For seven days in May , Liverpool reverberated to the signal of the UK's first experimental radio station. That media-styled 'telephone terrorist', Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner, tuned in. This article was originally published in The Wire 137 (July 1995).
"Sam, can you hear me? Are you on your portable? Oh dear, you better cut this call short ... " Touted as Britain's first experimental art radio station, broadcasting daily from breakfast time until midnight for a week in May during Liverpool's Video Positive festival, Hearing Is Believing 105.8FM offered a rare chance for listeners to tune into a mix of sound works, performance and innovative documentaries that would never receive airplay on even the most 'progressive' FM bands. Remember, BBC Radio still has problems playing certain works of Stockhausen because they contain randomly-culled shortwave radio signals.
Club Audio opened the station, an evening of DJs and live performances from the likes of Elemental and those mavericks of plunderphonic pleasure, Stock, Hausen & Walkman, who scrambled Nirvana's doped-out Grunge by splicing it with a batch of Easy Listening sounds. Transmitted live to the radiograms of Liverpool and surrounding areas, I wondered what casual listeners would think when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" growled out at 16rpm through the radio static at around one o'clock in the morning.
"Ed called round. He said, 'Oh, Four Weddings And A Funeral, can I borrow this?' I said, 'Can you 'eck, I've only just bought it, I haven't even watched it yet, I've only had it a day.' Whoa, who... Pher!"
I'd been asked to participate in Hearing Is Believing, transmitting a daily half hour show of "live Ambient eavesdroppings on the rhythms of human and electronic communication". At 9am on my first day, I struggled down to the station's makeshift studios, which were holed up in the rafters of the city's Bluecoat Gallery, and met up with the very personable programmer of the event, Anna Douglas. Anna was tearing around the offices answering telephone enquiries while wearing a radio Walkman tuned constantly to the station. Accompanying me to the studio still kitted out in a web of wires, she enthused about the conception of an experimental radio station alongside other newer forms of technology. The deregulation of the airwaves in this country, albeit on a temporary basis and negotiated with the size of your wallet, has meant a move towards a wider cultural expression for marginal, be they religious broadcasts or transmissions mapping local festivities such as Festival Radio in Brighton.
Some of the shows on Hearing Is Believing mirrored those on conventional radio in a number of ways: William Furlong's audio portraits of family mealtimes were broadcast at equivalent times; Michael Atavar's adults-only bedtime story was designed to be listened to in bed at the end of the day (though I suspect a few adolescents were tuning into this beneath their East 17 bedspreads). But this aspect of the station was explored most tellingly in the work of Zbigniew Jaroc. His All The News That's News was transmitted at regular news bulletin times, a current affairs broadcast that positively refused to deliver with its hypnotically punchy, rat-a-tat, Reichean stutters of melody over a texture of distant voices; his Or All The News You Can Afford was a numbing experience, framed as a sequence of radio jingles that laboured for half an hour selling you nothing at all.
Some of the week's more surreal moments occurred in the Bluecoat cafe. What could be odder than devouring a sticky bun and coffee surrounded by Saturday shoppers and mums with kids in push chairs to the electroacoustic sounds of Dave Sheppard and James Wishart with their dense tonal drones buzzing out of the speakers on the wall?
Dan Lander's two hour show of soundworks from Canada profiled a variety of contemporary work by, among others, Chantal Dumas, Robert Racine, John Oswald and Claude Schryer. The programme ranged from a work that made use of 'sound signatures' – literally the fetishistic squeal of squeaky marker pens on paper – through "Steps" by Kathy Kennedy, a Montreal sound artist, with its "You could know, you could never know" text repeating endlessly over a loop of railway rhythms, to Ron Lander's own "Room" which examined the psychology of sound as opposed to sight. Arguing that there is a hierarchy of the senses, in that too much meaning is garnered from what we see, this piece, written in 1992, sought to explore the other senses through the use of sound only. Whether a collage of household hoovering, flies hovering, babies hollering, seagulls screaming and deep drones fed into this domesticised sound portrait was enough to conjure up the dormant senses is debatable. I know for certain it put me soundly to sleep, which was a welcome relief.
"Well I'm like that, I must admit. You have to sort of look at me, look me in the eyes, and say, 'I WANT!', and then I think, is she trying to tell me something?"
Waking up in a dark hotel room, which was fitted with a bathroom that one participant described as resembling the kind that cinematic suicides usually occur in, I could hear the distant sound of a fax machine and a phone dial. This was work from the University of Humberside, and for myself, publicly recognised as a 'telephone terrorist', it struck a chord. I dressed to a looped accompaniment of that familiar phrase, "Please replace the handset and try again", and left to the buzzword-friendly melody, "Listen and collapse to this linear elapse".
Hearing Is Believing struck out with several programmes that tested the parameters of what can legally be played on air, notably Pascal Brannan's My Entrance On Air, with its blaring use of the word 'fuck' and its attempts to probe the question of whether sound can be classified as obscene. Phil England and Ed Baxter, London Musicians' Collective organisers and Wire contributors, presented the snappily-titled Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before. Featuring interviews with those pirates of sound, Nicolas Collins and Otomo Yoshihide, and exploring the limits of sampling with music by Christian Marclay, DJ Shadow and Negativland among others, the LMC duo exploited this temporary autonomous zone with a brief history of stolen music, the listener's finger at the pause button for these rare items.
Clearly radio is no longer the domain of comfy chair, fire-in-the-hearth quaintness. The parameters have melted, and though the formal restraints of radio are still universally present – balanced programming and an accepted manner of speech, for example – stations like Hearing Is Believing are, in the words of Anna Douglas, "a rallying cry to all those out there who, like generations before us, fascinated by this intimate, fictional world in space, can begin to shape a new kind of radio." Turn on, tune in and transmit.
The Hearing Is Believing broadcasts are now archived as part of FACT (Foundation for Art And Technology).