The following is a feature article from the LARB Quarterly Journal: Summer 2015 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books or order a copy at amazon.com.
A FEW YEARS AGO the BBC’s flagship domestic station, BBC Radio 4 (imagine a better-funded NPR, with a more central place in national life), canceled its main children’s show Go4It. Audience research had revealed — perhaps belatedly — that the average age of the listenership was well over 50. Maybe it was chastening for the program makers, maybe they knew it all along. Seen in longer historical perspective, however, the disjuncture is not so unusual. Of all mass media, radio has always had the least developed relation to children. The history of film or photography, of TV or the internet, could hardly be written without reference to the child: images of children, children as audience and market, children’s actual or hysterically invoked vulnerability. But radio has always been an overwhelmingly adult phenomenon.
Of course, there has long been broadcast radio aimed at children. There were kids’ serials in the American network golden age, cozy British stuff like Listen with Mother in the 1960s, various kinds of educational radio. There are Sirius satellite channels, and Radio TEDDY, a German children’s broadcaster, still transmits on the airwaves. But all this — and even radio hardware marketed to children — is a small and relatively unimportant part of radio as a historical phenomenon. Moreover, radio’s relation to children is indirect, even uncanny: for children, radio is above all something addressed to grown-ups, but they can overhear it, or listen in on it. Radio, in this way, becomes a channel to a world beyond the home. Voices and sounds from the radio bring traces of a different life into the cloistered spaces of childhood and family.
Any serious history of children and radio — any history going beyond a chronicle of program offerings — must include the German writer Walter Benjamin. Benjamin wrote extensively for the radio, and most of those broadcast writings — now newly translated and collected — were written for children, at least at first glance. More than that, something quintessentially Benjaminian happens in that uncanny encounter of radio and child: the hint of an unsettling remainder in the everyday, in the dislocation of sent message and received meaning, in the figure of the child who knows something his parents do not.
Benjamin’s texts date from the late 1920s and early 1930s, when he was a regular broadcaster on Berlin and Frankfurt radio, mostly for youth and children’s programming. Benjamin’s self-reinvention as a broadcaster was the product of necessity. Excluded from the academy, he made a living with prolific freelancing. He was well connected in literary circles, which overlapped considerably with the burgeoning German broadcast industry. Above all, radio work came his way through an old school friend, Ernst Schoen, head of the culture department of Frankfurt radio, the most liberal and aesthetically adventurous of Germany’s nine regional stations.
As in much of Europe, early German radio was highly controlled and highly conservative. Although broadcast technology was a product of war’s accelerated modernization, the new medium’s ideology was rooted in paternalistic cultural politics. Planners of the first free-to-air stations foresaw a one-way transmission of high-to-middlebrow culture: edifying, mildly diverting programs meant to ease a quiescent population to sleep. The extraordinary energies of interwar popular culture — as seen in Weimar cinema or the illustrated press — were to be kept firmly outside, through a mixture of institutional culture and, if necessary, overt censorship. The restrictions extended to politics and current affairs: any mention of these, beyond the pieties of official nationalism, was tightly sequestered into a few short daily news bulletins, distributed by a central agency.
Paternalistic cultural statism — similar to the creed of John Reith, the BBC’s founding father — quickly came into tension with commercial interests. Radio in Germany, as elsewhere in Europe and beyond, took off very rapidly in the 1920s. In just a few years, the early cottage industry developed into a highly capitalized commercial sector. There was much at stake in the sale of hardware and the provision of content — profits, reputations, and careers to be made. Huge modern broadcasting centers were built in major German cities. Receivers got steadily cheaper, technological innovation continued, and listener numbers quickly grew, as did daily broadcast hours. Without ever fully breaking out of the confines of the original model, Weimar radio became a looser, larger, and more modern phenomenon. Music — light and even popular music — took on a more important role, especially in the daytime, for a female audience. With the coming of synchronized film sound, movie hits were regularly played on air in a conscious attempt to maximize synergies between cinema and radio, including the sale of phonograph records and sheet music.
This was the labile world of late Weimar broadcasting in which Benjamin briefly found his niche. The bulk of his radio work comprised 20- to 30-minute talks written for an audience of young listeners. Along with travel pieces and a series on Berlin arcana, they include talks on a dizzying range of topics. Dipping into demotic history, Benjamin turns his attention to, among other things, swindlers and con men, robber bands and witch trials, gypsies and bootleggers, the Lisbon earthquake and the fall of the Bastille. The miscellany can be bizarre — a collection of anecdotes about dogs, for example, or a “brainteaser” broadcast with an incomprehensibly elaborate interactive quiz. There is also quite a bit of what, at first glance, reads like light feuilleton reportage, with Benjamin turning an acute journalistic eye — his instinct for detail serving him well — on factories, department stores, and street markets. These subjects rarely seem imposed from above. Instead, the broadcasts trace a whimsical wandering line in Benjamin’s own thought. He seems to write about whatever is on his mind or on his reading table at the time.
In addition to programs for children, Benjamin turned out a few radio plays (some for kids, some not) as well as “grown-up” lectures on a variety of topics. At times, an astute freelancer, he lightly reworked already published content. His first ever radio talk was a report on “Young Russian Poets,” using material from his time in Moscow; his last, just before the Nazi takeover, was a reading from his Berlin Childhood Around 1900. More significantly, he also wrote a number of didactic role-play vignettes on work and careers, so-called “listening models” heavily influenced by the epic theatre and the early media theory of Bertolt Brecht, with whom Benjamin enjoyed a close, if sometimes one-sided, friendship. In this mode, Benjamin sought to inject some political urgency, some sense of the present — some actuality, in the buzzword of the day — into the torpid banality of Weimar radio. The dialectical dialogue “A Pay Raise? Whatever Gave You That Idea!,” for example, dramatizes correct and incorrect ways of asking for a pay raise.
In terms of his own finances, Benjamin did pretty well from all this work. Radio honoraria were probably his main income at the time. In fact, for a brief moment, Benjamin was a prototype of a later phenomenon, when public broadcasters effectively subsidized European literary production with generous broadcast fees. (Near the BBC’s old HQ in London, you can still find pubs with pictures of George Orwell and Dylan Thomas displayed above the bar, celebrating the radio checks cashed and spent there.) But the wider question of the value of Benjamin’s radio writings, and their place in his work, has never really been settled. For the most part, they have remained a vaguely known but ultimately obscure corner of his sprawling oeuvre.
The neglect was partly due to editorial taxonomy. Right or wrong, medium was not an organizational principle for Benjamin’s early editors, so the broadcast writings were lumped in with other occasional and journalistic work. The absence of sound recordings also played a role. Early radio was overwhelmingly live, and went almost completely unrecorded. The problem was solved by around 1930 — 16-inch disk recorders became standard in-house technology. But the process was awkward and expensive, and only a fraction of programming survives. (Among other things, this means that there is no recording of Benjamin’s voice, a lack that surely contributes to the aura of ineffability that clings to his persona.)
But the biggest stumbling block for later readers of the radio work is the vehemence with which Benjamin himself wrote it off. At the time, he privately dismissed his broadcast writing, with a few exceptions, as pure hackwork — Brotarbeit, “bread-work,” he calls it — which sapped his energies, distracting him from more important tasks. In one letter to his friend Gershom Scholem, he reports that he has hired a new dictation secretary, to save time with the radio stuff, and literally to keep his hands clean. Critics writing about the radio work have done some neat footwork to get around this authorial dis-imprimatur. A 1990s monograph ingeniously suggested that the oral composition, and the strong association with childhood, meant the pieces could be read psychoanalytically, as emanations from Benjamin’s unconscious. Others, correlating what he wrote about radio with his harsh judgment of his own radio writing, read him as a thwarted avant-gardist, forced to forego his experimental desires and modernist plans, reduced by circumstances to writing embarrassing lectures for children.
Given this attitude, one might wonder at Verso’s publication of a nearly complete and newly translated volume of the radio writing. It is tempting to hear the rattle of the spoon scraping the last from the Benjaminian barrel. Being cynical about Benjamin is easy these days, after he has been overexposed by a joyless kind of academic hype, his reputation dulled by mechanical praise. But you only need to read him to be charmed and awed again. In fact, these little broadcast miniatures contain some of Benjamin’s most delightful moments. The scale of his erudition is almost comical: the scholar of Kant and the connoisseur of the Baroque deploys his profound knowledge of the history of stamp collecting. Shaped for a young audience, more than ever his learning is worn with lightness and grace. And as always, his ideas are inseparable from images. In his talk on puppetry, Benjamin recalls performances witnessed in half a dozen cities, tells tales of puppets blowing smoke rings or turning into live doves, recounts shows called “The Robber Baron Flayed Alive!” and “Murder in the Wine Cellar.” He quotes, fondly and verbatim, the patter of puppeteers, living and dead. But the images, no matter how full of wonder, are knitted together (kneaded together …) in resolutely materialist and historical analysis, as he invokes puppetry’s link to the sacred — through fetish and animism — and traces its history to the blasted aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War.
It is as if Benjamin can’t help himself. No matter what the audience, no matter how abstruse or mundane the subject, he cannot help — with a turn of phrase or a turn of thought — but reveal his dialectical finesse, his subtlety with images, his depth of imaginative recall, his aphoristic brilliance. Like a prince in disguise, he gives himself away. His little talk on Cagliostro — the 18th-century religious charlatan who conned his way around the courts of Europe — contains a subtle psychological reading of the man, and a critique, in passing, of narrow-minded Enlightenment. Deeply sympathetic to Cagliostro himself, Benjamin is scornful of the courtly dupes, so proud of their “Reason,” who could neither see through nor ever understand his con:
people were so firmly convinced the supernatural world did not exist, they never took the trouble to reflect upon it seriously and thus fell victim to Cagliostro. […] This is another lesson from the story: in many cases, powers of observation and knowledge of human nature are even more valuable than a firm and correct point of view.
Benjamin turns and returns to the 19th century above all. As in Berlin Childhood Around 1900, images from his own childhood blend with a wider history. He alludes repeatedly to his teachers, his favorite books, his young adventures in the city. But the personal is not private. His childhood consciousness is invoked so its experience can resonate with other alert young minds, both in the 19th century and among his radio listeners. This complex communion is at its most crafted in talks devoted to toys. The “Berlin Toy Tour” essays are, on one level, a kind of feature journalism: Benjamin visits a department store, describing in detail the wonder of modern toys, and recalling those of his own youth. But the talks go strangely and beautifully astray, passing through a brief history of artisanal craftsmanship, then morphing into a reflection — a self-reflection — on the relation of passion, knowledge, and possession. He concludes in the simplest of voices:
[…] it’s left to me to calmly say what I really think: the more someone understands something, and the more he knows of a particularly kind of beauty — whether it’s flowers, books, clothing or toys — the more he can rejoice in everything that he knows and sees, and the less he’s fixated on possessing it, buying it himself, or receiving it as a gift. Those of you who listened to the end […] must now explain this to your parents.
The image of children teaching their parents gives a hint of the radio essays’ wider purpose. All in all, read together — as the Verso volume allows — his children’s essays emerge as a coherent experimental project in its own right, but not in any strict sense a formal or technical experiment. Its modernism has little resemblance to the ideas of the early radio avant-garde, be it F. T. Marinetti’s Italian noise poetry — influential then, still reverently cited today — or the Russian Futurists’ invocation of a radio-planetary sublime. It is a world away from Brecht’s best-known radio work, the modernist cantata The Flight of the Lindberghs, with its dramaturgy of closed-circuit transmission.
Instead, Benjamin’s essays for children are an exercise in popular historical pedagogy, a serious attempt — at least to begin with — to give voice to a revitalized Enlightenment, colored with Benjamin’s own idiosyncratic historical materialism. Benjamin, in other words, takes an unashamedly pedagogical approach, but one quite unlike the state paternalism that funneled a diluted high culture to a mass audience, in hopes they would quiet down and learn their place. His project here is to use radio’s new public sphere to propagate an Enlightenment “from below,” drawing energy from the force of a pre- and extra-capitalist popular culture.
This makes Benjamin’s radio writing sound more abstract and highfalutin than it is. It was meant, after all, for children and adolescents. There is a startling lack of snobbery to the man, in content, tone, and technique. (How game he is. Imagine Adorno or Heidegger writing a quiz, or telling little stories about dogs.) His style is crafted with the radio medium in mind, not in some reified sense of “the acoustic” but as a device that enables him to address actual people, whom he presumes to be intelligent, already possessed of knowledge, and keen to gain more. Technique aligns with subject matter. Over weeks and months, never using his own name — but using “I” a lot — he builds a palpable radio persona, addressing his audience with informality and care. He even has a kind of catchphrase, beginning many of the talks with “Are you familiar with […]?” or “I imagine you must already be familiar with […].” At the end of broadcasts, he often offers gentle summaries, little teacherly pointers for further thought, or the suggestion — the hope, really — that the listener, in some future moment, may recall the talk and its writer.
The quiet performative élan guides the listener on a digressive but not aimless passage through the history of European popular culture. These talks amount to a portrait — a composite, occasional, and partial portrait — of the people. Images of children in the city blend with Benjamin’s own longing — he was not alone in this at the time — for a literate, confident proletariat as a cultural and political force. Quoting Adolf Glassbrenner, chronicler of early 19th-century Berlin, he might be speaking of his own radio enterprise: “We are separated from the great mass of the people by everything, by eccentric habits and education, by money, by our speech, and by our clothes. Unless we join hands with the people and come to an understanding with them, no freedom is possible.”
Benjamin’s pickings from his trove of arcana — whether on puppets or Pompeii — are not representative moral fables, but are chosen for the life that flows through them, for populist cheerfulness, resourcefulness, and wit, for a glint of humor or pathos, for shrewdness leavened with generosity, for a nonpossessive worldliness. They are the embodiment, in tales recounted and lives lived, of a popular countertradition of wisdom, courage, and stubborn autonomy. All of this, it is clear, Benjamin felt it important to impart to the young. Put another way, these radio talks perform an unassuming version of the dialectical move Benjamin so loved: invoking a past first made strange and then made available, which feeds the present’s imagination and fuels its courage.
Why then Benjamin’s negative judgment on what was, at least in part, clearly a labor of love? Why did he dismiss these popular pedagogical pieces and deny the effort he put into them? Shame explains it, in part: Benjamin’s discomfort at his increasingly diminished social status led to a certain contempt — both banal and perverse — for commissioned work and residual professional affiliations. But it is also important to understand the ultimate trajectory of his radio career, which becomes clear in a collected volume. Reading the full series of radio talks, you get a sense of great energies gradually sapping away. The care and finesse of the early talks goes missing; the final broadcasts are hurried and slapdash, segues are awkward or broken, the choice of subjects increasingly arbitrary and unformed.
Clearly — and ironically, given his attention to high spirits and the transmission of resolve — Benjamin lost heart and lost interest. Maybe the work took an emotional toll he was no longer willing to pay. To bring pedagogical tenderness to bear is not easy at the best of times. Without recordings to play back, without a clear place — or a job — at the station, without any coherent channel for feedback, Benjamin must sometimes have felt as if he were speaking into a void. The short text “On the Minute” (strangely omitted in this book), an evocative account of panic and loneliness before the studio microphone, alludes to this sense of isolation.
But more direct political factors also played a role. A first jolt of authoritarianism centralized German radio in 1932, dragging it toward the nationalist right. Reactionaries scoured the stations, enforcing a stricter alignment with the state. And things got worse: Benjamin’s last broadcast came in early 1933, a day before Hitler was appointed Chancellor. After that, there was no more radio for him. Goebbels — a different kind of radio artist — took over.