Saturday, September 06, 2008

Austrian Shortwave Fadeout


I owe a lot to a small team in the English section of what was (ORF) Austrian Radio's international radio service. For they gave me a break I couldn't have had in the UK in the mid 70's - I was simply too young.

In 1976, a team of four staffers and a handful of freelancers moved from studios in wooden "barracks" in the Argentinierstra├če to the wing of the brand new ORF Centre in Vienna's 13th District (the centre of the photo on the left shows one of the former SW studios on the W├╝rzburggasse). I was one of those freelancers, given the chance by the boss of the department, the late David Hermges, to take a year off between school and university and come and give broadcasting a try. I confess, I enjoyed those 14 months in Vienna immensely. I took a risk by paying 29 pounds for a single ticket from London to Vienna - with only a smattering of schoolboy German.

I survived on writing pieces for Report for Austria and for a programme on Sundays called "Austrian SW Panorama". This was two decades before the public Internet and Skype, when an international telephone call was unheard of, and there was still magic in distance. ORF's international service ran half hour carousels of programmes in Englsh, French, Spanish, German and a smattering of Esperanto. I got to know Wolf Harranth, the media editor on the German service. I discovered a goldmine of fascinating material that he, together with a band of loyal listeners, had been collecting on the airwaves.



More that 30 years on, I am glad to say that this media collection has been preserved and catalogued by Wolf and a band of volunteers. With over 3 million items, the centre in Vienna houses the most comprehensive collections about short-wave broadcasting in the world.

Those days in the mid-70's, when Austria had many reasons to communicate with the outside world (its large "UN city", its proximity to the Iron Curtain, and its neutrality") the ORF Auslandsdienst was just a brilliant place to work. Sadly, in the 90's it didn't move with the times and gradually the foreign language programmes were trimmed - now English is 15 minutes a day, Spanish is 5, and French a mere 3 minutes a day! It has reached a stage where there's not much point.

Now, another round of budget cuts will mean ORF becomes monolingual again at the end of 2008. If you look at the current single page in English, it is a mashup of German and English and the reception report form shows they have lost their way..reception quality has been mixed up with reception location.


It is a shame they never found the budget to build a sort of audio Wikipedia of Austria using all the material they made - hundreds of hours a year if you think about it. Happy Memories, for me, though. I shall always be grateful. Great friends - both in Vienna and in the audience around the world.
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