This conference travels across the world […] about RADIO FEATURE […] organized in most of the CAPITALS of RADIO
The genesis of the International Feature Conference
The international radio documentary was a pretty bland concoction up until the mid-1960s.
Although most radio countries made documentaries, some producing innovative and interesting results, no one knew anything about each other.
It was a state of isolation, like standing on a cliff at night, seeing the lights of distant ships or beacons, but having no way of contacting them.
When I first went to the Prix Italia in 1966 to listen to the radio documentary competition entries, I was the only person in the room.
This ice age of international radio documentary was also characterized by a rigidity of forms and antiquated technical equipment.
The radio documentary was primarily a studio-recorded litany recited by narrators, a narrative dramaturgy in a journalistic or literary style, related to the reportage or the essay.
Its main role was always to convey information.
The tingling, exciting potential of radio was either unknown or ignored.
The radio documentary was a talking head which lacked practically everything below it: a chest, a belly – and especially genitals.
The first three “beacons” with which I began cross-border collaboration were flashing in the Netherlands, Hungary and Poland.
Their names were Bob Uschi, (photo) chef de cuisine of radio documentaries for NOS Hilversum, who, aided by three researchers, served a brilliant half-hour
gourmet documentary every week; Lajos Lorand, (photo) who was developing investigative radiophonics in Budapest; and Witold Zadrowski in Warsaw, the great reporter with the omnidirectional microphone, who crafted perfect original-sound documentaries despite the limitations of mono.
The French were equally pioneering in the art of radio documentaries; Zagreb also entered the scene, along with Copenhagen and the experimenting BBC.
Change was in the air, and it was emerging in different places simultaneously.
The radical breakthrough for innovation, however, came with stereophonics.
This was the time of Berlin, the second half of the 1960s.
We learned how to write using acoustic sequences rather than language.
We started to forget the typewriter, using the new tools of documentary production instead.
We wrote with the microphone, the tape recorder, the scissors and the sound mixer.
The exciting thing was that we were able to leave our studios and desks and go out into the open, liberating radio documentary from its traditional and technical fetters.
Suddenly, we were no longer tied to an office devoted to writing; the whole world belonged to us.
The portable tape recorder allowed us to give up our sedentary existence and become nomads and hunters once more …. with the microphone as our weapon.
My God, what a feeling of liberation! We no longer wrote about a subject, we recorded the subject itself.
We were acoustic cameras, shooting our sound material in the wild, then combining it into productions.
We called these documentary works “acoustic films”.
Noises and sounds were no longer simply accessories, extras or illustrations of a theme or plot, they became the theme itself.
They were no longer playing a supporting role, they had taken over the lead.
By contrast, the written and spoken word declined in importance, ultimately disappearing completely from later productions during this development.
Voices, too, were no longer feigned studio voices reading scripts, they were living people speaking with their own authenticity and originality – i.e. live recordings. It was the real world, not a simulated one.
What was new and difficult for us at that time was learning to write with our ears and for ears, to design or rather compose. In other words, you no longer wrote down clever, informative or pretty things; from now on you dived into your original sound and exploited its potential to compose rational and emotional processes, creating a sentient organism of communication.
Just as a composer thinks, guides and feels with his notes, so we could sing our living song from the score of our documentary – a song so alive that it could reach out beyond the loudspeakers and really get across to the listeners.
This technical and dramaturgical revolution also revolutionized the international radio documentary. In the early 1970s, there were already a number of groundbreaking productions, so that everyone could hear the profound changes in the genre.
Its aesthetics, its pretensions, its self-image and value system had changed beyond recognition.
It was reminiscent of the development from the stagecoach to the rocket.
The Big Bang in international radio documentary came in 1974.
The paths of three radio people crossed for the first time at a festival in Ohrid, Macedonia: Ake Blomström from Sweden, the Belgian Andries Poppe and myself.
We were like three radio atoms, destined for each other both personally and professionally, converging resolutely on one another.
We elected to make it our joint vocation to build and develop the radio documentary at an international level.
For radio, it turned out to be a decision of historic significance.
In 1974 Berlin was already a focal point of radio documentary.
SFB’s Feature Department had been attracting increasing international attention from radio colleagues, owing to its novel acoustic ideas on the production of informative radio – and because of the many prizes it had won.
This is illustrated by the long list of information visits to Berlin in 1974: BBC London, YLR Helsinki, CBC Toronto, MR Budapest, BRT Brussels, SR Stockholm, RDRS Basle, JRT Zagreb, DR Copenhagen.
However, this early network of the SFB Feature Department had a crucial weakness: it consisted exclusively of bilateral relations, i.e. SFB Feature (P.L. Braun/Klaus Lindemann) only had relations with one other foreign partner station at any one time.
There were no contacts between the partners themselves. In 1975, therefore, Blomström, Braun and Poppe decided to convene the first International Feature Conference.
It was to be a mega-step in development, pursuing the modernization and the qualitative progress of radio documentaries not only from the centre in Berlin, but from a whole number of centres.
The very preparations for this first International Feature Conference (Berlin, 23-27 June 1975) were daring and challenging.
The organizers did not seek approval from the EBU, the body responsible for international radio conferences, not wishing to risk being forced to set up a committee with equal representation for friend and foe that would then convene and run the conference.
On the contrary, this conference convened itself. It was its own creation.
The second gamble consisted in the total disregard of hierarchies in broadcasting organizations when issuing invitations.
People were invited because of their talent and their desire for innovation, not because of their position.
In order to comprehend the need for such unusual steps, it is necessary to appreciate the following:
The radio documentary was not a profession in its own right.
Only very few broadcasting organizations even had a documentary department (with its own staff, its own budget, regular programme slots and fixed production times).
The documentary was often organized as the poor man in radio drama departments, while more often than not it was a vagrant genre with no organizational affiliation.
Most documentaries expressed traditional formulas, and production and management staff were also correspondingly traditional.
In order to invite documentary makers from both Western and Eastern broadcasting organizations to sit around the same table, it was necessary to circumvent their umbrella organizations (OIRT in the East, EBU in the West), and the political obstacles of their approval procedures.
It all succeeded, and the first International Feature Conference was staged.
It was not an expression of the political will of a Western or Eastern umbrella organization, nor even the result of collaboration between the radio stations Blomström, Braun and Poppe worked for (SR, SFB, BRT respectively).
It was something much smaller and much more personal.
In essence, it consisted of little more than the professional handshake between Ake, Andries and Leo. It consisted of the idea of acoustic emancipation for the radio documentary, and the vision of cross-border collaboration, bonds of friendship and sticking together.
That’s the way it was, that’s how it happened, that’s how it all began.
With the holding of this first conference, the new world of the international radio documentary had been created.
It was a very small world to begin with, numbering only 16 participants from 14 countries: Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Ireland, ex-Yugoslavia, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Austria, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA .
Yet even this first conference brought together protagonists of radio documentary like Zvonimir Bajsic (Zagreb) or René Farabet (Paris), who were later to go down in the annals of the genre’s history, or people like Karl Schmidt (earplay USA), Knud Ebbesen (Copenhagen), Michael Littleton (Dublin) and Alfred Treiber (Vienna), who were later to enjoy successful managerial careers.
It was altogether an inspired, lively gypsy community, none of them high-ranking but many of them important.
For many of them, a trick had to be used to bring them to Berlin as official representatives of their radio station.
This trick was a strictly personal invitation which included defrayal of their hotel and other expenses for their stay in Berlin.
This meant that they were independent of their bosses and prevented the bosses from placing themselves around the table at the Berlin conference.
Each delegate received DM 32 (€ 16) per day in expenses and DM 35 (€ 17) per night for the hotel. Including entertainment expenses and the scheduled events, the entire conference cost precisely DM 7,537.68 (€ 3853.95) – a small price for the launch of a New World.
This first conference had three tasks:
To review the situation of the radio documentary in the participating broadcasting organizations, i.e. staffing, finance, technical facilities, and how the radio documentary was incorporated into the organizational structure of the stations.
Conclusion: virtually no staff, little money, frequently no access to sophisticated studios, outdated recording equipment and, with a few exceptions, a low or even non-existent organizational status.
To review the prevailing ideas on documentary production with demonstrations of one typical and one unusual documentary respectively from each participating broadcasting organization.
Conclusion: much traditional trash, some radiophonic gold, and four diamonds worthy of export.
To investigate opportunities for collaboration:
How could we give each other mutual editorial, financial and technical support, in order to produce an increasing number of high-quality radio documentaries?
The first International Feature Conference led to the energetic ascent of a neglected programme genre. In Belgium, Austria and Hungary,
it resulted in the establishment of new feature departments. Imports and exports of documentary diamonds began.
The era of international co-production was underway.
The conference ended with a unanimous decision that the conference should be held every year, with the next one to take place again in Berlin.
And then we sang the radio documentary Internationale:
“Wacht auf, Verdammte dieser Erde” (“Awake, O Damned of this Earth”). Everyone knew that better times awaited the radio documentary. We would make sure of that ourselves.
30 years later
Now that fate has been kind to me and I am not only alive but in a situation to float around like a balloon observing the world of radio doc, I want to drop out of my sky some remarks.
The inner formula of the IFC, this cross-border collaboration plus personal friendship, this mutual professional honesty about each other’s work plus the common bond, exactly this formula proved to be so strong, that by this year 2004, 30 conferences will have been staged, 30 conferences in 30 years, and no failures – almost a pathetic phenomenon and absolutely unique in the history of the media. Well done, all you beloved acoustical bastards.
The Conferences which travelled the world and were organized in most of the capitals of radio became the mobile home of the family of feature-makers, the magnetic click of learning and belonging.
And wherever the Mecca was in a specific year, the brothers and sisters of the feature world would pack their professional suitcases and go there.
What a deep joy each time to see all of you again.
Not a meeting of crafty midgets, not a round-about for the fast and fat advantage, but a platform for slow and profound development.
It makes me sad and proud to look into the long gallery of outstanding feature persons saying: “These Conferences were the best in my career, they changed my life, I was not alone anymore, what a push, what an encounter with the others and with myself.”
All these crazy horses, so many now dead, so many now distant, but here and now comes the powerful turn, so many again and again new, young, fresh, vital – come in, you lonely start-ups, come in.
This very Conference will be laughter, will be love, will be astonishment, revelation and shock.
Come in, be welcome and please do understand you are now the Conference.
The radio doc masterpieces must be mentioned – this string of pearls which after 30 years became a precious necklace to be worn by all of us.
Who produced them, to whom do they belong does not matter, it is common property.
There we touch the secret of the inner identity of the feature world, its continuous readiness to offer armed resistance to all the opposing forces.
Never in all these 30 years have I seen a pleasant landscape or sweet conditions for the growth of feature. It was always the wind into the face, always.
Stars of the trade came up, shining for years, then faded away and new ones began to sparkle.
Leading departments arose, suns of energy for years, then fading away and new ones became red-hot.
It was coming and going, a fine documentary world in permanent transition.
A mobile with a remarkable and reliable number of backbone people.
Backbone people ready to shoulder more than their own jobs, willing to carry the conference or to work for what they believe in, the progress of feature – just to give you one brilliant example, Edwin Brys.
Time now for the man in the balloon to drop the birthday wish.
Feature as the real illegitimate child of radio, probably the only one, grew up, expanded and up to now tackled all challenges of death.
I remind this radio doc of its first virtue: flexibility, versatility, adaptability.
And I wish for it to fortify its capability of change.
You have to become permanently new not to become old.
Herewith I open the permanent list of wishes, warnings, recommendations, recipes, strategies.
You are invited, each of you, to extend it through the years. Feature is necessary.