ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

An Endless Conversation —

I am recently back from a 9-day trip through the Midwest (Midwest being defined as Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas). I have made the personal discovery that I can drive roughly 350 miles a day alone before I start to encounter “problems”. Most of these problems involve potentially running off the road or making poor direction decisions. In all, I drove about 3,405 miles in those 9 days and interviewed 17 people. Their new entries are at the bottom of the Documentary photo gallery and will be expanded to be fully browsable soon.

But this entry really isn’t about that; it’s about how I passed the time, something in the range of 4-6 hours a day driving by myself with the cruise control on and often on a well-defined course (take I-35 forever, for example). For a person who likes to have 10 or 20 windows open on his machine, you can imagine the potential for mental implosion when faced with the monotony of driving, devoid of contact (except when on my cell phone) and without anything engaging to do.

The plan I had launched was to buy an MP3 player, either an iPod or something from Rio, to listen to on the trip, but I couldn’t justify spending hundreds of dollars for such a simple need. I certainly broke my head when I went shopping for an iPod and found that the one I wanted was about $500; I was so worried about the potential of buying an item the size of a cigarette case that went into my jacket pocket that I avoided buying what would have been my dream machine as a teenager. It’s an indication of what fun being older can suck out of your life, even if it leads to less mistakes.

My solution to the problem came from my local Walgreens, which was selling a CDR MP3 player for $30. Basically, it’s a CD player with modified programming: you pop a CDR filled to the brim with files and it treats them like tracks on a regular audio CD. It doesn’t like a massive amount of them, but it will work. I also don’t credit it much in the way of user interface and slickness, but it does what it does as advertised. I also bought a $20 item which, when plugged into an audio source (like, say, the headphone jack of an MP3 CDR player) broadcasts the audio onto a radio band between 88.1 and 88.9. Combined, I then have all the convenience and effect of a radio station that is only playing stuff I want.

So then the question comes of what actually to bring along, and that’s the core point of this entry.

Some time ago, I had a bunch of audio files related to BBSing and computers and a lot of the subject matter on, but obviously an ASCII text website wasn’t appropriate for that, so I created a subsite called Originally consisting of my own speeches, phone conferences, and noise samples, it has expanded quite dramatically, exceeding my own plans for the site and going into places I’d never thought it would. The site is now at 9 gigabytes of data and growing noticably each week. And a lot of that is because of these amazing files I have of hacker shows.

I’m still determining the true and accurate history of this phenomenon, but here’s what I have so far. Originally, pirate radio stations (and by that I mean actual broadcasting equipment on boats or in the back of trucks blasting stuff into the airwaves in violation of the FCC and similar government entities) covered a number of subjects that wouldn’t be covered elsewhere, including extreme politics, hacking, drugs, and even obscure music not otherwise easily found. Some of these pirate radio stations were obviously just a guy who didn’t have the time or inclination to work at an actual place or who just liked being a goof; the music they played was therefore not overly different from what you’d hear on other parts of the dial. Others, however, really did take it to a strange and different level. This situation has existed as long as radio has been regulated by the FCC or other such standards bodies; it certainly has prominent existence in the 1960’s and 70’s.

Emmanuel Goldstein/Eric Corley of 2600 magazine, who is (to put it mildly) politically active and motivated, got himself involved with a university radio station called WUSB and ran a show called “Brain Damage” from 1988 to 1995. This eclectic radio broadcast covered a wide range of subjects, including some aspects of what we commonly call “Phone Phreaking”, the area of interest to 2600 magazine. Along this same line, he also got involved with a pure hacker/phreaker radio show called “Off the Hook”, which he ran (and runs) on a public radio station involved with the Pacifica network called WBAI. Many of these shows are available for download. (Corley has recently expanded his show appearances to another program called “Off the Wall”, on another station.)

Whatever else you might say, creating a radio program and keeping with it for years is a daunting and difficult task; deciding what subjects to cover, handling incoming phone calls, and just holding the interest of listeners are true and honest skills. As a result, there were not a lot of obvious shows out there except Off the Hook.

In January of 1999, Nullsoft released Shoutcast. It can not be overstated how fundamentally changing this was to the world. With a somewhat steep learning curve but integration with a popular MP3 playing program (Winamp), the Nullsoft guys made creating a streaming radio program into a reality, even from a dial-up modem. Granted, you didn’t enjoy it on a dial-up modem, but the point was clear: here was a tool that not only made things easier for people wanting to be a DJ, but it injected an inherent aspect of cool into the whole process of broadcasting, which is normally a thankless endeavor. Even though law and foolishness came with it, it inspired many people to rethink the audio experience. (Nullsoft have done this again with video streaming in Winamp 5).

In July of 1999, Rob Malda and Jeff Bates of Slashdot began a radio show that was broadcast on, called “Geeks in Space”. They mostly covered whatever was hot on Slashdot that week, and ran it not unlike a lot of radio talk shows, except sans the commercials. I still don’t quite understand why they did this, but the fact remains they did and a lot of folks listened to it before it finally flamed out in 2000. (As I said, it is a daunting task to work on this week after week, and the 36 shows that Bates and Malda created at least represent a consistency across months and months).

In April of 2001, Screamer and Dash Interrupt, inspired by Off the Hook and having already tried a “music to hack to” radio show idea, created a program called “Hackermind“. “Inspired by Off the Hook” also indicates the content of the program: hacking and phreaking. The two broadcasters, followed by others as needed, kept the conversation involved around technical and political issues of interest to hackers, letting the chips fall where they may, stumbling but learning along the way. Their show lasted for about 6 months, with a couple “all-nighter” specials being produced and a long-after-the-fact show return months after any previous issues. (This pattern also demonstrates itself in the output dates of many “e-zines” in my collections.)

Although Hackermind’s life is relatively short, it inspired yet another person to start a radio show, Dual Parallel, who unleashed upon the world Radio Freek America. Where the other shows sparked and then sputtered, Radio Freek America took hold and burned brightly. Now in its third year of extremely dependable and consistent broadcasting, this show is cut from the same mold as these previous shows, but for some reason I have grown to enjoy Dual’s cheerleading and choice of co-hosts (perhaps with the exception of his foil Merichan). He infuses the entire endeavor with a sense of wonder and explanation about what interests him (primarily phones but also free operating systems) and yet doesn’t let things get entirely out of hand. While it is unclear how long he will continue this project, Dual has created a body of work that stands well and truly on its own.

As a result, it was basically Radio Freek America (RFA) that was my companion through interstates and backroads throughout the midwest for a week. I drove through total darkness and bright sun listening to Dual and Rax (and kondor and Merichan and StankDawg and so many others) pick through the weekly cluster of technical news and found phone numbers. I listened to 36 shows in total, and will be getting through the balance over the next year, no doubt becoming a regular listener to his weekly shows.

I should state for the record that I agree with perhaps 20 percent of what Dual says in political and social arenas, but that’s not really the point. The fact that he brings things up I don’t agree with makes it so that I’m at least thinking about those things, constructing rebuttals to his statements in my mind while I drive. That’s more than I might get out of a fuzzy country station whose signal disappears with every major hill. And the fact that I know where to reach him and can see updates from him make the conversations in my head that much more satisfying. It is radio that makes you think.

This is at the center of the arguments where it is thought there is no content out there that isn’t stolen or ripped from some other source. This is actual, original creation, and as he continues the work, Dual stands on firm ground as a within-hands-reach to the question “what out there isn’t pirated media?” his work is free, homegrown, and right up against anything you might find by spinning the dial.

Not surprisingly, Radio Freek America has inspired even more hacker radio shows to come into being, many of which are collected on the site. Taking his cue, these co-conspirators bring their own ideas and approaches to the subject matter, talking about subjects, asking the right questions, and laughing their way to a thinking world. It’s both exciting and fulfilling to know this is going on, and that I merely have to download and present a file on my site to spread that word even further.

The resultant happiness from the various hosts of these shows when I mirror their mp3 and ogg collections is rewarding, but also strange, since I think of it as an honor and a gift to have such amazing creations available to mirror in the first place. Mirroring is a wget and a description; turning one hour of your life’s time into a place of learning and conversation is the hard part. And these folks, for however long the bug lives in their hearts and minds, are doing this, and for that I thank them.

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