60 Years of Radio Feature in Germany

With reference to the still unresolved question: What is a feature?

By Patrick Conley

"The word 'feature'", as E. Kurt Fischer wrote in 1964, "is an annoyance for many listeners. Unfortunately, there is no reasonable translation for it." But even if there were a fitting German expression for it, it must be added, we still would not have a useful definition of the genre. 60 years after the March 9, 1947 broadcast of What if ...? (Was wäre, wenn ... Ein Rückblick auf die Zukunft der Welt) by Axel Eggebrecht, the first feature at NWDR in Hamburg, the term still lacks a clear interpretation.

The etymological meaning of the term "feature" is multifaceted. In English it can mean "characteristic", "property", "special attraction" and – in terms of journalism – "special contribution" with background information. In English-speaking countries, the "feature story" is held in high regard, but even though there has been a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing since 1979, the term has not entered into the world of the German press. As a radio genre, however, the feature is firmly established in German-speaking countries. In 1947, it came to Hamburg along with the British broadcasting officers and was highly successful in West Germany with Axel Eggebrecht, Peter von Zahn, Ernst Schaubel and Alfred Andersch. In 1963, the GDR broadcasting service followed with its own Features Department. Since 1973, the radio feature has had fixed program slots in Austria and Switzerland.

So what is a radio feature? Technically speaking, it is a 30- to 60-minute, elaborate broadcast from a semantic field related to a radio drama, that can contain all the elements from original sound (interviews) and author texts (epic or scenic type) to noise and music. The feature editors of RBB and MDR call their joint program booklet "RadioDok", WDR has a slot called "Dok 5 – Das Feature", which indicates that the feature, in contrast to the radio drama, is more focused on documentary subjects. The fact that an overlap between radio drama and feature is inherent in the system, is demonstrated by terms like "documentary" and "original sound" radio drama (Dokumentar- und O-Ton-Hörspiel). Successful productions, such as the two winners of the Radio Drama Award of the War Blind in 2005 and 2006 (Stripped – Ein Leben in Kontoauszügen and Föhrenwald), "poach" from the feature and feature writers, contrariwise, can not themselves be limited only to journalistic work. A feature should be more than just a pure radio documentary, as is known from school broadcast, in which the information content is more important than the artistic design.

As successful as the German radio feature has been in the last 60 years, just as little has the concept asserted itself among the general public. Early this year, the online editors at ARD drew the logical conclusion from this and changed the name of the "Feature & Documentary" page to "Documentary and Current Events". Upon inquiry, the editorial department made this statement: "Unfortunately, we found that few users knew what the term meant and therefore we have decided to rename the page." The radio drama and audiobook boom of recent years has passed right by the feature and stations have begun to establish it as an inexpensive alternative to documentary radio plays. ARD promotes and cuts down on the genre in equal measure. Two weeks of production time for a one-hour radio drama is pitted against a maximum of one week for a feature. Personnel for the genre has been thinned out, jobs for musicians and assistant directors cut and fees reduced.

Nevertheless, the feature will continue to be an integral part of the public radio landscape in Germany. Next year, for the first time, the Axel Eggebrecht Prize in the amount of 10 000 € will be awarded, to "honor the life's work of authors who, with radio works, have creatively and steadily expanded the repertoire of the feature genre" (preamble). Helmut Kopetzky will receive it on February 3 on the campus of the Leipzig Media Foundation. All those who will not yet acquire a taste for the term "feature" in 2008, are referred again to the radio pioneer E. Kurt Fischer. In his observations of 1964, he draws parallels with the word "feuilleton", a term "just as equally vague and untranslatable", and nevertheless a concept one has got used to.

November 2007

(Translated from the German)

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