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German radio turns 100: a look back at its early years

Michael Marek
December 22, 2020

A century ago, the age of radio began in Germany. Cultural broadcasts made radio popular before the Nazis appropriated it for their propaganda.

Deutschland Geschichte Rundfunk Zwei Frauen und ein Junge hören Radio
Image: ullstein bild - Paul Mai

On December 22, 1920, the first radio broadcast in Germany hit the airwaves. "Attention, attention — this is Königs Wusterhausen on radio wave 2700." This was how a Christmas concert by the employees of the German Reichspost was announced. Featuring a clarinet, reed organ, string instruments and piano, they played in the broadcasting building of the city of Königs Wusterhausen.

Modest sound quality

Transmission quality was poor: static and crackling accompanied the musical performance. Only official agents of the German Reichspost could listen to this transmission since in accordance with the Treaty of Versailles, private citizens in Germany were forbidden from listening to radio signals.

Radio listeners in the 1920s used headphones and special receivers to listen to broadcasts.
The world at your feet — or in your ears, rather. Radio listeners in the 1920s used headphones and special receivers to listen to broadcastsImage: picture alliance / akg

Society on the move

Nonetheless, radio in Germany was born. Society at the time of the Weimar Republic was in transition. Painters were no longer merely depicting the natural worlds — Cubism, Dadaism and abstract art were unearthing new dimensions of the imagination that had no direct reference to reality. Musicians and composers were creating hitherto unheard-of sounds with jazz and twelve-tone techniques joining familiar rhythms and keys. Writers and poets were creating parallel plots and stories. Consumer products were being mass-produced. Aviation was connecting people over thousands of kilometers — and radio was booming.

The first official radio entertainment program in Germany was broadcast on October 29, 1923. The Allies had by then lifted the ban on listening to radio waves. The fact that we even have an acoustic record of it today is due to a coincidence: a few months after it was broadcast, the program was re-enacted and preserved on disc.

Broadcasting with a mission

Meanwhile, inflation was soaring in Germany. Poverty and misery were rampant, especially in the big cities. "Radio was welcomed in Germany like a liberating miracle, especially at a time of intense emotional and economic hardship," Hans Bredow, considered the "father" of German radio, said at the time.

A 1930s radio model called "Nauen".
A 1930s radio model called "Nauen"Image: picture alliance / dpa

Like many radio pioneers of the Weimar years, Bredow had lofty ambitions to widen national perspectives in his position as Radio Commissioner to the German Reich's Postal Minister. This new technology was to signal an end to the age of ignorance and prejudice. 

In December 1923, there were a total of 467 listeners. One year later, there were already one million listeners within the Reich's entire territory. And in 1932, there were more than four million paying radio subscribers — and at least as many non-paying listeners. The daily broadcasting time also increased steadily. In 1923, it was 60 minutes; by 1932, there were already 15 hours of radio programs every day.

Entertainment for the masses

It was the new possibilities of simultaneous acoustic reporting that captivated the "Radioten, " a derogatory term that was used for radio lovers at the time. An extraordinary media event at that time, the radio achieved its exciting effect through its immediacy and "live" character. And it gave birth to a genre unknown until then: the radio play.

Meanwhile, heated debates abounded about the negative effects of radio on listeners, culture and politics. Many intellectuals and artists distanced themselves from the new medium. Among them was the Austrian composer Arnold Schönberg. "Broadcast media caters to the majority. At any time of the day or night, people are served a feast for the ears without which they apparently can no longer live today. I assert the right of the minority against this delirium for entertainment: one must also be able to broadcast what is necessary, and not only the trivial."

State broadcasting begins

Black-and-white image of first radio broadcast of a soccer game outside in 1925.
The first football match was broadcast live in 1925Image: picture-alliance/dpa/WDR

In 1925, a central Reich Broadcasting Corporation, similar to today's public broadccasting network ARD, came into being, merging regional broadcasters. Its task was to regulate finances, perform joint administrative tasks and coordinate programming. Radio developed into state broadcasting.

The program was initially modest in its technical and artistic quality. The first radio producers had to tread the delicate balance between cultural aspirations and commercial success, and at the lowest possible production costs. In the first show in October 1923, there was not a single journalistic contribution, no commentary and no reports — but there were already advertising spots.

Entertainment with ambition

Listeners particularly enjoyed the light entertainment. In a survey, 83 percent of respondents ranked operettas first, followed by current affairs programs. At the same time, the new medium popularized forms of music such as jazz and German Schlager. It also enabled hundreds of thousands to tune in to classical and contemporary music: one example was the Wagner opera Tristan und Isolde, conducted by Friedrich Furtwängler in the Bayreuth Festival Theater. More than 200 stations worldwide tuned in to the performance, which was the first worldwide direct broadcast in radio history.

Black-and-white image of an antenna outside of the "Nauen" broadcasting station in Brandenburg in 1919.
An antenna at the "Nauen" broadcasting station in Brandenburg in 1919Image: ullstein bild - Zander & Labisch

In 1929, radio came up with another innovation — on-location reporting. Broadcast journalists left their studios and reported instead from sports fields, flew over Berlin in a balloon or went underground with miners in the Ruhr region.

Radio as a propaganda tool

It quickly became clear to those in charge of programming that radio was a fast medium, beating even newspaper reporting when it came to speed. And there was something else that captivated listeners: sometimes a radio broadcast was more about the event, rather than the news itself. The experience of being on location, for example at a soccer match, a radio play or in a large theater was unique and unrepeatable.

The first chapter of German broadcasting ended with the National Socialists, who systematically used radio for their anti-Semitic and militant purposes. After the Nazis seized power in 1933, there were personnel "purges," as the persecution apparatus called it: Political dissidents and Jews were forced out of their positions.

This article was adapted from German by Brenda Haas.