Radio Multikulti - a Programme for the World

Rap from Senegal, Bhangra sounds from the Pakistani quarter in Birmingham or Klezmer music – Berlin’s multicultural radio 'Multikulti' sometimes sounds like a trip around the world in one hour. Volker Thomas reports

Rap from Senegal, Bhangra sounds from the Pakistani quarter in Birmingham or Klezmer music – Berlin’s Radio multikulti (Multicultural Radio) sometimes sounds like a trip around the world in one hour.

Foto: Radio Multikulti
Radio Multikulti

​​The station broadcasts in 18 languages - alphabetically, from Albanian to Vietnamese – its staff come from more than 30 countries, and between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m it presents DJs from Sao Paulo to London, who play their kind of music. It’s a programme for the world.

Sender Freies Berlin (SFB) (Radio Free Berlin) went on-air with the programme eight years ago. In 1994, memories of the attacks on foreigners in Solingen, Mölln and Rostock were still fresh. The media wanted to do something against the latent pogrom mood in Germany. SFB cultural programme editor Friedrich Voss and station director Jens Wendland found ready support from the Broadcasting Council for their idea of launching a special wavelength for foreigners in Berlin.

Radio Multikulti - an important forum for immigrants

Voss, now Radio multikulti programme chief, recalls: "We were quickly given a frequency on the crowded Berlin radio market and allocated promotional funds by the Federal government." For him, founding such a station was long overdue. "It simply belongs to a city like Berlin in which almost half-a-million people from 182 countries live. After all, most of them pay radio licence fees."

The new wavelength was to fulfil different tasks than the good old ‘Gastarbeiter (foreign workers) radio’ with homeland sounds and a few novelties from afar. Radio multikulti saw itself right from the start as first and foremost a forum for immigrants that respected their cultural identity and fostered their mother tongues. Second, the often ideologically-slanted information from their homelands is countered by balanced reporting in the tradition of German public broadcasting. Third, Radio multikulti pursues its own special way to help integration of foreigners in German society.

Says Voss: "For us, the respective mother tongues are the ‘gateway drug’ to the German programme. We broadcast in German during the day, and from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. in various foreign languages." He says it’s downright wrong to believe that Turks want to hear only Turkish, and Russians only Russian. They want to be informed about the world in which they live – in programmes made for them. "In our German-language programmes we employ moderators with foreign roots. That always brings a different view of things than if only Germans were to do it." During the last eight years SFB has trained dozens of immigrants as radio journalists.

Surveys confirm what Voss says. Foreigners make up 70 per cent of Radio multikulti listeners, and Germans the rest. Of the 160,000 Turks in Berlin – the city’s biggest minority – every tenth listens to the station (although they have their own Turkish-language station in Radio metropol). Unfortunately, the station can be received only terrestrially on UKW 106.8, whose range is limited to the Berlin area. "We would like a stronger frequency," says Voss.

A mediator between ethnic groups

The station keeps a sharp eye on what’s going on among the immigrants in Berlin. After German reunification in 1990, the Vietnamese in the East and West of the city collided with each other. Those in West Berlin were ‘Boat People’ who had fled Communism in their home country; those in East Berlin were cadres that had been seconded to the German Democratic Republic, Vietnam’s ‘brother country’. Radio multikulti began to mediate between the two hostile groups by means of daily broadcasts in Vietnamese. Later, when during the civil war in former Yugoslavia a wave of Kosovo refugees swept into Berlin, the station’s editors incorporated practical advice segments in Albanian in their programme. Radio multikulti has also brought Turks and Kurds, Israelis and Palestinians together at the microphone. When the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York collapsed, the station switched live between every ethnic group in Berlin and New York. Greeks, Italians, Turks, Mexicans, Portuguese – all wanted to know how their fellow countrymen and women were.

Radio multikulti is financed by licence fees, government subsidies, the sale of programme segments to other stations (a growing business) and, to a lesser degree, by sponsors. It now employs about 160 freelancers and 29 permanent staff and maintains Germany’s largest library of international music. Many people who were trained at Radio multikulti have in the meantime switched to other SFB wavelengths – and that has also done the programmes good. The station also cooperates closely with the WDR network, which in 1998, with ‘Funkhaus (Broadcasting Studios) Europa’, launched a similar programme. Live streaming on the Internet gave the station a new impetus: via it can be received worldwide. And that it really is listened to on the other side of the world was shown by a recent telegram congratulating the station on its eighth birthday. It came from Tokyo.

Volker Thomas, © Goethe Institut 2003

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