First listen: Radio Garden, a world of radio exotica

Sean Ross looks at the new radio tuner where you select stations by literally turning the globe

By Sean Ross
Posted 15 December 2016, 2.17am gmt

There’s a pale ale, which fellow columnist/industry observer James Cridland made me aware of, called Shortwave. He found it while attending meetings in British Columbia. I immediately recognized it as a name rife with comic fodder. After a few Shortwave brews, things start to fade in and out. A few more and everybody’s talking in a foreign language. And when you come to, the only way you know where you were the night before is the QSL card on your dresser.

Only a certain substrata of radio junkie gets that final joke. (The QSL is the collectors card sent by a radio station in confirmation of long-distance listening.) But the romance of listening to radio from exotic (or at least far away) places is more mass-appeal and vital than we may have realized, judging from the reaction this week to RadioGarden, a cross-pollination of radio aggregation sites and Google Earth. Users choose radio stations by rotating and choosing a location on a virtual globe.

RadioGarden has already been covered in the Atlantic and sent to me by numerous Ross On Radio readers in the last 48 hours. It’s being shared across Facebook as I speak by a wide variety of people, many with no apparent connection to our industries.

The Atlantic’s author happened upon an eclectic but still relatively mainstream variety—there was Christian AC from Nome and the artist Haddaway in Moscow, but also Bruno Mars and plenty of mainstream ‘80s pop from various places.

I went to RadioGarden, which launches with your home location (or, in this case, a town about 20 miles away) and navigated to:

  • KRFC Radio Free, playing Americana music and thought by the site to be based in my part of New Jersey, but seemingly actually in Colorado
  • Northern New Jersey AM talker WVNJ where a caller was complaining about not being allowed access to the grandkids at the holidays
  • WTMZ (ESPN 910) Charleston SC, which the site had keyed to Charleston MA.
  • Radio Riel Volksmusik, which was keyed to Detroit, but actually seemed to be in the UK. The next show on its schedule was “Steampunk Christmas.”
  • WNWI (Polskie Radio) Chicago IL
  • La Mega 87.7 Cleveland, although this station was keyed to Chicago as well
  • Classic Rock KRWN Farmington, N.M., playing Santana’s “Black Magic Woman,” and getting ready to kick off a 62-hour holiday charity marathon as well

After a few spins through RadioGarden, I feel like I do about many radio portals. It’s more aggregated than curated. “I don’t like that it’s missing a lot of commercial stations, mine included,” said one reader. Possibly because I didn’t encounter a lot of the major commercial broadcast groups in my first dozen or so stops, I also didn’t run into spots for debt relief, or any other spots for that matter.

For sheer audio tourism, I still prefer Michael Robertson’s (which takes you to online and broadcast stations around the world through a song search), or even typing half of a call-sign into the search bar on the TuneIn app. And the online station that I most enjoyed this week, came to me from a reader: Chicago R&B radio veteran Al Greer’s Classic Soul format.

But if users are excited about exploring Internet radio, and by the concept of radio, that’s gratifying, too. Endlessly citing radio’s 93% reach is one thing, but seeing people excitedly share radio with each other is impactful. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how broadcasters could better organize an infinite dial of 100,000 radio stations (plus podcasts, playlists, and on-demand music). But for the last 48 hours anyway, listeners haven’t been looking for a concierge as much as a concept.

Sean Ross — Sean Ross is a well-known US radio consultant, working on radio programming, music trends and radio history. You can get his weekly Ross on Radio newsletter.