A visit to Radio Prague's original 1936 transmission centre - Part 2

Radio Prague made its first ever broadcast 70 years ago, on August 31, 1936. Ahead of Thursday's anniversary I visited our original transmission centre in Podebrady, central Bohemia, in the company of Czech Radio's shortwave expert Oldrich Cip. In the second half of this two-part report, he and I discuss - among other things - the beginnings of Radio Prague, Communist-era radio jamming and the future of short-wave broadcasting.

Oldrich Cip
Oldrich Cip first told me what we would have seen 70 years ago inside the transmission centre's now empty main hall.

"You would have seen here a number of transmitters. First there were a number of alternators, generating relatively low frequency wireless energy. Then there was a tube transmitter here and gradually - for instance in the 1970s - there were transmitters of five, 30, 40, 50 and even of 80 kilowatts in this hall, installed for various purposes.

"In fact there is also a darker side to this hall, because in 1952 - after Radio Free Europe started its broadcasts in Czech in 1951 - transmitters from here were used for jamming RFE programmes."

How successful was that jamming? Was it complete, or would some people be still able to pick up some broadcasts?

"But even under those conditions you would always be able to hear some frequencies clearly, especially if you went outside...because there were also local jammers, such as on Petrin Hill above Prague.

"This could be quite effective for the coverage of Prague, but when I went to our country house in north-West Bohemia, you could always find some frequency that was clear."

You were telling me earlier there were plans to open a radio museum here in Podebrady?

"Yes, and I am personally quite disappointed that the idea to build...to convert this architecturally very interesting building into sort of a radio-wireless museum of the Czech and Czechoslovak Republic didn't materialise. Now it belongs to a golf club, so it has absolutely nothing to do with wireless radio now."

About international broadcasting in general, Radio Prague started 70 years ago, in 1936 - did other countries start international broadcasting around the same time? Or how advanced in this area was Czechoslovakia?

"I think the earliest international broadcasting started from the Netherlands, in 1927 if I am correct. The BBC, or the so-called Empire Service, started in the first half of the 1930s. Nazi propaganda started probably at the same time.

"So I think that the launch of shortwave broadcasting in Czechoslovakia corresponded to these developments in Europe, in that era."

Who were the people in this country who really pushed for it, who were behind the project? Were they politicians or radio people?

"I think both. The international broadcasting from Podebrady became a part of Radiozurnal - that was the name of the country that existed for domestic broadcasting in the former Czechoslovakia.

"And of course the politicians also realised that, in that pre-war era of tension and propaganda that was beamed from Germany, something had to be done to get the voice of the free Czechoslovak Republic heard, around the world."

Today Radio Prague broadcasts in six languages. I know at various times it broadcast in many more languages, under the Communists. At the beginning, 70 years ago, how many languages did Radio Prague broadcast in?

"I think it would be very difficult to say a number, because there were irregular programmes in some quite unusual languages, for instance from the Balkans...English of course was represented, German was represented, French was represented - but there were also other languages from time to time."

I presume in those days radio broadcasts consisted of speech, or mostly of speech. Is that the case?

"Yes, but there were also programmes of music from recordings. For instance the early experimental transmissions from Podebrady consisted of music from gramophone records. We still know about reception reports coming to Radio Prague from that era that reported listening to music. But of course the main content was speech."

Would it have been mostly prepared, written texts, news - as opposed to say interviews?

"I'm sure that most of the output was written and read in the studio. Because the recording equipment of that era was also not very advanced, so actual transmission or broadcasting from the studio was probably prevalent."

What about during the second world war - did Radio Prague continue broadcasting in that era?

"Definitely not. But there was some limited use by the occupation powers, that is by the Nazi occupiers. I heard that there was some broadcasting in Czech. Maybe the transmitter that was used here, and that was quite modern, was used by the Nazis for their own broadcasting."

We're here today in the old shortwave transmitting centre of Radio Prague - about shortwave radio in general, are you optimistic about the future of the medium? Do you think it has a future?

"I'm sure it has a future, but the future is of course limited by other platforms that are used by international broadcasting. Shortwave was practically the only platform that was in existence in the 1930s, in the era of the Cold War, and even some time afterwards.

"Now with the emergence of the internet, hand-held telephones and other technical developments it will continue to be in existence, but there will be other competing means of transmission, or of delivery of programmes to listeners."

Are you afraid there could perhaps be a loss of political will to continue with shortwave international broadcasting? Already in Europe we've seen a couple of small countries lose their international broadcasting.

"Yes, I think that is a preoccupation not only of myself but of other international broadcasters and of people who work in this field. But at the same time I am confident that some form of international broadcasting will survive, and will continue throughout this millennium."