Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Interview with René Wolf

René Wolf teaches Modern European History at Royal Holloway University of London and runs the academic podcasting service backdoorbroadcasting.net; in May 2010 Palgrave Macmillan published his book "The Undivided Sky. The Holocaust on East and West German Radio in the 1960s"

I had the chance to interview him.

1) When and where were you born?

I was born in 1958 in Kobe, Japan of German parents. My parents moved out there in 1950 to work for a German multinational. I lived in Tokyo up to 1970, when we returned to Germany. I left Germany in 1976 with no formal qualifications and came to London.

2) What had you been doing, before working in the university?

I had a variety of jobs, from window cleaner, dishwasher, picture-framer, waiter, barman, actor, theatre director until in 1982 I became involved in running a Jazz club in London, which I did for the next 10 years. Due to ill health I had to stop my night-time life and started to study, first A-levels, then a History degree, then a Masters, and finally a PhD, which I completed in 2006.

3) How and when did you discover your interest in the radio?

When I was about 8 years old my father gave me a transistor radio - a little Sony one. I kept it under my pillow and listened to it at night - to pop music of the time (1960s) with DJs like Wolfman Jack and Casey Kasem on the American Forces Network (AFN) and a variety of Japanese stations. Later I aquired a shortwave radio and listened to broadcasts from all over the world - I must have been 10 or 12 at the time. This continued - I still listen to some shortwave today - although it's easier today with internet radio.
The book (which was my PhD thesis) came out of that interest, and initially I wanted to just write about the radio's ability to transcend space (esp the Berlin Wall), but what I found in the archives really dictated the content - the Auschwitz Trials and Germany's past.

4) Do you think that the radio was important in building a "new identity" in West and East Germany after the World War II?

Radio was certainly very instrumental in establishing a new German identity. The most important phase for this, I think, were the early years immediately after the war, when radio was in the hands of the Allies. Initially it was the Soviet radio which had the 'friendly' approach, wheras the Western Allies were more interested in using the medium for de-nazification and broadcasts from the Nuremberg Trials. This soon changed and the ideological battle-lines were drawn. But it is important to note that East German radio was not just Marxist-Leninist propaganda. Especially in the late 1950s and early 1960s the GDR radio output was very impressive, which was not always the case with all the regional broadcasters in the West. But the focus of my study lies more with some of the (mostly left-leaning) radio journalists of the West, who were extremely important in forging a new German identity.

5)What was the treatment for Germany during the Copenaghen Plan of 1948?

The 1948 Copenhagen Radio Frequency Plan allocated two AM wavelengths to Germany as radio, and expecially medium wave, was considered a powerful media tool in the eyes of the Allies. In reality this was far more complex and the shortage of AM stations did not make the slightest bit of difference. Most stations were available either on the LW or SW bands and many people still had old crystal sets. The old 'Volksempfänger' were all tri-band (LW, MW, SW) and in the same year as the Copenhagen Plan, 1948, Telefunken AG was already producing radio sets with VHF (FM) as standard. The switchover the more localised FM transmission happened throughout the 1950s, in East and West, although the GDR did not (along with many other nations) adhere the the Copenhagen Plan. Frequency allocations, along with 'Jamming' are two of the great myths of post-war radio history, hyped up in the frenzy of the Cold War. In reality radio broadcasts were diverse and lively, and above all, everywhere.

6) What happened to the East German Radio right after the re-unification?

East German Radio was already quite diverse and localised at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The two main stations, DDR1 and DDR2, as well as the station aimed at West Germany, Stimme der DDR, the station for Berlin, Berliner Runfunk and the Youth Radio Station DT64 were all integrated into more localised radio stations in the five new Bundesländer. These very much followed the Western model of main broadcast studios in the state capital, and smaller ones in the regions. At present, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern is covered by the (Hamburg-based) NDR, Thüringen, Sachsen and Sachsen-Anhalt are integrated into the MDR, and Berlin and Brandenburg are covered by the BBR. There are a few exeptions to the complete integration of East German radio into the West German media, most notably 'Deutschlandradio' which is really the continuation of the old 'Deutschlandsender' and can trace its history back to 1926. This international broadcaster has a very high quality output and rivals, if not surpasses, Germany's other international radio broadcaster, Deutsche Welle.
What of course is so interesting now is that all these are available on the internet, digital, live and not live, which of course makes a mockery of the 1975 Geneva Frequency Plan.

7) How did GDR radio describe the events of 1989?

On the whole the East German media reported what was going on, as 'Peristroika' had also somewhat taken hold in the GDR. There was an uneasy undertone, and a lot of confusion in the reporting on 9 November 1989. The radio output managed to create a clearer analysis by the evening of that day, but the the day was really a 'television event', from that fateful utterance about new East-West travel regulations by Günter Schabowski a press conference to the opening of the check-points and the mass of East Germans flooding into the West.
Much more interesting is the archive material of the reporting on the Leipzig demonstrations, which started about a year earlier. There you have initially a very hard-line coming from the SED, and then factual reporting of 'disturbances' more like reporting about rowdy football fans.
The German Radio Archive (DRA) in Berlin-Babelsberg is a goldmine of material, most of it not digitized yet, and I fear that lots of the very old magnetic tape will not survive.

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