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BERLIN – American radio is a Berliners No more.
The post-war American presence on Berlin’s airways that began in the summer of 1945, when the city was still carving itself out of the rubble of World War II, ended this month when the last American radio station in the German capital has ceased operations. For years, the station, known in its latest version as KCRW Berlin, has provided listeners with daily help with local English news and eclectic music.
The idea behind the station was to deliver Berliners a dose of unfiltered Americana and serve as a transatlantic bridge. Even in the age of podcasts, the offering has found a loyal, albeit small, following from daily commuters to American expats.
“This is a sad moment embodying the end of a tradition,” said Anna Kuchenbecker, board member of KRCW Berlin, attributing the shutdown to the pandemic. KCRW Berlin was operated in partnership with a California public radio subsidiary with the same call sign. The economic fallout from the coronavirus has forced the US station to make significant cuts, including layoffs.
The shutdown comes at a time of growing estrangement between the United States and Germany after years of Donald Trump attacks on Berlin. Longtime allies have recently been at odds on a range of issues, from climate and trade policy to foreign policy.
KCRW Berlin officials say it would have been up to the United States to save the station because it was not eligible to receive one of the billions in broadcasting fees the German government collects to fund television and broadcasting. national public radio. But the US government has effectively given up its cultural influence in Germany, focusing its efforts on other parts of the world instead.
“The pain we feel with leaving KCRW Berlin is not necessarily felt in the United States,” said Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, the station’s program director.
But even in his hometown, the station’s death received little attention; Berlin media barely noticed the KCRW shutdown or what it meant, noting the move in passing.
End of an era
The tradition of American radio in Germany began when the American Forces Network (AFN) was broadcast in the summer of 1945 from Berlin-Dahlem, a leafy suburb where American forces were based. The station’s mission was to inform and entertain the thousands of American soldiers stationed in the city, but its audience was much larger.
After Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allies in 1945, the country’s radio stations were first closed and then reorganized in an attempt to help “denazify” the country.
In a country that had been force-fed by Hitler’s and Wagner’s favorite marches for more than a decade, the American sound of the AFN – from George Gershwin to Billie Holiday – was new and exciting. This was especially true in the 1950s, when rock ‘n’ roll emerged as the most powerful cultural weapon in the West.
The former postwar AFN network was “possibly the best foreign policy instrument the United States has ever thought of,” former US Ambassador to Germany John Kornblum, who has recently said. also contributed to the launch of KCRW Berlin.
During the Cold War, the United States also operated German-language RIAS (Radio in the American Sector), which served as an antipode to pro-Soviet radio programming in the East, calling itself “a free voice in a world.” free”.
After the end of the Cold War and the departure of American troops from Berlin, the AFN was finally closed. RIAS radio operations were integrated into the German public station Deutschlandradio, while its television arm went to Deutsche Welle, Germany’s state-funded international broadcaster.
But that was not the end of the American broadcast in Berlin. The AFN Berlin frequency was sold to a rock station that aired the Voice of America news broadcasts. Then, in the early 2000s, NPR – which serves as the national syndicator for more than 1,000 radio stations in the United States – brought American public radio to the German capital.
Jeff Rosenberg, the founding father of NPR’s only overseas self-managed station, campaigned for years for a frequency. “Tears were streaming down my face” when NPR Berlin aired in 2006, he said.
The station enjoyed a loyal local clientele, both within Berlin’s fledgling international community and among longtime Berliners. Still, NPR Berlin has struggled to stay afloat. The “listener support” which supports US NPR stations – voluntary financial donations collected during regular fundraising campaigns – is a foreign concept in Germany, where households pay nearly € 20 per month for public broadcasting.
In 2017, Kornblum helped KCRW take over from NPR. Ultimately, however, the US public station model proved unsustainable, especially in times of crisis.
The instant announcement of KCRW’s closure prompted hundreds of listeners to contact the station, and many offered to help. But by then it was already too late.
“I had no idea they had these problems,” said Charles Gertmenian, a Californian from Pasadena who has lived in Berlin for 20 years. “Now I blame myself for not having organized a fundraiser.”