Posted by: patenttranslator | August 5, 2016

The Limits of Censorship and the Power of Rock ‘n’ Roll

When I was a child, my parents had two radios in our apartment in a small town in Southern Bohemia. The radio in the bedroom was a big traditional radio with four beautifully glowing vacuum tubes that I could see and occasionally spend some time admiring, when I removed the back cover from it. My father told me that the big radio was quite expensive when he bought in the 1950s. The other radio was called rozhlas po drátě, which in Czech means, “radio by wire”. The radio by wire was a smallish, dark-brown, rectangular box connected with a very narrow wire sheathed in white plastic to a socket in the wall. Unlike with the big radio, its reception was always perfect, although you could not turn the big speaker encased in it up very loud.

Most apartments came with the little sockets in the walls in several rooms for connecting rozhlas po drátě to the convenient sockets back then, the way most American houses are now prewired for cable TV.

Up until about the age of 11, which would make it 1963, I was not really interested in the bigger radio. It had several wavelength bands in it for long waves, mediums waves, and short waves (there was no FM yet when the radio was manufactured), because you had to hunt for different stations on it, almost all in foreign languages.

I was perfectly happy with my smaller dark-brown radio in the kitchen. It was easy to turn on, it didn’t even need electricity and I knew that at 3 PM there would be an hour of brass band music, which was tolerable. Then in the evening there was a short fairytale for children being put to bed, enjoyable at any age, and in the evening they would have on a block of popular music with my favorite singers, like Milan Chladil and Ivetta Simonová, or Karel Gott.

Because we had a big sofabed in the kitchen, sometimes I preferred to lie there listening to “the radio by wire” until I fell asleep. It did not really bother me that I was able to listen only to one station because there were many different programming blocks on it, some of which I liked, some of which I listened to only once and never again.

But when the Beatles’ sound hit the world in 1963, the problem was, I could find them on several stations on the big radio in the bedroom, but never on the radio by wire. So I stopped listening to the radio in the kitchen and started instead spending long hours listening to the big radio in the bedroom, sprawled on the bed like a lazy dog, with a pillow under my head, sometimes looking at the strange, illuminated names of cities on the radio dial, names like Wien, Hilversum, or Milano, sometimes with my eyes closed, dreaming about the different worlds behind those strange names … and a few other things too, after about the age of 15.

Like millions of other teenagers in the 1960s in many countries, eventually I became quite an expert on rock ‘n’ roll music, although at first I did not understand the words of the songs since I did not speak any of the languages in which they were sung: mostly English, once in a while in French or Italian.

On one spot on medium waves, and also on one spot on the short and one on the long wave frequency, I heard a strange, monotonous, bubbly noise, that to me sounded at first kind of cool. I imagined that it was the noise a spaceship makes traveling through space… (it did sound like that, I thought). Anyway, that was my first explanation for it at the age of about nine. It sounded a little bit like modern car alarm, but more full and solid.

Eventually I discovered that it was no spaceship at all, and that in fact, the strange bubbly noise was jamming, or an attempt by the people who put together the programs on the little radio in the kitchen (the one that was so easy to use and did not even use electricity to operate), to jam some of the programs that one could hear only on the big radio in the bedroom.

For whatever reasons, the people who prepared the programs on the radio by wire did not seem to like the Beatles, or the Rolling Stones, or Diana Ross, or Jimmi Hendrix or Otis Redding, or any of the other musicians I liked to listen to.

So they put their smart heads together and came up with the clever idea of jamming a radio station if they did not wants kids like me to be listening to it.

The way the people programming the little radio by wire saw it, the problem was not really that much that kids like me were listening too much to music of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Monkeys, although, all things considered, it would have been much better if they listened to other kinds of music, of course.

The problem was that the station that I was listening to, called Radio Free Europe, was broadcasting from Munich in West Germany, and it was financed by the US Congress based on the idea that people behind what Winston Churchill so fittingly called the Iron Curtain should also have an alternative source of music and information to listen to.

It was probably the best idea the US Congress has had in more than two centuries. Thanks mostly to rock music, the popularity of Radio Free Europe, which was broadcasting also in Czech among other languages, took off like wildfire behind the Iron Curtain.

Back in the ‘60s, there were only two main FM stations on the radio, Prague I, for general broadcasting, including pop music, and Prague II, which was broadcasting mostly classical music.

But by the mid ‘60s, the rock music served up for Czech and Slovak audiences by Czech and Slovak announcers from Radio Free Europe in Munich became so popular that we started jokingly to refer to it as Prague III.

Just about everybody under the age of 30 or so was listening to decadent Western music most days, often on transistor radios that were carried around the medieval town where I lived by young people who did not want to miss their favorite music while they were just “hanging out” as my kids would put it today.

The only other station that was immensely popular with youthful delinquents in Czechoslovakia in the ‘60s and ‘70s was Radio Luxemburg, which later became a model for pirate stations broadcasting rock music illegally from a ship. But since the DJs on Radio Luxemburg only spoke very fast English and nobody could understand their jokes, Radio Free Europe announcers had a natural advantage because they spoke the language of their audience.

To try to jam a radio station is technically a very complicated task and a very expensive one too, especially in a country that is surrounded by mountains, which is the case of Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. I don’t know how many expensive jamming stations had to be constructed for this purpose alone to defend the one station broadcasting over wire from a little square box, but there must have been dozens of them, probably hundreds.

In an ironic way, it would be possible to say that the concept of a comprehensive network of transmitters was ahead of its time since it was very similar to the basic concept of cellular telephone networks. The main difference was that instead of relaying signal to enable communication through portable telephones, the network of jamming stations relayed signal whose sole purpose was to jam the broadcasts of a certain radio station for political reasons.

I remember what the jamming installations looked like because there was a jamming transmitter near the tiny village of Sedlice where my father bought a small country house to get away from the smoke-polluted air in the town because he had asthma.

I think that initially, the communists in the ‘50s started jamming all of the programs of Radio Free Europe in Czech, but by the time I started listening to the station in the ‘60s, they stopped jamming the music programs and kept jamming only spoken words in programs about current events and politics.

They probably thought that music was less dangerous than spoken word, and they did need to save money. But they were wrong: music is just as dangerous as spoken word, even more so.

In my opinion, it was not really the military might of NATO, or the superiority of the Western economic system, which is supposedly based on the invisible hand of the market. Nor was it Reagan’s brilliant performance when he uttered the famous words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” that finally brought an end to communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, although my eyes teared up when I watched him on TV in my apartment in San Francisco.

I think that the most important weapon that eventually caused the fall of the communist regime was the music coming from vacuum tube and transistor radios that young people were listening to during four decades.

The way I see it, the totalitarian regime in my old country was ultimately destroyed by the Beatles, the Stones (and even the Monkeys!) in the ‘60s, and later Madonna finished it off with a coup de grâce in the ‘80s. Since there was no way to prevent the effect that music had on the youth for several generations during four decades, when a big student demonstration in Prague was brutally suppressed by the police in the Fall of 1989, the people finally had enough of seeing their own children being beaten and bloodied by police, and the regime fell within a few weeks.

That was one of the things that I was thinking about when I heard Bernie Sanders exclaim in front of crowds of his young supporters “Enough … [and then he waited for a second, to let the crowds enthusiastically finish the rest of sentence] is enough!”

Especially in the age of the internet, censorship has its limits. The Chinese Communist Party still believes that it is possible to simply prevent the entire Chinese population from accessing uncontrollable internet. I wonder how well its policy is working. Sometimes I do see a PRC flag on the dashboard of my blog, although officially, blogs like mine are not accessible from the internet in China. The comprehensive jamming of the internet in People’s Republic of China must be a very complicated and expensive project.

Here in the United States, censorship is practiced differently than in Communist China. The jamming of alternatives to the current system is less in-your-face kind of censorship, and for the most part is hidden from view. Omission of relevant information and slanted information is used on us, sometime in combination with so called white noise, such as the white noise boxes that were allegedly placed by the DNC at the Democratic Convention in Philly last month to make sure that the booing of rowdy Bernie delegates would not be heard during Hillary’s coronation. The DNC later denied the story, called it a rumor and said that the boxes were antennas. But how many antennas have you seen that were in the shape of a boxy speaker?

One of the main reasons why Bernie Sanders never had a chance against Hillary Clinton (although 70% of young people voted for him and only a small percentage for Hillary) was because the mainstream media simply boycotted Bernie, while the Democratic party went about electing Hillary as its candidate in an extremely undemocratic manner, which will probably lose them an even a higher percentage of young voters, possibly forever.

But whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins the presidency in a few months, it is clear that selective feeding of information to people by a wire, whether it is called radio by wire or cable TV, is not nearly as effective as it used to be a few decades ago.

Young people are largely unaffected by cable TV. Most of them don’t even bother with a cable TV subscription, and not only because cable TV is very expensive. Most of the information that they are interested in is floating on the internet and shared, freely so far in most countries, on social media … so why pay to be fed by a wire that delivers mostly just one-sided propaganda?

To try to control programming that informs and entertains people in an entire country seemed like a realistic idea a few decades ago when something like that could be done through a cheap radio coming to everybody’s house through a tiny wire.

It did work quite well back then for a while, for quite a few decades in fact.

And a similar approach to censorship of information, loaded with commercials and low-grade entertainment, sometimes also called infotainment, has been working for several decades now also in this country.

The question is: is it still working?


Responses

  1. What a fascinating story! I must correct one error, however. Radio Luxembourg was a perfectly legal station, broadcasting music and other programmes with advertisements. At the time the BBC in Britain had a monopoly and no advertisements were allowed and they also censored pop music in a way that Radio Luxembourg did not. Then along came the pirate radio stations which the British Ministry of the Interior did everything it could to shut down. The most popular was Radio Caroline. It is only in 1973 when the first commercial stations were permitted to use British airwaves (I know because I was the first woman to be heard on the commercial news channel, LBC) that there was no point any more in having pirate stations because there were commercial music stations and even the BBC softened up.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the correction, Josephine, I corrected the text. I saw a film about Radio Caroline and I thought that Radio Luxembourg in the sixties was the same thing.

    Like

  3. Happy Birthday, Steve! Another social media is announcing your birthday for today: I suppose it is correct?! Wish you the best (and many good customers!) for this coming year!

    Like

  4. Thanks for your birthday wish, Isabelle.

    Yes, it is true, I turned 64 today on August six, also known as Hiroshima day.

    Being old, or at least a lot older than most people who read and comment on my silly blog, is not all bad. In one year I will be available for Medicare, a public health insurance program established by FDR, (Obamacare is unaffordable for middle class people because it is extremely expensive), and another year after that I will apply for social security payments, a public pension fund into which I have been paying since I was 29, which will help with my bills, although I plan to continue working for as long as possible – just slow down a little and hopefully travel a little bit mor.

    My two sons are grown up and on their own now, so I don’t have to worry about what would happen to them should something happen to me, a constant worry that has been with me for more than two decades …. as you probably know yourself if you have children.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dear Steve,

      You wrote: “although I plan to continue working for as long as possible – just slow down a little”:

      it is probably the case of most translators.

      Aren’t we lucky: just sit down in front of a computer and type, to earn a living?🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Actually, we translators are lucky. Lot of people would trade their places with us in a heartbeat.

    I see a lot of senior citizens working in very poorly paid jobs, old people who often have to stand on their old feet 8 hours a day, I see how they cringe sometime.

    At least we can sit down in a comfortable chair in our cozy office, put some music on and start banging on the keyboard. I should be able to do that for another twenty years if I want to.

    Hopefully working until I drop dead will be something that I want to do, rather than something that I have to do.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Translating in the 2020s? Sigh…. computers keep doubling in power every 18 to 24 months.

    The hard thing to read about the comments here over the past three years especially is that there is a lot of complaining about how 1) translators should get more respect 2) industries should understand good from bad translators 3) there are no socialist laws protecting translators as guilds, etc.

    It is like Kool and The Gang moaning about how no one likes disco anymore.

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  7. And happy birthday!

    Very good things are coming as well with continuing exponentially growing computer power so hopefully everyone reading will be much healthier in their retirement (that too, is coming to an end in a not so distant future – in a good way.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you!

      (I am just hoping that “in a good way” does not mean that we will all be dead before retirement).

      Like

  8. No…. “in a good way” means better health than 99% of the population is expecting. The same computer technology that is clearly ending translation will make living as an older person *much* more comfortable and enjoyable.

    I’m 47 and was told a month ago that because my heart is weak after taking a drug in 1977 for bone cancer as a 7 year old that I should expect to live from now 1 to 8 years. But my final doctor was more optimistic: “Heart failure management is getting better and better. I’m optimistic in your case.” Well, I don’t know, but older translators should be happy that in general far better preventive pills and cures are very close.

    Translating over Grover,
    Need a new plan, Stan.

    But you will like 2020s technology as you do (*gasp*) other things for a living

    Like

    • I hope you live to be 150 …. and that global warming doesn’t get you along with most people on this filthy planet after I’m dead, Harkin-san. (It’s just a joke, OK?)

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  9. Actually, it was a friend’s diagnosis (not a translator), and I changed the numbers but the idea holds. In his case, doctors can’t really know what his prognosis is due to medical tech change that is already successful in trials.

    So the same core technology will bring many benefits, like countering rising CO2 levels and better health, in addition to changing occupations including translation.

    Unless translators can form a guild, I don’t see how the situation improves.

    Like

    • Well, there are various translators’ associations and from my long experience, being a member of a couple for more than 30 years, I can tell you that scum always rises to the surface and people who love to be “in charge” but are not necessarily good translators end up running these organizations. For instance, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting in the UK, founded 25 years ago, has founder members, such as myself, who are on the verge of retirement, but the Board, in their wisdom and composed entirely of people who have no interest in older members, have decreed that there is no such thing as semi-retired status you are either in or out and since the subscription is very expensive, that usually means out. This is not the case with other organizations I belong to, such as trade unions, or even the American Translators Association.

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  10. Yes, the ATA has a much more enlightened policy when it comes to keeping senior citizens happily in the fold of long-time members. I have been resisting ATA membership during the first decade after I started my translation business in San Franciso, but since I joined it in 1998, I will be eligible for “a senior discount” of 50% on the membership fee in a year and half, and I intend to apply for it. Of course, I could become excommunicated on the basis of my posts if the ATA leadership deems them too inflammatory.

    But since that would give me a lot of useful material for new posts, such a decision would be beneficial to me in this respect.

    Like

    • Excommunicated? Well, the ITI is good at that, but I hope the ATA are more liberal. Another nasty practice of the ITI is to sell adhesive paper seals for certification of documents at an exorbitant price. The ATA merely gives you the design of the seal and you create a rubber stamp yourself. I think the ITI practice is particularly miserly.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I suppose it is true that the ATA has more liberal policies. I know several translators who are based in UK and who protest vehemently against ITI policies, or are trying to do so, in gatherings of translators, on their blogs, etc.

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    • I know of one such group, I am “hovere” in it. A friend of mine once served on what was then known as the Board of the ITI before it was turned into a limited company and complained that it was like being in Bedlam!

      Like

      • What is “hovere”? (I know what Bedlam is: a lunatic asylum).

        Like


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