The Radio Feature of the Nineties
From a lecture, delivered during Radio Forum Day, Prix Italia, June 26th 1996
In the golden radio days of Orson Welles & Co radio still was a mass-medium, good enough to sell “Campbell’s Soup”, “Lady Esther Face Cream”, “Cresta Blanca” wine, “Blue Ribbon” beer or United States Defence Bonds.
During a few years, after “the feature” had been brought to Germany as a gift of our British liberators — and as a means of “re-education” — this genre played a genuine part within the mass medium radio. “Radio feature” was considered to be just “good radio”. Nobody outside the broadcasting stations cared for the category “feature” and what it meant to the feature-makers.
Like in the laboratories of nuclear scientists, discoveries and professional revolutions were the daily job of radio makers, immediately to be converted into programmes for his majesty, THE LISTENER. Just take the most important after-war-revolution in the field of the radio feature, initiated and conducted by Peter Leonhard Braun at SENDER FREIES BERLIN, Germany.
As a result of new technologies for the daily use in radio documentary — such as movable stereo recording devices — P. L. Braun not only changed our working techniques but even our whole attitude towards feature making. From now on “in the beginning” there wasn’t “the word” — but sound. We used to call it (and still we do) “the emancipation of original sound”.
Listeners became ear-witnesses. Sound was put into it’s own rights. This wonder happened with some of Braun’s famous, then sensational programmes like CHICKENS (1967), OPERATING THEATRE NUMBER 3 (1970), “HYENAS” (1972) or BELLS IN EUROPE (1973) where it says: “In Europe the guns chime and the bells fire”.
By and by radio programmes were split into segments — for the young and for the old, the so-called intellectuals and for the “man on the street”, who since then has been fed with radiophonic fast food, as we know. Radio became a background medium, part of the global juke box and the feature — where it still was kept going — became a minority Programme for a specialised audience, sharing this fate with the documentary film. And this never will be undone.
QUESTION: Is it still reasonable and explainable to the public (and in some countries to the payers of obligatory monthly fees) to put so much money, fantasy, brains, passion and work into the production of radio features for a very small group of listeners ?
All of us have been asked this question before and we might be challenged in that respect more and more in the future. Serving minorities, of course, is the task and duty of public broadcasting systems — is the justification for it’s existence. So better put the question this way: How should we cultivate and possibly even increase our small but exquisite audience ?
As we experience in our daily work, there still is a virtual demand for radio, the slow medium; for listening to items of interest; to a human voice that is talking to us and not just stuffing our senses with images and unspecified informations.
The world has changed since Orson Welle’s radio theatre and “Bells of Europe”, though many of us still produce the radio feature of the Sixties (or even the Forties) just less interesting, less skilled, less powerful, with a certain non-inspiring flavour of resignation.
Revolutions once in a while just happen. They are necessary. But as soon as political or aesthetic revolutions become institutional, they grow weak and old and fat. That happened to the radio feature too (…)
Some 30 years after P. L. Braun’s “Chickens” we should ask ourselves: What have we done to keep radio alive ? Which are the new and useful tools of today’s radio production ? Which is the acoustic and narrational language of our time ?
In general, listeners are not interested in a genre like feature as such, but in TOPICS.
Setting the stage for CONTROVERSY — the competition between different opinions — is the best method for shaping a feature.
Alfred Andersch, the German post war documentarist, wrote: “Feature occupies the wide range between news and drama” — actually it should be both: NEWS and DRAMA.
Some of us believe, that the feature of the Nineties should be faster and shorter, more like a selection of video clips. In a recent invitation to a national Features and Documentaries Conference (I don’t mention the inviting radio organization) I read the following Paragraph:
“The Art of The Small Feature — A forum
that will concentrate on the issues
surrounding the 3 — 10 minute piece”
A new category, indeed: The docu-clip. It’s radio — but not the radio we are talking about. It reminds me of a joke in the former GDR: “Comrades — here is the Golden Medal for creating the world’s biggest computer chip !”
There is a maximum size for computer chips and — as I’m convinced — a minimum size for good radio features.
Making a feature means: to dig deep down below the surface of a subject — deeper as it might be possible in a current affairs programme, for instance; and digging — as every gardener knows — takes patience, skill, sweat and TIME.
I like to quote the definition of our wonderful Greek-British colleague John Theocharis: “A feature is an acoustical work that uses the manifold possibilities of sound-radio to enable factual information to stir the imagination of the listener, to entertain him in an exciting manner and at the same time to sharpen his perception of the world and of human existence”. How to achieve all this in 3 minutes ?
3 minutes is the format of the private radio consisting of commercials in permanent succession. There is no room for our long and slow — sometimes too long and too slow — documentaries. On the other hand it’s the utmost stupidity to imitate the habits of those media salesmen in order to save our public system.
We all know: radio has to fight for money. Yes, we must FIGHT — not waste our time by complaining about the cultural decline; fight with our own proven methods, that are: Information, Opinion and Provocation.
OPINION … Axel Eggebrecht, one oft the exponents of post-war radio feature in Germany called the “pressure of a virtual opinion” the most important quality of a feature maker. That means: the virtue of being subjective, decisive, radical in an intellectual sense; making your point in a distinctive, unmistakable personal manner; in your special “tone”, including a certain amount of good humour.
INFORMATION, my second key word, is no contradiction to subjectivity. Of course we must give the listener all fundamental informations connected to a subject, to enable him to form his own opinion and to compare it with our point of view.
PROVOCING discussions should be a self-evident goal of media professionals, though in many cases radio has lost it’s former leadership in stirring the intellectual discourse in our societies.
After all …
Radio is and always will be the NARRATIVE MEDIUM par excellence — the story teller of the media family. We all should proudly recall this Tradition, reaching back to Homer and his “Odyssey” and to the great realistic writers or reporters in literature like Mark Twain, Melville, J. Conrad, Dickens, Zola, Victor Hugo, Moravia, Pavese and so on.
That’s what radio feature needs in the late Nineties: The personality of Orson Welles and the benefits of Apple Macintosh.
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