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Letters From Listeners

Germany -- Preparing balloons to distribute Radio Free Europe materials in Czechoslovakia, undated.
Germany -- Preparing balloons to distribute Radio Free Europe materials in Czechoslovakia, undated.

To celebrate 20 years since RFE/RL headquarters relocated to Prague, Czech Republic, we invited Czech and Slovak listeners to tell us what the Czechoslovak Service meant to them, how they outwitted the censors who tried to jam the signal, and the historic events they remember following along with their exiled compatriots reporting from across the Iron Curtain.

Though RFE/RL’s programing in Czech and Slovak languages ceased broadcasting in 2002 and 2004 respectively, the impact of the Czechoslovak Service continues to resonate to this day. This is what we learned when we put out a call on Czech Radio asking listeners to write to us about their memories of the service, the programs they turned to for critical information or simply enjoyment, and how they circumvented the censors who jammed the signal.

The following are excerpts from their responses.

Although many years have passed, I would like to thank you for the light of hope and the touch of dignity that you provided to us listeners in our peace-time concentration camp. I myself listened to RFE/RL mostly during my teenage years. Some time ago I discovered a diary that I had written in 1983 in a school exercise book. It was a diary about our travels to Hungary. I wrote about our daily itinerary and about what we listened to on RFE/RL after supper, and of course the Czech language was not jammed in Hungary so we could hear clearly what was said. I remember Lida Rakusanova. She was my favorite broadcaster. I loved her characteristic voice, and my relationship to her was a kind of platonic love.

I wondered if I would ever have a chance to meet with her, and after the Velvet Revolution in November 1989 I had the chance to meet with her several times, and I’m glad she is still with us listeners via Cro Plus radio.

I have dramatic memories of RFE/RL from the days of 18-19 November 1989--I was glued to the radio listening to the news. I was at home recovering from the Narodni march [peaceful student demonstrations in Prague that were violently suppressed by police on November 17, 1989]. I was trying to learn the news about Martin Smid, the student who had allegedly been killed. [This rumor later proved to be false]. I joined the students’ strike at the Faculty of Arts, and of course from then on there was no time to listen to RFE/RL.

Another memory is when President Vaclav Havel ran for President for the second time. I was in Sheffield, UK, and RFE/RL was the only Czech radio I managed to tune in to. Havel’s second wife Dagmar Havlova booed during the Republican Party Chairman’s speech, and in the end, Havel was elected. That was the last decent president we had.

I have to confess, I miss RFE/RL in my life, however it is necessary to fight for democracy on other battle fields as well. RFE/RL taught me a lot. In the dark ages of normalization, it taught me the basics about Western democracy.

I would like to express my thanks to the U.S. Congress for that, and also to all those who defied the Bolshevik dictatorship and maintained for all of us the light of hope.

I believe that light will be inside us for a long time to come.

Thank you, RFE/RL.

--Jan Turek, archeologist, Abusir, Egypt

I was a very good friend of Rozina Jadrna, and a fan of her music show as I am a musician myself. I wanted to have some of my songs played on her program, so I wote to her. I visited her in Munich a few times and in between visits we spoke on the phone and exchanged letters and packages.

I didn’t have problems with the regime becuase I’m disabled, so they left me alone.

Germany -- Broadcaster Rozina Jadrna prepares a music program. RFE/RL’s programming included, and still includes, cultural items not accessible to people in its broadcast region.
Germany -- Broadcaster Rozina Jadrna prepares a music program. RFE/RL’s programming included, and still includes, cultural items not accessible to people in its broadcast region.

We didn’t have difficulty listening to her show because my husband was a sound technician, and quite a good one, so he was able to unjam her program, which is predominantly what I listened to. I can’t remember if I listened to RFE/RL during the Velvet Revolution. I didn’t listen to political news or commentaries. You see, I have my own opinion. Even the secret police respected me. But I knew they had bugged my phone, and when I spoke to her on the phone I would always say into the phone “We are friends with Rozina and this is none of your business!”

--Marie Ronesova

My father was born in 1900 in Ukraine. In 1922, as a student at the Pedagogical Faculty, he was arrested and jailed for three months. Then one night he and nine other prisoners were taken to be executed. Altough he was shot, he managed to escape. He hid in a park for two days and subsequently made his way to Czechoslovakia, where he was given asylum and finished his university studies.

I remember my father always being glued to the radio, listening. I did too, and so does my son.

One happy story: I was drafted into the Czechoslovak military, and although they knew my [politically undesirable] background, I was allocated to a radio unit doing wiretapping along the Western borders. On the weekends, all the high-ranking officers left the barracks, and every weekend at exactly 2 p.m., the music from Munich was played. We liked to listen to Rozina Jadrna’s music show. And when we met in the corridors, the sly greeting between soldiers was “Rozina says hello.”

--Pavel Teodosije

Listen to a full installment of Rozina Jadrna’s popular music show “Afternoon with Music” from 1985.

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As I am writing these lines, an American military convoy is approaching Prague from three directions and being greeted by Czech citizens, and this makes me very happy.

I started my military service in the 1960s in Prague. I was a radio technician and was in charge of two relatively up-to-date radio stations called Duha (rainbow) and Hora (mountain). I confess that radio has been my hobby since boyhood. I listened to the Prague radio stations. All of my favorite programs ended with the Russians came on August 21, 1968. The first thing they did was to occupy Czechoslovak TV and radio stations.

Since all of the programs we loved were cancelled, we had to follow presenters Karel Jezdinsky and Slava Volny to Radio Free Europe and switch from FM to short waves. These were jammed, but short waves have their own special geophysical characteristics derived from the influence of the sun, so in spite of the jamming, we were able from time to time to listen to Radio Free Europe in hifi quality.

I would like to also express my thanks to the station Czech Radio Plus. It is an excellent station and it reminds me of RFE/RL with its special analysis and program structure, albeit without Slovak language. (I come from eastern Slovakia). I can listen to Czech Radio Plus without any jamming, but it always makes me think about those days trying to tune in to RFE/RL.

--Peter Collak

Writing to you is a person who is over eighty years old and who not only remembers RFE/RL, but also listened to forbidden radio while the Germans were here. The authorities did not like these radio stations and did what they could to jam them.

The network for jamming shortwaves had two aspects--local and long distance. The local jamming devices jammed the signal in towns, but only within a 20-30 kilometer radius. The long distance jammers were placed near Smolensk and Kaliningrad, Russia. And here was the Achilles heel: in the evenings on frequencies 13, 16, and 19, one could listen to RFE/RL.

Germany--Former RFE/RL Czechoslovak Service Director Pavel Pechacek at RFE/RL's Munich headquarters.
Germany--Former RFE/RL Czechoslovak Service Director Pavel Pechacek at RFE/RL's Munich headquarters.

At some point in early 1988, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) decided unanimously that all radio jamming should be stopped, and so it did, everywhere except Czechoslovakia. On December 18, 1988 there was a plenary session of the OSCE in Vienna, and the delegate from the United States asked the Czechoslovak delegates when they planned to stop jamming. The delegates responded that jamming had ended long ago. Then the American tuned in on a radio and everyone could hear the jammed signal. On that same day, at 4:30 p.m., radio jamming in Czechoslovakia stopped for good.

This is a reminder that people should not forget, and I am sure that most of them remember.

--Richard Ryvola

Dear friends,

In the period of normalization, I listened to Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, and the BBC instead of watching the official news on TV. I worked night shifts in an Ironworks in eastern Slovakia and was able to tune in to foreign radio stations.

I remember the lies from official media following the nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl on April 26, 1986. I heard on RFE/RL that that the Scandinavian countries had detected a strong radioactive cloud from the USSR. They also added that experts think there must have been an accident at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. Nothing was said about this on official Czechoslovak media. In the days that followed, all Western media informed listeners in detail about the Chornobyl blast and about protective measures being taken in democratic European countries (schools closed, limited outdoor work, a ban on fresh spring vegetables and carrying umbrellas, etc….).

The communist newspaper Rude Pravo and its Slovak counterpart Pravda denied everything. To my shock, the cycling race called “Race for Peace,” which was to start in Kyiv, was not cancelled. And the 1st of May parade went ahead, with small children required to be out in the streets.

I remember telling my acquaintance not to eat the radishes from his garden, but he just laughed at me. He died of a tumor in his digestive track several years later--of course nobody investigated if this might have been as a consequence of the Chornobyl disaster. I was disappointed that the guilty parties did not have to account for their actions in 1986.

--Vaclav Bednar. Hranice, Czech Republic.

I learned about RFE/RL once I began to perceive the world around me and noticed it is a bit divided and that the official Czechoslovak station, Hvezda, was not giving us all the news.

I was a high school student in 1986 when I first tried to tune in to this “hate radio” as it was called by the authorities, and it didn’t go very well. RFE/RL was heavily jammed at that time. I had a Soviet made radio with high quality short wave reception. Instead of RFE/RL, I managed to tune in to BBC and Voice of America (VOA), which had high quality short waves and were also broadcast in Czech and Slovak languages. These were also “agitator” radio stations comparable to the hated RFE/RL. They all gave me a chance to learn what “imperialist propaganda” really was. I heard news that was not on the official Czech radio. I heard about Gorbachev’s perestroika from a different point of view. I heard different commentaries and reports by Pavel Skala [the pen name used by Pavel Pechacek, who later became the director of RFE/RL’s Czech Service].

I listened to RFE/RL regularly from about mid-1987. All of the programs were high quality and provided a variety of different views and opinions. There were also 50-minute music programs, my favorite being 50 Minutes With Karel Kryl, who, apart from his songs, also commented on world events in a unique and memorable way.

For me, RFE /RL was an irreplaceable source of objective information during the first days of the Velvet Revolution in 1989, and I am glad it began to broadcast from Czechoslovak transmitters in 1990. RFE/RL, together with other stations that began broadcasting in Czechoslovakia, had a fundamental influence on the development of plurality of broadcasting on Czech Radio.

RFE/RL broadcasts in the Czech language stopped for good in 2002. I was very disappointed about this. However, the tradition of RFE/RL continues in the current broadcasters who work for CRo Plus radio station, and I express my thanks to them, and also to those who have since left Czech Radio and to all who continue to spread free information and develop high standards of professional journalism. There are a lot of personalities in broadcast journalism that I respect and I am honored I was able to meet them personally. Their names will always be linked to RFE/RL: Pavel Pechacek, Lida Rakusanova, and Karel Kryl.

I am glad that RFE/RL has its headquarters in Prague, and as free information came to Czechoslovakia from RFE/RL in Munich, now Prague is the city from which free information is broadcast to places where there is no press freedom. We are repaying out debt to RFE/RL in this way, and it is good that we are doing it.

--Marek Svab, Trutnov, Czech Republic.

--Translated from Czech and Slovak by Jana Hokuvova.