A Voice for Freedom in the Heart of Europe

Under socialism, Radio Free Europe's radio station brought information and culture from the free world to the Eastern Bloc. Today, it broadcasts from Prague and still sends hope via radio waves.

Photo: elements.envato.com

It was 1946, and it was gradually becoming clear that after the end of the Second World War, a new war was beginning: the Cold War. If anyone at that time still doubted that a poisonous cloud had come over Eastern Europe in the form of communism, Winston Churchill confirmed it in a speech.

As Churchill said in Fulton, Missouri, USA, the Iron Curtain had been lowered between Western and Eastern Europe. And he was right. Just as Europe was ready for friendship and cooperation after the end of the Second World War, by the end of the 1940s, it was prepared for a new era of rivalry.

And so Eastern Europe fell into, to some extent, voluntary isolation. The new communist regimes closed the borders, launched relentless repression of their own populations, and devoted much energy to preventing their citizens from interacting with the outside “Western” world.

The beginning of a spiteful broadcast

It was a cold February morning in 1949, and the calendar showed the number 25. Exactly one year and four days ago, a communist coup took place in Czechoslovakia, plunging the entire country into 40 years of repressive dictatorship. It was on February 25 that a group of exiled politicians from Czechoslovakia met in Washington, D.C., and founded The Council of Free Czechoslovakia. This institution inspired the voice of freedom that spoke to the entire world.

Inspired by the Czechoslovak Council and with its representatives present, on June 1, 1949, CIA Director Allan Welsh Dulles established the National Committee for a Free Europe, a special department of the CIA made up of representatives of the exiles, to support the people of communist countries. Dulles informed all representatives of the countries under communist rule in 1949 that a transmitter would be built in Munich to provide independent information to the citizens of Eastern Europe about the situation in the world. According to many, this broadcast was aptly named by the Czechoslovak politician Julius Firt: Radio Free Europe.

Moscow boogie

The first broadcast occurred in Czech in Munich on May 1, 1951. The first sentence was, “The voice of free Czechoslovakia is calling; you are listening to Radio Free Europe.” Five more broadcasts were added in Polish, Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Romanian during the following days. A few minutes after the start of each broadcast, the sound of the jammers, whose typical sound was called the “Moscow boogie,” was heard. Gradually, more and more editorial offices joined in, broadcasting in their native language to their respective countries. When the Iron Curtain was drawn between Western and Eastern Europe, Radio Free Europe broadcasted to more than 30 regions in more than 30 languages.

Not even the Soviet Union was spared from what the Communists called spiteful broadcasting. In 1953, a special station was set up in Munich, primarily for broadcasting to the Soviet Union, called Radio Liberty. The two broadcasts were merged in 1976: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was born. During its existence, the radio broadcasted from several locations, the so-called local editorial offices. These included London, Paris, and Vienna. But the main one was always the headquarters in Munich, Bavaria.

What the Czechs started ended up in Czechia

What began as temporary broadcasts to communist countries became decades of journalistic, publicist, educational, and entertainment work. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty employed hundreds of journalists and dissidents from more than 30 countries during these years. Radio Free Europe was thus not just a radio station playing Western music and broadcasting Western news. It was a radio that broadcasted freedom into unfreedom and hopes into hopelessness.

When communist regimes collapsed in most Eastern Bloc countries in 1989, RFE/RL continued broadcasting to ensure a smooth and informed transition to democracy and a market economy. Then gradually, the individual broadcasting studios ended.

With the change of political regimes, the German Government decided not to continue hosting RFE/RL. The fate of the radio was thus uncertain. At the invitation of President Václav Havel and Prime Minister Václav Klaus, the radio changed its headquarters and moved to Prague.
The initial Prague headquarters for the radio was chosen in a highly symbolic way: the former communist parliament of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. The radio thus broadcasted to the still unfree countries of the world from the building where the decisions to jam it were made.

New beginnings, new hope.

The radio and its staff lived in the old communist parliament for over 13 years. Then it was decided to build a new, modern, and safer headquarters in Hagibor, Prague. The entire broadcasting colossus moved there in 2009.

Today, RFE/RL broadcasts in 27 languages for 23 countries, with a capacity of over 1000 hours per week. The radio has 21 local offices with over 500 core staff and 1,300 contacts and freelancers in the countries it broadcasts for. In addition, it has 700 employees at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Thus, from the heart of Europe, the radio continues to broadcast to areas of non-freedom: Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, and Chechnya. Their residents can tune in each morning to a broadcast that begins with the iconic, “You have Free Europe on your receivers.

Marek Koten

A Ph.D. student in economics, specializing in nuclear energy from the Czech Republic, he also serves as a political consultant to the Czech government and the U.S. Republican Party.

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