"Listener Strike"

How to Speak Up: Governed Transmissions

"Listener Strike"

That delivered at the "" (Türkenbefreiungsfeier) in the on May 14, 1933, provoked protests by Social Democrats. The party had flyers distributed with which listeners could cancel their radio licenses. On May 16 the Arbeiter-Zeitung, the main organ of Austrian Social Democracy whose editorial department was located in the building of the party's Vorwärts publishing house at Rechte Wienzeile 97, reported that the Radio Verkehrs AG (RAVAG) had now received a letter with some 10,000 cancellations because the previous Sunday they had "transmitted the so-called 'Turks Deliverance Celebration' by the Austrian Homeland Protection [Heimatschutz], departing from the practice up to now of not broadcasting party-political events on the radio." Indeed, the article continues, the moderator had been so shameless as to call , the federal leader of the Homeland Protection, "Prince Starhemberg," even though the Law on the Abolition of the Nobility (Adelsaufhebungsgesetz) had been in force in Austria since 1919. 

It was not the first time that the Social Democratic Workers' Party had resorted to this act of protest against the federal government's instrumentalization of radio. Over 5,000 cancellations had been received by the RAVAG in April 1933 after the Viennese Home Guard (Heimwehr) leader and then State Secretary of Public Safety Emil Fey  had given the speech "Everything for Austria" on Radio Wien

In it, Fey referred to the Republican Protection League (Republikanischer Schutzbund), the paramilitary association of the Social Democratic Workers' Party, as a "heavily armed civil war organization infested with Bolsheviks," which Federal Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss had rightly, he claimed, banned on March 31. 
Over the course of 1933, roughly 66,000 of the approximately 500,000 registered households canceled the radio license in protest at the biased politicization of Austrian radio. 
As the RAVAG refused to recognize the collective cancellations by letter, the Social Democratic press distributed sample notices toward the end of the year, which were to be individually signed and handed in at the post office. 

To be allowed to listen to the RAVAG's program, a monthly fee of two schillings and an annual recognition fee of one and a half schillings had to be paid. 

That corresponded to approximately one percent of a factory worker's wage. Listening without a license was punished with hefty fines or up to a month's detention, and cancellations were possible after a year at the earliest. 
Although the Social Democratic party leadership campaigned for low license fees and shorter notice periods, until 1933 it did not call the Austrian radio system itself into question. Via the municipality of Vienna, the Social Democratic Workers' Party had a financial stake in the RAVAG and via various panels it also had influence over staffing and the programming format.  To avoid conflicts, political topics were supposed to seldom if ever appear on Radio Wien and the news programs be kept as neutral as possible. In point of fact, however, the broadcasts clearly tended to favor the Christian Social Party-dominated federal government, while the program requests by the Social Democratic and National Socialist opposition were largely ignored. 

As a small concession to the demands for a workers' radio, in fall 1927 a weekly "chamber hour" was introduced, which was made available to the Chamber of Labor and the Chamber of Commerce for thirty minutes each. However, the scripts had to be authorized by the RAVAG beforehand and even despite that, changes were often made after the fact. 

On May 17, 1933, in the week after the "Turks Deliverance Celebration," the Viennese District Councillor Kamilla Gross, who was employed as a housemaid, was supposed to speak about "social policy in the household" during the Chamber of Labor's program time. Yet according to the Kleines Blatt, her pre-approved presentation was removed from the program with the justification that the federal government was currently working on a reform of social legislation and there had been complaints from housewives about such shows. "The haughty philistine spirit that refuses to allow a housemaid to use the microphone and wants to clog our brains with its moldy trash," was how the Social Democratic newspaper commented on the episode: "We don't need a radio station governed by these spirits, a radio station by gracious lords and ladies for the stupid populace! We'd rather go without!" 

From spring 1933 it was clear that Austrian radio would not liberalize but go from being bourgeois conservative to Austrofascist.  The radio-political compromises by the Social Democratic party leadership had been controversial from the outset in the labor movement. Specifically, the amateur radio makers (Radiobastler) did not want to settle for program slots on Radio Wien and demanded the right to set up and operate their own radio stations.  In the Austrian military, especially the navy, radio technology had been in use since the turn of the century, namely for communication from transmitter to receiver, i.e., point to point. Only during World War I did radio become established as a transmission technology to reach a large number of listeners from a single transmitter.  As the telegraph prerogative of 1847 was expanded to include radio units in 1905, private "radio telegraphy" and "radio telephony" now required a license in Austria. 

After an Austrian subsidiary of the British Marconi Company had received a license for international radio communication in 1922, the national use of radio finally took shape in 1924. The Christian Social federal government worked on founding a privately organized but state-controlled broadcasting company, which was given the name Österreichische Radio Verkehrs AG and went on air on October 1, 1924, with its channel Radio Wien

However, resistance mounted against the monopolistic and centralistic organization of this "state radio." In early 1924 a "Memorandum on the Organization of the Broadcast Message" was released by the Viennese publishing house Rubinstein under the title Radio-Demokratie Its author, G.F. Hellmuth, justified his plea for "message freedom" with the argument that a financial or legal "message monopoly" was incompatible with the principles of a democracy.

As a countermodel to the feared radio monopoly, as was then institutionalized in the form of the RAVAG, the brochure suggests the founding of an "Austrian message broadcasting cooperative" into which several program providers should combine. In the Arbeiter-Zeitung a leading article was published in mid-March 1924, which praised Hellmuth's "radio democracy" as a significant contribution to the radio-political debate.  It would be ideal, the editorial says, "if every citizen had the right to set up broadcasting stations and transmit radio messages," which, however, was not feasible due to the limited number of wavelengths. For this reason, it continued, radio had to be state regulated, but as democratically so as possible. 

The same position was taken by the Viennese magazine Radiowelt, which was edited by the officer and radio pioneer Franz Anderle. In a leading article entitled "Radio Freedom!," which appeared in the third issue on March 23, 1924, the ideal state of affairs was described in the same way, namely "that everyone can communicate freely and without restriction with everyone via the radio."  Yet in order to turn the radio "chaos into a cosmos," the editorial says, it was imperative to regulate radio at national and international level in the interests of the body politic. 

Anderle, who had acquired his radio skills in the Austrian military, was himself active in the radio-amateur movement; this fact was also reflected in his magazine, which was published until 1938. Alongside program reports, Radiowelt mainly consisted of instructions on how to build radio receivers, small transmitters, microphones, loudspeakers, etc.  In the course of the 1920s, the radio as a unit developed from a multipart, open piece of equipment,  the use of which required a minimum of technical knowledge, into a closed piece of furniture,  which could be operated with a few buttons. 

This development was in the interest of the radio industry but flew in the face of the amateur radio makers' self-image, who did not want to be consumers of finished products and programs, but technical and content-producing agents of radio. In light of this, an array of organizations emerged: the Free Radio League (Freier Radiobund) in 1924, which was renamed the Workers' Radio League of Austria (Arbeiter-Radiobund Österreichs, ARABÖ) in 1927,  the International Amateur Radio Union in 1925, the Austrian Experimental Transmitter Association (Österreichischer Versuchssenderverband, ÖVSV) in 1926, and the Workers' Radio International (Arbeiter-Radio-Internationale) in 1927. 

However, the radio-amateur movement not only resisted having to depend on commercial receiver unit manufacturers. They also demanded the right to build their own radio transmitters and to operate them on short wavelengths.  "The shortwave entity is undoubtedly the branch of wireless technology to which the working classes must direct the most attention," the Communist Rote Fahne declared in April 1930: "On shortwaves it is namely possible to wirelessly bridge extraordinarily large distances with quite simple means." 

That at first it was less about communicating content than producing the technical connection itself is shown, for example, by a report from the Social Democratic magazine Rundfunk für alle from January 1933 which provides an insight into the "secret language of amateur transmitters."  The radio operator sets the amateur wavebands on the shortwave receiver to between twelve and ninety meters, listens carefully for Morse code, notes down and translates these signals, which usually send a greeting or reply about the reception quality, and then attempts to respond. 

While the radio amateurs had to content themselves with decoding and sending almost imperceptible signals, members of the federal government were given the chance to speak on Radio Wien with increasing frequency.  Besides the collective cancellations, the supporters of Social Democracy also protested using technical means by disrupting unwelcome programs with feedback. In early April 1933, the Arbeiter-Zeitung—already under pre-censorship—reported on complaints by the RAVAG that some listeners were turning the controls on their radios too much and were thereby interfering with the radio reception not only in their own households but also in their neighborhoods. "That is sufficient for the sensible one," the Social Democratic party's main organ added ironically, "he now knows precisely what he should not do and needs no further explanations." 

It seems that this tactic was also used during the "Turks Deliverance Celebration" on May 14, 1933, because a comment on the live broadcast in the Kleines Blatt says: "The listeners drew the obvious conclusion and tried frantically to find the foreign stations, of which the feedback provided clear evidence." 

The so-called "radio theory" of the German writer Bertolt Brecht, which actually comprises a couple of isolated remarks, corresponds with the demands of the workers' radio movement. After having encouraged the transmission of more political coverage and interviews on radio in the Berliner Börsen-Courier in 1927, Brecht published a talk entitled "The Radio as a Communication Apparatus" in summer 1932. 

Without going into the technical difficulties, of which the radio amateurs were well aware, the text summarized the call for radio democracy and radio freedom, which had been made since the early 1920s, in this oft-quoted choice of words:

As a model for this alternative use of radio, Brecht named in this talk his radio drama Lindbergh's Flight, for which Kurt Weill and Paul Hindemith had composed the music. 

It was first performed on July 27, 1929, in the context of the chamber-music festival in Baden-Baden and broadcast by several German radio stations over the following two days.  This so-called "radio lesson" (Radiolehrstück) covered the first crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in a solo, nonstop flight: the American pilot Charles Lindbergh had started in New York City on May 20, 1927, and landed at Le Bourget airport in Paris after 33.5 hours.  In Brecht's radio drama, the radio is supposed to transmit the voices of the adverse elements like the fog, the snowstorm, and sleep, whereas the part of the pilot was to be sung and experienced by the listeners themselves.  However, only concert versions were transmitted on the radio, because the experiment would have required a large campaign to achieve the desired mass impact. From a technical perspective, the radio units were in any case not capable of satisfying Brecht's demands, namely serving simultaneously as receivers and as transmitters in order to unite the many isolated "Lindberghs" into a joint "Ocean Flight" in the ether. 

From 1933 there could be no doubt in Germany nor in Austria that radio had established itself both technically and in terms of content as a "distribution apparatus," i.e., as a mass medium used by the ruling parties to their own ends. At first the opposition forces attempted to disrupt the increasingly frequent propaganda shows with acts of sabotage like the aforementioned feedback. As an alternative act of protest, Austrian Social Democracy organized the described "listener strike" with thousands of radio license cancellations. This passive resistance—preferring to cancel than to continue rebelling—is less reminiscent of Brecht's idea of a "communications apparatus" than of the words put into the mouth of the character Bartleby by the American writer Herman Melville: "I would prefer not to." 

Melville's "story of Wall-Street" published in 1853 tells of a scrivener who starts working as a copyist in a New York law office. His desk stands under a small window with a view of a brick wall and is separated by a folding screen, "which might entirely isolate Bartleby from my sight, though not remove him from my voice," as his boss, the story's narrator, explains. Bartleby copies documents day in, day out, never leaves the office, and only survives on ginger nuts, which the office's errand boy brings to him. One day he answers to his superior that he "would prefer not to" help examine a paper. This "prefer not to" subsequently extends to all his tasks until he even stops writing and only stares out of the window. 

His boss's reactions fluctuate between exasperation at the "mild effrontery" of his employee and attempts to interpret his behavior as "morbid moodiness." As Bartleby does not want to leave his workplace but his presence starts to disturb the clients, the lawyer moves his firm elsewhere. The unemployed scrivener, who now sits in the staircase in front of his former office, is removed from the building on Wall Street as a vagrant and taken to the New York city jail. There he stops eating and ultimately dies. His boss only finds out later that before being employed as a copyist Bartleby had been a "subordinate clerk in the Dead Letter Office at Washington," where undeliverable mail was examined and largely burnt. 

In contrast to Brecht and the radio amateurs, Bartleby does not demand more communication but evades every form of interaction. Instead of rebelling against his boss, telling him that he could no longer stand the interminable copying and finally wanted to do something meaningful, even creative, he insists on the right to be there unproductively. "I would prefer nothing rather than something: not a will to nothingness, but the growth of a nothingness of the will," the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote on Bartleby's attitude. 

The lawyer interprets his employee's strange behavior as the expression of a mental illness. But perhaps it is the opposite and doing nothing is in fact a remedy for the interconnected world of communication.

Vorwärts building
Report on radio cancellations

How to Use Reason:
Sovereign Signs
How to Capture Life:
Examining Gazes
How to Speak Up:
Governed Transmissions

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