By Sophia Callahan
There is something undeniably intriguing about overhearing someone else’s conversation—especially when it’s the real-time chatter of the police. With the potential to develop an emotional connection through the combination of ambience, atmosphere and music, hybrid radio broadcast Youarelistening.to transports you into an unfamiliar world of beauty, decay, crime, and urban living.
Youarelistening.to is a website designed by Eric Eberhardt that overlays ambient sounds with police radio and aerial photography and video. The concept began in 2010, after Eberhardt came home following the Giants’ World Series win. As the story goes, Eberhardt followed Twitter links to stream the San Francisco Police Department’s response. While scanning those airwaves, he put some background music on, and suddenly realized that there was an interesting relationship between the two sounds. It was a “found” sonic experience Eberhardt deemed worthy of passing along.
The website originally began with the Los Angeles police stream, “You Are Listening to Los Angeles,” and has since expanded to over 28 cities as well as other vocal API overlays, including broadcasts from JFK Airport, LAX, NASA, The New York Times, and Twitter. Recently, Eric has expanded the project further and has created the option for user-created channels.
The website is an online framework for a unique, seductive juxtaposition between recorded music and live radio; ambient sounds and police voices; a collaboration between scenic photographers from Flickr, ambient producers and musicians from Soundcloud, and online public radio; our nation’s legal enforcers, and other streams. The project not only humanizes those it picks up, but creates a haunting, ambient theatrical narrative around urban living, a subtle comment on our passive relationship with real-time news.
The Creators Project spoke to Eric Eberhardt about his process, thoughts on, and the evolution of the Youarelistening.to project:
The Creators Project: Your first glimpse of this project came as an accident. Why did you desire to make your original experience accessible for more people?
Eric Eberhardt: I wanted to share the experience primarily just to find out if other people found it as compelling as I did. But I do think it draws attention to some interesting ideas as well, both in terms of surveillance/privacy, as well as music licensing and distribution.
After deciding you wanted to make the project, how did you decide which police radio to start with?
Unencrypted police radio has been accessible to anyone with a $100 scanner device for years, but because it required special equipment, many people either weren’t aware that it was available to the public, or didn’t actively seek it out. So some listeners are kind of surprised by that element of the site when they first discover it. Sort of a “Whoa, this is legal?!” type of reaction. But I think once you’re aware of it, then it becomes pretty self-evident that this stuff obviously *should* be a matter of public record, in the same way that (most) other governmental proceedings are.
What does it mean to keep an ear on the people who keep their eyes on the public?
Personally, I think one of the most interesting aspects of “Watching the Watchmen” (so to speak) is developing an appreciation for how mundane and uncontroversial the majority of police work is. Most people only ever see footage or hear recordings of really intense situations or confrontations online or on the news, and then these same clips are repeated over and over again. But after listening to the site for an hour or two, I think you get a much better perspective on how police officers really do spend the vast majority of their time.
So in one sense, the music is kind of like the “sugar” that makes the boring “medicine” go down, but I think it also works the other direction as well. In the same way that not many people are going to sit and listen to police radio for hours on end, I think listening to “purely” ambient music for long periods of time is also something that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But with the local police radio adding some randomness and context to it, that equation changes a bit too.
Has allowing people to create their own channels changed the dynamics of the project?
The music was initially chosen by searching for Creative Commons licensed tracks on SoundCloud, using the search term “ambient,” but after launching the site, I’ve been contacted by a bunch of artists, asking if they could be included on the playlist. Having both the tech (free streaming from SoundCloud) and the “open source” licensing framework in place was incredibly important in the site’s creation and growth, as it would have been impossible for me to pay for streaming bandwidth and traditional music licensing out-of-pocket. But since these resources did exist, it costs me almost nothing to operate the site, and so it’s free to exist indefinitely without any concern about monetization & etc.
Adding user-generated channels has been a really rewarding process as well. I wanted the site to feature more than just police radio from the outset, and I had created a few channels along these lines (Listening to Deep Thought, Listening to Numbers, etc.) but I’m glad that it’s now much easier for anyone to try mixing up a few different audio sources and share the results online.
One thing I’d like to continue improving on the site is making these user channels more visible and discoverable, so stay tuned for more updates there.