It was on the invitation of Radio Corax that I went to Germany in May this year to get a first-hand understanding of the free radio scenario in the country. Ralf Wendt and Michael Nicolai of Radio Corax spent a lot of their time to educate me about the general situation in Germany and to shepherd me around some of the significant stations in different parts of the country.
Radio Corax, located in Halle (birth place of the great composer, George Frideric Handel) in the state of Saxony-Anhalt was set up in 2000 after the organization successfully lobbied for more than five years for a change in media laws to enable community radio. The state in the former East Germany which boasts of more liberal media laws than many other states has only two free radio stations, down from the four that were originally licensed. It has a staff of five, all of whom work half time. Many of the founders came from working class and anti-fascist backgrounds and their approach to issues and programmes reflect this ideology. Michael Nicolai, during a lovely walk along the river Saale, talked about a programme Corax did on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of German Reunification when the station asked people, old enough to remember, to recall life in the former GDR. The recorded narratives became a critical contribution to regaining a more balanced sense of history, away from the one-sided, gloomy portrayal of the East by the West. The station has a number of volunteers, many of who come from universities and colleges as interns. The station has about 300 registered members, with the employed paying about €60 and others about €30 annually, in return for which they get the privilege of producing programmes. The station broadcasts content in about 12 languages, including those spoken by immigrant communities such as the Vietnamese or the Kurdish. They broadcast 24 hours a day, about half of which is live programming. In addition to the membership fee and donations, Corax receives about €150,000 a year from the Media Authority of Saxony-Anhalt. Corax is one of the important community radio stations in Germany, playing an active role not only in the BFR nationally, but also in international bodies such as AMARC and CMFE.
Nuremberg in the southeastern state of Bavaria is a city known to outsiders like us mostly for Hitler’s infamous rallies and the Nuremberg trials of leaders of the Third Reich. The city, however, has a strong industrial core and is culturally vibrant, with some interesting connections to the country’s print history. Nuremberg is home to some delicious ginger bread and Radio Z, the second oldest community radio station in Germany. Radio Z has been on air since 1987, soon after commercial private broadcasting was permitted by change of law. There is still no separate community radio policy in the State, something for which Radio Z and others are lobbying with the State Parliament. Over cups of hot coffee, Managing Director, Syl Glawion described the status of the organization as gemeinnützig (for public welfare, not-for-profit), a status which allows it to earn a hefty subsidy from the Government on its annual license fee. When I explained to Syl that in India we have a single broadcasting law for the whole country, she said wistfully that a federal law would have helped them because “our Bavarian politicians, mostly Christian Democrats, are very conservative.” Radio Z is at the centre of a lot of civil society movements and over the years earned many prizes, in spite of the local politicians’ deep suspicion about their liberal politics and progressive social ideology. The station evolved slowly from broadcasting for three hours a day to eight hours, and now 12 hours a day, much of which is live programming. The station is proud to have about 1300 members paying about €70 a year and they all have an equal voice in determining the station’s policies. Asked about the nature of content, Syl simply said, “politics and culture.” While at the station, I was interviewed on air by two of their young volunteers on the status of community radio in India and my impressions of the scene in Germany. On my way out into the rainy afternoon, I noticed a transmitter for digital broadcasting. Apparently, the station has been given a 24-hour channel on DAB+ as part of the ongoing testing of the system in Germany. Its 12-hour broadcast is played twice on a loop every day on the digital system. Although everyone I met in Germany is very skeptical still about community radio going digital, for now they are willing to try.
Erfurt, about 125 km southeast of Halle, is the capital city of Thuringia. The towering Erfurt Cathedral and the 700-year old University of Erfurt that boasts of Martin Luther and the sociologist Max Weber among its illustrious alumni are prominent institutions of the city. The FREI (Freier Rundfunk Erfurt International, the Free Radio) of Erfurt has a history that dates back to the time the Wall came down, reflecting young people’s desire for free speech in unified Germany. We were hopelessly late arriving at the station, but Carsten Rose and his enthusiastic young staff members were waiting patiently. A surprise presence was that of Jochen Fasco, the Director of the Thuringia Media Authority, who stayed for an hour, was at pains to explain that the state does not discriminate between open channels and free radios, even as he seemed to suggest that there is a greater need for the latter to ‘prove their success’. After Mr. Fasco left, the atmosphere inside the station eased considerably as they gave me a tour of their impressively spacious premises, with even an old elevator taking you up to their meeting rooms and workshop spaces. Beginning as a pirate station, FREI waged a 10-year long struggle to change the media laws to allow community radio. One of the conditions of the license is that there is at least 20% of information content on free radios. Broadcasting for about five hours daily, the station recently did an audience survey that helped them arrive at an estimated hourly audience of 5000. With strong links with various social movements, the station functions as a community space for music concerts, poetry readings, and civic discussions. Last year on May Day, the station campaigned hard and managed to stop a proposed racist, anti-immigration rally in Erfurt. The station functions with a small staff and about 100 volunteers. Project funding and membership fees help sustain the station, while some support for staff salaries comes from the media authority of the state.
A short drive from Erfurt took us to Weimar, the heart of the German Enlightenment and home to Goethe and Schiller. It was here that after the First World War, Germany’s first democratic constitution was signed and gave its name to what came to be known as the Weimar Republic. We scurried across Goetheplatz, the centre of Classical Weimar, in pouring rain and arrived unannounced at Radio Lotte, one of the oldest free radio stations in the country. The solitary staffer who let us in explained that the station, reflecting the literary ethos of the city and the history of Bauhaus design movement, focuses on art and culture. But it has not stopped the station from highlighting civic issues and other key political matters concerning the region and the country as a whole. For instance, one show, “Who Owns the City?” broadcast recently deliberated on how Weimar’s rapid transformation, especially with tourist traffic, has impacted the living conditions of the city’s residents, including the availability of affordable housing. At last year’s sensational fascist terror trial in Munich, Radio Lotte was the lone free radio station to get a seat (through a lottery) amidst a global media contingent. Other free radio stations used Lotte’s feed on their own broadcasts. Right now, the station shares its frequency with an open channel, but with some changes made this month in the media policy in Thuringia, it’s likely that in 2015, there could be a 24-hour non-commercial local radio station in Weimar, with more assured state funding.
On the last leg of this whirlwind trip, my hosts drove me north on the autobahn to Hamburg, the second largest city in Germany, with a population of more than 2 million, with nearly a third of them being migrants. Because of an accident on the highway, unlike the speeds associated with the German motorways, we crawled our way to the city, arriving quite late at FSK (Freies Sender Kombinat), a free radio station that has been in existence since 1996. With a clear leftist ideology, the station has been in the forefront of many social and political issues concerning the poor, the immigrants and refugees in the city. As far back as 2003, the station was raided by a posse of 200 police personnel, apparently, looking for a broadcast recording of an interview with a police spokesperson. It led to protests both by the station and its supporters as an assault on press freedom and as a tactic of intimidation. In fact, with the three-month archiving rule under the media law (as in India), the station could have handed over the tapes if a request came through the regular channel. With the right-wing political alliance in power in the city-state, the station has been put under the scanner constantly, but it has been relentless in its pursuit of causes of the marginalized and in its critique of right-wing policies. Two years ago when a Hamburg court was trying 10 Somalis on piracy charges, the station opened its doors to Somali refugee families to come and share their problems on air. A dedicated membership of about 800 provides financial support to the station, with about 300 volunteers involved in programming. As I was reading a longish Judith Butler quote scrawled on one of its walls, one of the station personnel commented, “We are more a think-tank than a radio station.” The Collective (kombinat) that manages the station is quite clear that they work with social movements, yet be critical of them when necessary.
My visits to the radio stations and my discussions with members of the BFR, the association of free radios, led me to believe that community radio stations in Germany emerged out of a different historical context, and, therefore, display a heightened political consciousness and an intense sense of their social purpose. They are waging their own battles at the local and regional levels, often in isolation from one another because of the fragmented nature of media policy. Some of the movement insiders are worried that the increase in state funding and the institutionalization of non-commercial radio in Germany might lead to the taming of free radio, ultimately losing its radical political edge. But, for now, the commitment and dedication with which hundreds of young volunteers across the country are giving their time to build an alternative, democratic media culture is certainly heart-warming.
(Note: Part I of this story, “Free Radios in Germany Lend a Radical Edge”, can be found here.)