HEARTS OF SPACE: A Look at Radio’s Longest-Running Ambient Music Program

By John C. Alsedek:


I spend a lot of time listening to things above and beyond the requirements of everyday life. When I’m out trail running, I’m listening to hockey podcasts or audiobooks. When I’m at my computer with headphones on, I’m either audio editing or doing music composition. When I’m at my computer with headphones off, I’ve generally got Turner Classic Movies on low for background noise. I virtually never listen to the radio, and yet some of my most fondly remembered experiences involve listening to the radio in the dark. As a kid, that listening experience was tuning in to the CBS Radio Mystery Theater on a pocket transistor radio under the covers at bedtime. As a late twenties/early thirties adult? It was chilling out on a Saturday night with Hearts of Space.


Stephen Hill

Hearts of Space is a weekly syndicated radio program that largely (though not exclusively) focuses on ambient and electronic music. Created by Stephen Hill and Anna Turner in 1973, it originally aired in a three-hour version as Music from the Hearts of Space on KPFA in Berkeley, CA; when it went into national syndication in 1983, it shortened to a one-hour version, which is the length it remains at to this day. Each episode (or "transmission," as Hill refers to them on-air) focuses on a common theme, often segueing so seamlessly between tracks that it’s easy to miss where one ends and the next begins. Hill keeps the interruptions to a minimum, doing just an introduction and a closing listing of the tracks before signing off with “Safe journeys, space fans—wherever you are.”


Stephen Hill

Part of what makes Hearts of Space work so well is the voice of announcer Hill (Turner departed Hearts of Space in 1986). Hill has a clear, relaxing voice that works well with the material, with a touch of humor thrown in at the appropriate moments (more on that later). Then there’s the material itself: Hearts of Space introduced me to an absolute treasure trove of eclectic musicians including Steve Roach, his frequent collaborator Vidna Obmana, Harold Budd, and Dead Can Dance. And the way he puts it all together . . . I’m going to use my all-time favorite transmission of Hearts of Space as an example:


“A thunderclap, the primordial rhythm of crickets, snippets of conversation and other fragments of the urban soundscape, subtle layers of electronic and acoustic instruments—these are some of the elements that make up the complex atmospheres of ambient music. The now-famous French composer Erik Satie prophesied ambient music when he dreamed of 'a music which is like furniture.' In ambient music, whether for film scores, records, or dance clubs, the background often becomes the foreground, as features of the sonic landscape which had been taken for granted become the main focus of attention. On this hour of Hearts of Space, we explore just a few of the wide range of current ambient styles with a program conceived by guest producer Jacob Offman called TERRACE OF MEMORIES.”


So began Hearts of Space #333, "Terrace of Memories." First aired September 15th, 1995, it was named for the album from which Track 9 ("From Within the Cold") came from. Starting with the understated, syncopated throb of "New Maps of Hell" by Australian Paul Schutze before sliding right into the electronic Renaissance sound of "Snake Dance" by West Virginia–native Kit Watkins, the show continues with music from Art Zoyd (France), Arild Andersen (Norway), Tuu (United Kingdom), Kit Watkins again, ambient master Brian Eno, and the aforementioned "From Within the Cold." "Terrace of Memories" ends with "Mellow at Heart" (a solo piece by the Belgian Obmana) and, as Hill gives the track information, Harold Budd’s haunting, evocative "Ice Floes in Eden." A ten out of ten.


Stephen and Leyla Hill

Besides producing over twelve hundred episodes of Hearts of Space (I think the exact number is 1,259 as of early September 2020), Hill and crew also do the Hearts of Space Archive (an ambient music streaming service) and until 2001 had Hearts of Space Records. Hearts of Space Records released nearly 150 albums between 1984–2001 as well as licensing a wide assortment of European albums for U.S. release. The label consisted of five branches, each focusing on a different genre: the primary HOS Records label for general space music, Fathom for dark ambience, Hearts O’Space for Celtic albums, RGB for more poppish electronic music, and World Class for world music.


And now, to wrap up that "touch of humor" comment I made earlier . . . Mystery Science Theater 3000 once did a parody of Hearts of Space entitled "Music from Some Guys in Space," including a pretty spot-on impersonation of Stephen Hill by Crow T. Robot. But rather than be offended, Hill and the HOS production team instead sent the MST3K crew an assortment of space music! We’ll be talking about Mystery Science Theater 3000 next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!

Writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment.