24 February 2013

something caught my ear

During a trip to New Zealand in January 2013, I came across a rock music station on mediumwave.

New Zealand flag. Source: Wikipedia
I regularly listened to AM radio while driving during the trip. I enjoyed being immersed in local stories and dialect through news and talk broadcasts. An AM music station caught my attention, and I quickly saved the frequency on my car radio. I had discovered Radio Hauraki on 1125 kHz near Dunedin.

Hauraki's beginnings

From Wikipedia:
To break the state monopoly, Radio Hauraki was originally formed as a pirate station in the Hauraki Gulf, the only offshore radio station ever to broadcast in the southern hemisphere, in a famous and historic story that saw the loss of one life.
Broadcasting began on 1480 kHz in 1966. A documentary called Rock the Boat (which I haven't yet seen or obtained) tells the story about the station's origins. Here's a YouTube video comprised of photos and audio, titled Radio Hauraki - the final minutes:

These days, Radio Hauraki is one of eight networks in The Radio Network, which is a New Zealand division of the Australian Radio Network, which itself is a partnership between Clear Channel and APN News & Media. Programming for each of the eight networks is widely available across New Zealand on FM. Maybe it would seem more unique if Hauraki were still a regional station rather than a national one, but New Zealand could itself be considered a single region or broadcasting market. It's approximately the size of Colorado in the United States, with a population of around 4.6 million people. Many cities and regions, one radio market.

What am I hearing?

I heard Radio Hauraki play lots of great songs from established bands such as AC/DC, Foo Fighters, Metallica, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones, and Smashing Pumpkins. It hit me right in the demographics.

One evening, I pulled my car to the side of the road and recorded a portion of the broadcast. Part of the goal was to capture the station identification, which was accomplished in the first 25 seconds. Recording in the car was an awkward arrangement, with my smart phone on the floor recording output from the speaker in the driver's door. To minimize interior noise, the windows were closed and the vent/air conditioning was switched off. Since the content was to my liking, this went on for 13 minutes and 20 seconds.

The recording starts with DJ Mikey Havoc discussing recently-played songs. One was by a band with a cool name: We Were Promised Jetpacks. Then he mentioned what would be played after the next two tracks. I didn't notice at first that he revealed what it was, so I later went into detective mode to seek it out. It wasn't a normal song, as I'll explain.

The first song was Young Bloods by The Bronx, a great punk song. Next was Bug Powder Dust by Bomb the Bass, which certainly pushes the boundaries for a rock format.

What I heard next was surprising. The intro was a simple piano part, then a voice came in and started telling a story about a search for early human remains. My brain was stimulated, perhaps in the way that the rat from the Pixar movie was stimulated after tasting the combination of strawberries and cheese for the first time.

What was this? I've listened to a lot of electronic music in which synthesizers, samples, and voices are often mixed together. Voice recordings from television shows, movies, news programs, and interviews are commonly used. The Orb's Little Fluffy Clouds is one of my favorite examples of this, with Rickie Lee Jones describing the appearance of the sky when she lived in Arizona. The song's Wikipedia page states that an out-of-court settlement was reportedly reached for the unauthorized sample.

I wanted to know what I heard on the radio. For the remainder of my trip, I couldn't do much more to investigate than listen to it again and search the web for the spoken phrases. A reference to a book kept popping up, but I couldn't figure out who was using part of the book in a radio track. I also couldn't figure out how this ended up on a rock radio station.

Divide and conquer

When I got home from my trip, I synced my audio recordings to my computer, then used Shazam to identify the background music: God Moving Over the Face of the Waters by Moby. I already knew from web searches that the text was from A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

Listening to my recording again, I finally noticed that Mikey Havoc had said "It's almost time for some Friday night Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything." After the first recording, I had skipped ahead to listen to the mystery song, which starts at 7:21 in this particular audio file. So I hadn't noticed it the first time, and skipped over it many other times.

I learned that Radio Hauraki had an iOS app, so I downloaded it and still occasionally listen to the stream. I hear another Havoc Nights weeknight show, and heard that another chapter of the Bill Bryson book would be played. It was also implied that this was a nightly feature. The same Moby backing music was used, but a different section of the audiobook was played.

So the cynic in me reached out to the station via Twitter:

@RadioHaurakiNZ The Bill Bryson audiobook playback must be a paid promo. Playing it every night, methodically going through chapters... yes?
2/13/13 12:28 AM

And the reply just over an hour later:

@cobaltpet nah it's just fuelled by Havoc's love of Bill Bryson and all things learning
2/13/13 1:42 AM

Well, whenever advertising or money are potentially involved, I always allow for the possibility of someone lying about it.

But it certainly got my attention.

Radio Hauraki logo. Source: Wikipedia