The following article was published in March 2004 by TVJobs.com, a resource for broadcast journalists.
Getting Away To It All
by Kaci Christian (c)2004
It's election year, Super Tuesday has just ended and the next big breaking news event is around the corner. You're exhausted, need a break and want to take some time off, but funds are tight, and how can you justify leaving, anyway, with everything happening?
I'm about to blow the lid off one of the most amazing industry insider "secrets," one that Iıve been able to personally explore, and I tell you, it's worth the few minutes to read this article to see if you've got what it takes.
It's the perfect getaway, offering you the experience of a lifteime, and it's even more affordable than you'd imagine: virtually free! If I told you that you could be traveling to several cities in Europe in your capacity as a professional broadcast (TV or radio) journalist, that you would be afforded incredible access to political, government and community leaders, that the cost of your airfare, private accommodations, plus most meals and incidental expenses would be paid through the largesse of someone other than you or your station, and that you still have time to apply, I hope you'd be galvanized to pursue an extraordinary, perhaps even life-altering, opportunity.
You see, I've been there... and now I want to share with you the incredible "secret" of the RIAS Berlin Commission's German/American Journalist Exchange Program, administered in the United States by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF), the educational arm of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA).
As an anchor/reporter for KBAK-TV, the CBS affiliate in Bakersfield CA, I learned about the program last summer. The German/American Journalist Exchange Program brings selected American broadcast journalists to Germany for a two-week structured core curriculum, with the option to extend the stay for up to two additional weeks. Every year, there are two sessions: one in the summer, and one in the fall.
When I learned about the program, the application deadline for the Fall 2003 session was rapidly approaching, and the largest potential roadblock needed to be addressed immediately. Would my news director be willing to write the required letter of recommendation to enclose with my application? When I described the opportunity, and asked about the prospect of my applying (and getting the letter of recommendation!), the first question was, "Will this cost the station anything?" Gratefully, the answer was a resounding "No!" and my ND agreed to write the letter to accompany my application. The application process progressed from writing a simple letter expressing interest, to a conference call with a couple of the members of the admissions panel, finally to writing essays in response to half a dozen technical research topics, culminating in the final narrowing down and selection of participants.
I had the great honor to be one of the fifteen American broadcast journalists chosen to participate in the Fall 2003 session of the program. The members of our group worked for various national and local television and radio news outlets throughout the United States. In late September 2003, each of us flew to Berlin, where we became a group, gathered for an intensive two-week exploration of the socio-politico-cultural tapestry of contemporary Germany. The participants were full-time working television or radio journalists from a wide spectrum, encompassing job titles such as anchor, reporter, network correspondent, producer, writer and news director.
From my perspective, any chance to travel abroad offers the opportunity to expand my personal and professional horizons and explore cultural similarities and differences, but this program offered a special incentive: the possibility to explore Germany in the capacity of a journalist, providing even greater access to community leaders, government officials and elected politicians.
In the intensive two-week span, there were so many special highlights of the program. The first week was spent in Berlin. The first evening, each American participant was individually assigned to a German journalist who had participated in a reverse exchange program that brings German journalists to the United States (also sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission). It was such a privilege to have the opportunity to be a dinner guest in the private home of a German journalist (whose English was excellent) and to have the chance to ask and answer questions about our professional and personal lives.
One of the first official meetings of the group was at the famous Reichstag building, the headquarters of the German Federal Parliament. We had a fascinating private session with a member of Parliament (MP) representing the Green party, and we also met individually with representatives of the other political parties. Another meeting was an intimate group session in which we were addressed by the Executive Director of the Jewish Community of Berlin, followed by an insightful question-and-answer session. A former political prisoner of the GDR (the former East Germany) took us on a tour of the infamous Stasi Prison in Berlin. Now known as the Hohenschoenhausen Memorial, our guide even showed us the tiny cell where he was housed in solitary confinement for nearly a year of what turned out to be a ten-year term for "crimes against the state, endangering the peace of Germany and the peace of the world" just for having written articles for a student publication that were critical of the Communist regime. Another day, a bus ride to a location about an hour from Berlin brought our group to a somber exploration of Sachsenhausen, the former concentration camp.
One week into our stay, having familiarized ourselves with the layout of Berlin, our group flew to Brussels, Belgium for two jam-packed nights. Our first day featured a full day of briefings at NATO headquarters, followed by another full day of briefings at the EU (European Union) headquarters.
Before concluding that this program is "all work and no play," let me reassure you that we were there to enjoy the cultural and social life, too, in addition to exploring the political spectrum. We saw a very avant-garde production of Puccini's Turandot at the Berlin Staats-Oper. Our itinerary also included two nights in Munich, world-famous for its annual Oktoberfest. While in Munich, our group enjoyed a private tour of the Lowenbrau Brewery, and an evening of entertainment at the Hofbrauhaus, complete with accordion players, dancers, bratwurst and huge steins of beer.
We also visited Leipzig, in the former East Germany, home of Johann Sebastian Bach. Highlights of our three nights there included an evening with German alumni of the RIAS program in a restaurant in Leipzig; a group interview with the Lord Mayor of Leipzig; a briefing on the city's application to be considered as a venue for the 2012 Olympics; and a community festival ("Buergerfest") hosted by the Mayor. We also were taken on tours of television and radio stations throughout the country. One of the other American journalists in my group, an associate producer with ABC in New York, commented, "There were a number of opportunities to meet with fellow journalists including a visit to NTV in Berlin, a talk with American journalists working in Germany, a luncheon with diplomatic staffers at NATO, and a dinner with former RIAS participants in Leipzig. These exchanges were invaluable in learning about the differences and similarities in how Germans and Americans get their news, and helped explain in part the different perspectives that citizens of both nations have about world events."
In light of my specialty coverage of feature and entertainment topics, I was also granted an individual extension of my program, invited to stay for an additional week to compare and contrast the concepts of celebrity and fame and entertainment coverage between Germany and the United States. During this period, I met with entertainment reporters; spent a day on the set of a daily show comparable to Access Hollywood or Entertainment Tonight; enjoyed a behind-the-scenes look at the number one-rated daily dramatic series in Germany (Gute Zeiten, Schlechte Zeiten, translating to "Good Times, Bad Times"), where I met with successful actors from the program whose faces grace national magazine covers and whose names are well-known; and spent an evening with the cast and crew of the popular annual performance piece, Jedermann. Many of these arrangements were organized or expedited by the people at RIAS Berlin, who made calls and sent quite a few emails and faxes to make sure that I was able to meet with people who would help with my project.
While speaking German is not a prerequisite to participate in the program, I can tell you that having some basic conversational knowledge of the language was a very valuable asset. The core program - the first two weeks - found us mostly in scheduled meetings with people who either spoke and understood English, or who had interpreters, but in our ample free time we had the opportunity to explore the life in the various cities we visited (Berlin, Brussels, Munich and Leipzig). Speaking German really facilitated being able to get around, ask for directions, purchase gifts or souvenirs, order meals, utilize Internet cafes, and just generally visit with people. For the extension, during which I traveled alone from Leipzig to Munich (München), then to Cologne (Köln) and back to Berlin, it was extraordinarily helpful, perhaps even integral, that I had studied conversational German (using a language tapes program called "Speed German") and felt comfortable speaking the language. That being said, however, most of the other group participants said they didnıt know much German at all, but still were able to manage to communicate without any problems.
I learned that Germany and the U.S. have a lot more in common than Iıd previously imagined. For example, the United States has significant issues in dealing with immigration and faces challenges of culturally assimilating newcomers, particularly those who don't speak English, into the fabric of American society. In the southwestern region of the U.S., there is a significant population that speaks Spanish and little or no English. In Orange County, California, the town of Westminster is better known as "Little Saigon." These issues can be paralleled with those of Turkish immigrants in Germany. The German government in the 1950s and 60s invited "guest workers" (gastarbeiters) from Turkey, Yugoslavia, and other countries to come for temporary manual labor jobs in the reconstruction era. But these guest workers, rather than fulfilling the vision of the German government and moving back to their home countries at the conclusion of the work tenure, instead brought their families to live in Germany. Cultural assimilation, even more than forty years later, still seems minimal. One large region in Berlin is referred to locally as "Little Istanbul." The shop signs are primarily in Turkish. And as a tourist in the area, I felt more like I was in Turkey. The shopkeepers with whom I tried to converse spoke broken German with thick Turkish accents, communicating enough to make a sale.
People in both countries are doing their best to try to survive, to hold down jobs and make a living for themselves and their families. Taxes, high unemployment rates and immigration issues are common concerns. Another of my American colleagues in the group wrote, "I found the German people far more concerned about quality of life than political ideology."
My experience with the German/American Journalist Exchange Program provided me with a wider perspective, particularly in my role as a journalist, enabling me to see that our countries have so many similarities. The program also allowed me to get to know other American journalists throughout the country whom I'd otherwise not have had the chance to meet. It was such a great opportunity, and I wholeheartedly encourage you to take advantage of the program and avail yourself of the chance to explore Germany with the support and patronage of the RIAS Berlin Commission and the Radio & Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF).
The deadline to apply for the summer 2004 program is rapidly approaching: March 15, 2004 for the trip June 12-27, 2004. (The fall 2004 program deadline is June 15, 2004 for a September 18-October 3, 2004 program... and you'd still be back in time for Election Day coverage!)
Applications and other details may be obtained directly from Margaret Ershler, Manager of the Journalist Exchange Programs at the RTNDF (1600 K Street NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20006-2838, phone (202) 467-5215, fax (202) 223-4007, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org). To read the essays and reactions of participants in past programs, visit http://www.riasberlinkommission.de and select the English option.
Kaci Christian is currently freelancing as a journalist in Los Angeles. Her website is at http://www.KaciChristian.com.
The mission of the RIAS Berlin Commission:
"Pursuant to the Agreement signed on May 19, 1992 between the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Government of the United States of America, the RIAS Berlin Commission promotes the exchange of persons and information in the field of broadcast journalism between the two countries. The RIAS Berlin Commission provides financial support and awards annual prizes to radio, internet, and television productions which contribute to the mutual German-American understanding."