Czech Radio celebrates its hundredth birthday: a journey into the archives
It was exactly a hundred years ago, on 18 May 1923, that listeners in Czechoslovakia were first able to tune in to regular radio broadcasts. Much has changed since then. Today Czech Radio has ten nationwide stations and fourteen regional studios, based in towns and cities around the country. And of course, there is also Radio Prague International, broadcasting in seven languages around the world. Back in 1923 there was just one station, which in those early days broadcast for a few hours every day from a scouts’ tent on the edge of Prague. To mark the anniversary, we take a journey through the radio archives.
We start with an unforgettable moment from twenty-five years ago. It is 22 February 1998 and Czech Radio’s Aleš Procházka is commenting the ice-hockey final at the Winter Olympics in Nagano. In the 49th minute Petr Svoboda scores what proves to be the winning goal against Russia, bringing the Czech team gold in a tournament studded with NHL stars. That moment is etched into the memories of many of us who were watching or listening, but what about the radio’s beginnings, seventy-five years earlier?
We do not have a recording of the first ever broadcast exactly 100 years ago, but a few years later the presenter Míla Kočová recorded a re-creation of that moment, starting with the words:
“This is the radio station Radiojournal in Kbely near Prague. We’re broadcasting on the frequency 1150 metres.”
In those early days, Radiojournal only broadcast in the evening. Initially it was a private company, but in 1925 it came under the wing of the Post and Telegraphs Ministry after getting into financial difficulties, unable to cope with the huge infrastructure investments required. These were the roots of today’s public service Czech Radio. In those early days there was music, sports news and weather, and the main source of other news came from the newspapers that the presenters would bring into work. And famously, the first broadcasts were from a scouts’ tent, pitched next to the transmitter in Kbely, on the eastern edge of Prague.
Radio spread fast, and by the late 1930s there were well over a million radio sets in Czechoslovakia. President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was a great lover of radio, as he told audiences in English in 1932:
“Broadcasting 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."
Unfortunately, in the 1930s broadcasting was not just being used as a “bond among nations”. After Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels launched a vicious propaganda campaign against Czechoslovakia. Here we hear a short extract from a broadcast in February 1937. The British journalist Edgar Young, who is visiting Czechoslovakia is talking of his shock at the impact of Nazi German propaganda:
“It is unfortunate that Czechoslovakia is known to most foreigners largely, if not entirely, through the propaganda of her enemies. The Czechoslovaks are only now beginning to realize the dangerous effects of the new technique of propaganda, which consists in telling lies and half-truths with such conviction and consistency that even the victims begin to wonder what is really the truth.”
The idea that lies and half-truths can be turned into “truths” if repeated often enough is as relevant to our own time as it was in the 1930s.
The 1930s saw huge increases in the technical possibilities of radio. The Czech Radio archive has some interesting early outdoor broadcasts. The most famous is a report from 1934 next to Prague’s first traffic light. We have often played that recording on Radio Prague International, so this time I have chosen something different, a broadcast from Wenceslas Square during the huge international Sokol gathering of 1938. The Sokol organisation still exists to this day, dating back to the second half of the 19th century as a patriotic sports organisation. In the late 1930s, as Czechoslovakia came under growing pressure from Germany, Sokol became a rallying point for patriots, wanting to show their willingness to resist the Nazi threat. People from all over the world joined the Prague gathering in July 1938. In this recording, one of the legends of Czechoslovak radio history, Miloslav Disman, is watching as a Sokol procession passes by at Můstek, at the bottom of Wenceslas Square, with the crowds cheering in the background:
“Good morning young friends. It’s a quarter to nine and we’re greeting you from Mustek, on Wenceslas Square. Here come the mounted police, followed by a huge and beautiful procession of our youngest Sokol members.”
The procession was so long that it lasted four hours, with over three hundred thousand participants.
One of the most famous, and most moving outside recordings in our archive comes from less than a year later, also on Wenceslas Square. The reporter Franta Kocourek is describing a huge Nazi military parade, a couple of days after the beginning of the German occupation on 15 March 1939. He does not hide his sense of horror at what he sees:
"I would like to talk about one thing that has nothing to do with the military. From somewhere far away, a huge, black crow has flown into Prague. I have seen it spread its wings and sweep down the square over the searchlights and listening devices being paraded here by the German army."
Not long afterwards Kocourek was sacked from the radio, which came under tight Nazi control. He was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942.
The radio played an important role in the Prague Uprising at the very end of the war. It was here at the radio headquarters in Vinohrady that the uprising began, on 5 May 1945, with the famous appeal: “Calling all Czechs”. A lot of the broadcasts from that time have survived, many of which we have played at various time on Radio Prague. I have chosen one of the less-known recordings, a short extract in German, appealing to soldiers in the Wehrmacht to surrender to Czechoslovak forces.
During the 1950s Czechoslovak Radio became highly politicised and broadcasts were subjected to political censorship. Compared with the years just before the war and with the 1960s there are not many recordings in the archives from this period. One possible explanation is that in official circles the focus was on the future. Preserving the present for posterity seemed less relevant than the task of building the socialist state. Nonetheless, there are some fascinating recordings from the period, including several in English. In this programme we hear an extract from a Radio Prague broadcast in the late fifties, at the height of the nuclear arms race:
“Today, March 31 1958, the Soviet Union announced a unilateral pledge never to explode another nuclear test weapon. The world may now expect an end to the dangers of increasing radioactive fallout if the other atomic powers follow the Soviet example.”
Then follows a sound effect, imitating a nuclear explosion, and the commentator continues…
“Dismissing the Soviet Union’s unilateral renunciation of atomic testing as a mere propaganda gesture, the United States Atomic Energy Commission today exploded another nuclear test bomb.”
But the broadcasts were not all politics. There was also sport, culture and music, as we hear in a fascinating recording, also from the late 1950s, of extracts from Dvořák’s opera Rusalka… in Esperanto.
The period of the reforms of the 1960s was a golden age in Czechoslovak Radio, and a time of growing openness to the world. Louis Armstrong came to Prague in 1965, and he too is preserved in the radio archives:
“We want you to know that we had a very pleasant week here in Prague to be playing to such a wonderful audience and to meet so many fine people, and to know that there were so many jazz clubs in Prague. We were very happy about that and we want you to know that we’re leaving tomorrow and that, as long as we live, there will always be not only a memory, but it will be right here in our hearts that you’re the greatest. Thank you very much. You’re wonderful!”
The role of Czechoslovak Radio during the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of August 1968 is well known. Famously, the radio managed to carry on broadcasting secretly for some time after the invasion, with several of our Radio Prague colleagues involved in the secret broadcasts, including Olga Szántová and Oldřich Číp, both of whom many of you will remember from more recent times.
We have often played many of the recordings that have survived from that time, so this time I have chosen something slightly different. It is from October 1968, about six weeks after the invasion. This was the brief period when there was still hope that some of the freedoms of the previous months could be preserved. The radio managed to broadcast several programmes that very openly discussed the implications of the invasion. One of these reflected on the huge numbers of intellectuals fleeing the country. Petr Pithart, who later signed Charter 77 and went on to become the first post-communist Czech prime minister in 1990, spoke during the programme. He appealed to intellectuals to stay in Czechoslovakia:
“It’s precisely in situations like this that we most need these people… Their names are associated with a certain trust and faith in the values they represented. I’m beginning to have fears that this faith could very rapidly dissolve if many or most of those who enjoy the people’s respect decide to go abroad or not to come back.”
In the end about a quarter of a million Czechs and Slovaks left the country between 1968 and 1989.
Unlike in 1945 and 1968 The radio did not play a particularly active role in the events of 1989, although once it was clear that the communist regime was collapsing, it did become more involved. Here is a famous recording from 1 January 1990, when Václav Havel has just been elected president:
“For forty years you’ve heard my predecessors on this day telling more-or-less the same thing – that this country is thriving and what a wonderful future we can expect. I assume that you have not chosen me for this post for me to lie to you. Our country is not thriving.”
Amid the euphoria of the Velvet Revolution, this was a timely warning that the years to come would not be easy.
The programme ends with another recording of President Havel twelve years later in 2002. Prague is hosting a major NATO summit, three years after the Czech Republic joined the organisation, and the president gives a rare speech in English:
“The last surviving remnant of the Iron Curtain, that strange psychological wall that used to separate the old democracies from the post-communist ones, is finally breaking down. If the whole of Europe is uniting itself within such an eminent security organization, in the name of shared values, it also signifies that Europe is also once and for all discarding all the dark features that have accompanied its history to date.”
Over twenty years later our continent faces unprecedented challenges, but Czech Radio continues to thrive as a public-service broadcaster, aspiring to continue in the work of breaking down psychological walls.