Information, Opinion, Provocation –

The Radio Fea­ture of the Nine­ties.

From a lec­tu­re, deli­ve­r­ed during Radio Forum Day, Prix Ita­lia, Napo­li, 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?

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.


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.

© Alle Rech­te beim Ver­fas­ser