Russia's war highlights RFE/RL's ongoing role

Part 1: My Days At Radio Free Europe

From 1995 until 2009, RFE/RL operated from this Brutalist building at the top of Prague's central Wenceslas Square. The building formerly housed Czechoslovakia's Federal Assembly. It wasn't ideally suited to host an international broadcaster, but the radio made it work. Photo courtesy of Grant Podelco.
Czech President Václav Havel was instrumental in bringing RFE/RL to Prague and visited the radio on several occasions. Here he signs the RFE/RL guestbook as the RFE/RL president at the time, Tom Dine, and Jana Middleton (right) look on. Photo from the collection of Jana Middleton.
Early RFE/RL logos, such as this one from the 1980s, all prominently featured the U.S. Liberty Bell as a symbol of freedom. Indeed, in the early '50s, the radio cast its own 10-ton bell and took it to 21 American cities to raise donations for the radio.
In the early 2000s, as RFE/RL expanded its broadcast area to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, the radio dropped the Liberty Bell on its logo and adopted a 'torch' as a symbol of freedom.

When I tell someone I once worked for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the person’s reaction often depends on where they’re from. People from Eastern Europe or the former USSR are invariably impressed and immediately start telling me heartwarming stories of how family members would huddle around hidden receivers and listen to the broadcasts at barely audible volumes (so their neighbors couldn’t hear). Others, mainly older Americans who remember those classic, haunting RFE/RL television ads from the 1960s and ‘70s, will usually chuckle and say something like, “Wow, Radio Free Europe still exists?” Many people apparently assumed that after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, RFE/RL simply packed up and shut down. Occasionally, though, someone will raise a skeptical eyebrow and ask: “Wasn’t RFE/RL funded by the CIA?”

That last reaction always saddens me a little because I think it reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the radio’s role that, to some degree, persists to this day. While it’s true both Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty – which began as separate stations -- emerged out of organizations covertly funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, any formal involvement of U.S. intelligence ended in the early-‘70s. Indeed, neither station was expressly conceived to function as a sovereign broadcaster to promote the interests of the United States (such as, for example, U.S.-funded Voice of America). The model for both stations, instead, was RIAS (Rundfunk im Amerikanischen Sektor), the West Berlin-based radio of American occupation forces in Germany after World War II. RIAS broadcast in German to audiences in both West and East Berlin and in Soviet-occupied East Germany. It functioned, more or less, as a typical, free American radio station and was hugely popular on both sides of the Iron Curtain for precisely that reason.

Radio Free Europe was established to create similar “surrogate” free stations to broadcast to the Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe, such as Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Radio Liberty, for its part, broadcast directly to the Soviet Union. Both stations enjoyed great success from their home base in Munich. They merged in the ‘70s (leaving us with today’s relatively cumbersome acronym of “RFE/RL”). In 1995, at the invitation of then-Czech President Václav Havel, the combined radio moved its HQ from Munich to Prague.

One of the first prominent American guests to RFE/RL in Prague was First Lady Hillary Clinton, who came in 1996. She's pictured here with Czech President Václav Havel in the background. Photo courtesy of Grant Podelco.
Our English newsroom staff not only worked closely together, but also socialized in Prague after hours. This photo from 1999 shows (from left): Grant Podelco, Susan Caskie, Larry Holland, Charles Recknagel, Tim Jasek, Irina Lagunina and me (eyes closed). Photo courtesy of Grant Podelco.

Certainly, the tone of both RFE and RL, especially in the early days, was strongly anti-communist, but what many people probably don’t realize are the lengths to which the stations went to vet information before it was broadcast (particularly after the 1956 Hungarian uprising when the radio was rightly taken to task for aggressively -- and tragically -- promoting the anti-Soviet rebellion). As I wrote in the intro, my first job at RFE/RL was as a news-writer. I was responsible for ripping and reading the news feeds from major wires like Associated Press, Reuters and AFP as they spilled out onto the newsroom floor through a long bank of printers. One of the first rules I learned was that every news item we prepared needed to be verified by at least two independent news sources before it could go out over the air.

After I was promoted to deputy managing editor and interacted daily with RFE/RL’s upper management (in both Prague and Washington), I can’t recall ever once being told by a high-level radio exec to report on a story in a particular way – or to give favorable coverage to a certain person, story or country. On the contrary, we would have perceived any kind of intrusion like that on our editorial independence as highly unusual and unwelcome. We were left largely on our own to compile our own news agendas.

Looking back, I wonder how much editorial control would have even been possible, given the anarchic nature of a sprawling organization like RFE/RL. During the time I was there, de facto editorial control of the station fell to the 20 or so individual country directors, who were in charge of putting together the daily broadcasts in more than 30 different languages. Even if it had been the desired goal, it would have been extremely difficult to impose and enforce any kind of subjective editorial line.

A later visit to the radio by former Czech president Václav Havel, not long before his passing in 2011. Here, Havel is pictured with the long-time director of the Czechoslovak language service of RFE/RL, Pavel Pecháček (center), and then-RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin (left). Photo courtesy of Grant Podelco.
September 11, 2001, was a highly stressful day for every newsroom, including ours. We were responsible for writing the steady flow of updates on the terrorist attacks for all of the RFE/RL languages services as the planes struck and the towers collapsed. Photo by Mark Baker.
In the immediate period after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Czech military parked armored personnel carriers in front of the radio station to guard against potential terrorist retaliation. It was all largely for show, however, as the vehicles frequently broke down. Photo courtesy of Grant Podelco.

I joined RFE/RL in 1997, long after the move to Prague was complete. Sadly, I never experienced life at the station during it's Cold-War heyday, though I heard plenty of war stories over the years from older staff members who made the move from Munich to Prague.

The station's first Prague headquarters -- before relocating in 2009 to a new purpose-built facility outside the center -- was situated in Czechoslovakia's former Federal Assembly at the top of central Wenceslas Square. After Czechoslovakia split into separate countries, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in 1993, the building no longer served any useful purpose. The structure itself, an unwieldy Brutalist pile from the 1960s by the noted Czech architect Karel Prager, wasn't exactly suited to an international radio station, but RFE/RL did its best to make it work.

During my time at the radio, RFE/RL functioned like a miniature United Nations in the heart of Prague, though I doubt many city residents at the time realized quite the degree of cultural and linguistic diversity housed in their former Federal Assembly. Each day, colonies of Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Ukrainians, Tatars and Chechens  would rub elbows at editorial meetings and over cafeteria lunches with bunches of Russians, Lithuanians, Armenians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Georgians and many others. Later, the list of nationalities would grow to include Iranians, Iraqis and Afghans.

The English-language newsroom, where I spent most of my time, occupied an enormous, expansive atrium-like space on the building's fourth floor. English functioned as the radio's working language, though none of our individual country services broadcast in English. Our newsroom was responsible for compiling news reports and writing feature stories that the broadcast services would then translate and use on their own air waves.

The radio was managed by a mix of political appointees from Washington and radio lifers who all had their offices arrayed on the building's all-important second floor. The appointees would come and go, depending on which political party was in control back home. Naturally, we had the occasional culture clash -- both between management and staff and among the various broadcast services, but relations, on the whole, were surprisingly civil and free of partisanship. Everyone from the president on down seemed bound together by the collective mission of providing objective, unbiased reports in the service of supporting democracy and human rights.

This overhead shot of RFE/RL's English-language newsroom shows the sheer size of the room and the height of the ceiling. We shared the space at the time with the Russian-language news-writers at Radio Liberty. Photo courtesy of Grant Podelco.
A classic photo from our news-writing pod. Typically, one person would supervise, one would watch the newswires for breaking news, and two others would write up the reports. Photo courtesy of Grant Podelco.

When I first joined the radio, I found the learning curve to be pretty steep. The first order of business was to familiarize myself with all of our broadcast countries, including the newly independent, former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia -- as well as the various idiosyncrasies of their respective despots. While all the autocrats were broadly similar in the ways they amassed their fortunes and repressed their citizens, they all faced different opposition groups and rivals as well as specific economic and political problems that had to be learned.

Our “favorite” ruler back then was probably Turkmenistan’s Saparmurat Niyazov, an autocrat so unhinged he once officially renamed the months and days of the week on the Turkmen calendar (just because he could). He renamed January as “Türkmenbaşy,” his adopted nickname, meaning “leader of the Turkmen people.” He called April “Gurbansoltan,” the name of his mother.

Then there were the bewildering names and details of all of the newly frozen, separatist conflicts that were waged in the 1990s in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse. There was the Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan that killed tens of thousands of people and was later mediated by the OSCE’s Minsk Group. Around the same time, wars in South Ossetia and Transdniester pitted separatist groups against, respectively, the Georgian and Moldovan governments. One of the bloodiest conflicts, of course, matched Russia against separatists within its own borders, in Chechnya.

Russia, under Boris Yeltsin, lost the first of the two wars the country fought against the Chechens in the '90s and 2000s – a fact that contributed to Yeltsin’s own downfall and helped pave the way for his successor, Vladimir Putin. Putin successfully leveraged Russians’ grievance and fear over that defeat in amassing his own formidable power. In Part 2, I share stories about Russia from my own time at the radio that show he's been operating from that same playbook, more or less, ever since.

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist, travel writer and author who’s lived in Central Europe for nearly three decades. I love the history, literature, culture and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

And that’s my aim with this website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

My Book: ‘Čas Proměn’

In 2021, I published “Čas Proměn” (“Time of Changes”), my first book of historical nonfiction. The book, written in Czech, is a collection of stories about Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and early ‘90s, including memories of the thrilling anti-communist revolutions of 1989. The idea for the book and many of the tales I tell there were directly inspired by this blog. Czech readers, find a link to purchase the book here. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker