Barking dogs and a borrowed piano: the early days of radio in Czechoslovakia

One of the earliest recordings from the Czech Radio archives features the voice of Czechoslovakia’s first President, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, talking to a group of Czech children on the occasion of the tenth birthday of Czechoslovakia in October 1928. The president reminds the children of the principle of “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. “Don’t be afraid of water,” he says. “Wash yourselves with gusto, bathe and swim, take exercise in the fresh air and let the sun’s rays warm you.”

At the time, radio in Czechoslovakia was even younger than most of the children President Masaryk was addressing. Its precise birthday is disputed. Experiments in broadcasting go back to before World War One, and the first successful attempt to broadcast the spoken word and music was made in 1919 - carried out at the small military exercise area at the top of Petřín Hill in Prague using a low-power electron tube transmitter. But the date that is traditionally acknowledged as marking the beginnings of Czechoslovak radio is May 18 1923, exactly 85 years ago. This was the day when, at 8.15 pm, the country’s first regular radio broadcast went out, with the words:

“Hello, hello. This is the broadcasting station Radiojournal in Kbely near Prague. We are broadcasting on the frequency 1150 metres.”

The recording of that first broadcast in our archives is not original. In fact it is a re-creation made some years later, but with the voice of the first presenter, Míla Kočová who, in those pioneering days, also doubled as Radiojournal’s secretary:

From the start, music was an essential part of the broadcasts. At the beginning of each day’s programme at 7 pm the presenters would announce what was on offer: a combination of music, sports news from around the world and weather forecasts from the State Meteorological Office. The broadcasts did not include news and current affairs. Míla Kočová or one of her colleagues would buy a couple of the day’s papers and quote from some of the stories – and that was about as near as Radiojournal would come to a news bulletin.

Radiojournal was a private company, set up by Eduard Svoboda the director of a consortium of radio equipment manufacturers and traders, known as Radioslavia, together with the head of the Association of Czech Journalists, Miloš Čtrnáctý. Radio was such a new medium that there was not even any legislation in place to govern broadcasting, so Radiojournal’s managers were not even entirely sure that they were not breaking the law. The conditions were also far distant from those of today’s broadcasters, as Radiojournal’s first sound engineer was František Koníček, later remembered:

“About ten metres away from the wooden shed housing the transmitter, Radiojournal set up a big canvas tent. And this was our first studio. And what a studio it was! A few boxes, two chairs and a borrowed piano… Whenever the wind got up and threatened to blow the tent away, or if we could hear dogs barking outside, which made life hard for those taking part in the broadcasts, we were allowed to use the former workshop inside the wooden shack where the transmitter was.”

In those early days radio was still far from being a medium for mass entertainment. Radio receivers were extremely expensive, and given that Radiojournal was financed through a licence fee paid by anyone who owned a wireless set, the company soon got into financial difficulties. In its first full year, 1924, there were only one-and-a-half thousand licence holders in the whole country. Radiojournal was rescued from bankruptcy in 1925, when the state acquired a 51 percent stake through the Post and Telegraphs Ministry, and from now on the future of radio in Czechoslovakia was secure. Today’s Czech Radio is Radiojournal’s direct descendant, and Radiojournal (now spelt Radiožurnál) survives in the name of the most popular of Czech Radio’s stations, also known as Czech Radio 1.

For many people radio seemed little short of magic – and still more so, when in the mid 1920s Radiojournal started experimenting with the live transmission of concerts. The first opera to be broadcast in this way was Smetana’s Two Widows, on February 12 1926, performed in the National Theatre. The role of one of the two widows was sung by Kamila Ungrová:

“It was a very strange experience for me, when the curtain rose and we suddenly saw a microphone in front of us and knew it was being broadcast all over the world… Goodness… that really did impress us all, and I must say that we made a huge effort to do our very best to sing in such a way that everyone would enjoy it.”

But some listeners simply refused to believe that live transmissions were possible, especially when Radiojournal started broadcasting concerts from abroad in 1928. The Radiojournal sound engineer, Jan Velík, later remembered:

“We’d just finished broadcasting a concert from London at one in the morning, when two people from the studio audience came up to me and demanded that I tell them where I had hidden the gramophone. One of them insisted on examining all the equipment. You can imagine how amused the rest of the audience were, as these two men clambered about underneath the table and then looked inside the speakers, but failed to find a gramophone. So I asked them why they had made the request. They replied that one of them had made a bet with the other – offering his own cottage as the stake - that there would be a gramophone hidden somewhere.”

In those early days the sound engineers had fun experimenting with the possibilities of radio, and would try all sorts of experimental outside broadcasts, including one from a boat and another from a moving car.

Radio was such a novel phenomenon that in the 1920s Radiojournal broadcast regular talks about its significance and about how best to listen. From today’s perspective, some of these talks sound more than a little comic. Here is the head of Radiojournal’s music department at the time, Karel Boleslav Jirák:

“In order to listen to the radio you need to concentrate. You should not be doing anything else at the same time. There is no point at all in listening to the radio as if it were just running in the background like a tap. Doctors will confirm that listening in this way is damaging, and can have serious consequences for the nervous system.”

By the 1930s radio had become a true mass medium. In a broadcast in English to mark the tenth birthday of the BBC in November 1932, President Masaryk showed that he too had been gripped by enthusiasm for the new medium, and saw its potential to build bridges:

“Technical progress is continually placing new means at our disposal. One of them is broadcasting, which is becoming one of the most popular bonds of union among the nations, as well as one of the most suitable instruments for the spread of culture and art and of political education.”

But just a few months later, Goebbels was to show that this same technology could be used to undermine all the values that President Masaryk was advocating, when radio became a central part of the Nazi’s propaganda campaign. In 1936 the great German writer Thomas Mann, in exile from Nazi Germany, also addressed Radiojournal. Speaking in German he pointed both to the dangers and the potential of radio in the modern world:

“We all know the huge role played by technology in today’s world, and we all know the threats this prominence poses to our higher, or rather deeper, culture. It threatens to lead to superficiality, primitiveness and crudeness, threats to which the young in particular are exposed and which must arouse concern in any person for whom culture continues to be a term worthy of respect. This concern is so much the more relevant, given that up to now the means given to us by technology have been applied too little, with too little courage and too little elasticity in the service of that which is right and desirable. But it is also technology which offers the antidote to these disturbing and dangerous symptoms, by making it possible, to win over the minds of huge numbers of people, far and wide, and influence them in the service of what is good and honorable.”

By the time Thomas Mann said these words in 1936 just thirteen years after Radiojournal’s first tentative announcement from a tent in Kbely, radio had long ceased to be a curious novelty and had become one of the world’s most important sources of news, entertainment, information and also disinformation. And 1936 also marked the beginnings of Radio Prague. But we shall leave that story for another day.