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Ross Johnson, visiting RFE/RL's Belgrade Bureau in October 2017.
Ross Johnson, visiting RFE/RL's Belgrade Bureau in October 2017.

Ross Johnson: His Colleagues Remember

Author, historian, archivist, longtime RFE/RL executive and Balkans expert A. Ross Johnson passed away on February 6, 2021. We reserve this space for comments and recollections from Ross' colleagues, collaborators, and friends.

15:47 5.3.2021

15:45 5.3.2021

A. Ross Johnson, Hoover Research Fellow And Former Director Of Radio Free Europe, Dies At 82

March 3, 2021

Hoover Institution, Stanford University

A. Ross Johnson, former research fellow and director of Radio Free Europe, who played a leading role in developing and preserving the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty collection at the Hoover Institution, passed away on February 6. He was 82.

Johnson spent most of his career at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) and was a senior executive of the organization from 1988 to 2002, serving as director of RFE, director of the RFE/RL Research Institute, and acting president and counselor of RFE/RL. From 2003 to 2016, he was a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. From 2008 until his passing, Johnson was a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, where he primarily studied the role and impact of Radio Free Europe during the Cold War, the future for United States international broadcasting, and the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia.

Johnson was an adviser to Hoover’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Archive Project and supported the Library & Archives’ successful acquisition of the RFE/RL records from Washington, DC, and headquarters in Prague. The entire collection includes more than 10.5 million pages and 10,000 sound recordings from the 1950s to 2006.

In October 2004, Johnson organized a major conference copresented by the Hoover Institution and the Wilson Center that convened scholars and government officials around the world for conversations on the impact of Western broadcasting during the Cold War. The conference was opened by the late secretary of state George P. Shultz and Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, and featured analyses of papers based on research of previously inaccessible primary materials from Eastern European and Soviet archives. The conference papers were published, along with translated documents from these archives, in a volume coedited by Johnson, Cold War Broadcasting; Impact on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (Central European University Press, 2010).

Shultz said that the research presented during the conference “would contribute to a better understanding of an important period of world history and contribute to our ability to structure communications in the new global political arena.”

In recent years, Johnson had been working earnestly on the declassification of the RFE/RL records at the Central Intelligence Agency and arranging for their deposit at the Hoover Library & Archives. In 2011, Johnson authored Radio Free Europe and Radio Free Liberty: The CIA Years and Beyond, based on extensive research across Europe as well as on declassified CIA materials.

In 2017, Johnson authored the paper “Optimizing Governance of US International Media in Historical and International Context,” which assessed the restructuring of international broadcasting. He also envisioned ways in which the US government could apply the lessons of the very successful international broadcasting during the Cold War to current geopolitical, media, and technological landscapes.

Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, Johnson graduated from Stanford University and, later, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and Columbia University. It was during an experience studying abroad while an undergraduate at Stanford that he changed his major from engineering to follow a passion in foreign affairs. Prior to Johnson’s career at RFE/RL, he was a research fellow both at the RAND Corporation and the Foundation for Science and Politics in Germany.

Johnson spoke German and Serbian fluently. He was also an expert in Balkan history and politics, and an advocate for democratic reform and press freedoms in Eastern Europe. In 1996, Johnson received a citation for Meritorious Service to Polish Culture from the government of Poland in 1996, and the Laurel Award from that country’s prime minister in 2001.

“For the past twenty-five years, Ross was a devoted guardian and champion of the history of the RFE/RL and its archives. All those who were a part of its history and who have cared for its archives will always honor his memory,” said Charles Palm, the former director of Hoover’s Library & Archives.

Johnson is survived by his wife, Diana; his children, Karin and Eric; and his brother, Reid.

23:04 25.2.2021

"Ross was a valued colleague and mentor, a source of information and wisdom on whom I relied over many years to help me understand and unravel the sometimes tangled ways of our dear RFE/RL, and to appreciate its storied history.

"I learned something every time we met; indeed, Ross’s intense curiosity and dedicated research produced a steady stream of fascinating, informative, and often surprising details about the origins and operations of 'The Radios.' While studying RFE/RL’s past, Ross did much to shape its future and to support its continuing mission. And his sneakily subtle sense of humor enlivened many long discussions.

"It was an honor and a pleasure to work with Ross."

  • Jeff Trimble (Trimble served RFE/RL from 1997-2007 as Director of Broadcasting, Director of Policy and Strategic Planning, and Acting President)
21:59 25.2.2021

“I first met Ross very casually when he approached me after I had been on a panel at the AAASS (American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies) in the U.S. sometime in the late 1980s. He was a Senior Analyst at the Rand Corporation at the time. I don’t recall the question he posed; it may have been a request for a report. Little did I know that a decade or so later we would be working closely together as the USSR neared its end. And that this fruitful collaboration would continue until his untimely passing in February 2021.

“Our first collaboration came when the RFE/RL Research Institute was founded in late 1990. At the time I was head of Soviet Area Audience and Opinion Research in Paris and we were merged with the Munich operation, East European Audience and Opinion Research, into the Media and Opinion Research department (MOR) of the newly founded Research Institute. Ross moved from Director of RFE to founding Director of the Research Institute. Giving up Paris for Munich wasn’t easy but the opportunity to work directly with Ross in this exciting new venture more than compensated.

“While Ross recognized that MOR had to provide a full audience research product to the broadcasters, he was also highly supportive of our efforts to plumb the depths of developing public opinion in the broadcast area. His aim was to create added value by combining MOR survey research with Analytical Research Department insights to develop a unique product. He strongly encouraged our strategic partnership with the International Research Institute on Social Change (RISC, based in Switzerland and France) in establishing a structured approach that could compare the trajectories of the post-communist societies in their uneven and fitful movement toward freer societies. One of Ross’s key gifts was visionary forward thinking that was not satisfied merely to document and analyzing current events but to shed light on where developments were moving. He combined a keen analytical intelligence with a broad historical understanding of the broadcast area.

“Our collaboration continued after the end of the Research Institute and RFE/RL’s move to Prague in a greatly reduced state. I made the move with the radios to Prague as Director of Audience and Opinion Research and reported directly to Ross, who now was counselor to the President of RFE/RL in Washington. Ross’s institutional memory, wise counsel and dedication to the mission of RFE/RL was invaluable to the entire organization in this new phase.

“Ross and I continued to work together after my retirement in the fall of 2006 on a number of projects. The ground-breaking conference on Cold-War Broadcasting at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University in 2004 was seminal in this respect and an important outcome was a book that we co-edited: “Cold War Broadcasting: Impact on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.” In addition to contributions from Westerners involved in the effort, the book included formerly secret documents concerning the radios from official Eastern European and Soviet archives that Ross was able to locate. One of Ross’s crucial activities in recent years was overseeing the archival project at the Hoover Institution of the RFE/RL corporate records.

Ross was also concerned about the role and structure of the U.S. international broadcasting effort in the new and challenging circumstances of the 21st century. We collaborated on a paper in 2012 at the Woodrow Wilson Institute for International Scholars (WWCIS) in Washington entitled “A 21st Century Vision for U.S. Global Media” which laid out a plan for re-structuring the wide panoply of US international broadcasters. We made a number of trips to Capitol Hill together to meet with congressional staffers who appreciated our proposal, but felt that it was probably not politically feasible at the time. In recent years Ross and I appeared together on five different panels at the Wilson Institute, several of them dealing with the future of US international media. The high regard Ross was held in by the WWCIS as a Senior Fellow was made manifest in the tribute given to him on the Wilson Center Website.

Ross was also an avid outdoorsman who every year did a cross-country ski vacation in Europe and often in the U.S. as well. I nostalgically remember our hikes together in the Swiss Alps and in the redwood forests of California. Ross was as intrepid in his sporting activities as he was with RFE/RL.

In addition to our professional collaboration, we had a warm friendship and would meet regularly for lunch in downtown Washington, sometimes with other former RFE/RL colleagues such as Enders Wimbush, Beth Portale, Jeff Trimble, Bob Gillette, Kevin Klose among others. Often it was just the two of us enjoying a long lunch together.

At the time of his passing Ross and I were in the process of planning several projects together. One would use unique public opinion data that MOR had gathered on the post-Communist transition in Russia and Poland. Another would provide a more detailed exposition of the history of the RFE/RL Research Institute for the RFE/RL website. Ross’s untimely passing is a huge loss for the entire RFE/RL community and for me personally. Without his efforts, along with others, when RFE/RL was about to be sacrificed as a “peace dividend” in the post-communist period there might not be a viable RFE/RL today. We all extend to his family our deepest condolences and appreciation of his enormous contribution to RFE/RL’s mission, which thanks in no small measure to him is ongoing.”

  • R. Eugene Parta (Parta retired in 2006 as RFE/RL Director of Audience Research and Program Evaluation, after working in the field of international broadcasting audience research since 1969; In 1990, Parta was appointed as Director of Media Opinion Research of the RFE/RL Research Institute.)

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