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.

© Alle Rech­te beim Verfasser