Sunday, October 03, 2010

Remembering Radio Berlin International (RBI)

As a young short-wave listener in the early 1970's, I was fascinated with stations I could hear on an old military receiver from the "Communist" East Bloc. They used to send all kinds of (propaganda) magazines in response to reception reports. At one time I sent all kinds of questions off to Radio Berlin International just to see what would happen. I was mentioned all over the place, but especially in the Thank You for Writing letterbox programme hosted by Marjorie Milner. A year after the fall of Berlin wall, I made a documentary for Radio Netherlands Media Network on several East European stations. Kim Andrew Elliott of the Voice of America and I just jumped in my car and we headed for Vienna, Budapest, Bratislava, Prague, and then Berlin. We got fed up of waiting for the official travel proposals at our respective stations would be approved and just took the risk. I am so glad we did. RBI went off the air not long after our visit. Deutsche Welle got RBI when the wall came down, and apart from a few young journalists in English section - and the transmitter site in Nauen, they didn't have much need for the studios on the Nalepastrasse on the banks of the river Spree. That old programme (actually a mash-up of two editions of Media Network) is posted here below.

This September I went back to Berlin and since I was staying in a hotel 20 minutes away from the Nalepastrasse, curiority got the better of me. I recalled that the home of RBI, and its much larger domestic service "Stimme DDR" was housed in former furniture factory. The story was that the original owner had got the building back in the 90's and that it was going back to making furniture.

I took the 21 tram from Frankfurter Tor to Blockdammweg. It is a few minutes walk to Nalepstrasse and the doors of the former broadcast house. To my surprise, the studios are still intact and a small group is trying to turn the place into a sort of new media centre. They have persuaded some orchestras and bands that this is a cheap but effective place to practice and record performances. They have even built a website to offer the services - and its where you need to go if you want to sign-up for one of the tours. At 5 Euro, not really that expensive.

Unfortunately, having signed up for the tour on the same day a few hours before, I discovered that I was too late and in fact no tour was being given that day. But the guard on the gate gave me a brochure and told me that there seemed to be quite a lot of interest in their new found recording business.

The Nalepastrasse is actually broken into two parts, partly because of the security that surrounded the old broadcast centre. To the south of the building, the Nalepastrasse picks up and there the land seems to have been sold off for weekend lodges and allotments. Half way down the Nalepastrasse is a turning to a ferry which takes you across to the other side of the River Spree and the S-bahn back into the centre of Berlin.

I took plenty of photos and video. If there is interest from readers of this blog, I will post the video on my video vault on vimeo.

I also recommend a trip to the Stasi Museum not far away from RBI (15 minute tram ride). There is a museum, usually housed in House Number 1 of the Secret Police headquarters, which turns out to be the archives. While building work is going on in the archive, they museum has moved to Building 21. This was the former general’s canteen, also called “General’s Hill” by the Stasi employees. The museum director points out that not enough of the museum is yet explained in English. But if you ask at the desk, they will give you a photocopied translation of the older guide. I understand German well enough to follow the guide and hear that 90,000 people worked for the Stasi, and another 110,000 were thought to have informed on their neighbours. The East German population declined by three million people throughout its forty-one year history, from 19 million in 1948 to 16 million in 1990; of the 1948 population, some 4 million were deported from the lands east of the Oder-Neisse line. This was primarily a result of emigration — about one quarter of East Germans left the country before the Berlin Wall was completed in 1961, and after that time, East Germany had very low birth rates

The East German Stasi were fanatics. Completely bonkers, I'd say. I remember that East German radio station RBI made a big fanfare about the International Youth festival in 1973. These innocent looking trucks outside had cameras, microphones and even a transmitter inside to relay observations back to HQ. They had more tape recorders that RBI.

Spying on the Youth
Originally uploaded by Jonathan Marks

The museum is open every day and there are excellent guides that explain what really went on in the Ministry for State Security in Berlin-Lichtenberg, where Erich Mielke, the last minister for State Security, had his seat. When the restoration work is complete you can visit the offices which are preserved in their original state. Everything there was made by East German companies like Carl-Zeiss and RFT. But Erich's private chambers had a Philips television in it - I suppose an example of Western luxury or perhaps he was an ardent viewer of RIAS Berlin?

On the second floor of the museum are examples of eavesdropping apparatus used by the East Germans to bug conferences and just spy on other GDR citizens. Cameras built into dustbins, railway sleeps, trees, ties, handbags, as well as extensive ways to bug meeting rooms and send the audio down the phone line. They really were completely mad.
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