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RFE Broadcasts From Hungarian Revolution Digitized

Once thought destroyed, RFE broadcasts from the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 are now available in digital format.
Once thought destroyed, RFE broadcasts from the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 are now available in digital format.
PALO ALTO, CALIFORNIA -- The RFE/RL Broadcast Collection at Stanford’s Hoover Institution contains some 80,000 studio tape reels of RFE and Radio Liberty (RL) broadcasts. Now, thanks to the hard work of a dedicated team of RFE affiliates, it also contains rare log tapes (low-quality recordings of short-wave transmitter output) for the crucial three weeks of the Hungarian Revolution (October 19 – November 13, 1956).

During this era, log tapes were routinely reused (no others have been preserved), but thanks to historical accident and modern technology, the complete recordings of every RFE broadcast hour from that momentous period are now available in digitized form at the Hoover Archives at Stanford University and the Hungarian National Szechenyi Library. While the transcripts of many of these programs aired during those three weeks of 1956 have long been available, the recovered 1956 log tapes provide the only complete audio record of RFE’s broadcasts at that time.

Accidental Preservation

During the Cold War, RFE and RL log tapes were retained for only a few months in accordance with German, Portuguese, and Spanish transmitter licensing requirements. However, after public controversy developed around RFE’s 1956 Hungarian broadcasts, the West German Foreign Office borrowed the set of log recordings made at the RFE transmitter station at Biblis in order to conduct a review (which was generally positive). It quickly returned the log tapes to RFE, but, fearing more controversy in the media and labor courts, reclaimed them again in the spring of 1957. Seeking secure storage, the Foreign Office deposited the tapes in the Federal German Archives in Koblenz – where they remained, forgotten until their rediscovery in the late 90s. By this point, the ravages of time and outdated technology had made them all but unplayable.

Archaic Sound Recovered

In 2000, after Hungarian Radio arranged for the copying of the Hungarian broadcasts, RFE/RL and the Federal German Archives decided to recover in digital form all RFE language broadcasts during the period of the Revolution. Manfred Hanspeter of RFE/RL Technical Services and RFE/RL archive consultants Leszek Gawlikowski and Laszlo Rajki oversaw the project, which was epic in scope. The 1956 log tapes alone contained a total of over 6500 broadcast hours, recorded on 60 fourteen-track paper-backed tapes.

Today, much of the restorative work could be done on laptop, but ten years ago the project required more creative solutions. Using two computers, a Network Attached Storage (NAS) unit, a low noise amplifier, and a modified Telefunken tape machine (which reduced the tape speed), former RFE/RL Hungarian Service producer Robert Trunk was able to meticulously transfer the recordings on the tape to MP3 format. In 2001, Trunk spent several months adjusting the audio for each of the 727 tape tracks, transferring the output to the NAS, editing the audio to enhance sound quality, and finally depositing the content onto 60 CDs.

Preserved by historical accident and retrieved with modern technology, this unique record of a key period of RFE broadcast history is now available for research.

- A. Ross Johnson & Manfred Hanspeter