Are we the band on a sinking ship?

Fea­ture Hear­ing / PRIX EUROPA 2001

(…) SOS — Save Our Souls — The Soul of fea­ture mak­ing is what I like to call THE DOCUMENTARY IDEA. Which trans­for­ma­tions radio doc­u­men­tary will have to go through in the future — the Doc­u­men­tary Idea must be saved. 

The amount of knowl­edge, that mankind accu­mu­lates, is grow­ing with increas­ing speed. At present it dou­bles every five years — they say. From an adver­tise­ment for IBM-Busi­ness-Servers: “In this box there are the answers to all ques­tions you ever had. It con­tains every inven­tion und every idea, you admired in your life­time…” And so on. It’s all in the box!

Yes — the fea­ture is under threat. It’s com­ing from out­side, but It’s a home­made threat too. Fea­ture mak­ers as well as sta­tion man­agers and media politi­cians are bewil­dered by the expan­sion of the World Wide Web. There is a vague feel­ing, that we should cope with the explo­sion of bits and bites — some­how. But instant­ly. We just don’t have the tools and the resources. There is pan­ic in the air. 

And ver­i­ly I tell you: Don’t pan­ic. 

As we all can watch on the screens of our per­son­al com­put­ers: The inter­net is becom­ing more and more a ware­house, a dump — stuffed with junk and trea­sures in com­plete dis­or­der. It’s a mess. The growth of raw mate­r­i­al — of stuff, of things (I don’t call it “infor­ma­tion”) — demands the return of the author with com­pe­tence and author­i­ty. It demands the Doc­u­men­tary Idea — or what the doc­u­men­tary film pio­neer John Gri­er­son called “The cre­ative treat­ment of real­i­ty”.

Authors are more than just pilots steer­ing a ship. Pilots have been auto­mat­ed in the mean­time — and they are doing their job rather well. But those search machines in the www han­dle all infor­ma­tions equal­ly. We can­not del­e­gate our pro­fes­sion­al respon­si­bil­i­ty and pas­sion to search­ma­chines. They have no warmth, no sen­su­al­i­ty, no humour. They don’t learn from expe­ri­ence (yet) and draw no con­clu­sions (yet). They can­not give blood to a sub­ject mat­ter and make it breathe. Evo­lu­tion — also the tech­ni­cal one — pro­duces every­thing, that is pos­si­ble. It’s our job to find out, what’s impor­tant for us.

There are more things, com­put­ers can’t do: extract the sub­stance, the heart of a mat­ter. Reveal the form / fea­ture in a heap of raw mate­r­i­al. Dis­cov­er con­cealed or scarce­ly noticed qual­i­ties and beau­ties of peo­ples and things. Shrink the world to a man­age­able size. Trans­late it. As Friedrich Schiller said about the func­tion of dra­ma: It should “intro­duce man to man and reveal the mech­a­nism, which makes the world move”.

What can we do ? Some cues:

We should draw the out­lines of what we con­sid­er to be a radio fea­ture more clear and dis­tinct — the term “fea­ture” being abused for all and any­thing.

Let’s work strict­ly lis­ten­er-ori­ent­ed — the radio should not talk to itself. 
Grab the lis­ten­er, where he is (That is, maybe, next door).

We must cope with the tech­ni­cal and esthet­i­cal stan­dards of the audio indus­try respec­tive­ly the music pro­duc­tion (lis­ten­ers are used to it). 

On the field of audio pro­duc­tion and aes­thet­ics fea­ture mak­ers should be more com­pe­tent than their col­leagues in any oth­er depart­ment of the sta­tion.

The cen­tre of our efforts should be the “major radio fea­ture” — that is the out­stand­ing radio event, the excel­lent treat­ment of an impor­tant or “hot” issue, well placed in the over­all com­po­si­tion of the pro­gramme. Lis­ten­ers must be attract­ed by sub­jects of uni­ver­sal inter­est. By excep­tion­al, unusu­al ideas. By visions, provo­ca­tions. Intel­lec­tu­al events.

Top­ic + per­son­al­i­ty + com­pe­tence might be for­mu­la to res­cue fea­ture from decline — from ship­wreck.

This type of pro­gramme deserves appro­pri­ate pub­lic­i­ty, for exam­ple by cross-pro­mo­tion in oth­er pro­grammes of the radio sta­tion and in oth­er media.

Major Fea­tures — the “big form” — must be sup­port­ed by the polit­i­cal class. Doc­u­men­taries deserve the frame­work of pub­lic radio — like demand­ing stage pro­duc­tions need the con­di­tions and the sup­port of sub­si­dized the­atres and opera hous­es.

That also means: to accept fea­ture to be a minor­i­ty pro­gramme (pos­i­tive­ly spo­ken: a pro­gramme made for opin­ion lead­ers and mul­ti­pli­ers — a “rel­e­vant minor­i­ty”, as Octavio Paz used to call the read­ers of poet­ry). Fea­ture pro­grammes are not made for the com­mu­ni­ty of radio-zap­pers. The inter­est of our lis­ten­ers is con­di­tion­al for our right to exist. (But that doesn’t mean, that a minor­i­ty must be very small and not able to grow!)

Last but not least: Every genre depends on the abil­i­ty to devel­op, to change if nec­es­sary. The last major renew­al of radio doc­u­men­tary, the inven­tion of the Acoustic Fea­ture (Berlin style), hap­pened more than 30 years ago. Now we must react on the chal­lenges of the new cen­tu­ry with new con­vinc­ing and reward­ing designs.

We should not change hors­es, as long as they are run­ning well — but it’s indis­pens­able to join those, who decide on the future race­course. That means: simul­ta­ne­ous­ly to pro­mote grandpa’s radio and to exer­cise on the play­grounds of mul­ti­me­dia.

How­ev­er — we shouldn’t believe, that in our sta­tions future has already begun. Peo­ple in charge love to talk about World Wide Web, but only few of them know what they are talk­ing about — sup­press­ing the fact, that web appear­ances cost a lot of mon­ey and even might cost them their jobs. Those col­leagues, who tor­ment them­selves as web pio­neers with­in the frame­work of pub­lic radio, can tell you a thing or two about it. In their present con­di­tion, most of the pub­lic radios seem to be unable and unqual­i­fied, to get some­thing mov­ing in the right direc­tion. 

And — it is sad to say: If the steam­er is not manoeu­vrable any­more, it doesn’t mat­ter how beau­ti­ful the band plays on board.

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