Audio Post was Bryan Connell’s idea, first hatched as a way to animate sparsely populated spaces like parking lots. Bryan had noted that while audio programming increasingly was delivered digitally, most drivers still have FM radios in their cars. This opened up an opportunity to supply audio programming via FM radio to parked drivers in lots.
The Outdoors Exploratorium: an NSF funded project that sponsored the development of this exhibit, was planned to be installed at Fort Mason in San Francisco. The project had as stated goals that the exhibits not intrude on the historical industrial site, but rather offer small interventions in the landscape.
The project had a goal of supplying learning skills: meaning users would ideally have acquired a new skill from using the interactive. In the case of Audio Post we had singled out two distinctive sounds from the surrounding landscape, and hoped to create programming that would allow users to remember and interpret the sounds when they came across them in nature.
- We had envisioned a series of posts throughout the site, each with a sign calling users’ attention to specialized content available only locally. We had assumed the audio device and transmitter would be located inside the post itself, making each post a module in a chain of public audio programming devices. As we began to assemble the first radio station it became apparent that the equipment marketed for small range was unreliable and in need of continued attention. A series of these installations would no doubt lead to a costly maintenance project.
- The interactive had to supply easily accessible audio programming at a large parking lot near a waterfront. To comply with FCC rules the transmitter could be no stronger than .08W, but we still needed it to supply a signal across a 500x700ft lot. In addition; finding a place on the receiver band was complicated by our location near the waterfront, where a number of much stronger transmitters cast imposing radio shadows.
- Developing the audio programming itself was a very different experience. Charles Sowers had created a track where he is simply commenting on the sounds of foghorns audible the area. His track was natural and straightforward, and his genuine enthusiasm was noticeable. Once we set about creating a second track, commenting on the calls from the local Western Seagull; it became a challenge for our audio designer to match the simplicity of the first track.
- It was unclear that drivers would want to stay in their cars long enough to ever hear the audio programming. Most visitors to the site are either on their way to get lunch at the nearby cafes, or are going to class or work at the site.
The Audio Post Antenna
The Avery Radio Kit
- I solved our transmitter troubles by selecting a device created for amateur radio enthusiasts. The kit offered a solid and adjustable signal at a low cost. Due to its range I could locate and power it on the third floor of one of the buildings. It was then outfitted with an antenna that we painted in the same brick-red as the buildings’ fire escapes. Once mounted on the outside the antenna looked like just another piece of armature.
- Once a steady FM signal had been achieved I was able to address the radio band interference problem. The new location placed us with two large buildings between the signal-crowded waterfront and our antenna, which shielded us somewhat. I found an available spot at the bottom of the dial. Since this had been such a demanding project so far I decided to stick to one single strong transmitter to broadcast throughout the site. The series of posts became announcements for the presence of the radio signal, rather than devices. The audio programming was re-designed to loop between chapters on a single channel.
- Our foghorn audio track was kept as-is while our seagull track needed a few rounds of adjustments before it would pair nicely. The main obstacle was a tendency to record tracks that sounded like instructional videos, contrasting with the natural-yet-authoritative simplicity of our foghorn chapter. In the final version there is still a significant variation in voice between the two tracks.
- The question of whether visitors would have the patience to use the interactive from their cars remains unclear. The entire Outdoors Exploratorium project suffered from low attendance and usage due the remote site.
Audio Post achieved mixed success:
The audio programming breaks down the sound landscape into manageable pieces. After listening users do get the feeling of being able to interpret the surrounding gull calls and fog horns: and the new skill offers a moment of exhilaration.
The interactive animates the space. As a user it’s exciting to imagine the otherwise unpopulated area as swept with radio waves, carrying unseen clues to the surroundings. Using radio technology however feels unnecessarily complicated. If the piece was re-created it would likely take the form of a smartphone app.
Audio Post was developed by myself, Bryan Connell, Charles Sowers and David Torgersen, and located at Fort Mason in San Francisco, California as part of the Outdoors Exploratorium.
Audio Post antenna mounted on fire escape