“Hier spricht Berlin” – East German Radio Stations between Propaganda and Entertainment

The sweeper for Peter Niedziella’s iconic weekly radio show “Musikalische Luftfracht” was recorded by an actual air hostess in 1970. DJ Niedziella piloted his precious musical cargo through the East German airwaves for over 20 years, flying under the radar of censorship to bring Western pop music to his many listeners. His show was an exception in the state-controlled and ideology-driven environment of East German radio. Balancing the transmission of socialist values with audiences’ yearning for some light entertainment was never an easy job.

Image courtesy of katz23 – fotolia

The Beginnings of East German Radio 

On 13 May 1945, five days after Germany’s surrender in World War II, the Soviet Military Administration in Germany (SMAG) started broadcasting a programme called “Hier spricht Berlin” (“This is Berlin speaking”) in their part of the capital. The East German radio stations, which remained under Soviet control until 1952, were officially assigned the task of “raising socialist consciousness” – much to the despair of many listeners who wanted to hear good music rather than political propaganda. Many voted with their ears and tuned in to West-German radio stations instead. The State Broadcasting Committee responded with a two-pronged approach of introducing lighter fare into their own programmes and systematically jamming foreign signals. However, battle songs and sloganeering continued to dominate the East German airwaves until well into the late 1970’s and news and other public information was disseminated in strict accordance with the SED’s party line until the Wall fell in 1989.

GDR Stations – an Overview 

The various stations under the control of the State Broadcasting Committee all performed different functions within the system. Stimme der DDR (“Voice of the GDR”) was created to spread socialist values and news about life in East Germany on the other side of the border. “Radio DDR” was divided into two stations, one of which focused on news and entertainment, the other on culture and education. Berliner Rundfunk was the GDR’s flagship station, set up as an Eastern counterpart to compete with the popular Rundfunk im Amerikanischen Sektor (RIAS). Radio Berlin International broadcast its socialist message in a range of different languages including Portuguese, Danish, Arabic and even Swahili. In 1986, with only three years to go before the fall of the Wall, DT64 was set up to target young audiences. Albeit short-lived (DT64 lasted until 1993, when it relaunched as Sputnik), this station’s history proves that East German radio was at its best when the iron grip of indoctrination was less oppressive.

Image courtesy of flügelwesen – photocase

Legendary Stations and Memorable Shows on the East German Airwaves 

“DT64” originally as a 99-hour special programme to mark the German Youth Rally in 1964. In the same year, the show was given a daily slot on Berliner Rundfunk. Due to its growing popularity, a new station was launched in March 1986. In order to stop younger listeners from switching over to Western stations, radio hosts and DJs were giving comparatively free rein in shaping their shows’ content. This proved to be a successful strategy, as Christopher Diekmann, a former DT64 remembers. He describes the contents as a mix of lively topical reports, want ads and “the late capitalist cacophony still popularly known as beat music back then.” (Die Zeit, 29 November 1991). Although Diekmann cautions that DT64 was not quite the heroically subversive radio format it has sometimes been celebrated as retrospectively, it did touch on topics such as homosexuality and xenophobia and smuggle in some contents that did not exactly toe the official party line. Even punk and garage rock made in the GDR were played on DT64 on Saturday nights.

Peter Niedziella’s Musical Cargo 

In the 1970’s, East German radio stations finally started to pay more attention to their audience’s preferences. Hosted by Peter Niedziella, the abovementioned “Musikalische Luftfracht” on DDR Radio was a particular favourite with many listeners for its 40-percent quota of Western pop music. One blogger remembers taping “Jeanny” by Austrian artist Falco shortly before it was banned. “And I always take pleasure in reminding people that, thanks to this programme, ‘Voyage, Voyage’ by Desireless became a hit in the GDR almost six months before it took West-Germany by storm.” It probably helped that the powers that be considered French music less harmful to young socialist minds than songs from the English-speaking capitalist heartland. As the story of DT64 shows, radio makers did occasionally succeed in taking a few liberties and carving out some breathing space. As Diekmann puts it: “Music was a way of commenting on things that could not be said.”