German Radio In the Digital Age

Nearly all radio programming has been produced digitally since the mid-1990s.
Nearly all radio programming has been produced digitally since the mid-1990s. | Photo (detail): TMSK © iStockphoto

Despite fast-paced development in new media, traditional radio broadcasting is still reaching vast numbers of listeners and attracting stable revenues from advertising. Still, digitalization, Internet and new mobile devices represent ongoing challenges for the stations.

Since its introduction during the Weimar Republic and subsequent media-political restructuring after World War II, radio in Germany has managed to fully establish its rightful place in the country's media landscape. It may be a question of tradition and familiarity, but since February 1949, when Europe's first very short wave (VHF) radio station was opened in Bavaria, about 300 million VHF radio devices have been acquired in households across the land.

A diverse offering

In 1981, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court put the dual broadcasting law into effect, which in turn became the foundation for a joint public and private radio broadcasting landscape. The commercial stations, financed by advertising revenues, are still among the leaders of a nationwide mainstream and specialist radio environment that features relatively minimal talking and little editorial effort. This is primarily because the most important private media companies in Germany are, to differing degrees, still active in the radio broadcasting business. Still, radio programming has continued to diversify since its inception.

Today there are 58 public radio stations, 222 private stations and 113 quasi non-commercial university radio stations. Each one has distinct target groups that it serves with varying types of music and verbal content. The offering includes programming for children and seniors, jazz and classical music, highbrow informational or cultural channels like the nationwide public station Deutschlandradio, the international German broadcaster Deutsche Welle and stations that solely stream music through private local broadcasters.

According to the Media-Analyse consortium, Germans listened to an average of 199 minutes of radio in 2011. For people between 10 and 29 years of age that number has even increased in recent years from 136 to 145 minutes. This can be seen in the revenues as well: In 2011, Nielsen Media Research in Germany reported €1.46 billion in radio advertising spending. That is an increase of 5.8 percent over the previous year. According to a study by TNS Emnid called Surfer wollen was auf die Ohren (lit. trans. Surfers want Something in their Ears) traditional regional radio no longer demands peoples' undivided attention, but it is still the most popular parallel medium in Germany, meaning people enjoy listening to it while they do something else.

Digitalization on all channels

Nearly all radio programming has been produced digitally since the mid-1990s. That of course altered the work of hosts and journalists dramatically. Reporters research, speak and edit their own pieces now, hosts “freestyle” their way through entire programs and newsreaders are sometimes replaced by original recordings that have been saved and then broadcasted “live” between increasingly long music segments, for example. Initiatives like die Radioretter (lit. trans. Radio Rescuers) or Fair Radio still point out that German radio journalists are at the forefront of preserving the culture of the spoken German word.

Digital distribution of radio programming received a massive boost with the nationwide introduction of DSL in Germany in 2005. Web radio stations immediately began popping up, broadcasting only online to their topic- or music-oriented niches. Today there are over 3,000 active web radio stations in Germany. The standard radio stations don't see this as an alternative but as an enhancement and a way to further retain brand loyalty among their listeners. Since the complete shutdown of VHF has been repeatedly delayed, decision-makers are increasingly optimizing a hybrid strategy consisting of their own terrestrial, digital audio broadcasting (DAB+) network and the Internet, which is becoming more and more popular on mobile devices. The distribution of LTE (long-term evolution) technology with even faster broadband will presumably force this trend to continue.

Next-generation radio – mobile, personalized and interactive

“Radio to go” is the next thing for your handheld and your pants pocket. At this point there are not just downloadable broadcasting formats, but radio stations are now creating and distributing their own applications for your smartphone or tablet. Aggregators like, and provide listeners with structured access to countless German radio stations. offers personalized music programming, has user-generated playlists, and at listeners can even host shows themselves. Despite all of these new developments, however, “new radio” still doesn't necessarily need to suppress “old radio”. After all, three-quarters of Germans who listen to the radio via the Internet or their mobile phones does it as an enhancement to their regular listening habits.


Hans Bausch:
Der Rundfunk im Kräftespiel der Weimarer Republik 1923-1933 (lit. trans. Radio in the Power Play of the Weimar Republic) (Mohr/Siebeck, 1956)

Konrad Dussel:
Deutsche Rundfunkgeschichte (lit. trans. A History of German Radio) (UVK, 2010)