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Jan. 23, 2018, 9:38 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Ich bin ein Berliner: How a California NPR affiliate ended up running an English-language station in Germany

Now KCRW wants to make the station more local to Berlin and less about American programming. FYI, “totebag” in German is Tragetasche.

Tune in to 104.1 FM in Berlin, and you might hear familiar American public radio shows on the German airwaves, like Fresh Air or On Point, slid between music programming from the California-based NPR affiliate KCRW. But you’ll also hear new snatches of Berlin-specific segments that run the gamut from food to science to policy, reported in English. Huh?!

A discussion of the Berlin state secretary’s proposal that all immigrants to Germany, including refugees, visit former Nazi concentration camps. An interview with the Berlin DJ duo SpatzHabibi. A profile of the Benjamin Franklin Hospital in West Berlin, designed by New Orleans architects.

So many pieces had to fall into place to produce the unusual amalgamation that is KCRW Berlin, Berlin’s newest English-language radio station that covers Berlin affairs exclusively in English — and they did.

First, there was a vacancy: NPR, which had operated a station called NPR Berlin as its only non-U.S. affiliate, closed its operations at the end of last summer after more than a decade. (NPR had already been evaluating its Berlin station’s “long-term financial sustainability” and finally appeared to have decided the station was too costly to continue running. It was the only station in the world actually operated by NPR, as opposed to being an NPR affiliate.)

The Friends of NPR Berlin group, which included people like former ambassador John Kornblum, had been in touch with KCRW before seeking help improving NPR Berlin’s offerings. (Step one: Probably don’t play a ton of bluegrass music in a city famous for its EDM scene.) Nearly a dozen groups ended up applying for the frequency NPR Berlin was vacating (it would be going to “one of the allied powers“). Then KCRW Berlin won a seven-year license. It went live with its first broadcast in mid-October.

“Berlin is a gathering place for people to come from all over Europe to start art careers, which reminded me of Los Angeles,” KCRW’s CEO Jennifer Ferro said. “I think a lot of our programming at KCRW already translates there — we’ve always had international reach with our music, for instance. We want to get it known as a community institution — to do events, to partner with people who are doing events, to bring Berlin voices in.”

KCRW Berlin sends pieces of content to L.A., where KCRW handles the actual programming and sends it back to Berlin, where it’s then broadcast. But now the Berlin station has a studio — in an office center where several other German radio stations are also based — so now “we’re working on being able to transmit from there, and developing local programming in Berlin, finding hosts that are local,” Ferro said.

An initial grant from major donors is keeping KCRW Berlin going in its “startup” period, as the team figures out the needs of the Berlin-focused shows it wants to launch and what funding it will need to support each. A four-person team in Berlin (only one full-timer), a journalist on a Fulbright through this summer, and a coordinator based out of Santa Monica in California are putting together all the station’s programming, KCRW Berlin COO Susan Woosley, previously with NPR Berlin, told me. Currently, it’s airing short daily local segments, but it’s planning for daily newscasts and a current affairs and culture show, gradually “inserting local shows as we go along and as we get more funding and add more team members.” (Currently at 104.1 FM you might hear NPR news shows and KCRW shows, as well relevant programming from other NPR affiliates like WNYC, or shows from PRI, APM, and PRX.) Both Ferro and Woosley spoke excitedly of a potential show focused on techno music.

Berlin is a city full of English speakers, native, bilingual, or multilingual. But “because of the European Union situation, many thousands come to Berlin each year, but many don’t come speaking German fluently,” Woosley said. “We also want to help integrate the English-as-a-common-language community, by giving them needed news and information about Berlin, who might otherwise remain siloed. The more information they have about their city, the more they fit in with their city.” Outside of KCRW Berlin, the BBC has a frequency in Berlin and broadcasts in English, though it isn’t based in the city.

“When NPR Berlin was still airing, we put out a question on Facebook asking our followers what they thought of [Germany’s Social Democratic Party leader] Martin Schulz, and someone wrote, ‘We’d love to tell you, but we don’t have enough information in English to let you know,” Woosley recalled. “So we took that as a sort of mandate that we really inform the people in this city about what moves it, from issues local to national.”

Ferro and Woosley mentioned leaning heavily on events at the Berlin station in the future, particularly music-related ones. They also discussed continued, and more frequent content-sharing between KCRW in Kalifornien and KCRW Berlin, including a sort of exchange program for hosts — swapping DJs between the two stations, for instance.

“We look to L.A. for a number of things, for their technical expertise, for their general radio knowhow,” Woosley said. “We have daily contact with all different facets of the station. They’ve really opened their doors to us. They’re helping us build a stellar station, and we want them to be proud of us!”

Photo of Berlin nightclub by Lilian used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 23, 2018, 9:38 a.m.
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