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French radio’s Belle Époque

Radio France logoI took in Nicolas Philibert’s documentary La Maison de la Radio over the weekend, a 24 hour snapshot of Radio France “from one dawn to another,” as IMDB puts it. Funny, candid, charming, even visually beautiful, I savored every minute of this love letter to French public radio.

The YouTube trailer below includes many of the most hysterical moments of the doc. These include a Radio France fact checker chortling as she tries to sort through the details of some kind of massacre. “The man cut in two was killed by a bullet in his back!” she guffaws. Then in a radio interview writer Umberto Eco admits that “if I were writing the story of a man who strangled his grandmother, I’d put a bit of myself in it.”

Even “if I’ve never strangled my grandmother,” he adds as an afterthought.

There are staff arguments over whether a huge school of sardines or anchovies died off the coast of California, and an interview with classical music host who is almost buried in piles of CDs. “Even if I never play some of these, at least I know where they are,” he proudly notes.

But all gallows and hoarding humor aside, we discover in La Maison de la Radio the enormous resource that is Radio France—in-studio chamber music concerts, huge choral orchestras, all night song request shows, live coverage of the Tour de France, riveting studio quiz games, experimental music programs—a seemingly endless array of simultaneous productions across the service’s sprawling Paris headquarters. It was inspiring to see and hear all this audio beauty  in one place.

Two aspects of the film troubled me. First, I looked for signs that France’s growing ethnic diversity would reflect itself in Radio France staff. Instead I saw a sea of white producers and hosts.

Second, the distributor description that accompanies the YouTube video above calls Radio France “the French equivalent of NPR.” But that’s only half true. A 2011 study (see page 61) compares the amount of money that the United States spends on public media to France’s annual outlay. We shell out 3.75 per capita; France spends 51.56—thirteen times our sum.

It shows in this documentary. We see none of the pathetic on air begging that is part and parcel of the US public broadcasting experience. I suppose I could fall back on an old cliche and call Radio France “an embarrassment of riches.” But after seeing La Maison, it was my country’s system of public media that I was embarrassed for. Still, I walked out of the theater happy that somewhere out there they give radio the resources it needs to truly shine.

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  1. WFMU doc will screen soon in New York, then San Francisco - October 29, 2014

    […] They include Bob Fass: The Documentary, which profiles WBAI’s famous free form host, and La Maison de la Radio, a 24 hour exploration of French public radio. Also in the works: I Am What I Play, a […]

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