June 14, 2018

Horse 2420 - Capturing The Forever In Audio

There is a term in broadcast radio jargon called a "driveway moment" and it is those particular moments in time which keep a listener in their car just so they can hear the end of whatever the moment happens to be; hence a "driveway moment" because they will keep you sitting in the car in the driveway.
They are most likely to occur at the end of close sporting fixtures or perhaps during singularly poignant moments in history; which means to say that they are almost impossible to engineer, since a radio station has no control over where their listeners are at any point in time. However, there is a similar kind of phenomenon which is not only easy to engineer but dare I say it, desirable; and unlike moments of history which just happen and which may or may not be predictable, these things are entirely pieces of deliberate design and engineering.

If you were to ask most people when a new day begins, they would most likely tell you "midnight" because that's sensible and reasonable (and actually true) but if you were to ask BBC Radio 4 listeners when they feel that the old day ends, ignoring the clock, you might get a different answer.
At 12 minutes to 1 in the morning (0048 hours), BBC Radio 4 broadcasts The Shipping Forecast (see Horse 1848) but something almost wonderful and magical happens immediately afterwards. The announcer will wish everyone a calm and peaceful night and declare a "good night" from Radio 4, before the National Anthem is played. As "God Save The Queen" is played, there is a flurry of activity which nobody sees, when Radio 4 is closed down for the morning and it is synchronised with the BBC World Service.
As the National Anthem fades out, there is a fleeting moment of forever where you get the silence of Radio 4 before the World Service crashes in like a wave. It is that little moment of silence, where Radio 4 has ended and indeed where the whole world it seems, has also come to a complete halt that I find utterly delectable. The BBC has gotten better at synchronising the domestic Radio 4 feed and that of the World Service over the years but occasionally Radio 4 will run short and the radio silence is simply deafening.¹

"This is 99% Invisible; I'm Roman Mars." This is how virtually every episode of the podcast "99% Invisible" begins; with the deep, rich, syrupy molasses voice of Roman Mars, flowing into your head. Of course it is obvious that a podcast which is about design, engineering, and architecture, should have an opening which itself has been designed and engineered in a particular way. However, it is the end of the podcast that I am concerned with here.²
Radiotopia podcasts usually end with an end sting that has the announcement "Radiotopia: from PRX" and with a bed which is kind of like a glice of electronic noises, before they fade away into the great infinity and silence.
I experienced this most profoundly one afternoon in the chaotic city of Sydney when I was listening to an episode of 99% Invisible and it ended when I was waiting for a train at Museum Station. Museum Station is painfully quiet during the day and hearing the Radiotopia sign off and close was truly unnerving. World War 4 could have happened above, the city razed to a mess of smouldering embers as the bringer of nuclear fire destroyed all and sundry, and I would have been none the wiser. The Radiotopia ending sting is like the audio equivalent of the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine).
I suspect that most people who listen to podcasts will have the next MP3 on their player of choice, immediately cue up the next thing. I almost always play podcasts as standalone items and so there is never a next thing in the list. I have a suspicion that most people who listen to music on their phones on the train, do so because they don't want to have to listen to their internal monologue. If they can drown it out, then they don't have to come to terms with the fact that hiding behind a mask of shallowness might open the possibility that if they removed the mask, they might find that there's nothing actually there. My own internal monologue is so incredibly loud that it is impossible to drown out.

There's something about the nature of television which makes this phenomenon magnitudes more difficult to achieve. Television is almost obligated to manipulate both your audio and visual senses constantly because ironically, the gift of sound and vision is something of a curse when it comes to things like this. One particular piece of television has stayed with me because it captured that moment of forever elegantly. It was also somewhat ironic because as it was on the end of video tapes, it meant that it's intent was specifically to be reproducible.

At the end of a video tape from the BBC, there was a closing ribbon ident. The audio for that ident trails off and the screen fades to black. For this to give you the full effect, it needs to be stupid o'clock in the morning and it helps if you're a little sleep deprived. The sensation that you get is that this is the end of television and there's nothing to replace it. It kind of reminds me a little bit of when television used to shut down for the night and after the continuity announcer wished you a goodnight, there was no more television for that day.
I think that I first saw this ident at about age 11. When the first Gulf War was opening, I remember going to bed well beyond midnight, as not only did the world's media become transfixed by the pictures coming out of the warzone but almost for the first time, it was being televised live. That has a strange effect on a small brain and for some reason, my expectations of the future were shortened (I can only imagine that as a kid who grew up during the tail of the Cold War, I must have developed some innate worry that the world would be annihilated in a nuclear holocaust). In stark contrast to the Gulf War's immediacy, the end BBC Video's ribbon ident pulled those fleeting moments in the silence of nighttime into fragments of forever.³

I pick these three moments because unlike a driveway moment where you are compelled to remain in the car until the thing ends, these little glimpses of forever don't compel you to keep listening but to just pause and ponder eternity. It's an equality weird sensation if you're staring into the dark sacred night or the bright blessed morning with advertisements for hair care products on the sides of buses whizzing by. Also, unlike driveway moments which are pure happenstance, these things are deliberate pieces of audio engineering. What is unknown to me is whether or not the audio engineers are specifically designing their wares for the instant after they've ended. If so, then these things are like the audio equivalent of the negative space in the FedEx logo, or the magic 8 that is on the eight of diamonds in a standard pack of playing cards.
I already find the idea of driveway moments fascinating, however I find it amazing that it is possible to deliberately engineer a moment in time which isn't even present in the thing which has been made. That almost dances in the land of impossible, itself.

¹ BBC Radio 4 Shipping Forecast Ending - https://youtu.be/hQeZMGTqmy0
² Radiotopia Ending - https://youtu.be/y4_j_WMo3OU
³ BBC Ribbon Ident - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Ia1bC2qIsA

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