Andrew Neeson reviews a collection of Walter Benjamin’s radio scripts Radio Benjamin
This review first appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine
In the early days of radio, Marxist critic Walter Benjamin wrote and presented 80 plus broadcasts on German radio. For the first time in English, Radio Benjamin is the full collection of the surviving radio scripts from these shows, mostly aimed at children, written between 1927 and 1933.
As niche books go, this is right up there. However, this is a fascinating book showing the eclectic range of Benjamin’s knowledge and interests, as well as insight into radio as a pioneering mass media form.
Radio Benjamin comprises four sections, the bulk of which is Benjamin’s contribution to “Children’s Hour” on Berlin and Frankfurt radio. Also included in this collection are two plays written for children, and various general radio talks and sketches. In addition, there are also several off air articles written by Benjamin reflecting on radio as a media and art form.
What strikes you from the off is the playfulness, mischievousness and wit of Benjamin’s scripts. In his broadcasts to children, Benjamin is both instructor and confidant. One of my favourites is his lively guide to the Berlin dialect. Celebrating the language and humour of Berliners, Benjamin peppers the broadcast with numerous examples of local banter and jokes. He also delights at making adults the butt of the young person’s quick wit. Did you hear the one about the man who sees a young boy on the street: ‘Huh, smokin’ already? I’m going to tell your teacher’, ‘Do what you want you old fool, I ain’t big enough for school yet!’
In other broadcasts, Benjamin’s focus is on some of the shadier sides of Berlin life and its outsiders. Shows include titles such as, Berlin Guttersnipes, the Rental Barracks (tenement housing for the poor), Witch Trials, Gypsies, Robber Bands of Old Germany, among others. While his scripts are not always politically correct, in a country where Fascist ideas were starting to permeate, Benjamin provided a subtle antidote to the dehumanising of outsiders and the dispossessed going on. In this sense, despite being aimed at younger people, his scripts are pleasingly subversive, offering themes and topics rarely discussed with children in official circles. “I’ll tell you something you’ll rarely hear in your German classes” is a typical retort.
Benjamin’s stories are a celebration of everyday life. Drawing form his wealth of knowledge and love of books, his scripts give history to people from all walks of life. In his description of banter among street traders, Benjamin remarks, ‘it had become an actual sport to lure the market women to rant’, before celebrating their quick tongue: “To spew insults straight from the heart, and with such perseverance, is indeed a great talent, one reserved for the privileged few. It requires not only a high degree of crassness and a healthy lung, but also a large vocabulary and, not least of all, great wit”.
Other stories range from the great toy shops of Berlin, American bootleggers, and the infamous Kasper Hauser. He also broadcast five shows devoted entirely to famous disasters, including the railway bridge collapse over the Firth of Tay in 1879.
Benjamin was himself dismissive of his radio work, describing it as “the work I do simply to earn a living”, and “of no interest except in economic terms”. However, this is exaggeration on Benjamin’s part and may reflect some disillusionment with what he was trying to achieve. Part of Benjamin’s interest in radio was in exploring the potential of this new media form, particularly as a democratic medium. In Reflections on Radio, Benjamin argues that radio as a form of mass culture has the potential to use montage and experimental techniques better than any other method to produce a genuinely modern art form. In this way there is a clear thematic relationship with his later, more famous and influential essay, Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, as well Brecht’s epic theatre.
Benjamin argues that current radio has failed because it perpetuates the fundamental separation between audience and practitioner so that the audience was simply a passive bystander whose only power was to switch off. Radio should enable as many voices as possible to get behind the microphone.
For me the high point of the collection is the children’s play, “Much Ado About Kasper”. Benjamin uses various descriptions to try and break the separation between announcer and listener. The play starts with a scene of fog so that none of the characters can see, thus putting the characters in the same blind situation as the audience. As the story develops, Kasper (a popular children’s figure) is asked to speak on the radio. He refuses and is hounded across town by the radio announcer. The final scene ends with Kasper managing to escape his pursuers only to find that a microphone was hidden in his room and he had been broadcasting all along. Contrary to the democratic potential of radio, Benjamin draws out its more sinister side. Thus in the wrong hands, radio can be a powerful tool to exploit and oppress. These themes are particularly relevant today with regards to discussions around surveillance and the internet.
The power to liberate versus power to control was also relevant for Benjamin. His last broadcast in on 29th January 1933 was also the day before a major radio event in German history: the first national broadcast. This was done by the Nazis to announce and celebrate their election victory.