Art of the Radio Play in Germany
Look Who's Talking!

Germany is famous for the art of the radio play.
Photo (detail): © Brian Jackson -

Nowhere in the world are so many top-quality radio plays produced as in Germany. This can be ascribed, on the one hand, to the German's love of the radio and, on the other, to the fact that the German public-service broadcasting system is unique.

The radio play is in fact almost as old as radio itself. Radio first got off the ground in Germany in the early 1920s. There was a growing number of stations that broadcast for several hours every day. Various formats were developed for the broadcasts – among them there was one genre of program that at first went by the name of “Funkspiel” - a kind of radio play with a fictional plot, narrated in dialogues and livened up with noises and sounds.

Radio plays of course cannot exist without the medium of radio – this applies even today. These days it is relatively easy to produce a radio play without a radio station. Digitalisation has made the necessary technology generally accessible.  Nevertheless public-service broadcasting in Germany is still the main producer of radio plays due to all the possibilities it has at its disposal. There are, for example, top-calibre studios, experienced dramatic advisers for radio plays, specialist sound technicians, a much broader range of audience and considerable budgets. Any author or director, however, intending to make money with radio plays, has to be aware that it is the radio that produces or, at least, broadcasts his material.

The biggest radio-play scene in the world

Germany has the biggest and the most diverse radio-play scene in the world. About 300 radio plays are produced every year. Almost every day on some station somewhere in Germany there is a radio-play première – what they call a first broadcast. There are in fact two reasons for this. The first – in the beginning the people in charge at the radio stations and excellent authors and artists like Bert Brecht and filmmaker, Walter Ruttmann, realised immediately what opportunities this new medium of radio had to offer. Right from the start they were producing outstanding radio plays and this in turn led to this new form of art being quickly recognised as something to be taken seriously. Examples of this would be: SOS … rao rao … Foyn – ,Krassin‘ rettet ,Italia‘ (1929) - by Friedrich Wolf, a play in which the radio itself becomes part of the story, because with the help of the station's radio waves they are able to coordinate the tracking down and rescue of an airship that went missing in the Arctic. Weekend (1930) by Walter Ruttmann is a sound collage about the everyday routine of a weekend in Berlin that gets its message across without any verbal narrative.  

The Nazi regime and the Second World War brought about a turning point that made it necessary to start all over again in 1945. Nevertheless authors like Alfred Andersch, Günter Eich and Wolfgang Hildesheimer managed to put the German radio play back on the level it had enjoyed before the war. And it was on these foundations that a vital form of art was able to grow and develop further.

The second reason for the fact that Germany produces so many radio plays is Germany's federalist set-up. Germany's number-one public-service broadcaster is the ARD and it consists of nine broadcasting stations representing various regions of Germany. Each one these nine broadcasters has its own radio play department. In addition to that, there is Deutschlandradio – a nationwide broadcaster that has two radio-play departments.

A formidable audience

All this variety requires clear profiling of the individual departments. Otherwise it would be difficult to justify this expensive set-up. The Norddeutsche Rundfunk (North German Radio) specialises in literary radio plays.  Due to its geographical location the Saarländische Rundfunk (Saarland Radio) has become an expert on French authors and material and again and again produces bilingual radio plays. The Südwestdeutsche Rundfunk (South-West German Radio) and also Deutschlandradio Kultur are well known for their sound art – radio plays in which the verbal aspect plays either a subordinate role or no role at all. The Bayerische Rundfunk (Bavarian Radio) often produces series in which the sequence of the individual episodes, for example is not predetermined, but determined by the listeners. 

If the play is to be broadcast on VHF wavelength, the department does in fact have to decide on a set sequence, but if the play is to be downloaded from a website the sequence is entirely up to the user. Bavarian Radio has a digital radio-play pool and every year more than one million plays are downloaded. Other stations, too, provide users with the long-term possibility of listening to their plays as podcasts via their websites.  When a play is aired on the radio, as a rule tens of thousands of people tune in, in the case of a crime thriller the number is often more than a hundred thousand. If you compare these figures to those of people going to the theatre or cinema or the number of those who buy books – then this really is a formidable audience.   

Interacting with society

When it comes to the type and content of a radio play, a considerable number of sub-genres have been spawned: there are crime thrillers, children's radio plays, science-fiction, chamber plays, love stories, comedies, social and political dramas and many, many more. There are documentary narratives, classic narratives and post-dramatic ones; there are musical pieces, sound art and original-soundtrack radio plays. Stereo technology has opened up innovative Surround Sound, and there are forever new experiments going on with even more complex systems, for example, with 5.1 technology or with dummy head recordings, a method of recording used to generate binaural recordings.

As the radio play is a form of radio art, it cannot be separated from the medium of radio. “Radio plays are part of the radio program,” says  Martina Müller-Wallraf, head of the radio-play department at Westdeutscher Rundfunk (West German Radio) - the radio station that produces by far the most radio plays. “They automatically interact with the other programs that are aired either before them or after,” says Müller-Wallraf. She feels that radio plays cannot be uncoupled from what is going on in society. This, too, contributes to the relevance of the radio play – the fact that it always has to be aware of its artistic approach as opposed to the approaches adopted by reports, features and other news or documentary formats. It is also important, that it should never lose itself in its self-centredness, but should try to make the presence understandable by its own means.