Lilah is the three-year-old daughter of Carnegie Mellon assistant art professor Jon Rubin. Today, her daddy has made her a special research assistant. She sits sandwiched between her father and graduate art student John Peña as their rented kayak bobs up and down in the choppy water. In another rented kayak sits Jonathan Minard (A’07), another graduate art student. The quartet is on a mission—to capture the sound of the Allegheny, Ohio, and Monongahela rivers converging.
The expedition is part of their Sounds You Never Hear project, a homespun radio station set up in a vacant building in Homestead, minutes from campus. The team has paddled away from the skyscrapers of downtown and the stadiums of the North Shore to record their latest single for the station. The debut recording was the chirp of an extinct sparrow, something that certainly wouldn’t be among the playlists of today’s format-based FM radio stations.
For the unique river recording, Minard has relied on some do-it-yourself ingenuity. He encased a sound recorder in waterproof plastic and attached it to a rope, creating an indestructible underwater microphone. When he plunges his contraption into the muddy waters like a fishing line, Peña and Lilah reach out and hold Minard’s one-man kayak steady to keep him from tipping over into the chilly waters. He reels in a twenty-second recording of the calm bubbling and gurgling of the three rivers.
The team rows upstream, back to Kayak Pittsburgh Rentals. Soon afterward, they burn the clip onto a CD, snap it into a silver Walkman, and spin it on repeat at the 102.9 Sounds You Never Hear studios. The studio, all resting on a wooden table, consists of the Walkman, a book-sized shortwave transmitter, and a few RadioShack audio cables that connect to a small antenna outside the building. There is a faux radio tower atop the building, but it’s just for show, constructed by Peña out of spare two-by-fours and metallic spray paint. The broadcast reaches an eight-block radius and is aimed, in part, at relaxing gridlocked motorists on the nearby Homestead Grays Bridge.
The signal is small, but it generates significant local media coverage along with one significant listener—the FCC. The agency shuts down the station because they don’t have a broadcasting license. While there are no immediate plans to resurrect 102.9, acknowledges Peña, he says the media attention alone fulfilled the project’s goal of challenging the banality of everyday radio.
—SEAN PATRICK CONBOY (HS’08)