Working in the Radio Archives
50 years ago, radio was people’s main source of entertainment and information. Tuning in was easier than reading the paper and more common than watching TV. Historians today cannot afford to ignore that fact. But radio archives remain a little known and underused resource. What do they have to offer? Martina, Vincent and Alex, three history students at the University of Augsburg in Germany, have been working in the archive of the Bavarian public service broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk (BR) in the context of a course on the memorialisation and aftermath of the ‘Flight and Expulsion of Germans (1944-1950)‘. I asked them what they have been up to and what they found out:
Gaëlle: Had you ever worked in the archives?
Vincent: I had never worked in an archive before, so to an extent, this was a new experience for me. Of course, I had already worked with several volumes of historical newspapers and magazines, but what I found astonishing was the huge quantity of files that could be relevant and which have to be looked through in the archive in order to be able to make a claim.
Alex: If you only work with published materials, you are dependent on the views of other historians. The sources drawn on or made available are only ever a small sample of existing materials and the selection was most likely made with specific questions in mind. It could be that sources much better suited to answer your own research questions exist. And if you don’t look in the archive, you will never know this. But working in the archives can also be a challenge as you have the ‘raw material’ without the wider context. It raises questions such as ‘How common was this view/narrative/position at the time?’ For this, published works are a necessary, complementary tool.
Martina: I have worked in archives before, but this was my first time working in a corporate archive. This kind of archive is not necessarily open to the public, but mainly used by the staff – in this case, by in-house journalists who need an easily searchable database of media, text and past broadcasts. Opening the BR radio archives for contemporary historians is still an ongoing process. At the moment, the archivists still perform the search for materials on your behalf; as an external user, you cannot search all the materials yourself. We were lucky, as a group from the university, to be able to use them and discover the different sub-archives (historical; sound; administrative…) from the inside as well. To me, it felt a bit like being a pioneer.
Gaëlle: What can one expect to find in radio archives?
Alex: If you imagine that working in the radio archives means sitting in front of an antique radio transmitter while wearing big headphones, then you’re almost right. The ‘acoustic research’ – not with an old radio, of course, but with a modern player, digital files and the help of a search engine – is an important part of working in a radio archive. But written sources constitute, as in most archives, a large portion of the material as well.
Vincent: Depending on how much has been preserved, nearly everything that has to do with radio shows, before and after their broadcasting, can be found: the CVs of contributors and persons of public interest, broadcasting manuscripts, research materials but also recordings of the broadcasts, protocols, bequests of authors, listener correspondence, etc.
If they are available, it is obviously better to work with the original recordings rather than the written manuscripts. This makes it possible to hear the emotions in the voice. One gets a better sense of the person talking or the music being played. In the best of cases, both types of media – the recording and the manuscript – have survived which makes a direct comparison of the script and the audio feasible.
Martina: Unfortunately, that is not always the case. In the early postwar period, tapes may have been recorded over several times for economic reasons. Plus, until the 1970s, many broadcasters were not aware of the importance of archiving the material. You can imagine how much material this was, with radio programmes being aired several hours a day, every day. The fact is that for a long time radio was regarded as live media that did not require documenting.
Gaëlle: Why are the BR archives important for the topic of ‘Flight and Expulsion’?
Martina: Ethnic Germans and German citizens who were expelled or lost their homelands in Central and Eastern Europe during and after World War II represented around 20% of the Bavarian population in the early 1950s. In the postwar period, therefore, their situation as newcomers in West Germany and the topic of the ‘Lost German Territories’ was a key concern for radio listeners. But broadcasting on this was also a sensitive issue. Those in charge of the media wanted to demonstrate their democratic credentials and avoid appearing to be questioning the Potsdam Agreement. At the same time, however, they wanted to support the social integration of these people by acknowledging their background and culture. This ambivalent position makes the radio in this period and with respect to this topic an exciting media for analysis.
Gaëlle: What do you think you will write about in your essay? Which sources will you use?
Martina: Beginning in the late 1940s, several radio stations started broadcasting programmes specifically aimed at refugees and expellees. The programme coordinator at the Bayerischer Rundfunk, Herbert Hupka, was an expellee himself. He clearly had an agenda. I am interested in the programmes he initiated and the political dimension of those programmes in particular. At first sight, these may not seem to be political at all. However, one can ask whether playing the church bells from the lost homeland on air, for example, was a political statement. The fact that these homelands were now behind the Iron Curtain suggests it was.
Alex: I don’t intend to look into the broadcasts as such, but will focus on the decisions made by the Broadcasting Committee (Rundfunkrat). I want to investigate whether and to what extent the funding was provided for the activities of expellees and refugees. Until today, that body is the highest authority with regard to matters of (im)partiality at the BR. Among other things, it is responsible for deciding which cultural organisations or associations will get the BR’s financial support. From the files, it’s possible to find out whether organisations got the funding they applied for or not and – in some cases – what the basis for the decision was. One question could be, How did the committee dealt with the applications of organisations of expelled Germans? I am also interested in how the biographies and experiences of individuals on the committee may have influenced the decisions regarding what to broadcast and whom to support.
Vincent: I will focus on a controversial broadcast from 1967 concerning the expellee organisations that triggered a huge wave of indignation among the Homeland Associations (Landsmannschaften) representing expellees. The broadcasting committee of the BR received lots of letters of complaint which I had the chance to evaluate. Furthermore, based on protocols of internal meetings, I will explore how this broadcast and its consequences was discussed by the Broadcasting Committee.
Gaëlle: What do you think is the gain of working in radio archives for you and historians in general?
Vincent: The material from radio archives is important for researching time periods when people listened to radio more attentively and deliberately than we do nowadays. The protocols of broadcasting committees provide an insight into the different aims, intentions and target audiences of different programmes. With this, the political dimension of informing, educating and entertaining becomes clear. The listener correspondence reveals opinions of listeners and how the different programmes were received. These sources point to societal and political fears, hopes and expectations.
Alex: In fact: We wouldn’t be able to write these essays without these sources!