noise city radio

from NoiseCity Radio promotional video
from NoiseCity Radio promotional video

Noise City Radio combines the location and classification of all noise complaints logged in New York City’s 311 system and combines it with audio recordings of noise. Through the app, listeners can experience the spaces of noise complaints by tuning-in as they walk through city streets. The app uses the listener’s location to look-up nearby sound complaints, i.e. all the geotagged records that are within 100ft – anything that should be within earshot. The listener will hear a mix of recorded sounds from Manhattan and field recordings that others have made documenting their environment. Each sound clip matches the category of the noise complaint registered to the listener’s location. The red circle on-screen changes thickness depending on the density of noise complaint records within the space that the listener traverses.

The inspiration for this project is New York City’s War on Noise. This war started in the 1930’s with Mayor Fiorello La Guardia’s “War on Noise” and has continued through to today with Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “Operation Silent Night”. an attempt to “protect the sensitive and the infirm from the ravages of urban din” has today become the systematic identification and decimation of quality of life compromising noise.

In “The War on Noise: Sound and Space in La Guardia’s New York”, Lilian Radovac describes the controversial methods of early noise abatement that has echoed down the years. Since the beginning of city sonic sanitation, the argument to protect “vulnerable residents” most often meant the protection of “the fragile upper class” from their perceptions of the unruly urban masses.

There is a history of contested methods for noise abatement in New York City. Radovac describes how The Noise Abatement Commission of 1929-1932 used technical methods to identify sources of noise and made material and design recommendations to abate it. This contrasted with later methods “framed noise not only as a behavioral or technological problem but also as a symptom and even a cause of urban disorder.” Radovac argues that this latter method has dominated the City’s approach to noise abatement through to today and that it is problematic because it has “conflated the everyday annoyances of city life with criminal acts.”

Noise Complaints Reported in 2010-2011
Noise Complaints Reported in 2010-2011 | src: NYC Open Data, vis: Christo de Klerk

Today’s noise complaints are logged through the City’s 311 system and made available to the public through NYC Open Data. Over 191 thousand noise complaints were logged by the City in 2010 and 2011.

Our attempt in this project is the production of a critical radio that draws sensorial attention to the environment of noise complaints. The radio scans the frequencies of complaints only as the listener walks. As the listener changes location, new sounds and combination of sounds are generated. No path through the city will generate the same soundtrack. The acute awareness of location in transmission frequencies draws the listener to get involved with the drama, to search out with the fullness of the body the social, technological, and urban design tensions that is within their midst.

In contested sonic spaces, urban design shares responsibility with the biological and mechanical generators of noise. That sources of noise appropriate and extend through the material environment make them all the more abhorrent – vibrating the ground, piercing through the  windows, and amplifying against the walls. Noise possesses the city, obscuring the source and even rendering it mute. The imperceptible resonance from a power station in Queens is locatable in every window that rattles. The project reveals how the City flattens the dimensionality of complaints into mappable coordinates in order to operationalize abatement. Within this flattening are critical transformations, clearly perceived by the listener walking the street. The points of complaints don’t necessarily reflect the location or source of the noise. Rather, they pinpoint the agitated spaces, the places where people were upset.

We spent some time trying to figure out which form to remediate in this project. We selected the radio partly because it was one of the sources of the earliest complaints in New York City. Also, we were inspired to reflect on these locations as producers of illegal short range transmissions. The app therefore would be a kind of receiver that picks up the frequencies of illegal transmissions. The project may even come to generate new audio complaints. Hooked up to a boombox, the noise complaints system can start to generate new noise complaints – a form of audio feedback on the audio surveillance network.

by Christo de Klerk and Lara Heintz

Exhibitions of Noise City Radio

  • 2012, Mixed Messages Graduate Student Showcase, The New School, NYC

Sources + Inspiration

The bits of audio mixed together by the app were sourced from and are licensed under Creative Commons. Appreciation for the great sound files uploaded goes out to the following users: tomlija, pogotron, andriala, martian, dobroide, mich3d, avakas, cognito perceptu, cinemafia, casemundy, fonogeno, WIM, nummer39, daveincamas, nofeedbak, LG, and martypinso.

“311 Service Requests from 2010 to Present.” NYC Open Data, n.d.

Cory, Mark E. “Sound Play: The Polyphonous Tradition of German Radio Art.” In Wireless Imagination: Sound, Radio, and the Avant-Garde, edited by Douglas Kahn and Gregory Whitehead. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1992.

Mattern, Shannon C. “Radio City: Sound, Space & The City.” Words in Space, February 15, 2011.

Radovac, Lilian. “The ‘War on Noise’: Sound and Space in La Guardia’s New York.” American Quarterly 63, no. 3 (September 15, 2011): 733–760.