March, 21, 2013
This week Suzi and I attended Radio Days Europe and got to tour some different radio stations.
A highlight of the sessions was the tour of Haus des Rundfunks, or Radio House. The Funkhaus was designed in 1929 in the Bauhaus style and went on-air in 1931. It claims to be the oldest purpose built radio station building in the world. The Funkhaus is the home of Radio Berlin and Brandenburg (RBB), which operates 6 radio services. While it was built as a national headquarters, right now it serves Berlin’s local public radio.
The building is a triangle with rounded edges. The offices are around the outside. The three studio blocks are inside the triangle forming spokes to the corners. They are separated from street noise by the surrounding office and from each other by air. Each is built on its own foundation. The main studio seats an audience of a thousand, then there is a smaller live audience studio and a bloc of studios used for radio theater. There is a new glassed in wing in one of the empty spaces inside the triangle with modern facilities for the all-news station run by RBB.
The staffers who gave the tour are properly proud of their building but, at the same time, a little embarrassed by its history. The big studio is an amazing bit of engineering. It’s acoustically the same if it is full with 1000 people or empty. Part of that is the design of the chairs. In the back of the studio the padding is thicker and in the front. The seat bottoms that swing up when on one is not sitting in them are acoustic panels with different configurations of little holes. Our guide proudly told us that the studio was the site of a four hour broadcast that was heard “all over Europe, almost every country rebroadcast it.” He paused, looked down and said. “Unfortunately they all carried the program because Germany occupied those countries.” He then cued the engineer and music came from the speakers. He told us that this music from 1943, some of the very music played in this studio. When the song finished he again looked a little embarrassed, paused, and said that while that music was from 1943, it was jazz and Germans could not listen to it. It was recorded for propaganda broadcasts to the parts of Europe (England) that Germany did not occupy. It brought to mind a recording of St. Louis Blues beamed to Britain during the Blitz “Oh — how I hate to see that evening sun go down, ‘cause when it does, Jerry’s gonna blitz this town.”
We went to a model of the building set up in the atrium showing how it is laid out in its triangle. I asked our host if the building was bombed during the Second World War. It was not. Because of its massive size and odd shape it was a landmark for bombers to fix on so the allies left it alone. She showed us a photo of the neighborhood, the buildings around destroyed, and the Rundfunk house intact.
From the historical display we went to the radio drama studio. As a radio head this place delighted me. There was a large studio. It had stairs leading up to the control room with different surfaces in different parts of the stairs so you could get different sounding footfalls. There was a living room studio with panels that could change the acoustics of the room. They had a bathroom studio, fully miced, with tile for sound reflection, to record bathroom scenes, complete with toilets flushing and showers running. Then there was the kitchen studio, a full kitchen, again well miced, for recording cooking scenes, I guess. There was a hallway that progressively swallowed sound so that a person walking two meters faded so it sounded like he walked 10 meters. There was the “outdoors” studio, a completely acoustically dead room. (When I first went to Radio Tirana the translator had trouble with the engineer, translating “the room has died….. I have no idea what that means.” I clapped my hands with no reverb. The engineer smiled. A dead studio, the translator was still baffled.) This dead room has different floor surfaces, gravel, sand, a metal grate, wood, so you can record footfalls on different surfaces.
One of the people on the tour asked why RBB didn’t use sound effects on CD. The engineer answered “because it is just not as good.” Then we got to the control room with two Telefunken reel to reel tape recorders. I thought KLEF that had the last control room on planet earth with reel to reel but no, The Germans still have it! I asked the engineer why? “To play archive material and to produce stretched tape effects.” Earlier in the tour we were told that the use of magnetic recording tape was developed in this building. It’s fitting that this radio house was the first, and is among the last to use magnetic tape. In one corner of the room I spied a pile of magnetic tape scraps and white leader tape, a sure sign of razor blade editing at the Rundfunk house. I felt nostalgic.
From the drama studio we went to the modern newsroom. It is all digital and multi-media, with news originating for RBB’s all-news station, reports sent to TV and reports going out on the web. The newsroom has 65 people working in it every day and one poor soul on the overnight shift preparing for the morning.
We finished the tour with a presentation and Q&A in the other performance studio; this looked like classic NBC at Radio City from 1940. A German broadcaster from another organization asked why the RBB news app on his mobile phone had no audio on demand, no photos and no video. Our host said it was because it was too expensive and would put too much pressure on the newsroom. This is a newsroom with 65 people working a day. This is a radio station that has an indoor studio that allows people to walk on gravel. This is a radio station with a studio in a bathroom. This is a radio station with a 1000 seat performance studio. And this is a station that can’t afford to put video, photos and audio on demand on their mobile app. RBB may not be hip to new media but the Germans sure know how to equip a radio station.