Lately, I’ve been traveling the world.
Well, sort of. No longer am I waking up in places far from my home, groggy from a late night of scribbling down the stories I collected the day before. Nor is it a simple task to cross borders and visit relatives who have scattered just about everywhere.
Things are different now, and each day my travels begin like this: I sit down at my dining table, usually early in the morning or late at night when nobody else is awake, with a cup of yerba maté, and I listen to the radio. The radio station is always from somewhere that is not here in New York, and most often it comes from a magical realm called Radio Garden.
This free-to-use website would be almost indistinguishable from Google Earth if it were not for the thousands of little green dots that speckle its digital, rotating globe. Each one of these dots is a local radio station, streaming live.
Move your mouse and maybe you’ll land in Bujumbura, Burundi; in Dibrugarh, India; at the edge of the Norway’s Arctic; or on the rim of the South Pacific. Seemingly no matter how large or small the broadcaster—and no matter how urban or remote the location—if it emits a signal online, it can appear on the site, and you can listen in.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have all sought new ways to engage with the world across spans of separation. A Facebook group called “View From My Window,” for example, in which members post pictures from their homes across the planet, has amassed more than two million members. Interest in virtual-reality travel has boomed, as have old-fashioned forms of communication like letter writing, especially during those first cascades of lockdown and isolation.
There is hardly anything easier or more intimate than listening to live radio. During the pandemic, Radio Garden, now available as an app too, has flourished, at times drawing as many as 15 million monthly listeners.
“We noticed a general uptick in visitors since the pandemic, and also viral spikes from time to time in countries that went in lockdown,” says Jonathan Puckey, the site’s founder. “We received lots of heartwarming emails from people stuck at home expressing their gratitude for the service.”
Eavesdropping on distant destinations
Radio Garden began as a project at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, where designers and computer programmers overlaid station streams with their geolocations on a 3-D map of the world.
The result is transporting in more ways than one. Dropping in on countries such as Colombia, I’ve had flashbacks to trips past—rambling, romantic accordion music recalling bumpy bus rides on rural roads through the heart of vallenato and cumbia country.
Since I first showed my grandparents that they could scan the radio from Argentina—where my abuela and abuelo were born, and where we still have family—without leaving their kitchen table in America, not a day has gone by when Buenos Aires hasn’t sent us back radio waves of nostalgia.
Our thoughts turn to vivid memories of easier days, of youth-infused Latin pop filling plazas teeming with people on warm afternoons, and of melancholic evenings spent roaming the cobblestone streets of neighborhoods where the tango was born.
“Sometimes I hear tangos that I haven’t heard in a very, very long time,” Abuela says. “It makes me happy. I sing along, and the words, they just come back. Listening to them reminds me of when I was a child.”
Indeed, the radio is a comforting reminder of the sounds that shape our worlds, the soundtracks of our lives, no matter where we live. Perhaps the most spellbinding aspect of the Radio Garden site is its ability to bring us to the most distant of places, allowing us to eavesdrop on communities that we’ve always wanted to visit but, for whatever reason, never could.
I’ve fallen asleep to traditional rubab guitar and flute music from Herat, Afghanistan, on the old Silk Road; practiced my Arabic with the news broadcasts of Radio Damascus; discovered electronic dance music in Iran and Uzbekistan; and followed a trail of musical dots deep into the remotest corners of Russian Siberia.
Growing global connections
The most interesting question I like to ask people is where on the Radio Garden globe they’ll visit first. I’ve noticed that each of us seems to have our own criteria for choosing, based on the languages we’re trying to learn, the places we’ve been, or the names of cities we’ve recently heard about on television.
For me, thrilling as it is to drop in on Ouagadougou or Ulaanbaatar or the Azores, it’s all about personal history: I was born and raised in New York, but my family is from everywhere—Latin America, the Middle East, and places in between. My ancestors were merchants who traded not only in goods, but in cultures. Now, because of their wanderings, bits and pieces of half a dozen languages still fly across our dinner tables, and we feel a deep affinity to a mosaic of places and traditions.
Although we’re sometimes told that our cultures (Arab, Jewish, Latino) are in conflict and that some of our places (Syria, Iraq) are difficult to visit, with Radio Garden my family can cross planes of space and time without worry. Abdel Wahab and his oud usher in the morning; Aníbal Troilo and his sad bandoneon accordion fill the night.
After many months of radio travel, I’ve realized that so much can be conveyed via audio alone, regardless of language—from the rhythm of a particular song to the tone of an impassioned conversation or fervent call to prayer—that I can’t help but think something like Radio Garden has the potential to bring us a little closer as a global community, even if ever-so-slightly.
Maybe it’s fitting, then, that there are no borders on the site, just one Earth of land and oceans where, if you zoom in close enough, you can hear the sounds of humanity.
As travel slowly makes a comeback, I hope these radio stations might teach us what to look for—and listen for—when we’re out in the world again. To listen, even if we can’t understand, to what a taxi driver might be playing in his car. To pause on a walk when we hear music bursting out of an apartment window. To close our eyes, and soak in the sounds.
Our planet is filled with sonic wonders to discover, music that moves you, and soundscapes to explore. Tune into our curated Spotify playlists to embark on melodic adventures around the world, from Morocco to Corsica, Vietnam, and beyond. Take a musical journey—to Korea, Italy, the Mississippi Delta, and more—in our collection of stories about sound.
Jordan Salama is a writer whose first book, Every Day the River Changes: Four Weeks Down the Magdalena, chronicles a journey along Colombia’s greatest waterway. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.