Radio broadcasting began in Cologne in 1926 with the establishment of Reichssender Köln. From 1927 onward it maintained small groups of musicians to use in radio production.
In 1947 Allied occupation forces approved the reorganization of German radio broadcasting, which devolved from the centralized control of the Nazi government into a system of regional stations. WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk, meaning western German Radio) was established in Cologne.
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln was also established in 1947. It is a full-time symphony orchestra that became the leading orchestra of Cologne and is not used for other radio or television production. It became an internationally known symphony orchestra under the batons of music directors Christoph von Dohnányi, Zdenek Mácal, Hiroshi Wakasugi, Gary Bertini, Hans Vonk, and Semyon Bychkov. Jukka-Pekka Saraste began his tenure as music director in 2010.
Its guest conductors have included Claudio Abbado, Karl Böhm, Fritz Busch, Erich Kleiber, Herbert von Karajan, Otto Klemperer, Lorin Maazel, André Previn, Georg Solti, Günter Wand, and Zubin Mehta.
The orchestra has recorded frequently and is known for its interpretations of 20th century music in addition to the standard Classical and Romantic repertory. In addition, WDR maintains its own staff orchestra, also founded in 1947, known as Kölner Rundfunkorchester (Cologne Radio Orchestra) until it was renamed in 1999 the WDR Rundfunkorchester Köln (WDR Radio Orchestra Cologne). This is a group of musicians who might be called upon to play underscore in radio and television productions, musicals, operettas, WDR opera productions, and classical and modern music, as well as jazz. It gives concerts in the same Cologne concert hall also used by the symphony orchestra, as well as in WDR's own Klaus von Bismark Hall in the Cologne Radio House. It has gained international recognition for its playing in a series of productions of the works of Kurt Weill.
The Radio Orchestra's conductors have been Hermann Hagestedt, Franz Marszalek, Curt Cremer, and Heinz Geese. Helmuth Froschauer became its chief conductor in 1997. WDR also maintains the musical organizations the Rundfunkchor Köln (Cologne Radio Choir), Big Band Köln, the famous WDR electronic music studio directed by Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the Cappella Coloniensis, since 1954 its specialized Baroque and Classical ensemble.