The Radiophonic North

"There was a moment when technology was advanced enough to produce the radio and society was not yet advanced enough to accept it." This quote from Bertolt Brecht in 1932 is a pretty accurate description of the early years of broadcasting. Like now, technology seemed to be several paces ahead of mankind. Many of the public broadcasting corporations that had been established in the 1920s were struggling to catch up with this newfangled technology. One way of coping with this insecurity was to develop it in unison with other countries, to learn from eachothers’ mistakes and to co-finance any further technological developments. This was very much the case, when the small nations of the North decided to establish a radiophonic collaboration.

Radio & the Nordic Brotherhood

Among the Nordic countries there is a long tradition for nurturing a certain idea as a kind of natural given: ”The Nordic Brotherhood”. Resting on a similar history, geography, language, and culture, it (supposedly) binds the inhabitants together across borders and national interests. While the idea dates back to romantic student movements praising Scandinavian culture in the 1830s & 40s, there were also political attempts at creating the so-called United States of Scandinavia around the mid 1800s, when Germany began to pose a threat to the three small nations of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. This never really took off, but the dreams of a united North remained and has seen parallel activity in the larger unity of the Nordic region which, apart from the Scandinavian countries, includes Finland, Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands.

This larger Nordic region was later cemented in such fixtures as the cultural and political unity of The Nordic Council (1952) and the televisual collaboration called Nordvision (1959). However, few people know about their younger, and less colourful brother in the shape of the early Nordic radio collaboration, which started in the 1920s and culminated in the interwar years. One of the reasons for its relative obscurity may be the fact that it did not have an official name or a separate institution, but was simply a mutual collaborative agreement between the Nordic broadcasters. That said, the collaboration had a pioneering spirit as the countries explored the possibilities of a then completely new mass medium together.

Initially the collaboration counted Sweden, Denmark and Norway, but eventually Finland (1929) and Iceland (1935) also joined in. 

Frequent Radio Encounters

According to the files in the Swedish Radio document archive in Stockholm, the first internordic meeting took place in late August 1927. The heads of the Swedish and Norwegian broadcasting corporations met in the tiny town of Lysekil on the western coast of Sweden and very close to the Norwegian border. There they discussed the technical and financial prerequisites for a radio collaboration as well as shared their mutual interests concerning programme content (mainly music at that point). In the following years the collaboration thrived, and Denmark, Finland and Iceland joined in, sending representatives from their music, lecture and theatre departments to annual programme director conferences. Spanning from 18-39 delegates per meeting, this collaborative venture seems to have had quite high priority among the broadcasters.

As witnessed by the protocols kept in Stockholm, these meetings were quite fruitful as a kind of advisory and preparatory organ for the individual countries seeking to improve their broadcasts. One way of doing this was by exchanging lecturers and recommendations, as well as sharing information on the internal affairs of each country to be passed on to the listeners of the neighbouring countries. In a 1935 meeting they even presented the option of adding tourist content to their agenda, but refused this in favour of a more objective and broad coverage of the living conditions in the North. This point is quite interesting considering the actual content of some of the collaborative broadcasts from this period. 

Painting portraits of neighbours

In a Swedish reportage from August 1937, programme director Olof Forsén visits Denmark on a tour organized by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation. He is treated to a children’s choir, a speech by country nobility, singing at a local community centre and a stroll in a meadow, where he chats with a little girl about pretty flowers. In such an itinerary it is difficult not to see a conscious attempt at inviting an idyllic portrayal and in Forsén’s radiophonic response, there is a certain touristic amazement, even an ethnographic wonder towards his Nordic neighbours.

Another interesting example is The Children's Letterbox, which was a very popular children's programme in Sweden. In one broadcast from November 1936, main host "Uncle Sven" goes to Oslo to visit his Norwegian colleague Einar Schibbye. This quite staged meeting between two men, two cultures and two languages is the central theme of the show, featuring Norwegian children playing folk music and Sven's account of getting lost in the Norwegian traffic.Both programmes abound with mutual national imagery and reveal to what extent even the closest neighbours are regarded with equal parts familiarity and exoticism.