Information, Opinion, Provocation

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.

But…

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 ?

Some propo­si­tions:

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.

Because…

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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