Back to Radio

Radio features belong to the part of my life’s work that I left behind when I moved to Berlin in the mid-1980s. Many people will already have listened to radio features, perhaps without even realizing it. Superficially, features resemble reportage and the two are as easily confused with one another as the starling and the blackbird. It is only the blackbird though that that sings so beautifully.

I wrote the following essay for a sound exhibition I made in Copenhagen on the 13-16th January, 2007 in the House of Literature:

“Radiophonic montage has led a shadowy existence amongst arty types, mostly overlooked, occasionally condescendingly singled out for praise as part of a particular piece but never ranked according to its real status as an art form on a par with literature, painting or music.” – Niels Peter Juel Larsen

The genre, with its English and German roots, was developed in Denmark after the German occupation (1940-1945) under the inspired leadership of the Austrian refugee Willy Reunert. He was the creator of what we now know as the Danish radio feature and created the term “Dangerous Radio” through his programmes. Viggo Clausen, one of his most talented students, went on to develop the genre in a less socially critical direction with more emphasis on original recordings presented in dramatic form. The radio feature has many names. Initially it was known as a soundscape. Later, inspired by Eisenstein’s montage technique and dreaming of emulating it, Viggo Clausen gave it the name montage.

Subsequently, Stephen Schwartz, Peter Kristiansen (who died far too young in 2007) and the undersigned Niels Peter Juel Larsen developed the genre further. Notable figures among the most recent generation include Tim Hinman, Rikke Houd and Krister Moltzen.

“When it comes to hearing, you are totally at its mercy. There is nothing to be done. If you are born with hearing you are basically forced to hear everything within earshot – from the moment you are thrown into the world to the moment you are thrown out of it.“ – Sven Holm in the essay collection Dronning Margrethe hår og andre 33 klip (Queen Margrethe and 33 other haircuts).

The microphone captures the world as sound. Without the microphone a conversation is just talk. Only the microphone enforces focus - all at once the conversation becomes the most important thing in the world, reality concentrates around sending the most interesting quotes into the microphone. The great moments in front of a microphone happen when the conversation grows wings, when reality frees itself. In those moments it reaches a higher concentration of drama and poetry. What happens in front of the microphone can be compared with an old Zen Buddhist riddle: At first the mountains are merely mountains, then they are not mountains and finally they are merely mountains once more. Or – at first the microphone is a burden, then it is forgotten, finally it inspires. It is this last phase that gives the sound its magic.

In essence, I have always been on the hunt for the snapshot. The moment when the mountains become mountains again. If you cannot capture this moment then all is lost. If you control an interview too much, you suffocate the moment. It arrives first just as you give up control. It cannot be explained, you just know when it happens. At the same time, you only know that there are such moments because the microphone is there. It is a paradox but there it is. And when it happens it is like seeing a rare, wild animal emerge into a clearing. 

As I said, this all comes in through the ear. Cinema has the eye and the ear, radio just the ear. It is a single-sense medium. That is its special magic. Sound creates a particularly intense form of imagery. Sound is stronger than the written word. Its innate authenticity is a gift that creates credibility.

The ear is our first connection with the world. We hear the sounds of the world for the first time through the amniotic fluid. The ear is our portal to the world. And the ear warns us, we experience love and hate through the ear. The ear leads us through the world. Our eyes see the world but without the ear it is empty and lifeless. In the beginning was the Ear – not the Word.

The word captures one sound after another. The eye can only focus on one image at a time. Images lose focus as the light declines, whereas ambiguous voices make for exciting listening. The ear can explore layers of sound, immerse itself in undercurrents and asides. Complex patterns of sounds give the radio feature depth, clarity and nuance. The silence speaks. And yes, the ear captures all that cannot be conveyed in words. Sound is grasped between the ears, not between the lines.

Radio work is lonely work for the author. You set one sound after the other and the listener is forced to follow along. This produces new meanings and contexts along the way. The sounds move in the direction you desire and the story develops. What matters is how you put the one thing after the other. Therein lies the art, often overlooked. There lies the secret. The author hides himself in the edits

There are rules as well of course, the old Aristotelian rules. Begin in medias res, finish higher than you started. If you start with a roar, you will usually finish as a lamb. Better to start as a lion in lamb’s clothing. How to do this though? It is quite simple but only a few can manage it. It requires talent. A clear mind is also no obstacle. To develop a dramatic arc you have to hear the emotional temperature of the sound. Overly strong elements in the wrong place can ruin the whole thing. You could compare it to playing cards, or trying to fill in a blue sky in a jigsaw puzzle. Success is when everything is blue, otherwise the sky is full of holes.

Here is an example. In my piece Pæne Folks Børn 1976 (Nice People’s Children) everything culminates in a dramatic dialogue between a father and a son over the son’s manslaughter of a drug addict. Everything leading up to that has been an anticipation, a variation, a road sign along the way, even if it is spoken in a different voice from that at the end. If this anticipatory build-up fails then the ending rings false and the magic is broken.

Interview technique plays an important part in the gathering of material. Very few people manage to collect material and shape it into an epic or dramatic whole. The theories around it are many and various but really there is no one, single interview technique. Everyone uses their own voice and their own sensibility. There is no secret, special power you can use to get close to people, and you cannot force things out of them with a crowbar. What works is being yourself, using your wits, posing the right questions, drilling deeper. But you are always missing something, you fluff a line, lose sight of a particular aspect. “The best milk comes last,” Willy Reunert used to say. You could also add, any type of anger or condemnation on the part of the interviewer is destructive; for the people you are interviewing you must be amoral. Clear-headed, well-intentioned but amoral. You can always moralise later if you still feel the compulsion.

The scripted radio feature is rare in Denmark. People stick to the tried and tested forms and doctrines. By preference, the Danish radio feature tradition goes hunting for unhappy existences in the back streets. There was a time – in Viggo Clausen and Stephen Schwartz’s early work – when this was a strength of the feature but now this reliance on found voices can also be a straight-jacket. If all you have available is your own voice, that is what you have to use. You can create just as great art that way as any other. Ultimately, if you don’t know what you’re doing, it doesn’t matter whose voice you record. You could hear the voice of God itself and the microphone wouldn’t be able to help you. I’m a heathen myself so that last example is an unlikely one for me but the point stands – using your own script can free you from dependence on other voices.

In the first rank of great German radio features we have those created by Leonhard Braun and his successors. In France, René Farabet and Kaye Mortley have produced intermediate forms that are reminiscent of the Danish ones but these have long since exploded the boundaries of that format.

For myself, I see the feature Hvad hjertet begærer (What the Heart Desires) in 1979 as simultaneously being the highpoint of my work in this particularly Danish genre of the voices of others and also announcing my break with it. The location is the shopping centre City 2. The main character is a sales rep giving out about the spirit of the times while around him are many snapshots of people and situations. The drama takes place between the sales agent himself and other voices taken from the shopping centre. The entire piece consists of authentic recordings but the result is a piece of radio fiction. It all sounds as if it was recorded in exactly the same place but that is not the case. The craftsmanship is carefully hidden.

Peter Kristiansen’s Elites fra Minefeltet (The Elite of the Minefield) from 1989 is a similar piece of art. There is no pause here that is not calculated, no course of events that is not composed, no dialogue that is not created by the producer. But like all great art the craftsmanship is invisible. You could say that Peter Kristiansen was still grounded here in the Danish tradition, a form from which I moved away in my subsequent written and narrated features.

It is problematic when the author of a feature wallows in another’s suffering and sorrows. Then it can appear as if those interviewed do so under duress, talking as if someone was holding a gun to their head and forcing them to spill their guts. This is a pervasive type of visceral archeology, you could even call it social pornography, that is of interest only to doctors, psychologists and voyeurs. Its main characteristic is that the author neither understands nor is interested in his subjects but simply exploits them. People are given no opportunity to be themselves or to go their own way. Instead, they are turned into invalids before the microphone – as, for example, in Christian Stenthoft’s Dina – and sacrificed on the altar of sensationalistic journalism. The only message for the listener here is that life is shit. We know this already and it is not interesting. If you really want to show people shit then you have to give it wings.