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Brían Hanrahan, Dept. of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Columbia University

Representing the Acoustic Real: Early German Radio Documentary Forms

My post-doctoral project builds on my dissertation “The Art of Actuality: Radio, Realism and the Hörfilm, 1924-1930,” a media-historical analysis of new forms of realistic sound recording and representation in early German radio, which focused on the “effects of presence” of early radio. These effects included the temporal phenomena of liveness and simultaneity, but also new sonic effects – for example, background sound and spatial timbre – heard in live location broadcasts and simulated in studio-bound dramatic productions. During my Berlin Program fellowship, I will expand the scope of my research forward into the early 1930s, in order to reconstruct and analyze documentary modes in the radio of the late Weimar period. From about 1930, new recording technology was available to the radio medium. New portable disk-recording machines (superseding earlier experiments with magnetic wire and film soundtrack) permitted, among other things, the recording of location sound. In addition, the technology allowed the archiving of finished programs, offering the media historian a considerably greater amount of audio-recorded material, compared with the thin archival record of the 1920s .

 My research centers in the first instance on largely unexamined sound recordings – for example, journalistic accounts recorded on board ocean liners, as well as impressionistic “portraits” of cities and smaller urban milieu, and “actuality” compilations of news and events. However, I want to do more than simply dig through a neglected archive. While these programs are of little aesthetic interest in a narrow sense (it is not a lost cache of great works), in media-historic terms they mark an important breakthrough. Their use of location-recorded sound material in popular media programming allowed a new set of effects of reality and presence to be used, and new claims to authenticity to be explicitly or implicitly made.

 I want to investigate these effects and these claims through a close analysis of conventions and formal devices. These include, among others, various modes of address, the use of recorded sounds and ‘dramatic reconstructions’ and of diegetic and non-diegetic music. I also want to contextualize these new forms within a more general aesthetics of early acoustic representation, examining how they collectively contribute to a radiophonic “realism,” where “realism” is seen not simply as an aesthetic style, but as a set of codes and conventions specific or common to a medium at a given historical moment. However, in paying attention to a relatively complex formal structure, I do not mean to suggest that these works strive for critical self-reflexivity or that they challenge their own status as a reflection of reality. They constitute a modern form, not a modernist one. They ultimately point, I would suggest, to the variety of different ways in which this status can be constructed, and – we can perhaps infer – to the relative ease with which listeners could adapt to new conventions of the real and the authentic in popular media form.