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At last a US history survey that really gets radio

Sun, 09/15/2019 - 14:47

All general surveys of the history of the United States of America mention radio to some extent. Invariably Pittsburgh station KDKA’s pioneering coverage of the presidential election of 1920 receives a context-free mention, followed by a rundown of notable ‘golden age of radio’ shows. With that, the author(s) typically put the medium to bed until several chapters later, when the obligatory discussion about television ensues. I expected more or less the same from Jill Lepore’s noted overview These Truths: A History of the United States. Instead I found a deep discussion about the subject that every media history lover should read.

Chapter eleven of These Truths is titled “A Constitution of the Air,” and begins with a profile of the founder of broadcast regulation: Herbert Hoover. “Nothing so well illustrated [Hoover’s] idea of a government-business partnership as radio,” Lepore writes, “an experimental technology in which Hoover, a consummate engineer, invested the hope of American democracy.” As secretary of commerce Hoover rounded up all the major players in radio for a series of conferences because he understood that broadcasting would make governing “an intimate affair.” Soon politicians would be able to reach into the homes of millions of Americans without bothering to visit them. Broadcasting, Hoover fervently believed, would turn the country into “literally one people.”

Lepore situates broadcast radio at the center of the enormous optimism of the 1920s. “We shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from the earth,” Hoover declared as he ran for president in 1928. He was on hand on October 21, 1928 to celebrate the fiftieth birthday of Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb. But as the festivities went on, “news came by radio that shares on the New York Stock Exchange had begun to fall,” Lepore writes. “It was as if a light, too brightly lit, had shattered.”

The rest of the chapter beautifully narrates the Great Depression and New Deal years, constantly identifying radio as a witness to and participant in the era. Hoover’s irony was that while he understood the importance of AM broadcasting, he did not know how to use it. As the economy collapsed, he read scripts over the airwaves in a “dreadful monotone.” Intended to reassure Americans, they conveyed the opposite. It fell to his successor, Franklin Roosevelt, whose bout with polio had taught him the meaning of suffering, to effectively embrace the medium. “His acquaintance with anguish changed his voice:” Lepore explains, “it made it warmer.”

Again and again, Lepore brings us back to broadcast radio and its partnership with globe changing events: Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels launching a massive manufacturing of radio sets to reach every German home. “Mind-bombing,” Goebbels called his campaign. Fire breathing populists like Father Charles Coughlin and Louisiana Senator Huey Long selling their anti-semitism and economic cure-all plans over the airwaves. In response, NBC launched America’s Town Hall Meeting of The Air, which sponsored debates and aimed to “break radio listeners out of their political bubbles,” in Lepore’s words. Across the nation more than 1,000 debating clubs staged their own mini-versions of Town Hall’s discussion of the week. All this faded away as the next world war loomed, its coming foretold over shortwave radio by CBS correspondent H.V. Kaltenborn, he narrating the Munich Crisis of 1938. Meanwhile Czechoslovakia radio broadcasters battled Nazi propaganda. “Once again tonight we must perform the distasteful task of refuting invented reports broadcast by the German wireless station,” one news anchor declared.

I wish that ‘Constitution of the Air’ had not concluded with a conventional account of Orson Welles’ famous broadcast of The War of the Worlds. I am convinced by scholars Jefferson Pooley and Michael J. Socolow that the “panic” over the broadcast is largely mythological, exaggerated by newspapers anxious to convince advertisers that radio could not be trusted. Still, I was moved by Lepore’s final passage, describing Kristallnacht, the Nazi assault on Germany and Austria’s Jewish population:

” . . . ‘This is not a Jewish crisis,’ wrote Dorothy Thompson. ‘It is a human crisis.’ It was as if the sky itself had shattered.

From the White House, [President Franklin] Roosevelt said he ‘could scarcely believe that such things could occur in a twentieth-century civilization.’ It was indeed difficult to believe. But a war of the worlds had begun.”

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College Radio Watch: San Diego Tours and More News

Fri, 09/13/2019 - 08:10

While in San Diego for a conference this summer, I visited a handful of college radio stations. My tour reports launched this week with a visit to Griffin Radio at Grossmont College. Stay tuned for more and peruse our archive of 159 station tours and counting.

In other news, College Radio Day is coming up in just a few weeks on October 4. Does your station have big plans?

More College Radio News Station Profiles Infrastructure Events Awards and Accolades Alumni

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Podcast #210 – Youth Radio by the Beach

Tue, 09/10/2019 - 19:15


RadiOpio Program Director Laura Civitello has the enviable job of running a youth radio station on the Hawaiian Island of Maui. From an upstairs perch at the beach side Pa’ ia Youth and Cultural Center, Civitello manages KOPO-LP, whose on-air hosts range in age from 9 to 19 years old. On this week’s show, Civitello tells the story of how RadiOpio came to be and talks about the unique role that this LPFM station is playing for young people in the town of Pa’ia.

Show Notes


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Radio Station Visit #159: Griffin Radio at Grossmont College

Tue, 09/10/2019 - 11:01

Just east of San Diego, California in El Cajon is Grossmont College, home to online college radio station Griffin Radio. An extension of the community college’s Media Communications program, Griffin Radio is a “practical applications laboratory,” providing students with experience running and operating a radio station.

Griffin Radio studio. Photo: J. Waits

Griffin Radio is the descendant of AM carrier current station KGCR, which dates back to at least the 1970s. A 1986 piece in the Los Angeles Times explains the state of the station at the time, although misstates the station’s lengthier history:

Grossmont College’s tiny KGCR, which went on air 18 months ago and now broadcasts Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., has three formats. The first hour is devoted to jazz; 9 a.m. to noon is alternative music, and noon to 7 p.m. is Top 40.”

Call letters were eventually changed to KGFN, with the station ultimately getting renamed Griffin Radio after it dispensed with its carrier current broadcast. At the station since 1997, General Manager/Faculty Advisor Evan Wirig told me that the station’s AM carrier current transmissions inexplicably only went to the library. He remarked that the rationale behind transmitting radio in a quiet library space never made sense to him, although the speakers under the bookstore were appreciated.

Retro signage on Grossmont College building. Photo: J. Waits/Radio Survivor

He ended the carrier current broadcasts around 2000 and joked that prior to that one could apparently hear the AM broadcasts under Grossmont College’s old lamp posts. Things have changed quite a bit since then and the campus continues to evolve, made apparent to me after I navigated through a labyrinth of construction adjacent to the Digital Arts building where the station is housed.

Sign at Grossmont College pointing to Media Communications building during construction. Photo: J. Waits/Radio Survivor

A long-time radio fan and media industry veteran (he met his wife while doing college radio), Wirig seems to relish his current role as mentor and teacher. Like a proud parent, he enthusiastically shared anecdotes about students and alumni from the program, marveling at their achievements. Many have gone on to radio and media industry jobs and students regularly win broadcasting awards from various organizations.

Plaque at Griffin Radio celebrating student award winners under Dr. Evan Wirig. Photo: J. Waits/Radio Survivor

Like most college radio stations, Griffin Radio has student leaders, regular air shifts, and many off-air projects, from promotional activities to production work. Live programs typically air between 8am and 3pm on school days. During my summertime visit students were not around, although the station runs on automation. Down the hall from the Griffin Radio studio, a journalism “Bootcamp” was underway, with students from various colleges getting a week-long crash course in hands-on journalism. Topics and projects included editing, podcasting, news reading, and radio news.

Poster advertising Journalism/Broadcast Bootcamp at Grossmont College. Photo: J. Waits/Radio Survivor

Although separate from the academic year’s radio program, there’s certainly overlap between the boot camp and the three semester long radio series. Those wishing to participate in Griffin Radio must first take a class in basic audio production or basic announcing. Advanced students have the opportunity to take on major leadership roles at the station, including Station Director, Program Director and News Director. While those positions are hired by Wirig; the student leaders are tasked with interviewing and hiring candidates for additional roles, including Production Manager, Music Director, and so on.

Director bins at Griffin Radio. Photo: J. Waits/Radio Survivor

For the most part students are selecting the music that airs on Griffin Radio, which coalesces around a format that Wirig dubs “college top 40.” Encompassing a wide array of genres, the sounds include oldies, new age, rap, hip hop, independent music, country western, Broadway tunes, 80s new wave, progressive, metal, alternative and even holiday music. He added that it’s a “good, eclectic mix” that focuses mainly on the “college audience.” Although they are free from FCC rules as an internet station, Griffin Radio still eschews profanity-laden tracks and avoids material “promoting a hostile environment,” as Wirig relayed.

Computer monitor at Griffin Radio showing tracks playing. Photo: J. Waits/Radio Survivor

Wirig has high standards, telling me, “I expect a degree of professionalism.” Students can only play music housed in Griffin Radio’s digital library and when there isn’t a live show, automation kicks in. Occasionally bands play in the spacious station space or on its adjacent balcony. Additionally, Griffin Radio regularly does remote broadcasts from campus events, including career fairs and transfer days.

Stack of CDs at Griffin Radio. Photo: J. Waits/Radio Survivor

As he’s preparing students for real world, industry jobs, Wirig explained that for him, “hands on” learning is critical. “You just can’t learn outside of doing it,” he remarked. While students are gaining exposure to industry standards, like music rotation, they are also given the opportunity to do specialty shows and podcasts (recent ones have dug into musicals, urban legends, and the urban dictionary). Some students have done shows in their native languages, including Latinx Fest (in Spanish) and a techno show in Japanese; both shows drew audiences from afar, including Japan and just across the border in Mexico. One long-time regular Griffin Radio listener even sends DJs pizza when he is impressed by what they are doing on-air.

Audio equipment at Griffin Radio. Photo: J. Waits/Radio Survivor

As we wrapped up my tour, Wirig waxed philosophical about journalism and media, remarking that the program continues to reinvent itself and that media is “very resilient.” Pointing out that, “leadership never changes” and that “good audio will always be good audio,” Wirig clearly relishes watching his students grow and succeed. “I will never give up on anybody who keeps trying,” he opined.

Event binder at Griffin Radio. Photo: J. Waits/Radio Survivor

Thanks to Evan Wirig for the wonderful visit to Griffin Radio. This is my 159th radio station tour report and my 104th college radio station tour. Read all of my radio station visits in numerical order or by station type in our archives. Also, you can hear some tidbits about my San Diego-area college radio travels on Radio Survivor Podcast #202.

The post Radio Station Visit #159: Griffin Radio at Grossmont College appeared first on Radio Survivor.

College Radio Watch: Princeton Review and More News

Fri, 09/06/2019 - 08:45

After a bit of a summer vacation, we are back with some college radio news. Earlier this week, I shared Princeton Review’s new “Best College Radio Station” list, a ranking of 20 schools based on student surveys asking about the popularity of their school radio stations. On the list are some old favorites as well as a few newbies.

We’ve also been busy covering the culture of college radio throughout the summer. I hope you caught my colleague Eric Klein’s interview on Radio Survivor Podcast #207 with Nathan Moore, who heads up college radio stations WTJU and WXTJ at University of Virginia.

In upcoming months, I will also be sharing write-ups from my summer college radio station travels.

More College Radio News Infrastructure, Expansions, New Stations Disasters
Events Profiles of Stations, Staff, Programs Awards and Accolades Music Culture Alumni College Radio History Popular Culture

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Podcast #209 – Audio Fiction’s very long history of innovation

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 18:53

From the “Classical Radio Era” to today’s hottest podcasts, we’re here for the love of radio drama and fictional sound-art. Our guest is Neil Verma, author of a book and teacher of classes on the subject, although as he tells us on today’s episode, the class became a lot more popular with students after he changed the name from “Radio Drama” to “Audio Drama.”

Today’s episode is a rebroadcast of one of our favorites from this year. It originally aired 1/15/2019 as episode #178

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Help us sustain and grow this show by contributing as little as $1 every month. With four episodes every month, that’s just 25 cents for each one.

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Show Notes:

Theater of the Mind – Imagination, Aesthetics, and American Radio Drama

Neil Verma essay on The Shadows

Some audio drama recommendations from this episode

The Classical Radio work of Norman Corwin

J.G Ballard’s Radio Plays on the BBC

The Shadows

Wolverine: The Long Night

The Truth

Homecoming

Classic Radio’s The Shadow

Nightvale and affiliated programs

Pacific Northwest Stories

Ars Paradoxica

Limetown

Deathscribe

Jennifer Waits’ article on Unshackled

Matthew Lasar writes about and speaks on the podcast about Mae West

The post Podcast #209 – Audio Fiction’s very long history of innovation appeared first on Radio Survivor.

Princeton Review’s 2020 “Best College Radio Stations” List

Tue, 09/03/2019 - 14:25

In early August, Princeton Review released the latest edition of its annual college rankings guide, The Best 385 Colleges: 2020 Edition. While the lists it compiles of the best party schools and the most beautiful campuses may garner the most headlines; its annual “Best College Radio Station” list has been drawing me in for years. Since 2008, I’ve been combing through these rankings, which are often a source of pride for college radio stations.

The 20 colleges on this year’s list are once again an interesting mix of schools, from large universities with multiple radio stations to tiny liberal arts colleges with online-only stations, and even a school with a fairly new low power FM station. Many of these stations are new to me and I was also intrigued to see a school from outside the United States for the first time in all the years that I’ve been reporting on the rankings. As I’ve noticed before, the northeast is over-represented and the west coast is under-represented. Of note, no schools from California are on the 2020 list, while seven schools from New York made the cut.

Best = Popular

As a reminder, although the Princeton Review describes its college radio results as “Best College Radio Station,” the title doesn’t tell the whole story. Here’s the skinny:

1. Results are based on student surveys

2. Surveys were conducted at 385 colleges

3. Students are asked to judge the popularity, not the quality, of an unspecified campus radio station at their own college

4. Radio stations are not named in the survey or in the resulting rankings

5. Only schools surveyed can make it into the rankings, so college radio stations at schools that are not surveyed by Princeton Review won’t appear on the list

A number of colleges appearing on the “Best College Radio Station” list have multiple radio stations, including student-run stations, large public radio stations, and everything in between. It makes sense that students would indicate that their school’s radio station is “popular” if they are on a campus with a high profile professional radio station and/or with several radio stations.

Digging into Methodology

As was the case for the 2019 edition, the 2020 college radio results are based on three years worth of survey data. Around 140,000 students were surveyed at 385 colleges, representing approximately 364 students per campus. Survey results for this edition are culled from responses given during the 2018-2019, 2017-18, and 2016-17 academic years. The survey asks: “How much do you agree or disagree with the following statements at your school?” and among the list of statements is: “College Radio Station is popular.” Respondents are given the following options: Strongly Disagree, Disagree, Neither Agree or Disagree, Agree or Strongly Agree.

How Similar is this Year’s List to Prior Lists?

For the 2020 Princeton Review list of “Best College Radio Stations,” 12 of the 20 schools were on the 2019 list. Of the eight that were not on the 2019 list, four have appeared before. The other four schools (University of South Florida, McGill University, Louisiana State University, and Drury University) have not shown up in the 13 years that I’ve been tracking. This year’s mix of stations is less familiar to me. Whereas last year I’d visited college radio stations at 8 of the 20 schools on the overall list; I’ve only been to 4 of the 20 stations on the 2020 list. This is also the first time that I’ve seen a school from Canada on the list (McGill University).

The complete list for the 2020 edition is listed below (for comparison, here are the lists from the 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009 and 2008 editions of Princeton Review).

2020 Princeton Review’s Best College Radio Stations (aka Most Popular College Radio Stations)

Note: I’ve added station names and call signs as the Princeton Review only lists school names. Schools in bold were not on the list last year.

1. Emerson College (WERS 88.9FM and WECB, Boston, MA)

2. St. Bonaventure University (WSBU-88.3 FM, St. Bonaventure, NY)

3. University of South Florida (WUSF 89.7 FM and Bulls Radio online/89.7 HD3/on campus 1620AM, Tampa, FL)

4. Arizona State University (KASC 1330 AM, Tempe, AZ)

5. Manhattanville College (WMVL, Purchase, NY)

6. Syracuse University (WAER 88.3 FM, WERW, WJPZ 89.1 FM, Syracuse, NY)

7. Ithaca College (WICB 91.7 FM and VIC Radio, Ithaca, New York)

8. Reed College (KRRC, Portland, OR)

9. McGill University (CKUT 90.3 FM, Montreal, Canada)

10. Washington State University (KZUU 90.7 FM, KUGR and Northwest Public Radio, Pullman, WA) – Most recently appeared on 2018 list

11. Louisiana State University (KLSU 91.1 FM, Baton Rouge, LA)

12. Providence College (WDOM 91.3 FM, Providence, RI)

13. Columbia University (WKCR 89.9 FM, New York, NY)

14. Hofstra University (WRHU 88.7 FM, Hempstead, New York)

15. University of Puget Sound (KUPS 90.1 FM, Tacoma, Washington)
Most recently appeared on 2018 list

16. Seton Hall University (WSOU 89.5 FM, South Orange, NJ) – Most recently appeared on 2014 list

17. Denison University (WDUB 91.1 FM, Granville, OH) – Most recently appeared on 2018 list

18. Truman State University (KTRM 88.7 FM, Kirksville, MO)

19. Fordham University (WFUV 90.7 FM, Bronx, NY)

20. Drury University (KDRU-LP 98.1 FM, Springfield, MO)

Learn More about College Radio

If this is your first time on Radio Survivor, please take a look at our massive archive of college radio content. We cover college radio news on Fridays in the College Radio Watch column, report on college radio culture on our weekly radio show/podcast, tour college radio stations regularly, and have a page devoted to college radio basics.

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Switzerland To End FM Broadcasts in 2024

Mon, 09/02/2019 - 16:55

Radio World reports that Switzerland’s FM radio broadcasts are due to end by the end of 2024, according to a release from the country’s Federal Office of Communications. OFCOM says at the end of July only 17% of people in that country listen to FM exclusively.

I am a bit chagrined that this story flew under my radar until now. Back in December 2014 the Digital Migration working group formulated a plan to switch entirely over to digital DAB+ broadcasting, and in 2015 “more than 80 percent of private radio stations agreed to this decision,” according to OFCOM. So this has been in the works for several years.

DAB+ is a digital radio standard used through much of Europe, including the U.K. and Norway, the latter of which turned off national FM broadcasts in 2017 – many local FM stations are still on the air. OFCOM reports that 65% of Swiss listen to the service, while only 35% use analog FM.

In addition to commercial and state-supported public broadcasters, Switzerland has about 15 community radio stations. According to a 2018 article in Swiss Review, OFCOM will subsidize 80% of DAB+ broadcast costs for non-commercial stations, and is offering financial support for the installation of digital studios. Presumably, community stations would qualify for these grants. Searching around some stations’ websites indicates that quite a few already simulcast on DAB+.

Subsidizing a station’s DAB+ transmission is not quite the same as building it a brand new transmitter, as it would be with FM or HD Radio. A single DAB+ transmitter can accommodate multiple stations’ signals as a multiplex. Thus, in most countries with DAB+, like the U.K., Norway and Switzerland, each station actually leases space, rather than owning its own transmitter. In that way DAB+ is more efficient than FM.

One trade-off of DAB+ is that a centralized infrastructure makes the system inherently more vulnerable in times of natural disaster, or just run-of-the-mill calamity, like a power outage. It also leaves stations less independent. In Switzerland the DAB+ infrastructure is owned and operated by the for-profit company Digris.

While Digris is investing to grow its infrastructure – like building transmitters in mountainous roadway tunnels – DAB+ listening is still mostly in motor vehicles, rather than homes. This is not unlike HD Radio in the U.S., where it’s difficult to even find a digital-capable home tuner.

What this means is that most home listening in Switzerland may simply move to internet radio in 2024. No doubt it’s likely much home and office listening already is online, and those who want to hear DAB+ outside the car have plenty of receivers to choose from, though reception might be challenging outside of urban areas.

From what I can see now, the path to an FM turnoff in Switzerland seems even clearer than it was in Norway, where public opinion hasn’t been altogether favorable, and many stations remain analog. In part this is likely due to relative consensus amongst Swiss broadcasters in general, not just major national broadcasters. A significant government subsidy, combined with overall strong support for public broadcasting also help.

Because of these factors, magnified by the country’s small geographic size and high per capita income, Switzerland is an outlier – just like Norway before it. Although the idea of a full digital transition has been floated in other European countries that have DAB+ broadcasting, both large and small, it hasn’t gained traction, often owing to the cost and complexity of sunsetting an established, proven and reliable technology that exhibits few downsides. Moreover, it’s easier to transition a relatively affluent population of 8.4 million to digital radio, than the larger, more economically diverse 66 million of the U.K. or 82 million of Germany.

No, this is not a bellwether of analog radio’s demise, nor an indicator of a digital transition here in the U.S. I suspect as 2024 draws closer we may hear more critical voices in Switzerland, when Swiss citizens realize that millions of their radios will become obsolete – at least for listening to radio from their native land.

Folks in Geneva and other cities and towns along the border will still be able to tune in stations from France, Italy, Austria, Germany and Liechtenstein. That’s something less accessible to Norwegians, who are much more geographically distant from other FM broadcasting countries.

In the meantime, keep an enormous grain of salt on hand for when you see the torrent of clickbaity “Is this the end of FM radio” stories, if and when this news hits the feed of a tech writer on a quota.

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Explore Fascinating Radio Archives with The Kitchen Sisters’ #KeeperoftheDay

Sat, 08/31/2019 - 18:31

Rosa Parks interviewed on KPFA in 1958. A 1986 recording of Mr. Magic’s Rap Attack on WLBS in New York City. A clip of astronaut Jose Hernandez from the “Historias de Si Se Puede” series.

These are a few of the audio and radio archives recently shared by the Kitchen Sisters as part of their week-long #KeeperoftheDay series highlighting partners of the Radio Preservation Task Force. The week kicked off with a short piece from RPTF chair Josh Shepperd. You can hear Shepperd talk more about the task force on podcast #192, guesting with co-chair Neil Verma.

For those not in the know, the Kitchen Sisters have been carrying the torch for exploratory radio documentary since way before podcasting re-popularized the genre. They’ve also been strong advocates for archiving and preservation of sound history. Their podcast, “The Kitchen Sisters Present…,” highlights “[s]tories from the b-side of history. Lost recordings, hidden worlds, people possessed by a sound, a vision, a mission.” This includes artifacts like the ephemeral sounds of Burning Man and “Stubb’s Blues Cookbook Cassette.”

The Sisters also recently received a GRAMMY Preservation Grant to assist them in preserving and protecting their deep archive of interviews, stories and music.

If you wade into their deep pool of sounds you’ll inevitably take a full dive. The Kitchen Sisters must be on the radar of every radio lover.

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Podcast #208 – Radio and Podcast Pathfinding in San Francisco and Podcast Movement

Wed, 08/28/2019 - 00:01

Jennifer is back from travels, that included Hawaiian community radio, to join Eric and Paul. First up, a question: is “pathfinder” a good replacement for the word “pioneer,” the latter of which has an unfortunate colonial heritage? Listener Pat Flanagan suggested it to us after we asked for input a couple of episodes, so we provisionally adopt it here to talk about people who are finding new paths for our favorite audio media.

Jennifer updates us about a new pathfinding low-power FM station backed by the San Francisco Public Press, and announces that the call for papers is open for the next Radio Preservation Task Force conference in October 2020.

Paul reports back from Podcast Movement, where some 3000 podcasters of many stripes met for 3 days in Orlando, Florida. He remarks on the wide variety of podcast email newsletters he learned about, and the Podcast Brunch Club. We note recent allegations of plagiarism against a popular true crime podcast, using it as a launching point for a discussion about journalism and ethics in community broadcasting and podcasting.

Show Notes:

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Walter Benjamin Radio Diary #3: on puppets and dictators

Tue, 08/27/2019 - 17:01

Walter Benjamin broadcast his third “Youth Hour” radio talk with a lament on the state of puppet show entertainment in that famous city.

“Children who want to go to puppet theater don’t have an easy time of it in Berlin,” Benjamin explained. They’ve got better deals in Munich, Paris, and Rome. But one production company still remained, he noted: Kasper Theater, which had its roots in the 18th century puppet character of that name. Kasper was a priggish smartass and the star of a puppet entertainment genre called Kaspertheater, which audiences regarded as synonymous with puppetry in general.

Kasper the Friendly Hand Puppet;
Florian Prosch i.A. der
Piccolo Puppenspiele für die WP
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]

Before newspapers began publishing comic strips, puppet shows may have been the first entertainment to try to reach both children and adults at the same time. Benjamin reminisced on the Kasper character of the early nineteenth century, who appeared

“not only in plays that were written for him; he also sticks his saucy little nose into all sorts of big, proper theater pieces for adults. He knows he can risk it. In the most terrible tragedies nothing ever happens to him. And when the devil catches up with Faust, he has to let Kasper live, even though he’s no better behaved than his master. He’s just a peculiar chap. Or in his own words: ‘I’ve always been a peculiar fellow. Even as a youngster I always saved my pocket money. And when I had enough, you know what I did with it? I had a tooth pulled’.”

Before going any further with Benjamin’s observations on this subject, I note that KBOO-FM in Portland, Oregon broadcast a fun little puppet theater show for a spell. A 2014 episode featured an interview with a Kasper-like character named “Turner D Century,” candidate for mayor in that city.

“You have some interesting positions that I would like to talk about, ” the host began.

“What are they letting a woman into the radio studio for”? Mr. Century demanded. “This modernization has gone too far.”

Unintimidated, the host pressed on. “Well, Mr. Century, let’s just get into it then. You have a very strong position on the bridges of Portland.”

“We’re going to tear down the bridges once and for all. It was a terrible idea to build them. We’ve wound up connecting the beautiful city with the riff raff, who are free to wander the bridges any time they want and pollute the general environment . . . It’s disgusting, quite frankly.”

“Are you going to ask taxpayer- “

“No, we’re just going to blow them up with dynamite!”

Interestingly, Benjamin managed to sneak some observations about the subject of democracy into his puppet show talk. “A proper puppeteer is a despot,” he explained, “one that makes the Tsar seem like a petty gendarme.” The puppet master writes the shows, does all the art work, dresses up the puppets, and plays all the roles via their own voice. But at the same time, the puppeteer must remain wary of the powers beyond puppet land. “First from the church and [second] the authorities,” Benjamin’s radio essay warned, “because puppets can so easily mock everything without being malicious.”

Benjamin wrapped up his radio essay with summaries of various puppet routines that he found amusing. The last of these was titled “The Discovery of America,” and featured a conversation between Columbus and a “New Worlder.”

“Who goes there?” asks the New Worlder puppet. “What do you want?”

To which the Columbus puppet replies, “I call myself Columbus” and “Simply to discover.”

“And that is how America was discovered,” Benjamin’s description of the exchange summarily ended, “which is now a republic that for a number of reasons I cannot recommend. As soon as this republic gets a king, it will become a monarchy; that’s just the way it is.”

That is how Benjamin concluded his third talk, broadcast on December 7, 1929 in Berlin, less than a year before Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party won a stunning electoral victory in Germany’s Reichstag (Parliament). And this is how I am ending my latest Walter Benjamin diary entry, just days after United States President Donald Trump went on Twitter to order all US companies to stop doing business with the People’s Republic of China.

This is the third entry in my Walter Benjamin Radio Diary series.

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