will vanish from the airwaves completely.

More recently I’ve turned to AM (or medium wave) to scan the stations I can pick up here in our new home on the south coast.

Coming from a semi-submerged duplex flat in north London, I am still finding such mundane things as decent MW reception a novelty. The number of stations I can find on the dial has jumped from 5-10 to about 80.

Better yet, I’m closer to the coast and so now I’m regularly picking up stations from the continent, as far afield as Spain, Italy or Tunisia. I recently learned of goodnatured contests among medium wave listeners doing bandscans on particular frequencies to track down as many distant stations as they can. It appeals to me. It’s early days in my MW-listening, but I’m enjoying the renewed interest, and it’s scratching a similar itch to when I started out short wave listening.

It’s not quite the same as the desert-bound, car-based AM radio scans Mr Reeves gets up to – the various stations are in many different languages for one. But it still captivates my imagination tuning around just to see what’s out there, and to try and establish how far that signal has come to reach me and my little portable radio.

These are some of the inputs that have been swirling around in my brain, and it feels somehow validating to have downloaded them into this machine, at least for me. And for you?