The Air is Getting Thin: Radio Culture in Germany

Radio in the public space: An adolescent with a ghetto blaster; Copyright:; IsiahAt the end of 2008, two extraordinary German radio programme formats that were successful for many years, Radio Multikulti and “Der Ball ist rund”, were abolished. Is the current trend to go mainstream?

Since 1994, the station Radio Multikulti, which belonged to Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB), represented the cultural diversity of Berlin, the place from which it was broadcast. With programmes in nearly 20 languages, and a lively presentation of subjects such as immigration, it made a valuable contribution to the public discourse on the coexistence of cultures in Germany. The station’s range of music also made the multiculturalism inscribed in its name resound clearly.

The focus of the programme “Der Ball ist Rund” (i.e. The Ball is Round), which was planned by its presenter Klaus Walter at Hessischer Rundfunk (HR) from 1984 onwards, was no longer on sport, as the name might lead one to suppose. Rather, prominence was given to making a serious presentation of pop music. That is not to be taken for granted at stations established under public law, as demonstrated once again by the programme’s discontinuation at the end of 2008.

Economic necessities?

Former 'Der Ball ist rund' presenter Klaus Walter now hosts programmes on; Copyright: Ralf BarthelmesBoth RBB and HR decided against these formats on the grounds of economic or market-orientated necessities. Yet for the stations established under public law, rosy times lie ahead. As a result of an increase in licence fees, they have at their disposal approximately € 400 million in additional funds in 2009. Just recently, RBB also announced an annual net income of more than € 13 million. In this context, the discontinuation of Radio Multikulti and “Der Ball ist rund” has to be seen as a political issue, indicating the direction in which radio decision-makers in Germany would like to move in the future.

Progressive and unusual formats will be hard pressed in the future. There is a clear trend in this direction. Instead, people rely on the familiar and take few risks. That does not mean that one should necessarily speak of “cultural decay” right away, because the radio stations continue to support many orchestras, choirs and big bands and generally make a varied programme. Yet the air is getting thin for anything out of the ordinary. Bavarian radio’s (BR) “Zündfunk“, for example, was only saved from discontinuation in 2006 by a petition. In the light of current developments, it could well be the case that BR will no longer deal as considerately with the popular youth programme in the next round of decision-taking.

The whole spectrum

The Radio Multicult 2.0 studio below deck on the ship 'Heiterkeit' with Wolfgang König at the microphone; Coypright: Uli PeschewoschnyIt is precisely here, however, under the warm cloak of state-secured financing, that the experiments the private stations cannot afford to make should be possible. These experiments should neither orientate themselves musically to the undying differentiation between light music and serious music, however, nor should they stop thematically at Germany’s national borders. Rather, the attempt should at least be made to represent the whole range of culture. Anything else would be too short-sighted in a modern and heterogeneous society.

Luckily, the internet provides an alternative. Five minutes after Radio Multikulti was switched off at 22:05 hours on 31 December 2008, former employees launched the internet radio “MultiCult2.0”, which continues to make a similar programme. Klaus Walter is also to be found on the internet in the future, with a weekly programme on This internet station, which has been operating for about a year now, offers radio programme-makers – also from the public-law broadcasting sector  – an open platform to focus on anything “that is important in modern pop music.”

New ideas presenter Christoph Twickel with studio guest DJ Teem from Buenos Aires; Copyright: byte.fmThe clear advantage of such internet projects is simultaneously also their drawback, however. As self-organised stations, they are very free as regards content and are available world-wide without great technical effort or excessive ongoing costs, but this independence stems from donations and from the voluntary work of committed professionals. How long can such constellations continue to exist without longer-term financing?

In the USA, satellite pay radio is very successful. By far the largest provider, XM Satellite Radio, is going strong, with some 18.5 million paying subscribers. In Germany, however, such a service would be likely to have a tough time of it, as the German pay TV station Premiere’s low viewership demonstrates. Only a few people are willing to pay voluntarily a second time on top of the obligatory broadcasting licence fees.

It is therefore necessary for the broadcasting stations established under public law to stand up for innovative and progressive forms of radio. A commitment to would be a good start. This would not be expensive, but would have a wide effect. The media trend is towards viewers’ self-determination of the programme in any case, which is currently best possible on the internet, for example when programmes are available as podcasts that can be downloaded at any time. The audience, of whom so many people campaigned so explicitly for the formats that have now been discontinued, will certainly be grateful.
Dario Radišić is a cultural scientist and lives and works in Berlin.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion
January 2009

An adolescent with a ghetto blaster ©

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