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Prokop Tomek On The Power Of Radio And The Importance Of Perspective

Czech historian Prokop Tomek.

Prokop Tomek, a historian working for the Military Historic Institute in the Department of History and Documentation, received a PhD from the philosophical faculty of Charles University in 2012 for a dissertation, The History of the Czechoslovak Desk of Radio Free Europe and its Impact on Czech History (Historie československé redakce Rádia Svobodná Evropa a její význam pro české dějiny). He has published widely on the topic.

RFE/RL: Why did you choose to study the history of RFE’s Czechoslovak service?

TOMEK: It was the hand of fate. I tiptoed around the RFE topic for a long time and I researched marginal topics like the StB (secret police) and jamming, and I resisted researching RFE and its history because the topic is so huge in quantity and quality and I was simply afraid I would not be able to manage it. The people who worked for RFE deserve an entire autobiographical book, and it is not possible to manage the scope of it, nor is it manageable for one human being. However, I consider RFE as the brightest of all topics I have covered so far. I highly respect the people I met while researching the topic. This is a great reward for me. I come from an “audio family.” My parents used to listen to all foreign broadcasters; this was my childhood background. My parents lived with audio. It gave them hope.

RFE/RL: Based on your research, how do you assess the Service’s impact? can you conclude that the size of the Service’s audience was decisive, or was it the content? What does the Service’s impact tell us about “quantitative measures” vs. “qualitative measures” in assessing impact?

TOMEK: The impact was not the same for the whole duration of RFE broadcasting. During regime repression and oppression, it was small, certainly it was hidden. In the time of crisis – 1968-1969, mainly in 1988-1989 – the impact was great and significant. The quantity of listeners was difficult to increase because of jamming or repressions against the listeners. (Listening to RFE was not a criminal offense, but if people did something against the regime, and there was evidence they had listened to RFE, this made things worse, since they were accused of being inspired by RFE.) However, quality is always so important. It is necessary to think about the content, adjust it, not stick to the traditions just because they are good and time-proven. What was amazing is the fact that RFE opened the door for the former members of KSČ (Communist Party of Czechoslovakia) after 1968, this needed courage and it proved to be a good decision. [The staff of RFE's Czechoslovak Service in 1968 was entirely anti-communist. The decision to employ reformist communist refugees after 1968 was very controversial - ed.]

RFE/RL: Do you think media today can play a role similar to the one played by the Czechoslovak Service?

TOMEK: Of course. We are primarily talking about countries that do not have free speech. But there was one element that people remembered long after RFE/RL broadcasts had stopped. This was a broader perspective, the ability to distance oneself from small events that prevent one from seeing the important things, and also the awareness of context. This is a quality that is still valid and is sought after. Accuracy and quantity of information are important and expected, but how can we evaluate so much information? How can we understand it all? How can we get the most important information? This is something that people at RFE could do, and that is why people in Czechoslovakia listened to the broadcasts. For example, when Karel Kryl [former RFE/RL radio host and singer] came back [from Munich], we did not understand his critical stand on the post-November-1989 events in Czechoslovakia. He was able to see things from a distance. It turned out that he was right about almost everything.