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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.

Ross Johnson, visiting RFE/RL's Belgrade Bureau in October 2017.
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.)
01:38 25.2.2021

01:35 25.2.2021

"I first met Ross when he joined RFE/RL as the director of RFE in the mid 1980s. As the Executive Director of the Board for International Broadcasting (BIB), I was responsible for working closely with the radios on policy and programming and quickly formed an excellent working relationship with Ross. In time, we became good friends and remained in regular touch until his untimely death.

"Ross was the driving force behind RFE’s growing presence in Central and Eastern Europe, even as tottering communist rule still held sway. While the BIB, based in Washington, was focused on developing an overall strategy for the future of the radios and communicating our initial ideas to relevant congressional committees and senior members of the Bush administration, Ross and his colleagues were seeking opportunities to enhance the RFE news gathering operations on the ground. Their initial forays into Eastern and Central Europe showed that the new democratic leaders wanted ever closer ties with RFE/RL broadcasters. The first country to make a bold move was Hungary. On July 3, 1989, RFE/RL opened a full-time news bureau in Budapest, its first in the East bloc. Several days later, on an official visit to Hungary, President George H. W. Bush specifically referred to RFE in his speech at Karl-Marx University: “The creative genius of the Hungarian people, long suppressed, is again flourishing in your schools, your businesses, your churches… Voices stifled are being heard again. An independent daily newspaper is now sold on the streets. Commercial radio and television will broadcast everything from the news to the music of Stevie Wonder. And Radio Free Europe is opening its first Eastern European bureau right here in Budapest.” Buoyed by the positive developments in Hungary, Ross and I decided to explore new opportunities to expand RFE/RL presence in-country and acquire a deeper understanding of the underlying political processes that would help shape a new broadcasting strategy.

"As a first step, in September 1989, Kenneth Tomlinson, a member of the BIB, Ross, and I, accompanied by Jan de Weydenthal, traveled to Poland where we met with members of the Polish government, as well as with such prominent Solidarity members as Bronislaw Geremek and Adam Michnik. The most memorable part of our trip was taking a train to Gdansk and spending an hour or more with Lech Walesa. He greeted us warmly, praised RFE broadcasts for helping to bring democratic change to Poland, and encouraged us to establish a strong presence in Poland. When we asked Walesa what kind of Poland he would envision, he answered simply: “a normal European country.” Walesa encouraged us to meet with Jacek Ambroziak, chief assistant to Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, to discuss the opening of a full-fledged RFE office in Warsaw. When we described our plans to Ambroziak, he assured us that “if RFE applies for accreditation, the answer will be affirmative.” Ross made sure RFE applied and the rest is history.

"Under Ross’s leadership, RFE opened news bureaus not only in Budapest and Warsaw, but also in Prague and other cities in Eastern Europe. Each bureau became the hub of a network of locally hired freelance journalists who acquired professional experience working for a western news organization. Their contributions significantly improved the immediacy, depth, and variety of RFE’s programming from Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. In the case of Czechoslovakia, RFE even gained access to four powerful medium-wave transmitters, letting listeners tune in programs on ordinary AM radios at home or in their cars. These new bureaus also allowed correspondents from other RFE/RL language services to travel freely to Central Europe and file in-depth reports, expanding one of RFE/RL’s core strengths - “cross-reporting” – the sharing of news and information across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In a sign of the times, when a TASS correspondent asked Alexander Yakovlev, Gorbachev’s senior adviser and Politburo member, at a news conference in Prague how he assessed Soviet media coverage of the changes in Eastern Europe, Yakovlev complained about a lack of objectivity and said RFE/RL provided a more impartial and useful perspective. “We can always learn details of what bad or negative event has happened in, say, Czechoslovakia,” he noted, “but we learn about the consequences only from Radio Liberty’s news.”

"The late 1980s and early 1990s were heady times when we had unique opportunities to initiate new broadcasts, establish American presence in the East bloc, and contribute to monumental political changes. We not only had to develop innovative strategies, but we also had to implement them. This required a combination of analysis, deliberation, and decisiveness to know when and how to act. That RFE/RL came through that period with flying colors, honored by all the democratically elected leaders in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, is due in no small measure to the leadership of Ross Johnson."

  • Mark Pomar (From 1982 to 1993, Pomar served as Assistant Director of RFE/RL’s Russian Service, as Director of the USSR Division at the Voice of America, and as Executive Director of the Board for International Broadcasting).

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