Radio Free Europe promised audiences in its first broadcast that it would serve as a “permanent and reliable source of information.” Seventy years on, its mission continues.
Radio Free Europe promised audiences in its first broadcast that it would serve as a “permanent and reliable source of information.” Seventy years on, its mission continues.
Radio Free Europe (RFE) and Radio Liberty (RL), originally separate organizations, were conceived by George F. Kennan (United States Department of State) and Frank G. Wisner (Office of Policy Coordination, later the United States Central Intelligence Agency) to utilize the talents of post-World War II Soviet and Eastern European émigrés in support of American foreign policy. Initially, both RFE and RL were funded principally by the U.S. Congress through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), but RFE also received private donations. From 1950 to 1960, more than 16 million Americans contributed over $1.3 million to Radio Free Europe's "Crusade for Freedom," which was formed in 1950 to support of the American effort to broadcast uncensored news and other programming to the peoples of communist-ruled Eastern European countries.
PHOTO: RFE ad in the early 1950s
A 10-ton bell, the symbol of Radio Free Europe, depicted on the first company logo, was cast at the British foundry of Gillett and Johnston. The bell was taken on a "Crusade for Freedom" around 21 America cities by its sponsors, before being installed in the heart of Berlin in the Rathaus tower, Schoeneberg, where she still resides to this day.
Radio Free Europe broadcasts started on July 4, 1950, with a program transmitted to Czechoslovakia. Broadcasts to Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, and Romania were added soon after. RFE provided an unbiased, professional substitute for the free media that countries behind the Iron Curtain lacked. Unlike other Western broadcasters, RFE programs focused on local news not covered in state-controlled domestic media, as well as religion, science, sports, Western music, and locally banned literature and music.
Radio Free Europe (and later Radio Liberty) were subject to severe and constant jamming by Soviet authorities and satellite governments in Eastern European countries. Soviet leader Josef Stalin personally ordered the establishment of local and long-distance jamming facilities to block broadcasts, which the radios sought to overcome using high power and multiple frequencies.
AUDIO: A clip of jamming of the Czechoslovak Service. Recorded in the U.S. Embassy in Prague on November 26, 1976.
On May 1, 1951, RFE went on the air with a broadcast to communist Czechoslovakia from a studio in Munich, West Germany.
AUDIO: A clip from the Czechoslovak Service's broadcast: A new radio station Radio Free Europe is calling! Today, on May 1st, 1951, Radio Free Europe is calling. We are grateful to 16 million Americans who contributed with their donations to help to reach people on the other side of the Iron Curtain…”
PHOTO: A broadcast from the first Radio Free Europe studio in Munich.
Tadeusz Nowakowski was the first Polish Service member to address listeners in Poland. Following the signature tune, Nowakowski opened the broadcast Service: "...We believe as the authors of the May 3rd constitution did, that all the internal changes in Poland should be carried out by Poles in the interest of Poland...This is why our voice resounds for our brothers in Poland for the first time on the National Day, on the 3rd of May which is opposed and prohibited by Moscow..."
H. B. Miller, retired rear admiral (USN) and president of the National Committee for a Free Europe, followed with his opening address.
Jan Nowak-Jeziorański (PHOTO), the legendary fighter for the Polish resistance during World War II and the first Munich director of the Polish Service, then spoke to Polish listeners: "...The day shall come when then dawn of liberty will once again rise over Warsaw. And that will be the day of your victory, your triumph -- the triumph of nation which has never -- not even in the darkest moments -- lost its faith. Please, wherever you are, remember: Poland lives, Poland struggles, Poland shall be victorious!"
AUDIO: A clip from the first Polish broadcast from Munich on May 3, 1952.
RFE launched balloons from West Germany to reach people on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Balloons carried boxes of leaflets with news and text declaring that a new wind was blowing, a new hope was stirring. “Millions of free men and women have joined together and are sending you this message of friendship over the Winds of Freedom -- which in the upper air always blow from West to East.” The leaflets also listed the frequencies of RFE broadcasts to Czechoslovakia.
Radio Liberation (renamed Radio Liberty in 1959) began broadcasting to the Soviet Union in the Russian, Tajik, and Turkmen languages, building on the surrogate broadcasting model of RFE. These programs were joined later by broadcasts in Armenian, Azeri, Belarusian, Georgian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek, and programs in Tatar and Baskhir and Ukrainian.
A clip from the inaugural radio “Liberation” broadcast in Russian that was aired on March 1 at 8 a.m. Moscow time and was moderated by the first director of the radio, Sergey Dubrovsky. The program was aired from the radio headquarters at Oberwiesenfeld, Munich.
RFE’s role during the 1956 Hungarian uprising has been the subject of debate by researchers and Hungarian exiles. A. Ross Johnson, a former director of RFE, has concluded on the basis of extensive research that RFE "did not" foment revolution or urge Hungarians to wage a hopeless fight against the Soviet Army. RFE broadcast balanced newscasts and amplified emerging independent press and radios. But many listeners believed from the tone of some RFE commentaries and the very existence of RFE Hungarian broadcasts that Western powers would intervene on their behalf.
After the uprising was crushed, RFE broadcast some 200,000 personal messages from refugees to relatives back in Hungary reporting their safe arrival in the West. To cite one testimonial, László Ivanits later recalled how a priest who sought him out on a train in Germany conveyed to RFE, and thus to his aunt and parents in Hungary, his message that “the blond-haired, blue-eyed boy from Raday Street is on his way to America.”
Former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower talks with RFE Director C. Rodney Smith in front of a map showing RFE's broadcasting area in the early 1960s.
RFE Director (1988-91) A. Ross Johnson in his account, No One is Afraid to Talk to Us Anymore: Radio Free Europe in 1989, writes that “by the end of the 1960s RFE/RL had become a seasoned substitute for national radios, commonly called surrogate broadcasters, focused primarily not on the United States or international issues … but on developments in the countries to which they broadcast. Their mission was to provide their listeners with a link to the West, to keep the hope of freedom alive, and to promote evolutionary change toward what after 1989 would be called a Europe whole and free.”
AUDIO: RFE’s Czechoslovak Service broadcast interviews next to the statue of St. Wenceslas on Wenceslas Square on August 28-29, 1968, in the days following the invasion of Warsaw Pact forces. The people express low spirits when they are asked how they feel and many yell and argue about politics, indicating that this was a demonstration. One man said he and others had hung up photos of padlých lidí (people who died/were killed), and other people were tearing them down. Some people expressed anger that only young people were protesting and the older generation was reluctant.
In that year CIA funding ceased, and thereafter RFE and RL were funded by a U.S. congressional appropriation through the Board for International Broadcasting (reorganized as the Broadcasting Board of Governors in 1995).
RFE/RL headquarters in Munich, Germany (undated photo).
Broadcasts to the Baltic states -- first with Radio Liberty in 1975 and then by RFE in the early 1980s --covered the rise of national self-assertion and political dissent.
AUDIO: An excerpt from the first regular Estonian program, News and Special Stories, broadcast on July 5, 1975. The program was hosted by Karin Saarsen-Karlstedt (PHOTO) and Jaan Pennar, the Estonian Service’s first director, and, among other topics, included coverage of a speech by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn that he delivered while on tour in the U.S. Solzhenitsyn heavily criticized the policy of detente between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. (A. Solzhenitsyn): "Already in Yalta, when it wasn’t necessary, the occupation of Mongolia, Moldova, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania was acknowledged. Later, almost nothing was done to defend Eastern Europe and 7-8 states were 'given away.' Stalin demanded that Soviet citizens who did not wish to return be expatriated. And the West sent back 1.5 million people. It’s a frightening understanding of peace if it comes with the condition of "well, give them back to us."
The Soviet KGB and Warsaw Pact intelligence services penetrated the stations, jailed sources, and even resorted to violence in an attempt to intimidate RFE/RL staff. On this day émigré writer and Bulgarian Service correspondent Georgi Markov died in London at the age of 49, having reportedly been poisoned by a ricin-filled pellet shot by a Bulgarian intelligence agent from an umbrella.
One of the greatest challenges for RFE/RL was to operate in information-poor environments. To this end, they carefully monitored print and electronic media of the Soviet bloc and, from field bureaus throughout the world, interviewed travelers and defectors.
PHOTO: RFE/RL monitors Soviet and East European radio and television around the clock. Here, in Russian Monitoring, Soviet television, transmitted via satellite, is being recorded while staff scan the Soviet press for noteworthy articles.
A team of four Euro-terrorists operating under the direction of the infamous "Carlos the Jackal" in Budapest set off a powerful bomb at RFE/RL's Munich headquarters, injuring six and causing some $1 million in damage to the building.
PHOTO: The aftermath of the terrorist bombing of RFE/RL headquarters in Munich, 1981.
RFE/RL Polish Service correspondent Maciej Morawski, calling from Paris, was able to interview Polish dissident Jacek Kuron by phone, as secret police broke into his apartment and arrested him in Poland. RFE/RL had the interview on air 10 minutes later. In 1988, RFE/RL was able to interview by telephone 190 prominent Poles in Poland, and regularly aired reports by informal correspondents inside Poland. A. Ross Johnson writes that RFE/RL Polish Service head Marek Latynski noted in an internal memorandum in early 1988, “there is no curtain of silence anymore. Nobody is afraid to talk to us.”
PHOTO: Marek Latynski, Director of the Polish Service, standing in front of the Chopin monument in Warsaw in July 1989.
For the first time in history, all RFE/RL broadcasts were free from jamming as Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, the last two remaining countries to continue interfering with the broadcast of the Radios, turned off their jammers.
The move by the Czechoslovak and Bulgarian governments to halt jamming followed the decision by the Soviet Union on November 29, 1988, to end more than 35 years of jamming of RFE/RL. Technical monitors at RFE/RL headquarters in Munich indicated that jamming had ceased at 21:00 CET on November 29. Reports inside the Soviet Union were now heard loud and clear.
The Polish Service provided comprehensive coverage of the Polish "roundtable" discussions between representatives of the communist regime and the Solidarity movement. Service head Marek Latynski broadcast a series of measured commentaries on the talks.
Solidarity was legalized on April 16, 1989. Later, the Service provided a media platform for non-Communist Party candidates in the June parliamentary elections -- candidates who had been blacklisted by the state media -- and by doing so contributed to making those elections freer and fairer.
PHOTO: Polish "roundtable" between representatives of the regime and Solidarity.
In a letter to the Czechoslovak Service director by Charter 77, spokespersons Tomas Hradilek, Dana Nemcova, and Sasa Vondra offered a number of concrete program suggestions.
A. Ross Johnson: “A new relationship developed between RFE and the opposition movements in the region. Earlier, dissidents and opposition groups gratefully looked to RFE as an uncensored outlet for their views, as a megaphone. Now, they sought to influence coverage of their countries as well.”
The Budapest office of RFE/RL opened on September 27, becoming the Radio’s first news and program bureau in Eastern Europe. By October 1989, almost all Hungarian Service programs on Hungarian affairs were produced by staffers or freelancers in Hungary, transmitted to Munich through the new Budapest bureau.
PHOTO: Mathias Rosch of Broadcast Operations in the new RFE/RL studio in Budapest in 1989.
On November 17, 1989, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia began. In an unprecedented development, Pavel Pechacek, director of the Czechoslovak Service at the time, was granted a visa by the Czechoslovak authorities to enter the country just before the November 1989 demonstrations. Pechacek arrived on November 21, and provided uncensored coverage of the first days of the Velvet Revolution.
PHOTO: On November 21, more than 200,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Prague for a fifth consecutive day of protests. AUDIO: An excerpt from Pavel Pechacek’s report from the Wenceslas Square at 16:06 CET.
“It is enough that I speak; I shall destroy this wall of fear” -- dissident Romanian pastor Laszlo Tokes spoke these words and ignited demonstrations in Timisoara one month after the fall of the Berlin Wall. RFE/RL's Romanian Service aired a dramatic, smuggled report of police and army violence against peaceful demonstrators three days later.
AUDIO: A clip from the Romanian Service’s Domestic Block broadcast on December 20, 1989 moderated by the Service’s legendary broadcaster Neculai Constantin Munteanu: “In Timisoara, they shot at people who got out on the streets asking for bread and freedom, forging their own history, a history dripping with blood. Listen! Timisoara, 17 of December 1989. [PEOPLE SHOUTING, SHOTS ARE FIRED] You thieves!...Shoot! Shoot! You should be ashamed! You idiots! You are Romanians like us, you should be ashamed!” Neculai Constantin Munteanu: “Tanks and automatic weapons are firing into the crowd on the streets. Timisoara, 17 of December 1989. It is Romania, 1989, Ceausescu era.”
On December 22, 1989, Romanian General Secretary Nicolae Ceausescu fled the Romanian Party Central Committee building. RFE/RL carried the first reports of his flight from Bucharest, phoned in by a Bucharest journalist.
Civic Forum member Milos Dravil (right) drove from Prague to Munich to present RFE/RL with 30 meters of barbed wire from the Czech-West German border. He thanked the Radios for encouraging democratic reform in his country. Receiving the gift on behalf of RFE/RL were (from left) Assistant Director of the Czechoslovak Service Ivan Cikl, RFE Director A. Ross Johnson, and RFE/RL President Gene Pell.
Photos from the receptions in the Royal Castle in Warsaw (above) celebrating the opening of the Warsaw bureau, and in Wallenstein Palace (below) celebrating the opening of the Prague bureau.
The Research Institute incorporated RFE/RL’s longstanding analytic and audience research, media monitoring, archive, and publications units. It provided information about Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R. to RFE/RL broadcast services and was the leading Western center on the region for scholars, journalists, and government officials.
During the failed Soviet putsch of 1991, one of the few sources of reliable information was RFE/RL’s Russian Service (Radio Liberty).
As a result of its dramatic broadcasts, it received official accreditation in Russia for the first time. Around August 22, two Service reporters, Mikhail Sokolov and Andrei Babitsky, met President Boris Yeltsin in the White House. They managed to record a short interview in which Yeltsin said that Radio Liberty deserves to be accredited in Russia and a few days later on August 27, he signed a decree permitting RL to open a bureau in Moscow.
After 2000, Radio Liberty lost all of its retransmitters in Russia and its local radio frequencies in Moscow. In 2002, President Vladimir Putin revoked Yeltsin’s decree. Despite innumerable impediments, the bureau has continued to operate, registering in 2020 as a limited liability company.
As many countries from the former Soviet sphere overturned their communist governments and even joined NATO and the European Union, RFE/RL ceased its operations. The Hungarian Service was closed in 1993, the Polish Service in 1997.
In response to the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, RFE/RL began broadcasting in Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian to the Yugoslav successor states. In 1999, it launched broadcasts in Albanian to Kosovo, and in Macedonian and Albanian to Macedonia in 2001. The South Slavic Languages Service was a brave voice against destruction and conflict, promoting tolerance, peace, and reconciliation.
PHOTO: The South Slavic Languages Service's members and other RFE/RL colleagues on January 31, 1994, in Munich, Germany, following the inaugural show to the ex-Yugoslavia.
In 1995, at the invitation of writer, former dissident, and Czech President Vaclav Havel, RFE/RL moved its operations from Munich -- where we had been based since 1950 -- to Prague. Havel offered the former Czechoslovak Parliament building to RFE/RL: right in the center of Prague, at the top of Wenceslas Square.
Reflecting greater American attention to the Middle East, RFE/RL began broadcasting in Arabic to Iraq and in Persian to Iran in 1998; after 2002 the broadcasts to Iran continued as a new language service known as Radio Farda. (In 2015, RFE/RL’s Iraq broadcasts were merged with MBN’s Radio Sawa.)
PHOTO: Broadcaster Maryam Ahmadi reads the first news broadcast of the new Radio Farda, RFE's service to Iran, December 2002.
Following the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001, it became clear that as a U.S.-funded organization, RFE/RL could also be a potential terrorist target. Concrete barriers and armored personnel vehicles were placed in front of the headquarters in central Prague, and the National Security Council (BRS) of the Czech Republic advised the government to start talks with the Radios on moving the station to a safer location. The Czech Defense Ministry allegedly proposed five alternative buildings located well away from the city center.
In December, after the September 11 attacks, the U.S. Congress passed legislation allowing RFE/RL to establish a service in Dari and Pashto to Afghanistan, resuming broadcasts it had begun in the 1980s during the Soviet occupation. PHOTO from RFE/RL archives: Broadcasters of the Afghan Service preparing to go on air with the latest news.
RFE/RL reinstated broadcasts in Avar, Chechen, and Circassian to the North Caucasus (Avar and Circassian broadcasts were discontinued in 2016, but Chechen-language programs continue). Audience response to the new broadcast was instantaneous with an appreciative phone call from Kabardino within minutes of the first broadcast and a steady stream of letters from new listeners in the first week of broadcasts.
PHOTO: A letter from a listener
Rádio Svobodná Evropa, the Czech Service of RFE/RL, aired its last broadcast after 51 years on the air. The Service lived on in collaboration with Czech Radio and under the leadership of former Director Pavel Pechacek in the new Czech Radio channel 6.
PHOTO: A clip from an internal RFE/RL publication “Inside RFE/RL”: President Havel’s message to Svobodná Evropa.
Broadcasts to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Croatia, and Bulgaria were discontinued in 2004, and broadcasts to Romania ended in 2008 as these countries gained membership in NATO and the EU.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty introduced a new company logo — a silver torch with burnt-orange flame, symbolizing its modern, universal engagement in the fight for democracy. The new logo replaced the blue and silver Freedom Bell that had been RFE/RL’s symbol for more than half a century. RFE/RL President at the time, Thomas A. Dine, explained that “The flaming torch symbolizes the light of truth and information in our multimedia array of information products — on radio, television, the Internet, cell phones, and in print media.”
In early 2009, RFE/RL moved from the city center to its new headquarters in Prague, at Hagibor. Czech President Vaclav Havel presided over the inaugural editorial meeting in the new building. He recalled the hope that RFE/RL had given him and his fellow dissidents behind the Iron Curtain, and encouraged journalists to uphold the high standards of truth and honest reporting that RFE/RL had exemplified through the Cold War.
PHOTO (left to right): Jeff Gedmin, RFE/RL president & CEO, and Czech President Vaclav Havel.
AUDIO HAVEL: “Even after the collapse of Communism, RFE/RL played a significant role because it set the professional bar for journalists in the new democracies, it was a role model for learning the basics of independent journalism.”
RFE/RL launched Pashto-language programming in Pakistan’s remote tribal regions along the border with Afghanistan to provide an alternative to extremist propaganda. Radio Mashaal covers local and international news with in-depth reporting, roundtables, and call-in shows on politics, youth, militancy, women's issues, and public health.
In response to Russia's unrecognized forcible annexation of Crimea, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service launched a special digital unit to reach audiences on the peninsula in Crimean Tatar, Russian, and Ukrainian. A website for audiences in the Russia-backed separatist territories in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region soon followed.
RFE/RL launched Current Time, a digital and TV network for Russian-speaking audiences worldwide. The initiative, run in cooperation with VOA, has grown from a 30-minute daily news program to a channel with 24/7 news coverage and features programming available on digital platforms, TV, and satellite in 26 countries, including 12 beyond RFE/RL’s standard coverage region.
VIDEO: Current Time TV English-language promo (October 2019).
RFE/RL returned with digital services to Bulgaria and Romania, amid growing concern about declining media freedom in the two countries.
RFE/RL plans to return to Hungary with an all-digital operation that aims to fill a void in the country’s polarized media landscape with accurate and balanced news.