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?