Twitters, tweets and hearing voices

Illustration by Joe Hughes

During the holidays we bought an Internet radio receiver, otherwise known as the poor man’s satellite radio. It’s a great little device. You just plug it in, a tiny gremlin that lives inside the radio detects a Wi-Fi signal and suddenly you can stream broadcasts from anywhere in the world.

The radio’s menu screen lists every music category imaginable from geriatric rock ’n’ roll (1950s rock) to techno pop. The talk radio menu offers everything from 24-hour conspiracy theory channels to NPR stations in markets so small they can only broadcast “Some Things Considered.”

While channel-surfing, we came across a station called Birdsong Radio. It’s a continuous loop of birdsongs. That’s it. Just birdsongs.

Occasionally the chirping, cooing and tweeting are interrupted by someone speaking in hushed tones, reminding us that we’re listening to Birdsong Radio. These interludes are so subtle you hardly notice them before they segue seamlessly into the gentle sounds of mourning doves, thrushes, finches and the drum solo from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.”

(I’m kidding about the drum solo.)

I was intrigued by the concept, so I did a little Internet research on Birdsong Radio. I found that, behind all that cheeping and twittering, lies a colorful history.

Ten years ago, a man named Quentin Howard was starting a classic FM radio station in England and broadcast an audio loop of birdsongs to test his transmitter. Just as we had discovered the birdsongs on our Internet radio during the holidays, thousands of Brits stumbled on Howard’s audio loop.

This started a buzz, which was further fueled by an on-air remark by well-know cricket commentator Brian Johnston. (Apparently this guy is England’s answer to Howard Cosell.) When it came time for Howard — Quentin, not Cosell — to launch his classic FM station, he squelched the birdsongs.

History repeated itself in 1999 and 2005, when Howard used his audio loop as an airtime placeholder for other broadcasting ventures. Listeners found the birdsongs relaxing and a refreshing alternative to the usual radio fare. After Howard pulled the plug on his birds in 2005, disappointed listeners mounted a letter-writing campaign demanding their return.

This is the sort of stuff of which legends are made. Some accounts estimated the number of listeners at 500,000. In a 2009 Guardian news article, Howard himself said he was skeptical of that figure. Regardless, he touted some of the legends on his Birdsong Radio Website. Among them were claims that prison staff and mothers had used the birdsongs to calm their respective charges and that employers played them in the office to increase productivity.

Some people claimed that curse words could be heard in the distance, but the recording was scrutinized and none were found. As far as I can tell, no one has claimed that playing the loop backwards reveals clues about Paul McCartney being killed in a car crash.

The Website also mentioned a devious use of the audio loop. There were reports of real estate agents using Birdsong Radio to create a false impression of birds singing outside the windows of houses they were showing.

Ironically, that’s why Howard made the recording in the first place, to create an audio illusion of rural serenity. In 1991, he recorded hours of birdsongs in his garden in Wiltshire, England. He remixed it into a 40-minute “audio soundscape” for a production of the play “When the Wind Blows.” The play is about an older couple in southeastern England muddling their way through the aftermath of nuclear war.

Apparently, Howard isn’t broadcasting his birdsongs these days, but you can download the audio loop for free at

It’s no substitute for the real thing. But, when the wind blows, it may have to suffice.

This piece was originally published as a column for the Greater Mohican Audubon Society newsletter.


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