Pirate Radio and activist audio recording methods and equipment

Flyer for Dublin pirate station Radio Active Way back around 1993 I co-hosted a political slot on a pirate radio station for a few weeks, that was my first experiment with audio rather than writing as a way of transmitting ideas. The experiment was brief and it was a decade later in 2005 before I returned to audio, this time online.  As well as talking a little about Radioactive this post looks at the technology I've used and methodology I've developed since then in the course of recording some 100 audio segments.  I include sample recordings so you can see how different equipment gives different results.

 The radio show was on a Dublin pirate radio called RadioActive which broadcast out of a tiny egg shell covered attic in Neil street, Stoneybatter.  Strangely enough just across the road and a few door fronts up from the artisan cottage where my mother had spent her first few years.  The station had previously been located in the top floor of a Georgian house just around the corner from the current location of Seomra Spraoi. The police had raided that location after one of the DJ's had played the recently released Cop Killer on a loop for a couple of hours. The transmitter had been thrown out a window on a parachute when they arrived.  This happened several times, the idea being to get the transmitter over the wall so it was no longer on the premises the warrant was for. Bungie, as the transmitter became known, started off at 100 watts but every flight saw that wattage and the transmission range drop a little.  Obviously a new location was needed, hence the move to Niall street.

The poster with the article BTW carries the address of the house next door to where I lived at the time.  A couple of the station DJ's lived there and because it was a single post box with multiple occupants behind it that address was useful as being slightly anonymous!

The show was to put it mildly pretty basic, it mostly consisted of myself and my co-host reading articles out of Workers Solidarity with a few tunes and a little bit of spontaneous chat. We also would read out some items off Usenet, yes folks this was before the World Wide Web even existed!  We were surprized one week to get a letter from Kerry, which is dozens if not hundreds of times outside the stations very limited transmission range (Bungie had flown too many times).  It turned out that our excited listener was being sent tapes of the show by a friend who was recording them for him in Dublin.

We only did around six shows, partly I think because filling a two hour slot every week turned out to be a lot of work even by the less then creative method we were using.  If your really unlucky I'll dig out the tapes of one of them which I think we might still have archived and digitise it.  In any case the heyday of Dublin pirate radio was coming to an end - it had peaked in a period when the government more or less ignored the pirates, by the turn of the millenium the Gardai were raiding and shutting down stations on a consistent basis.

At around this point I was also shifting from using the net as a source of information to one for distributing information.  It must have been around this time that I became involved in Spunk Press, the first online anarchist library.  That too started before the web, running initially off a text only storage / retrieval protocol called Gopher.  Back then audio wasn't much of an option online because storage was very expensive and bandwidth was very limited.  I spent a whole afternoon downloading Niall Armstrong's 'One Small step for man, one giant leap for mankind' from the first moon landing. This had been posted in about 30 different segments that had to decoded, unzipped and stitched together to give you that 7 or so seconds soundbyte.  Uploading audio interviews at that point in time were not really possible!

I'm not sure when it became feasible to use the net for activist audio distribution, I would guess probably from around the time of the Seattle WTO protests as that was part of what that first indymedia did.  But it was only 2005 that saw me return to audio as a method of distribution.  The reason was that several comrades were traveling to the G8 Gleneagles protests in Scotland and I'd realised that by using Skype I could record interviews with them as they traveled over and when they were there which could then be uploaded to indymedia.ie.  I recently published a blog post that includes this G8 audio, some of it is quite amusing.

The recording were made using the general methodology I've used ever since.  I'd use Skype to call the mobile phones of whoever I was interviewing from my Mac iBook G4 and then when they were ready start recording our conversation with a program called WireTap Pro which records every bit of audio going through the computer.  I'd then edit this audio in Audacity to remove long silences, reduce hmms and hars and add an introduction and conclusion. 

My set up now is slightly different, for phone interviews I still use Skype but this time on a Black MacBook and with WireTap Studio doing the recording. I now edit using Garageband, chiefly because using the Podcast setup allows me to very quickly turn a recording into a finished product for uploading.  Audacity is more powerful but also more complex and although I'm planning to give it another try (the new Beta is meant to be very good) speed of turn around tends to be the most important aspect of most phone recordings I've been doing. The most recent interview I did this way was COP15 the protests and the arrests in Copenhagen. It's my intention to get better at contacting people in areas where stuff is happening to do similar 'from the scence' recording but like a lot of good intentions I need to work harder at it.

Although it may seem surprizing it took me a little longer to start recording face to face interviews and events.  Mostly this was because I didn't have a hand held recorder.  My first attempts were in fact with a XtremeMac MicroMemo Digital Voice Recorder I bought for a 3rd generation iPod classic, some of these can be found in my recent pro-choice & Rossport recordings blog, the Rossport ones were recorded via Skype but the pro-Choice pickets used the iPod.  This sounded good in theory but in practice was less than satisfactory as the recordings would skip over bits of the conversation for no apparent reason. I suspect the problem was that the mic was writing data to the buffer faster than the buffer could write it to the iPod drive should bits of recording were being lost whenever it overflowed but in any case this made this set up unsuitable for recording.  You may notice some of the skips in the recordings although I think I mostly tried to edit the sound in a way that removed them (and material around them).

I got much better results from using the iBook G4 with an iSight camera.  This is intended for video conferencing but turned out to be very good for audio recording and it was what I used to record most of the sessions at the 2007 Dublin anarchist bookfair. This one for instance is from Room 2 in the Teachers Club.  I reckon the entry level mp3 recorders that you get from discount stores are pretty useless for anything other than one on one interviews that you intend to transcribe. In fact you'll get equivalent sound quality using the built in mic on most laptops, if you budget is that tight you'd be much better off spending the money on an USB mic for your laptop (presuming you have one!).

I had intended to use the same set up for my North American speaking tour in 2008 but unfortunately my bag was 'lost' as I crossed the border and the iSight camera was in the bag.  So I bought a 20 dollar mic at a better buy in Boston and this was used with my 4 year old iBook to record 17 interviews and the sound track for the youtube video of my talk on anarchism in Ireland.

I returned from North America with a greater interest in recording and to full time work so I quickly decided to was time to buy something a little less bulky.  After doing a good bit of online research I opted for the Olympus DS-40 Digital Voice Recorder which is great if you want something very small but with a pretty good sound quality and multiple sensitivity settings. You want multiple settings this if you want to be able to record one on one, small group, and large hall settings, basically you turn up the mic sensitivity for each. It's also very easy to use. Unfortunately I broke the plug in mic it was supplied with during the scuffles in Rossport during the 2009 June bank holiday protests but it still works OK with the internal mic. I used this set up to record Stanley Aronowitz speaking at a WSM meeting in the Seomra cinema.

Summer 2009 saw two new exciting additions.  The WSM conference decided it was time to get some recording gear for the organisation and after a good deal of discussion as well as two Olympus DS-40's we also bought a Zoom H2 Handy Portable Stereo Recorder. This is because we wanted something that approached broadcast quality and the Zoom H2 is about the cheapest decent device that does so. I've also found that I very much prefer the way I sound on it which is interesting, I think it captures bass tone better or something, at least it makes me sound more like I think I sound and less squeaky then on other recordings.  It may be vanity but I'm not alone in finding how I sound on playback as one of the more off putting aspects of audio recording.  As well as stand alone recording the Zoom can also be used as a USB mic for Skype, in fact this is what I did for the COP 15 interview above.  Another sample of it in use is from the launch of the Lost Revolution history of the official IRA recorded in the large hall of the Teachers Club.

The other new device of the summer was a personal one.  In late July I finally gave in and bought an iPhone 3GS.  I had wondered about being able to record on this and was initially disappointed as Apples Voice Memos app that comes with the phone is really crap, for some reason it records at a really low level and at first I assumed this was a reflection of the mic that comes in the iPhone.  However I decided to persevere and bought a number of recording apps, including one, Poddio, that you can even edit your sound files on.  The others were HT Recorder and VR+.  HT Recorder has 3 levels of sensitivity which I've yet to properly check out while VR+ gives you voice activated recording which is useful for some situations. 

I used the iPhone to record an interview about Anarchism in Berlin while on a holiday there in late August.  Now there is a saying in photography that the best camera is always the one you have on you and the same is true of recording devices.  There is little point at having a flash but bulky piece of equipment at home at the point you want to record something.  As I always have the phone this is allowing me to grab a lot of audio that I wouldn't otherwise.  And in the autumn I improved the quality by getting friends who were visiting the US to pick up a mic designed specifically for the phone that greatly improves the sound quality.  My first outing with this wasn't great as I didn't realise I needed to put the phone in flight mode to prevent interference from the various radios it contains but I got the hang of it after that and used it recently to record the talk on Tar Sands resistance in the blue room in Seomra Spraoi and Race and State in contemporary Ireland in the same location.

In terms of hosting I simply post the sounds files to indymedia.ie as part of a news story about the event / interview they cover.  Indymedia have been very cooperative about this including upping their file size limit to 32mb in order to allow for mp3 voice files at voice quality of up to an hour. I then later link to those files from this blog and elsewhere as needed. I'd like to do a regular podcast but not only would this be time consuming audio hosting very rapidly becomes a huge and expensive headache if you attract any sort of large listenership.  As the net develops this problem reduces and one thing I am thinking of experimenting with is using the social cloud storage service Wuala for storage and distribution to see how that works.

Audio is important I think because you reach an additional audience over that which is reached with online text.  I listed to podcasts like Against the Grain as I cycle to and from work for instance, a situation where I obviously couldn't be reading an article.  The same is true of driving, cooking or cleaning - I like reading enough that if I have my hands free I'm otherwise more inclined to read but the growth of audio book services demonstrates there are plenty of people out there who prefer listening to audio.

  


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