Independent Radios The Alternative for the Ear

Radio frequencies

Independent radios go against the grain and sometimes play quirky music. And they are also the medium that can give every citizen a voice.

When Radio F.R.E.I. (i.e., Radio F.R.E.E.) from Erfurt brings the news, it includes the latest from South Korea, Slovakia and Romania: the President of Malta is visiting Bratislava, in Bucharest international finance experts are negotiating the Romanian economic reform and in South Korea panic reigns because of the theft of millions of credit card data. All these are reports that could scarcely have been heard on public broadcasting or private radio stations. Radio F.R.E.I. is one of the so-called independent radios and has the ambition to broadcast exactly what, in the view of its makers, gets the short end of the stick at the other stations.

Independent radios are not profit-seeking. Their bandwidth in Germany is broad, but what unites them is their combative approach: organized on a direct democratic basis, committed radio activists provide non-commercial broadcasting in which everyone can take part. The editorial meetings of Freier Rundfunk Erfurt International (i.e., Independent Radio Erfurt International), or Radio F.R.E.I. for short, take place every Monday so as to discuss the programme for the current week. There is no chief editor; instead the individual editorial staffs work independently, but must be prepared to face the possible criticism of the plenum. “We discuss a lot”, says Carsten Rose, who founded Radio F.R.E.I. together with friends in 1990, putting it in a nutshell.

Engaged citizens design the programme

It was the time shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall. “Back then everything was suddenly possible”, remembers Rose. “The old had collapsed and the new was still in the making.” For him and his comrades-in-arms it was plain that an alternative to GDR radio had to be started. “Someone or other had conducted interviews with a recording device at the political demonstrations”, says Rose. The first idea was: We have to broadcast that. Inspired by the broadcaster of a French cooperative, Radio F.R.E.I. went on the air on 6 October 1990, shortly before the first federal state elections after the collapse of the GDR. Its aspiration: “To make radio for the people who had previously taken to the streets”. At this time Radio F.R.E.I., which was broadcasting without licence, belonged to the so-called pirate radio stations.

About 100 volunteers now regularly file away on the programme of Radio F.R.E.I., which is on the air every week for a total of 74 hours. “The programme is always like the people who are currently doing it”, explains radio activist Rose, who is now the executive director of the related association. It Can’t Get Any Greener is the title of the environmental magazine, We Meddle the anti-globalization broadcast and Studio Butter Toast the show for young people. You can hear that these are not the work of professionals, but then in independent radio it is equally important that everyone can participate.

Broadcasts in Turkish and Romanian

Today’s independent radios were yesterday’s pirate radio stations. Radio Dreyeckland (i.e., Radio Tri-Border Area) from Freiburg was one of the pioneers of this scene: without a license, Dreyeckland went on the air in 1977 so as to link activists of the anti-nuclear movement. “That was the time when the issue practically didn’t exist in public broadcasting”, emphasizes Jochen Lüttich of the Federation of Independent Radio Stations. And this is still the aim: “On independent radio, groups and political positions get a chance to speak that otherwise find little hearing”, says Lüttich. For example, on the Nuremberg Radio Z there are several international shows – ranging from Turkish and Romanian to Latin American ones. Here in fourteen different broadcasts people with immigrant backgrounds design programmes – and in their native languages.

The programmes of independent radio are not usually designed to be as complaisant as possible; this applies to both the issues broached and to the interviews, which can sometimes take up to half an hour, or the occasional Heavy Metal special on Sunday afternoon. “We’re a switch-on radio”, says Lüttich, meaning that independent radio breaks with listening habits and that each listener must pick a broadcast from the programme to fit his own interests.

The states decide about broadcasting licenses

In order to broadcast at all in the 1970s, the makers of Dreyeckland had to hijack free frequencies and so risk five years imprisonment. Only in 1984, when the state broadcasting monopoly was broken up, did the newly adopted state media laws make it possible to award licenses not only to private but also to independent radio stations. The Federation of Independent Radio Stations now unites 30 independent radio stations from 13 federal states. The legal regulations for non-commercial private radio stations vary greatly from state to state. While in Bavaria independent radio stations receive no public funding, the State Media Authority of Thuringia currently supports Radio F.R.E.I. with the sum of 70,000 euros annually.

Yet at the very beginning of its history, Radio F.R.E.I. had to cope with a major setback, for only six months after going on air its editorial offices were stormed by the police and its broadcasting stopped. It simply possessed no broadcasting license. Only in 1999, after the amendment of the Thuringian Private Broadcasting Act, did the radio activists receive a license, which they have retained to this day.