Saturday, May 3, 2014

Museum of Broadcast Communications, Chicago - and more (english version)

(In deutscher Sprache HIER!)

On the upper stairhead, visibly already from the entrance, the Media Tower greets the visitor:

Created by Mark Patsfall, dedicated to the memory of media art pioneer Nam June Paik:

Using Oprah Winfrey's original studio gate the visitor then enters. Which is nice, but it doesn't make you feel like a guest of her show (and maybe this is fine this way).

The Museum of Broadcast Communications (MBC) in Chicago, Il., has much more interesting things to offer on its two floors, although pieces of scenery of this kind are a big part of the exhibits.

The upper floor is dedicated to television. Besides many videos, original studio decorations are shown, as well as technical stuff from the early years:

Or here the then up-to-date TV heroes as a set of stamps:

But the highlight is still this:

As if by magic, this plastic sheet, when attached to the TV screen, makes your black and white TV set a color TV set - wow! It will make sky-blue sky at the top, grass-green grass at the bottom, and between it it will be somehow somehow - so pleasing to the eye! (In Germany, a similar thing was available from a mailorder shop named Tina-Versand. Their ads were to be found usually on the last page of TV programm magazines, offering magical products: a pocket sewing machine, X-ray glasses, or even vibrators (which, as the photo showed, were used apparently for cheek massages). Tina-Versand went bust many years ago, but I'm sure: Most people of my age remember these ads with a knowing smile.)

One floor below the topic is radio. As this has always been an abstract medium that transported invisible content, what can a museum show except old radio sets? In fact, it shows more than one might think, but some of it is only indirectly visible.

Of course, the old radio sets are there. My immediate favorite was this RCA device, designed probably for stylish listening to Mexican mariachi sounds:

Or this one: a wonderful old original microphone; especially fascinating is the logo - radio as radio can be. You can nearly hear the sound of the radio voices.

Also cuddly is this miniature glockenspiel - at the times of the above microphone the station jingles were played live and manually:

The main part of the exhibition is dedicated to the National Radio Hall of Fame. At the first glance one might fear that this is nothing more than a collection of more or less successful portrait photos, but the more one goes into the legends, the more it becomes clear that radio in the U.S. and radio in Germany are two completely different things. All the more when one listens to the several excerpts of original broadcasts. And this difference is really interesting.

From the beginning, radio in the U.S. worked without meddling of any authority, and for some reason this is something you can hear immediately. In November 1920, a Westinghouse Electric employee in Pittsburgh started the first radio station of the U.S.: KDKA. The first broadcasts were music from a phonograph, sponsored by department store Horne's, offering radio assembly kits. They simply started. Not for a single second anybody had the idea first to go for admission, nobody ever asked whether commercials were allowed (and how many per hour). - KDKA, by the way, still exists, now as a local news station as part of the CBS network.

Although radio in Germany was started not by the government but by record company "Vox", it was seen mainly as an instrument of education and political information, and for that reason it was put under government supervision very soon. In the U.S., in contrast, radio was commercial from the beginning. The collection of portraits shows it immediately. Radio was meant for entertainment, and so it became mainly a playgound for "radio personalities" and their shows. Many of their names are well-known still today; actually they were often enough the main reason to turn the radio on.

The "Grand Ole Opry", to name one, started in 1925 in Nashville, TN, and can be heard still today weekly on WSM. Comedian Minnie Pearl was a sort of factotum of this country music show. Unforgettable her "How - deee!" greeting, as well as the $1.98 price tag hanging from her hat. The latter was of course invisible on the radio, but because the show always took place in front of a live audience, it got around as a sort of trade mark. Orson Welles doesn't need an introduction; the live radio drama "War Of The Worlds" he directed (aired on Halloween 1938) became one of the big all-time radio legends - although the "mass panic" which is said this broadcast generated, was in fact probably not that massive, but anyways ... And even today's high school kids can still tell what "The Jack Benny Program" was (a comedy series, aired from 1932 to 1955, first by NBC, later by CBS).

This kind of radio show is an original component of American history of media culture. In Germany, shows like this didn't exist. The most similar one probably was "Der frohe Samstagnachmittag vom Reichssender Köln" ("The merry Saturday afternoon from Reich radio corporation Cologne"), aired 150-times from November 1934 to end of 1939, hosted by "die drei frohen Gesellen" ("the three merry companions") Karl Wilhelmi, Rudi Rauher und Hans Salcher:

This show offered music and folksy humor, broadcast live and nationwide. Soon it became so popular that the organisation of retail traders protested against the time the show was aired because an increasing number of people was listening instead of shopping. Besides this, it didn't take long that the tickets were sold on the black market at excessive prices. To supply the demand legally, the show moved from the small Reichshallen Theater in Cologne to the Messehalle which had a capacity of 4000 seats. When after a while even this became too small, the show moved to the Westfalenhalle Dortmund, which was enough for at least 15,000 spectators. 

Already in 1935, the "Frohe Samstagnachmittag" had been "cleared" in terms of music and text. The Nazi rulers, as they used to say, wanted the show to be free of jews and jazz. With the outbreak of war in 1939, the show smoothly changed over into the "Wunschkonzert des Winterhilfswerks" ("Request concert for the Winter Relief"). Now it became a hard-as-bone propaganda show; the Nazis presented all celebreties that were available - like the UFA stars Hans Brausewetter, Heinz Rühmann und Josef Sieber:

And the more it became obvious that the war couldn't be won, the more tear-jerking the show became. Till finally even this didn't help anymore. All German radio transmitters had to be shut down because attacking planes could have used them for heading.

After 1945, everything must have been somehow untrue. The Germans didn't want to see what had happened. But because many listeners asked for a continuation of the "Frohe Samstagnachmittag" or wanted at least the old ones re-runned, NWDR in Cologne finally re-ran a preserved episode. The result: Many listeners believed this to be a fake - impossible that this rubbish really could have been broadcast. Nobody could (or wanted to) believe that this had really been one of the original shows. (1)

After this flop, for a long time no station wanted to burn its fingers with mass events of this kind. The Allied Forces re-organized the German radio system completely. But it was still not seen as appropriate to use radio simply for nothing but entertainment, not even in the American occupation zones. "Radio personalities" like the Americans? Not in Germany.

One of the few exceptions was the "Frankfurter Wecker" ("Alarm Clock from Frankfurt"), based on the morning show of a Los Angeles radio station. Beginning in 1952, the show was broadcast six times a week from 7 to 9 p.m., live from Frankfurt broadcasting center in front of an audience. The show presented the radio orchestra of the Hessische Rundfunk as well as schlager singers, and it turned out to be the lift-off for its two hosts, Peter Frankenfeld (trade mark: the plaid jacket) and Hans-Joachim Kulenkampff (or in short "Kuli"), who both became TV legends in the sixties.

The most concise characterization of the two that ever came to my ears: Frankenfeld told jokes, Kulenkampff had humor.

Later hosts like Heinz Erhardt, Otto Höpfner and Heinz Schenk came along, Erhardt a star anyways, the two latter got famous in the sixties when they hosted "Zum Blauen Bock" (something like "The Blue Buck"), a cider-vinous operetta and folk music show on German TV. The "Frankfurter Wecker" reached such an enormous popularity that Radio Bremen and NDR Radio (Hamburg) adopted the show. In 1967, the show, despite massive protest of the listeners, was turned down and replaced by a much cheaper studio production.

It's not that there were no personalities on the airwaves of Western Germany. They existed. Ans some of them were formative voices of their stations. Hans Rosenthal and his several shows at RIAS Berlin has to be mentioned here. Or "Peters Bastelstunde" ("Peter's Tinkering Hour"), a nonsense show by the aforementioned Peter Frankenfeld. Worth mentioning is also Henning Venske and his hosting of a Saturday morning show show. He was the first to change the then usually serious tone and style of German radio hosts to a humorous, sometimes satiric cheekyness, but this show always remained "NDR 2 von 9 bis halb eins" ("NDR 2 Radio from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m."); nobody ever would have lapsed into the idea to call it "The Henning Venske Show".

None of these shows could be compared to American radio shows. The only show that came at least close was the "Jay Tuck Show" on NDR Radio, aired in the seventies. Jay Tuck was an American news editor, working for news show "Tagesschau", and once a month for 30 minutes before midnight he was allowed to let off steam with absurd humor and wild music. The music came from records, the whole show was no live broadcast, and there was no audience, but anyway, the sound was right. 

And while in Southern German areas at least they had the American Forces Network (AFN) that gave an idea what American radio might be, in Northern Germany the only way to experience real radio personalities was the English program of Radio Luxembourg (see my blog entry from July 10, 2011).

For sure there's not only a political background for all of this, it's also a question of mentality. And it should be said that in Germany some autonomous and highly original radio and TV formats have been developed that are still unthinkable in American media. But that would be another blog entry; maybe someday I'll write it.

If somebody wants to know more about American radio shows, I recommend the film A Prairie Home Companion (USA 2006, directed by Robert Altman, written by Garrison Keillor). The radio show of the same name exists since 1974, hosted by Garrison Keillor (left).

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Jonathunder)

The movie is a fake docu showing the last issue of this show because the theater had to be demolished the next day. But in fact, the show still exists. It can be heard every Saturday for two hours, live from the Fitzgerald Theater in Saint Paul, MN. It's now a friendly nostalgic persiflage of a classic American radio show, with a band, guest musicians, speakers, sound effects men, and the way Garrison Keillor presents the show, announcing, singing and speaking the (fake-) commercials is not only loveable, it gives a very strong feeling for what that is (or was): American Radio. Available online here.

Have fun listening. Please don't forget to ground your antenna.

And thank you, Museum of Broadcast Communication, for the memories. 

(1): cf. Heinz Schröter: Unterhaltung für Millionen - Vom Wunschkonzert zur Schlagerparade. Düsseldorf 1973, p. 89

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