"This is Radio Free Europe!"
I don't remember precisely when I first heard this announcement, carried over the strains of Enescu's beautiful "Romanian Rhapsody." I must have been eight or nine, and it was in the late 1960s.
But I do remember vividly the circumstances -- my father, in the corner of the room, covering his old Telefunken radio with a thick blanket, and listening to the Romanian news. It wasn't exactly the best listening experience, as the shortwave broadcasts were notoriously unstable and full of static. The volume had to be turned down to a bare minimum, so suspicious neighbors would not hear -- or even suspect -- that dad was listening to Europa Libera.
It was a fascinating experience nevertheless. One by one, dad would identify the figures behind the voices -- "Hey, listen to Noel Bernard, he's amazing. Monica Lovinescu, what a piercing mind she has!" -- making me wonder how he could recognize them so easily despite the poor reception.
That's how I came to learn that the rosy picture of affairs we were being presented with in school was false. There were other people, somewhere far away, whom my parents would listen to, and whom they respected much more than the "comrades" and their leader, the ubiquitous Nicolae Ceausescu.
Listening Under A Blanket
From under the safety of the blanket, we could depend on hearing whatever had been broadcast on state radio or television by day dissected and presented from a completely different angle in the evening. The Spassky-Fischer chess game; the terrorist Palestinian attack on the Israeli athletes in Munich; Nixon's visit to Bucharest; Watergate -- all were events I first heard of from state media, but later understood thanks to Europa Libera.
No other figure was more influential for my generation than the legendary music presenter Cornel Chiriac. A perpetual rebel, Chiriac and his radio music show "Metronom" had been hugely popular in Romania even before his defection in 1969. But once Chiriac joined Radio Free Europe, "Metronom" achieved cult status.
I remember that the streets in many Romanian cities were deserted on Sunday afternoons -- that's when "Metronom" was aired. A whole generation of young Romanians looked forward to staying home, glued to their shortwave sets, to hear this:
"Cornel Chiriac salutes you and invites you to enjoy the album of a band that is about to disappear..."
Like the unknown band he was presenting, Chiriac, too, would soon disappear. He was stabbed to death in March 1975 in a parking lot in Munich, leading to whispers that the dreaded communist secret police, the Securitate, was behind his death.
The regime feared him. His shows were never about music alone. They were about liberty, oppression, politics, dictatorship -- and music. Perhaps he had become too popular and influential among Romanian youths.
In the days after Chiriac's death, my friends and I discreetly wore black bands on the lapels of our school uniforms. When asked whether someone close had died, we would all reply, "Yes, a very good friend." Many Romanian youths made the same gesture. While other RFE journalists had been targeted or even killed by the Securitate, it was Chiriac's death that hit closest to home -- for he was one of us.
Years later, in Prague, I was touched to find out from Lithuanian and Bulgarian colleagues that the Romanian Service's "Metronom" had been a popular RFE/RL program in their countries, too.
Chiriac's death, like the deaths of former service directors Noel Bernard and Vlad Georgescu, was not in vain. Those who had grown up with his music and with Radio Free Europe's programs would realize one day that listening under the blanket could not go on forever.
That day came when -- on December 17, 1989 -- dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's heavily armed security forces opened fire on anticommunist protesters in the Romanian city of Timisoara.
A recording of troops firing on unarmed demonstrators aired by Radio Free Europe quickly traveled around the world, but it also served to galvanize the Romanians' outrage at home.
I was petrified when I first heard the recording on my radio. On it, a woman can be heard saying, "Shame on you, you're Romanians like us!" before the bursts of automatic-weapons fire breaks out. Then I heard the same recording through the thin walls, repeatedly, from many apartments in my building. Romanians were not hiding while listening to Europa Libera anymore -- they had thrown the blanket away.
In the haze of the fast-moving events of December 1989, Europa Libera was quick to realize that Romania needed it more than ever, and rose to the occasion superbly. Not only did it provide the hard news that was so difficult for ordinary Romanians to obtain, but it helped them grasp the meaning of what was happening in Timisoara, Bucharest, and beyond.
Neculai Constantin Munteanu's hugely popular and well-respected daily current-affairs program "Actualitatea Romaneasca" was listened to not only by everyday Romanians, but also by many in the ruling communist elite and the political police. Such was the richness and accuracy of information of Munteanu's program, that one joke said that Ceausescu and his wife were the only two people in Romania who wouldn't listen to it. To their later disadvantage, some would say....
Here is how Munteanu opened his program during the days of anticommunist revolt in Timisoara, precipitating the fall of the regime:
"There is a beginning in every ending. Timisoara is now the name of the Romanian city written and uttered in all languages on Earth. The inhabitants of Timisoara took to the streets to remind Romanians and the international community that Romania also needs changes as radical as those in the other communist countries."
Amid a complete informational blackout maintained by the communist authorities about what was happening in Timisoara, Europa Libera kept hope alive in Romania by providing not only news, but also uplifting messages.
From RFE microphones, King Michael, the former monarch of Romania and a huge moral authority among Romanians, encouraged the Timisoara protesters who, unarmed and subjected to lethal violence, were holding out against all odds.
"My thoughts and my soul are with you and, like you, I am alarmed at the cruelty with which those in power are reacting when you are claiming your most elementary rights," Michael said. "But you and I have also great expectations -- because by protesting you speak up and you fear no more. Because the very savagery of the repression shows how scared those in power are."
On a personal level, probably nothing could equal the awe I felt on December 22, 1989, when I tuned in to Europa Libera.
After hours spent with fellow protesters downtown in a weary standoff with army troops pointing their AK-47s at us, the troops had vanished into thin air when one officer came and said that Ceausescu had fled.
Rushing home, I turned on the radio, to hear this:
"Nicolae Ceausescu has been demoted. Around noon, Ceausescu was seen fleeing the Central Committee building on Palace Square [in downtown Bucharest] aboard a helicopter. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered in the square were shouting, 'Don't let the dictators get away, they must be tried!'"
The newsreader's voice was calm, matter-of-fact, with a hint of the inevitable. While listening to it, an almost inconceivable reality slowly sank in. One of the 20th century's most ferocious dictatorships had come to an end.
Many party propagandists had gone out of their way for decades to preach about the perennial character of communism, while confining Western democracy and its "spreader of lies" radio station to "the dustbin of history."
But there I was, looking at my old radio, listening to the very Radio Europa Libera they had rushed to declare obsolete announcing that the macabre "Genius of the Carpathians" was on the run. Still unbelievable, but true nonetheless.
I was beginning to realize that Europa Libera was more than just a radio outlet -- it was a crucial tool in speaking to Romanians. It had helped them not only stay informed, but also to stay sane and human.