Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sommerloch '06, Part 4

It's election season again, with a mayoralty race both for the whole city and for each separate borough (Bezirk) thereof. This means that some of the most hideous faces in the entire country are peering down at us from lampposts, each assuring us of their deep commitment to the city and its future. The one word which everyone seems to be using is "konsequent," which sent me to the dictionary, since there are loads of words in German that don't mean what they'd seem to mean in English (my favorite being "Konkurrenz," which means competition). Sure enough, it means "consistent." Now I'm trying to see any race for any office in America being hyped by placards announcing the candidate's "consistency" in so many words. And failing.

The other lesson these posters teach us is how Photoshop can be misused. The CDU candidate, in particular, needs a new art director. Or a new face.


I walked into a Butter Lindner shop the other day and had two shocks. The first was paying €3.50 for a prosciutto sandwich, approximately twice what one would cost at the superb Marcann's in my neighborhood, but I keep forgetting that Butter Lindner is a very high-dollar chain and that it served me right for being so damn hungry right at that moment. But the second shock was that, in the manner of Starbucks and all the other coffee establishments, Butter Lindner was selling CDs called Swing With Jazz Radio 101.9.

On closer scrutiny, this proved to be exactly what I thought it was: a quasi-bootleg featuring out-of-copyright performances gathered by some firm which does this sort of thing. Sleazy but cheap, which fit the sponsor. It was the first indication I'd had in some time that Jazz Radio 101.9 was still functioning. But sure enough, it seems to have a website and everything.

Actually, a German asked me about this a few weeks ago when I was talking about having had a show there for a number of years. "Did Jazz Radio actually once play jazz?" he asked, dumfounded. Well, yes, it did. And it also was a class act, started by Wilhelmina Steyling, a crusading Dutch woman who had a vision of a network of jazz stations all over Europe. It also saved my life.

I was starving to death, having discovered how little American media wanted in the way of stories from Berlin that didn't involve Nazis or Jews, but I was also doing a little writing for the local English-language magazine Checkpoint, and hanging out in their offices because my apartment was so small that it felt good to get out of it. There was an ad salesman there named Michael, and one day I was at home when he called. "A Dutch woman has started a jazz radio station here," he said, "and she wants an English-language DJ who knows about jazz. Interested?" Does it pay? "Sure." I'm interested.

So I went down to meet Wilhelmina, and she was doing her Dragon Lady act. Not friendly, not unfriendly, but not inclined to suffer fools. She asked me to put together two two-hour shows on paper that would show what I would play, one for the jazz show she wanted done, and one for a blues show for Monday evening that I'd suggested. I cobbled the lists together and handed them in, and then heard nothing. Hardly surprising; it sounded like a longshot.

Michael called a few days later just to chat. At the end of the conversation, I said how it was too bad I hadn't gotten the job. "What do you mean?" he said. "You start Tuesday night. You'd better get down here quick." Since it was Monday afternoon, he had a point. So I rocketed down to the storefront they'd rented near Savignyplatz and checked it out, which wasn't very difficult, except for figuring out the difference between CDs and vinyl.

In the early days, the station was on AM only. AM frequencies are fairly easy to get because nobody here listens to them. We naturally didn't have an advertising budget, so we had to figure out how to let people know we existed. We'd sponsor events, and I think we managed to get an ad or two in Checkpoint, but it was rough. When it came time to apply for an FM frequency, of which there are very few in this city, we got lucky: we were in the finals, and our competitors were a Turkish cultural group and the tax-supported state church. Which didn't bode well, but someone decided that the church had enough publicity and maybe so did the Turks, so we got our frequency and never looked back.

When I finally get around to writing this book (which is to say when I finally sell the idea to a publisher) I'll have lots of reminiscences about Jazz Radio and those who sailed with her. But for my purposes here, the best part of it was, we got paid. And that sudden rise in my fortunes allowed me to be solvent enough so that when the Wall Street Journal Europe asked me to be their arts and culture correspondent for this area of the world, I could afford the train tickets until they got around to paying me back. I could take a date out to dinner if I wanted. And when I had to move, I had the money.

And I have to say, my little blues show really evolved into something. Blue Monday, as it was called, eventually had a following of 25,000 listeners on a Monday night. It (and the jazz show) also gave me the time to listen to music I hadn't paid as much attention to as I'd wanted, and, thanks in large part to the vast number of killer soul reissues coming out of England, I was discovering and rediscovering some great, great music.

One thing I don't understand about capitalism is how someone can force you to sell a business and you're powerless to resist. So I can't say why Wilhelmina had to take on, as a partner, a rather dissolute English guy, wealthy, son of a member of the House of Lords, and utterly incompetent. I guess it was because, in the great German tradition, none of our advertisers bothered to pay us in the first two years. (The theory here is that if the little company you're burning goes out of business, you don't have to pay your bills, so you can help them by not paying them in the first place. A lawsuit takes three or four years to get heard here anyway.) But why she had to sell out completely to him I don't understand. I do know that it wasn't what she wanted, it was what she had to do. I also know that the first interaction he had with me was propositioning me, which I found rather bizarre.

Once he'd acquired the station outright, things began to go to hell. All manner of "improvements" started happening, but the worst was Ed Stout. Stout was a pear-shaped individual from New Jersey who was supposedly a radio consultant, and he took it upon himself to totally re-jigger Jazz Radio. Expensive speakers were brought in to do day-long seminars on how to be a DJ, seminars that I didn't attend, since I figured my numbers were good enough to show that I knew what I was doing. Rules for the other DJs began to appear: no chat, no naming the individual musicians on a track, no nothing but title, artist, and constant repetition of the station's name. Oh, and you also had to play exactly what the computer told you to play.

I was worried. Since I knew a couple of legitimate radio consultants, both here and in America, I asked them if they knew this guy. Nobody'd ever heard of him. "It sounds like he's ruining your station," one of them said. My worries came to an end in March 2000, after six years at the station. I came back from SXSW -- a trip I took each year, and dutifully informed my bosses about weeks in advance -- with my suitcase bulging with stuff I was going to play, including some sacred steel recordings for the next day's Easter gospel show. If I'd had my mail held, I would have walked into the station and discovered someone else doing my shift. But there was a letter with Jazz Radio letterhead sitting on my pile, so I opened it up and discovered I'd been fired for "inexplicable absences."

I also found out, in the days to come, that all the other DJs who did their own programming had been fired, and that the receptionist was instructed to tell any of my listeners who called that I'd quit, nobody knew why, and they were as shocked as anybody.

So it was with a certain amount of satisfaction that I witnessed the station's rapid decline, its move out of the luxurious headquarters it had built, the sale of its record library which it had meticulously built up, and, the crowning ignominy, its inability to pay the GEMA license (similar to ASCAP and BMI in the States) that would allow it to play copyrighted material. Jazz Radio became a series of CD jukeboxes loaded with non-GEMA CDs and 50-plus-year-old music, a computer, and a closet in the former Schultheiss Brewery in Kreuzberg.

And truly, I hadn't given them a thought in years until I went into Butter Lindner to buy a sandwich. It was a good sandwich, but I think I'll stay out of there for a while. I miss Blue Monday about as much as I miss anything I've ever done, and I wish I could do it again. I wish I'd saved some recordings of the show so that if I ever get the chance to present the idea to a satellite broadcaster or just some small local station I can show them just how wonderful it could be when it was good.

And I don't like getting so stirred up again because it just reminds me of my belief that no matter how well you might do something in this city, someone's just dying to tear it down.


Cheers to Bowleserised for alerting me to the existence of the 50th anniversary edition of M.F.K. Fisher's The Art of Eating, which I started reading last night. It's a lot like eating a box of very, very good chocolates, so you can't go too fast, but I did find the following last night and thought it was apropos to explaining the great culinary tradition I find myself living amidst.

"Frederick the Great used to make his own coffee, with much to-do and fuss. For water he used champagne. Then, to make the flavour stronger, he stirred in powdered mustard."

This from a chapter in Serve It Forth entitled "Pity the Blind in Palate." She maintains that that might have been his problem. Not me. I live here.


BiB said...

So annoying when an outsider comes in to fix something which isn't broken. Bad luck.

Bowleserised said...

Glad you splashed out on the book – worth every penny. I love those with champagne tastes. Mr "Eat like a Frenchman" Monsieur Montignac recommends "dry champagne" for a "stomach prolapse" while Diane Vreeland suggested washing one's blond child's hair in flat champers, "to bring out the gold highlights".

Another planet altogether.

daggi said...

You'll be pleased to know that the Lutheran Church's radio station (Radio Paradiso) broadcasts as much Christianity today as Jazzradio does jazz. Not being able to speak any Turkish, I can't comment on the programming of Metropol FM (though I assume it is still in Turkish).

William Thirteen said...

i've found a few drops of champagne on a silk handkerchief is an excellent way to get the caviar stains out of my smoking jackets...

Anonymous said...

Howdy Ed-
In response to:

This is the former Checkpoint ad sales guy & former Jazz Radio Berlin Morning guy Michael-
Was wondering what the backstory was on the decline & fall of the whole Wilhelmina-era of JRB. Kinda glad I was spared the juddering death throes... consultants... eww.
Don't recognize anything from the old JRB from the slick new website.
Spent my last days in Berlin dispensing Schultheiss & Aquavit @ The Flying Dutchman on Richard Wagnerstr.
Great town- still miss it.
Hope you're well.
Drop me a line:
Cheers, Mike