IFC 2004 – Thirty Years of the International Radio Feature @ Virginia Madsen

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Thirty Years of the International Radio Feature
by Virginia Madsen

“(The feature’s] task and its destiny is to mirror the true inwardness of its subject, to explore the boundaries of radio and television”.
Laurence Gilliam (Director 1964, BBC Radio Features Department)

“There was another reality which the eye alone could not perceive, but which the heart and mind could discern…that high moment of seeing, that flash of penetration into the heart of the matter.”
Film historian, Lewis Jacobs, on Robert Flaherty’s groundbreaking “first feature-length film of fact”,
Nanook of the North (1922)

We speak so often of radio as a mass communication and entertainment medium, which happens in sound and through sound. Yet, within the complex of signal and noise which to all intents and purposes comprises ‘the radio’ – the syncopated flows of music and voices unending, presenters, personalities, pundits, DJs, and shock-jocks, sound bites and jingles of ever decreasing duration, call signs, weather-to-the-minute in London and Prague, traffic reports, market indices, Bush, static, Blair, Kylie, Verdi – there is to be found another world, a world obscured from view.

Famously, it was Marshall McLuhan who dubbed the radio that emerged in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s a “hot” medium. But just as the radio began to heat up, another “cooler”, perhaps more spacious idea of the radio was also developing, that of the radio feature. It has even managed to flourish “against the tendency of radio” (as Leonhard Braun has it). Almost obscured by the noise and transient glamour of the dominant models of “radio”, the feature suggests an idea of the radio in which the listener is not to be considered in terms of his or her statistical status: housewives at home between 10.00 and 14.00, or upwardly mobile 30+ professionals, desirous of “well-packaged” intellectual content to spice their particular branded music diet. In the perhaps more expansive world being proposed by the radio feature, the medium refuses to be straitjacketed or stratified, refuses to be reduced and compromised, serving as little more than a platform for clichéd opinions and false democracy, a conduit of lifestyle “choices” geared to market share.

This is the radio to be discovered in this “other” less well-lit universe, and sampled here in this unique collection of six CDs, allowing the curious listener and the seasoned practitioner alike to experience something of 30 Years of International Radio Feature-making history. Taken as a whole, this work is a revelation not only in terms of radio’s development and expression but also in terms of media history and cultural expression more generally.

This collection here is truly a landmark: even within institutionalized and state organized public broadcasting systems, the documentation of the medium and its forms barely exists, a history of amnesia prevails. In this context, this collection represents a rare attempt to deal with an idea of radio – and that’s what makes it remarkable. Why? Because, here is an international selection of work, spanning the period after radio’s so-called “golden years” to the present, which reveals that rather than dying as a complex and sophisticated medium post-TV (to emerge as the format driven, pressed-for-time medium with which we are familiar), a certain kind of radio – and a radio of the auteur – was able to carve out a space for itself. And against all expectations, this emergent radio form constituted (and continues to do so) a renaissance in thought and practice in terms of what the medium could still be, and offer the listener.

More important than the fact of the recorded presence of the many diverse individual works sampled in this collection, this body of work testifies to the powerful presence of a continuing dream of radio, (a dream for radio?), which was first experienced in the early “experimental” years between the 1920s and early 1930s. But here we come to the critical break between that early, experimental work, and the radio feature as it emerged in the 1960s. Even though we might speak of “a dream of radio” here, are not many of these works to be distinguished by their absolute closeness and attachment to the real – to the real as it is lived in time, and motion? It is this quality of realism that early radio could not yet attain for the simple fact that the technology was not then available to take the radio (and the writer/reporter) out of the studio, and into the space and amidst the vibrating presence (and long duration) of the world.

The documentary idea that emerges in film in the 20s and 30s – with the likes of the great Robert Flaherty, Grierson and Lorentz – is also attempted in radio, albeit in different forms with different names (“actualities”, or even in those early experiments, “features”). In the 30s pre-tape, mobile recording units connecting gramophones to microphones were “capturing” life “sur le vif”. For the first time the microphone and the radio became conduits for “real voices”, “everyday people”(not only experts) and even “actuality” – the sounds of factories, trains, even war – and not as mere effects to punctuate and illustrate. But there was not yet the possibility for the more spacious and reflexive radio “worlds” that were to come. The idea of the radio feature originates from this time, within the BBC, with an early experimental research unit, and later a separate Features Department which was responsible for producing some of the great classical radio works of art or literature in English – Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, for example was produced by the BBC’s Features Department.

Rich as this earlier tradition had been (particularly within the BBC), it remained essentially studio bound, a written form, driven by scripts and actors. The new feature as it was to be championed by the likes of Peter Leonhard Braun and Klaus Lindemann at SFB, Berlin, and in Poland with Death of an Elephant, and in the Netherlands, France, ex-Yugoslavia – all these “discoveries” marked a distinct break and even jettisoning of the classical past, the supposedly golden age of features.

Braun, perhaps the godfather and prime force behind this gathering movement and international “features” awakening (marked by the inaugural Feature Conference which took place from 1975) talks of his discovery of “the acoustic film”, made possible by two things: firstly the fact of the new lightweight portable recording machines; and secondly, stereo, or perhaps more precisely, the new opportunities afforded by stereo recording “on location”. (Ironically, Braun makes these discoveries in 1965 whilst still freelancing in London, a year after the once celebrated BBC Features Department has been forcibly shut down, with only a few producers left to pass on the tradition.)

At the same time, others too were discovering the new world opened up by the possibility of capturing the radiophonic real – this “new wave” of radio documentarians spoke of “acoustic filmmaking”, the “film sonore”. They were leaving the studios, and not only because they had the technology, or even stereo (which may not turn out to be as crucial to this development, as Braun had first imagined). As René Farabet (of Radio France) recalls, the world of radio, even in 1968, was for many, and especially younger producers, a place ‘reeking of death’.

Certainly the searing force of life heard in a voice like that of the poet, dramatist and madman Antonin Artaud (recorded in 1947, but only heard much later on in 1973 as one of the early offerings of the Atelier de Création radiophonique, of which Farabet became the Director) could not escape the deadening effects of the studios as they were controlled by the institutions of State radio. Farabet stresses the importance of the events of May ‘68, and their impact, their resonance all over Europe, especially in terms of this escape from the institutionally regulated studio, with its conventions of radio acting, scripted features and the ‘documentaire de trois pièces” (as the “hommes de radio” called it), typically a factual subject dressed up with a bit of talk or interview, a bit of music and a bit of “actuality”.

Abandoning the studio (and its technical control) did not mean, however, the abandonment of radiophonic exploration and experimentation. Indeed the continued use of the English language term “feature” by the international “feature-making” fraternity signalled a willingness and desire not to be hemmed in by genre, or format, or any overly restrictive categorizing. Rather, the portable Nagra recorder and microphone were recognized as being at the exploratory heart of this new practice and approach to radio. (And in the possibility of recording both text and the real, the poets of radio such as Mortley and Bajsic found their true medium and métier.) Just as with the cinema, where the camera is as important as the editing suite, and even the set and studio, the new radio feature and documentary maker placed the microphone and the recording apparatus at the core of their practice. (This is particularly the case in the era of vérité film, especially as it was pioneered in France.) The studio was not jettisoned, but rather, in this remix, became more akin to the photographer’s darkroom where some almost magical alchemical transformation was required to occur in the mix between reality and fiction. The artisan of radio (and the work gathered here in this collection is artisanal perhaps before it is “art”) could no longer work only with a fantasy world conjured in the studio, using all the old radio tricks; one had to get out of the padded cell that the radio had become, meet the world, find oneself not so much reporting upon it anymore, from the outside, but rather, and more profoundly, become deeply immersed (and engaged) in its interior life.

This is the spirit one finds in all the work represented in this collection – even in those with a most avowedly post-modern flavour such as Gregory Whitehead’s immensely provocative and edgy, even tragicomic Pressures of the Unspeakable, which is as seemingly as far from the classical origins of the British school of radiophonic feature-making (or even its German transformation in the 1970s, sublimely illustrated in Braun’s Bells of Europe, or Lindemann’s To Take Verdi Seriously) as you could get. Whitehead, of course, grew up with radio in the Seventies, in the US, and more pointedly, with an utterly pervasive commercial radio universe – a world of pushy hosts and DJs, of expertly sleazy snake-charmers who spoke to you as if they knew you all your life, intimately, in the dead of the night, in between all the static.

It’s important to remind ourselves here, how different are each of these auteurs’ points of entry into the international world of what, still remains, thankfully, an indefinable art form of radiophonic expression and revelation. There are many younger authors represented here, who, it seems have not forgotten the dream of radio begun in those “dark years” in the eclipse of television, and promise yet still further renaissance, if they will not surrender easily this most intimate and spacious of all media.

Dr Virginia Madsen is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in the School of Media and Communications, at the University of NSW, Sydney. She is currently writing a history of ideas of the feature form in radio. Madsen is also a radio-maker herself, and was one of the founding producers of the ABC (Australia) programme, The Listening Room.

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