In The Aleph, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges, the narrator encounters “a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness” in a Buenos Aires cellar. Through it, all the places in the world “can be seen from every angle, each standing clear, without any confusion or blending”. This extraordinary instrument (the aleph of the title) is being used by the owner of the house to write a poem which will meticulously describe everywhere that exists. Rather surprisingly, this epic enterprise wins him only second place in the Argentine national prize for literature.
The poet’s modern heirs are based in Amsterdam, where a group of tech developers have created a 21st-century version of the aleph. Radio Garden, a free app which carries over 30,000 radio stations from around the world, offers aural transport to the rest of the globe. Specifically adapted for mobile phone screens, the app allows the user to scroll across a digital map of the world. One can pause, for example, in Tralee in south-west Ireland to listen to Radio Kerry, before crossing the Atlantic to see what Radio Blanc-Sablon on the east coast of Canada has to offer. (The answer, at 8.26am local time today, perhaps disappointingly, was So Far Away by Dire Straits.) Meanwhile in the town of Bertoua, in eastern Cameroon, a preacher is glossing St Paul’s letter to the Colossians, while the Arctic Outpost station on Svalbard is helping listeners through the dark winter afternoon with a jaunty 1920s number from the Merry Macs.
Radio Garden was created five years ago, but there has been an exponential increase in the number of users during the current Covid confinement. For some, unable to travel to visit relatives back home, the app must provide an invaluable source of consolation. The Cameroonian minister would doubtless spy a remarkable opportunity to reach a wider audience. Similarly, those who believe a single global language, such as Esperanto, can advance peace and understanding between nations might be inspired by the possibilities it throws up in a new age of digital translation.
The app’s founders hope users will channel the spirit of the French situationists, who cherished the idea of le dérive – a kind of unplanned journey in which the aim was to get hopelessly, gloriously, lost. This seems like the right approach to a device tailor-made for the global flâneur. The radio is a peculiarly intimate medium. Freed from extraneous sensory clutter, the broadcaster’s voice establishes a direct and personal connection, even as it reaches into millions of kitchens and bedrooms every day. Experiencing this across the great, unfathomable diversity of the world’s places and situations is mesmeric; it would be a mistake to rush to extract general, abstract lessons from such encounters.
The miraculous quality of Radio Garden, which richly deserves its growing cult status, lies in its agenda-free offer of somewhere else; its ability to spirit a listener from a lockdown afternoon in Manchester to the sounds, mood and preoccupations of a sunny morning in Monterrey. Borges began his short story with a quote from Hamlet: “Oh God! I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a King of infinite space.” Armed with this lockdown liberation tool, that can go for the rest of us too.