For RFE and RL (the former broadcast to Eastern Europe and the latter to the Soviet Union, although they formally merged in 1976), which had been reporting to audiences in the region since the 1950s, Moscow’s decision in November 1988 to cease jamming their short-wave broadcasts was an operational breakthrough. Jamming had already been suspended in the 1960s in Romania and Hungary (and would continue for a few additional weeks in Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria) but the overall effect was to allow them to reach audiences in record numbers and assume leading positions among Western broadcasters in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The metrics speak for themselves: 50 percent weekly audience reach in Poland, 48 percent in Hungary, 30 percent in Czechoslovakia, about 32 percent in Bulgaria, and 60 percent in Romania in 1989 - 1990. The Soviet Union would experience the impact most dramatically in August 1991, when RL informed audiences from Vilnius to Vladivostok, and Gorbachev himself who was detained in Crimea, of the attempted coup.
The relationships that RFE and RL developed with their local audiences defined them as “surrogate” media, since they provided information on domestic events that local and official media were unable or unwilling to report. Both outlets also played a critical role in the years and months leading to 1989 by “cross-reporting,” sharing information among audiences across national borders. They shattered the isolation imposed by the Iron Curtain, bolstering the work of reformers by reporting on steps taken and gains achieved by their counterparts next door.
RFE and RL audiences were not limited to dissidents; indeed, the broadcasters’ insistence on extensive cultural programming and regional and international news coverage appealed to diverse audiences. In listener surveys, “information about the outside world” and “entertainment” ranked high among motivations to tune in. In the Soviet Union, survey data indicates that members and nonmembers of the Communist party listened to RL in similar numbers. Party leaders across the Eastern bloc listened to RFE’s “ideological subversion” in an effort to “know thine enemy,” while relying on it for information about their own populations that they used to govern. Indeed, the party leadership in the USSR, Poland, and Romania had daily transcripts prepared of RFE and RL news broadcasts and political content, and their security services conducted surveys of RFE and RL audiences.
RFE’s and RL’s influence did not emerge overnight. The broadcasters built credibility over decades through informed and careful reporting, while giving voice to the dissidents who would ultimately emerge as leaders of the new post-communist democracies. Their courageous journalists earned the trust of their audiences, who relied on them for information about their world – or for a brief escape from it. Their coverage during such historic events as the “Polish October” of 1956; the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968; and the Chernobyl nuclear explosion of 1986 helped build a reputation for accuracy and authority that made them an obvious choice for news when the political landscape began to change.
It was a shock when communism crumbled, but the power of a free and independent press helped make it happen. This site, with sections devoted to each of the five countries that emerged from revolution 30 years ago, is meant to remember RFE/RL’s role in reporting the triumphs of 1989.
With contributions by Jeremy Bransten, A. Ross Johnson, Jolyon Naegele, and Jan de Weydenthal, and special thanks to Eric Baker and Emily Thompson.