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20 years of student radio, in Germany

by Robert Stewart, Director

Back in the early 1990s the school was invited to help shape journalism education in the former East Germany. The Berlin Wall had barely been down three years when I made my first trip to Leipzig, in December 1992.

During the 1993 Sommersemester (April-July), I taught two media courses at Leipzig University on a program funded by a grant from the Freedom Forum. One of the courses I taught looked at how CNN covered the fall of the Berlin Wall. The other course focused on U.S. media history.

One day during the semester, my colleague, Prof. Dr. Ruediger Steinmetz, told me there might be the possibility of starting a student radio station in Leipzig. It would be the first of its kind in Germany, which had no tradition of student radio stations. His big question was, will students actually do the daily work of radio production and operation once the station is started?

Prof. Steinmetz invited me to attend one of the first meetings with students interested in being part of this initiative. We met in Thueringer Hof in Burgstrasse, a traditional German restaurant which the following year was torn down and then completely rebuilt from the ground up. Such was life in Leipzig in the early to mid 1990s.

I don’t remember many details from that first meeting I attended. I do remember that there were 12-15 students, and that Prof. Steinmetz asked the question perhaps rhetorically: Would students really work if a station got off the ground? At Ohio University, by the 1990s we had had decades of experience with student-run media. But in Germany, such a student radio station was uncharted territory. And once the commitment was made (in May 1995) and the broadcast license granted (in November the same year), the pressure would be on the students and the staff of the Institut fuer Kommunikations- und Medienwissenschaft to deliver.

I don’t remember if I was asked this directly by Prof. Steinmetz, or simply volunteered my own opinion, based on my experience at Ohio University. It was my experience that students at Ohio University took responsibility for and ownership of the hands-on media experiences on the Athens campus. My answer, based on what I observed at ACRN (radio), The Post (press), and WOUB (radio and TV) was yes. Absolutely yes. In 1994, Prof. Steinmetz visited OUs campus radio and TV stations in Athens, a visit that I think cemented his view that yes, Leipzig students probably weren’t much different than students in Ohio, and that yes, they likely would work hard, given the opportunity, to create wonderful radio programs on a sustained basis.

As planning for the student radio station proceeded in Leipzig, I realized we could offer some additional assistance by providing the Leipzig students one of our own student media leaders as a kind of consultant. In December, 1994, Jonathan Walsh accompanied me to Leipzig to work with television/video students as well as the radio students working on the new station. Walsh was a broadcast journalism student and manager of ACRN, a student-run radio station. What made ACRN remarkable to me was that it was completely student run, and managed. Unlike WOUB, which had professional managers from the School of Journalism, ACRN’s managers were students who supervised other students. In my estimation, it was the model that most resembled what the students and Prof. Steinmetz were envisioning for the new station in Leipzig. ACRN also created 24/7 programming, mostly music. The student radio station in Leipzig would be on the air just four hours per day in comparison, considerably less. But it would have to continue to operate through all of the holidays, and would rely less on music. Clearly, it was a challenge, but in my view, not insurmountable with the help and perhaps inspiration of someone like Jonathan.

Jonathan brought along ACRN station manuals that included committee structures, policies, and so forth, which he reviewed in evening meetings with students hosted in our guest apartment on Ritterstrasse, just in back of the imposing Nikolai Church. Only five years earlier the church had hosted the Monday evening prayer meetings that helped bring down the Berlin Wall. It felt to me like something very big was happening in those student workshops. Indeed, it was. In May, 1995, mephisto 97.6 went on the air, setting a new standard for student radio broadcasting not only in Germany and internationally. For a number of years, even from very early on, I tried to return to Leipzig with Ohio University students to work at the radio station not to share our expertise, but to learn from the Leipzig students. Jeff Johnson was one of the first journalism students from Ohio to attend classes for a semester in Leipzig. He, too, enjoyed working at mephisto. And even today, Ohio University students learn a lot when working to co-produce programs that air on mephisto 97.6.

We’ve also enjoyed hosting mephisto students during U.S. presidential election years, when they come to America to cover the run up to the election. I cant think of a more fruitful example of OU/LU cooperation, and we couldn’t be more proud of our small role in helping to start a radio station that will continue to serve the needs of students for decades to come.

June 29, 2015

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