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Let’s keep playing the music!

The author in 1997 or 1998 in the car of his cousin Salvatore in Rome
The author in 1997 or 1998 in the car of his cousin Salvatore in Rome | Photo: Leonhard Hieronymi

Leonhard Hieronymi writes about the year 1997, when the radio station Planet Radio went on air and had such a momentous impact on the author – who, then aged 10, used to listen to the station in his mother’s Mercedes.

By Leonhard Hieronymi

In seventy-four years’ times a whole host of Florian Illies-alikes will be writing about the good old days of 1997: after all, Hale-Bopp was visible throughout the year, Borussia Dortmund won the Champions League, Jan Ullrich the Tour de France. And something happened to benefit young people in the Rhein-Main region – something that might at first glance seem trivial but is no less important when you look at the detail: the radio station Planet Radio made its first broadcast.

In spring ’97 the Frankfurt frequency 100.2 was still emitting a crackling sound reminiscent of the terraced ice fields of a polar ice cap on Mars, a spine-chilling occurrence that instilled fear in the young people of Hesse: an infinite space loop whose roaring and squeaking was replaced twice a minute by a station voice that whispered: “Planet Radio – maximum music”.

I was listening to this extraterrestrial ice-cracking in the blue Mercedes 280 TE belonging to my mother, an absolute Mercedes freak, whilst leafing through my favourite reading material of the time: TV magazines. I was comparing the number of black dots that could be awarded to films in the categories humour, action, appeal, thrill factor and eroticism. Whilst I was unconsciously waiting for planet radio to come on air and worrying because I believed that alien beings had hijacked the airwaves, I was reading through the reviews of a sci-fi film that my parents would never have allowed me to watch, or so I thought. But I saw a direct universal connection between this sci-fi film and the roaring of the radio.

My mouth was pretty much watering with excitement. I’ve forgotten now why I was sitting in the car by myself. Anyway, my mother soon returned, and I had two questions for her.

First question: “Eroticism. What is eroticism?”
Second question: “What’s that roaring sound on the radio?”

She could only answer one of my questions.

Sitting in the Mercedes and waiting for Planet Radio, and the answer to my question, is one of my most intense memories of 1997.

A few days later, the station began to broadcast its programme from a studio in Frankfurt-Rödelheim. We spent the entire summer driving around in the blue Mercedes and listening to Planet. (Of course someone had already ripped off the Mercedes star and stuck on a rubber Snoopy figure in its place instead. But its rubber head was already missing too, for some logical reason: irony was no longer permitted at the end of the 20th century.)

Planet Radio played a mix of American R&B, European dance songs and rap. 1997 was the perfect year for mega-hits, ABSOLUTE mega-hits. Hits that were hits to such an extent that the hit potential can apparently still be milked even 25 years on: I’ll Be Missing You by Puff Daddy and Faith Evans, Men In Black by Will Smith, Everybody by the Backstreet Boys, Around the World by Daft Punk, Bitter Sweet Symphony by The Verve, Spice Up Your Life by the Spice Girls, and Got ’Til It’s Gone by Janet Jackson. All those people who were ten years old back in 1997 are immediately brought to tears today when they hear 1997’s greatest hits – because they remember that everything, just everything, was good in those days. And that it wasn’t a result of the retrospective rosy-tinted spectacles of memory, it was the fact that 1997 really was the year almost nothing bad happened. Have you ever been down? I’m a Barbie girl!

1997 was the most innocent year in the whole of human history. Although a princess and the best rapper of all time were murdered, in the context of world history 1997 was so optimistic and peaceful that even the Planet Radio advertising slogan “Eure Eltern werden kotzen” (i.e. your parents will puke) caused a huge commotion. And the fact that the station made it a trademark to announce which public transport routes in Hesse were currently frequented by ticket inspectors just before the traffic report: “Watch out, fare dodgers! Kassel’s public transport operator is checking tickets on Tram Route 5 today – running from Königsplatz to Holländische Straße.“

A few years later the presenters were still so popular that they were making public appearances in local fast-food restaurants or at festivals in Flörsheim, but word still needed to GET AROUND. And it was then, at the start of the noughties – with their nervous and still anti-digital vibe – that the young people who were still so innocent in 1997 began to frequent these places: classic evenings with Smirnoff Ice, Bacardi Breezer, orthodontic braces, too-tight Miss Sixty Jeans, holding their hair clear of their puke, modified scooters and suppressed distress from the school trip to the concentration camp. 1997 is forgotten. So young and yet already a lost cause: the massacres of Columbine and Erfurt destroyed all the hopes young people had of youth culture, and thus began the great aversion. Looking back, it seems that no other year was as amazing as 1997 for any of us.

In the summer I went on holiday to the North Sea in the Mercedes with my mother and brother, and the further up the A5 we travelled, the weaker the Planet Radio signal became. Shortly before it disappeared entirely in an even more vigorous ice-roar than you’d get in spring, at exactly 11 o’clock in the morning a presenter said loudly: “Nothing’s happening on the planet! Let’s keep playing the music!”

The fact that I can recall such details from the year 1997, and that I can remember that this year was such a peace-loving one, isn’t solely because I used to listen to the radio in those days, hoovering up the hits of the year in an infinite loop, mostly on Planet Radio. And since I no longer listen to hit radio, I doubt whether I’ll still remember the year 2023 in 26 years’ time. After all, the only way to evoke memories through sound is the wonder of radio with its collective hits.

So in 2024 I’d like to have a baby with an intelligent woman who meditates and becomes immersed in art with me. The plan is for this child to receive extraterrestrial signals and listen to hit radio with us. Then in 2060, when the Florian Illies-alikes start compiling their material on 1997, we’ll be able to ignore everything and affectionately remember the year 2034, which will hopefully have been a year in which nothing bad happened.