Germans pick NPR over Voice of America to broadcast in Berlin

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An FM station in Berlin will soon become the first programmed overseas by
National Public Radio. A German state agency selected NPR over Voice of America,
which has filled the station with its news, plus rock music from a Berlin company.

By April, Berlin’s 104.1 FM will carry NPR Worldwide, an overseas feed mixing news and music programming produced by NPR, a few stations, Public Radio International and American Public Media. (Germans may not entirely get what Garrison Keillor thinks is funny about Minnesotans, but at least they’ll enjoy the Dubya gags.)

NPR will furnish the programming under a seven-year contract with the Medienanstalt Berlin-Brandenburg, the commission that oversees broadcasting in Berlin and its surrounding state.

Since 1995 the MABB has allotted one station each in Berlin to the United States, France and the United Kingdom. The British station relays the BBC, while France’s airs Radio France International.

Talks between VOA and NPR about collaborating on programming never bore fruit, says NPR spokeswoman Andi Sporkin.

As VOA’s most recent license term came to a close, the MABB welcomed applications from other broadcasters. Only VOA and NPR applied, and Berliners gave NPR’s bid an unprecedented outpouring of support, says spokeswoman Suzanne Grams. The MABB selected NPR in December, mainly because its Worldwide service offered a broader variety of programming, she explains.

Berliners could previously hear NPR via the Web or satellite services such as WorldSpace. But the expiration of the Voice of America’s contract on the FM channel gave NPR a chance to reach a much wider audience.

The 400-watt station blankets Berlin’s population of more than 3 million but fades at the city’s edges. NPR plans to increase the wattage when a nearby airport closes.

The station initially will carry only U.S.-produced fare, but NPR will partner with Berlin organizations to air speeches and panel discussions from the city for a weekly hour of programming.

The territory is familiar to NPR brass. President Kevin Klose previously directed the U.S. International Broadcasting Bureau, VOA’s parent, and its Prague-based cousin, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Ken Stern, his executive v.p., is also an IBB alum.

NPR feels no pressure to profit from the endeavor — its Worldwide service is already self-sustaining — but may sell corporate underwriting, Stern says.

The Berlin station is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for NPR, not the stirrings of a global FM empire. Stern knows of no comparable station elsewhere in the world.

But NPR is interested in new ways of serving global audiences, he says, noting that about a quarter of the audience for NPR.org’s web stream — more than 1 million listeners a month — is overseas.

“Our responsibility is to serve American audiences domestically,” Stern says, “but if there are some opportunities to effectively serve public radio listeners abroad, we’d be foolish not to look at them.”