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Ernest Eugene “Gene” Pell (1937-2020)


Ernest Eugene "Gene" Pell, RFE/RL President and CEO (1985-1993)
Ernest Eugene "Gene" Pell, RFE/RL President and CEO (1985-1993)

As noted in this obituary published by his hometown newspaper, The Paducah Sun, Ernest Eugene “Gene” Pell, 83, died quietly on April 7, 2020, at his home near Syria, after a 3-year battle with cancer. Pell served as President and Chief Executive Officer of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) from 1985-1993, leading the Radios during the peaceful revolutions that occurred in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union from 1989-1992.

In Tribute to Gene Pell

In 1989, we who were privileged to serve in the management of RFE/RL as Gene Pell’s colleagues watched the awesome professionalism of RFE/RL’s broadcasters as peaceful revolution swept from the Baltics to the Balkans, and the Radios helped each country share with others the power – even the slogans – of peaceful protest, and the wisdom of restraint by police and armed forces.

Romania was a tragic exception. Ceaucescu’s regime was doomed by RFE’s broadcast of a recording of the shooting of civilians protesting in Timisoara. As Ceaucescu fled Bucharest, and violence by unknown combatants erupted, Gene ordered a million watts of shortwave power from our transmitter stations across Europe diverted to the Romanian service. Before long, Romanian army commanders seeking to restore calm established phone contact with the service in Munich.

In the immediate aftermath of the liberation of Eastern Europe, and the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Gene saw the need and found the resources to open bureaus across the region and begin on-the-ground reporting by talented local journalists – and local rebroadcasting of RFE/RL programming.

And he persuaded the U.S. government to allow RFE/RL for the first time to broadcast to the former Yugoslavia, during the Bosnian War, with a new, multi-ethnic service led by Nenad Pejic*.

On Gene’s watch, Lennart Meri, Foreign Minister of a newly free Estonia, nominated RFE/RL for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Gene’s leadership was crucial as another struggle soon ensued, this time in Washington, as efforts arose to save the federal government money by shrinking or closing the Radios, on the premise that if Europe was free, why did we need Radio Free Europe (and Liberty)? Support from new democratic leaders across the region, notably from Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel, helped convince a Presidential Commission addressing this question that the Radios’ mission should not end but evolve, as it has.

The views of these freedom leaders were decisive in keeping RFE/RL on the air and positioned to win the enormous multi-media audience it enjoys today. Gene Pell’s vision is alive for future generations.

Two of my closest colleagues, Ross Johnson and Kevin Klose, join me, as I am sure many others would, in saluting Gene for his contribution to a freer world.

-- Robert Gillette

* Pejic served as Director of RFE/RL Balkan Service from 1995-2008, later serving as RFE/RL Editor-in-Chief from 2013-2019 and Interim Manager and Acting President from 2014-2016 and in 2018.

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Robert Gillette joined RFE/RL in 1989 as Deputy Director of Radio Free Europe (RFE) and later served as Director of RFE and Broadcast Director of RFE/RL in Munich and Prague until 1998.

Ross Johnson was a senior executive of RFE/RL from 1988 to 2002, serving as Director of RFE, Director of the RFE/RL Research Institute, and Acting President and Counselor of RFE/RL.

Kevin Klose served as Director of Radio Liberty (RL) from 1992-1994; Klose subsequently served as President of RFE/RL from 1994-1997 and 2013-2014.

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