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Seymour Gris: Bye-bye, BBC

Expats are frothing at the mouth about the decision by the BBC World Service to switch to a weaker frequency in Berlin.

Image for Seymour Gris: Bye-bye, BBC
Photo by João Paulo Corrêa de Carvalho (João Paulo Corrêa de Carvalho; Flickr CC)

At 7:05am on December 1, I put the kettle on and turned on the radio. Instead of the silky voice of World Today presenter Pascale Harter, a German children’s Christmas song erupted into my kitchen. Then I remembered: as we reported in our December issue, the Beeb was switching its frequency from 90.2 FM to 94.8 FM. Berlin’s kids’ station Radio Teddy had taken over the old slot. So I tried to find 94.8 – the frequency the BBC publicity department told me would carry the World Service. In vain. Only fuzz.

Over the next few days the EXBERLINER office received a flood of phone calls and emails from irate expats unable to tune into the new frequency. One of the emails – also sent as a letter to the BBC – just about sums up the sentiment out there:

“So I am right to conclude then, that the BBC has indeed axed its service for the capital of Germany to save money and cut costs. That being the case, why don`t you just tell everyone that you’re broke and that your managers are buffoons. And, since you are no longer able to broadcast to the north of Germany (600 miles away) and don`t appear to want to do anything about it, what about changing the name from the World Service to ‘BBC Sorry, But No Service’?”

One imagines this is how British officers in the Raj felt when Marmite supplies ran out.

When you email the Beeb about the topic, you receive this reply:

“In the current financial climate BBC World Service is facing significant reductions in its funding, and the cost of continuing to broadcast on 90.2 FM in Berlin has become prohibitive. Moving the transmission to 94.8 FM presented an opportunity for us to remain on air in the city. The 94.8 FM transmitter is located in central Berlin (Schöneberg) and the signal is intended to cover the city centre and much of the suburbs. There is, however, reduced coverage of suburban areas in comparison with the former frequency, 90.2 FM, particularly in western and southern parts of the city. We can only apologise to listeners who are now having trouble tuning in, but hope that they will understand the circumstances under which the decision to change frequencies was made.”

All bollocks. As far as we can tell, coverage in Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg, not exactly suburbs, is non-existent, or patchy, at best – I can tune in while driving my car! My clever Volkswagen radio found the new frequency automatically, yet even then BBC’s sound quality varies street-by-street.

My advice to those who feel they can’t survive Berlin life without a regular dose of Owen Bennet Jones’ overblown interview bravado or the friendly auntie and uncle voices of The Strand hosts Harriett Gilbert and Mark Coles or the upbeat chirpiness of Digital Planet presenter Gareth Mitchell:

1. Stream it for Christ’s sake!

2. Don’t listen to anything. Enjoy the silence. Face up to the fact: You live in Germany. Listen to the neighbours, the birds, the Bauarbeiter.

3. Tune in outside: the BBC seems to work better in the open air.

4. Listen to NPR Berlin – if you can stand the overuse of blues filler. They even use BBC correspondents occasionally. And they broadcast the incredible Car Talk – the world’s most obnoxious call-in show about auto trouble hosted by the Click and Clack brothers.

5. Get a life. Learn German. Listen to German radio. Learn something about your chosen home. Contrary to popular belief, the BBC isn’t some holy, unrivalled journalistic institution. Deutschlandfunk – Germany’s serious news station, while not as sexily packaged as the BBC, is a lot more high-brow and does great shows like Informationen am Morgen (“Information in the morning”). In-depth, serious, local! Great if you can stand the light-jazz filler.