The FCC has shut down the low-wattage radio experiment "Sounds You Never Hear." | Art Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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The FCC has shut down the low-wattage radio experiment "Sounds You Never Hear."

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A couple of months ago, had you driven near the storefront at 105 E. Eighth Ave., in Homestead adjacent to the Homestead Grays Bridge, you would have heard the sound of gushing water. Had you driven by in November, you might have heard a bird chirp.

That is, you would have heard those sounds had your radio been tuned to 102.9 FM. Jon Rubin, an assistant art professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and John Pena, a CMU fine-arts graduate student, had launched a low-wattage radio station in the empty building.

For weeks, 102.9 FM broadcast "Sounds You Never Hear," a program dedicated to unusual audio that was audible within an eight-block radius. "We wanted to create a space where you could have some new discovery, something you've never heard in your life," says Rubin.

But if you drive past 105 E. Eighth now while tuned in to 102.9, all you'll hear is fuzz (or perhaps nothing at all). It's not because Pena and Rubin have decided to feature a rare buzzing tone on their station (or because they have sampled a famous John Cage tune). It's because the Federal Communications Commission forced them to stop broadcasting.

In mid-November, the FCC phoned Eric Sloss, CMU's associate director of media relations and coordinator of the radio project, to inform him that the station had overreached its range limitations. "Because we were close to the river, the frequency output extended beyond its regulations," Sloss says. Rubin and Pena were forced to "go to the station and shut it down."

The project began not as a radio station, but as a plan simply to put a sign on the building. After designing the sign, Rubin and Pena "started doing research about the building, and found out that it used to be a radio station," says Rubin.

It turned out to have been home base for famed DJ Porky Chedwick, who beginning in the 1940s pioneered airing black R&B and gospel on WHOD, which later became WAMO. Chedwick's revolutionary tastemaking -- bringing black music to a largely white audience -- inspired Rubin and Pena to rethink the power radio gave them. "A radio station is that little zone on the dial where something completely unusual can happen," Rubin says.

The first sound that Rubin and Pena chose was the chirping of a dusky seaside sparrow, a bird that became extinct in the 1980s. According to Rubin, the bird's extinction reminded him of the neighborhood from which the sound itself was broadcast: "It has a relationship to the neighborhood where a lot of businesses have gone under, especially with the steel industry leaving," he said.

Next came a piece called "Meeting of The Three Rivers Underwater," which was exactly that; Rubin and Pena dropped a microphone at the convergence of the three rivers, and broadcast the sound of the water there.

Although Rubin says that he and Pena will continue to look for vacant properties, only time will tell if the two will be able to make new broadcasts. "For our next show, which we weren't able to do, we were planning on having the Pittsburgh Paranormal Society come and record the spirits and ghosts in a building we found," Rubin says.

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