Last October I was, by chance, at a dinner reception in Brno, Czech Republic with Ralf Wendt and Michael Nicolai of Radio Corax, a free radio station in Halle, Germany. We were there for a CMFE (Community Media Forum of Europe) conference and it did not take me long to realize that my dinner companions were among the pioneering community media practitioners in Germany.

This year in May, on the invitation of Radio Corax, I spent 10 days traveling in Germany, gaining some understanding of the community (‘free’) radio movement in the country. The most significant aspect of the media system in Germany that strikes you is that each of the 16 states in Germany has its own media law that governs broadcasting, unlike in India where broadcast laws are under central jurisdiction. This is something to do with post-war Germany’s abhorrence of centralized power and, consequently, the creation of a strong federal structure.

Broadly, there are two types of community radio in Germany – one called ‘open channels’ and the other, ‘free radio’. Started in the mid-1980s, these open channels were set up on the principle of public access, by making available broadcasting infrastructure to ordinary people to make programmes and to promote dialogue among local communities. These are non commercial and staffed by amateur producers but function sustainability with the patronage of the state. There are about 80 radio and TV open channels across Germany, many of which fall short of the standards of community radio espoused by international groups such as AMARC. In fact, as one German scholar put it rather caustically, many of these stations serve as a ‘fig leaf for privatized broadcasting’.

The free radios, on the other hand, embedded within the ambit of noncommercial local radio broadcasting, are independent community radio stations. The history of the German free radio movement could be traced to the 1970s in West Germany and to the 1990s in East Germany after reunification. With its roots in workers’ movements and the new social movements of the 1960s, this was also inspired by radio libres (originally, a synonym for pirate radio) in France and Italy.

The free radio movement that seemed to have become dormant in the 1980s, with the indifference of the state and the emergence of commercial broadcasting, had a revival in the 1990s. Activists in the West as well as those in the East (in the aftermath of the upheaval in 1989) started advocating the cause of non-commercial, democratic radio stations that would provide the space for critical discussions on contemporary social conditions, especially for those whose voices were marginalized by the mainstream media. Espousing progressive social and political causes, many of these stations that have been set up in the last 15-20 years are run by committed people who have cut their teeth on environmental, anti-nuclear, antiracist, women’s and immigrant rights movements.

The Bundesverband Freier Radios (BFR, the Federal Association of Free Radios) mainly consists of free radio stations, who have carved out an independent space in the German mediascape. Collective production and management, critical engagement with issues of public concern, noncommercial orientation, and financing through membership fees and donations (supplemented by state and federal grants) characterize these stations. Even with some degree of variation, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the democratic vision for radio that German intellectuals such as Brecht and Benjamin had articulated is finding its true realization in these free radio stations. There are, of course, many forces that are compelling free radios to lose some of their radical edge and adopt mainstream media practices, but most stations that are licensed under this category must be commended for making a different, more emancipatory form of radio broadcasting possible.

To be continued in the next issue…

Vinod Pavarala