Jana Kománková: The first few years of Radio 1 were a party in the studio
Set up by eager but wholly inexperienced young music fans, Prague’s Radio 1 was the first non-state station in Czechoslovakia after the fall of communism. Decades later, the story of the station – which is still going strong – is the subject of a colourful new book, Radio 1: Life in the Ether, by Jana Kománková, one of its longest serving DJs. We spoke on the eve of its publication.
What is your own association with the station? When did you start working for Radio 1?
“After not being able to obtain a license they started illegally.”
“I started in 1993. I was working for a music magazine that had a guest show each week on the air, and I was really happy to be able to go there. I think the others were sort of tired going to the Radio, so they happily let me go.
“And once I was in I sort of got some shifts covering somebody else’s shift and I just stayed.”
When was the station first set up? It was the first ever non-state radio station in Prague after the fall of communism?
“It began in 1990. First it was a pirate station. A bunch of students got hold of some equipment for broadcasting and they asked for the possibility to broadcast legally, but since it was very shortly after the Velvet Revolution there wasn’t a law that would enable the starting of a radio station.
“After not being able to obtain a license they started illegally. This was 1990. After a few days their equipment was seized. There was a lot of media pressure and some petitions and stuff. So after some time they got the license – and started legally.”
Who were the founders? Who were the young people who began Radio 1?
“Well, some of them are still part of the team. For instance Ondřej Štindl, who’s a Czech journalist, writer and still radio DJ – he still has a show there. His father was the one who got the broadcasting equipment for the Czechs.
“Then there was Lenka Wienerová, who’s currently the director of the station. And their friends, mostly students, and their friends, who would borrow their records and cassettes and so on.”
That’s one thing that’s very striking in the book: how the DJs and presenters didn’t have a library of music in the station – they brought in their own stuff or they borrowed stuff.
Radio Stalin was chosen as a name because the first place where it started broadcasting was in the underground part of the Stalin monument.”
“Yes. Also there was Aaron Kirtz was an American who played hip-hop. At that time there was no chance to get that stuff here, so his father would send him either CDs or recordings of Aaron’s own broadcasts from a student radio station that he did back in America.
“And he was replaying the songs from the tapes from his own show [laughs].”
He was DJ A to the K?
Radio 1 began as Radio Stalin, is that correct? That’s such a big part of the kind of myth of Radio 1, right?
“Yes. Radio Stalin was chosen as a name because the first place where it started broadcasting was in the underground part of the Stalin monument in Prague.
“At the time the statue wasn’t there any longer, but it was still known as ‘Stalin’. So that was sort of making fun of it.”
And there was a very big space under where the statue had been and that was used for storing potatoes and things like that?
“Yes, it was a huge space used for some gardening storage and fertilisers and stuff, so the conditions were terrible.
“Somebody just started an art project in there, an exhibition of international artists: pretty much punk stuff.
“And the organisers knew the people with the equipment, so they sort of enabled them to start broadcasting from there.”
Did I understand right in the book that the station was only operating as Radio Stalin for one week?
“Yes, for a few days actually. And after it got a license it got a new name, which was Radio Ultra. It was meant to mean something like ultra good, ultra energetic – ultra something.
“But since that time was full of politics, people were asking, Ultra what? Ultra left? Ultra right? What are you?
“And they didn’t want any political stuff, so they found a new name, which was Radio 1.”
It seems like the early days of Radio 1 were quite anarchic. What are some of the craziest stories connected with the beginnings of the station?
“Well, the start itself was anarchic, because a pirate station is anarchy in its purest form.
“I was surprised when I found that there were no stations like that in other countries.”
“But I think the first few years were very much a party in the studio. Even if there was a person who was supposed to DJ, it didn’t mean that that one person would be the only one, because a friend came along and was like, Maybe I can drop in and I broadcast with my friend.
“Or there were people from bands. One of my favourite things is… at first it didn’t seem strange when my colleague said told me this, but then I was like, That’s not very usual.
“Somebody banged on the door of Radio 1 and my colleague went to open it and there were some unfamiliar people. They said they were from a band, from Belgium or somewhere, a punk band. And they had heard that it was possible to sleep somewhere on the floor at the station, because they didn’t have any booking for a hotel or something.
“And he was like, Yeah, you can use this, in the office – just sleep on the floor and in the morning tell the DJ you are going.
“So they just slept there and in the morning they left.
“And when my colleague first said this to me – because I remember those days – I was like, OK, what’s the big deal? But after I was like, Can you imagine now that a bunch of unknown people would come to a radio station and say, We want to sleep here?
“And at that time it was just the most normal thing.”
Also in the book some of the interviewees talk about when the station was broadcasting from the now, I guess, legendary rock club Bunkr. They say they would arrive in the morning and the place would still stink from the night before of smoke and beer and people.
“Yeah, you were sticking to the floor. You can imagine what a club that was full of people drinking and smoking the whole night looks like in the morning. This was the first thing you encountered when you went to the station.
“Even if we don’t have ‘official’ speech defects we usually don’t speak in radio voices.”
“But it was also very useful at night, because DJs would play in the club and borrow CDs from the station, or we would interview bands who came to play concerts.”
In those days I didn’t have anything except a radio, on which I listened to BBC World Service and, non-stop, Radio 1. And for me it was better than any music station that I knew from Ireland or the UK. But for people who don’t remember those times, what kind of music would people have heard on Radio 1 in, let’s say, 1993, when you started?
“When I started it was lots of alternative guitar rock, like Sonic Youth, for instance, or now they are called slowcore bands, like Codeine. Some hip-hop. Some techno – but more Sheffield stuff, not techno as in commercial.
“And also other genres, such as Rock in Opposition, even classical music. It was, and still is, about what the DJ chooses, what they want to play.
“But myself I was really surprised when I found that there were no stations like that in other countries. I loved English music and I thought England must be full of stuff like that.
“Even though Radio 1 was just a chance name, it wasn’t chosen because of [UK] Radio 1, I was thinking that what John Peel does is what Radio 1 plays normally.
“Having advertisements on air was unheard of.”
“And when I first came to England I put Radio 1 on in the car. I knew the frequency and I was like, Now I’m going to listen to… – and there was Haddaway. You probably remember Haddaway, because it was a big summer hit at that time.
“I was thinking I must have mistaken the frequency. But then I found that what we do during the day, they do in the specialist shows in the evening – but not during the day.”
Also a big thing for Radio 1 for many people were the jingles. Who created them? And how come they were such a big hit, do you think?
“Well, they defy what jingles are supposed to be. Because normally jingles are 15 seconds long, and we have a jingle that is five minutes.
“Very often they were created by Ondřej Ježek and Ondřej Štindl. And most of them were improvisations.”
I used to know a guy who was a Radio 1 DJ and he spoke so badly and mumbled that I couldn’t understand a word that he said. And you say in the book that many of the presenters didn’t have perfect voices, or even had speech defects.
“Yes. Most of us have some sort of speech defects, and even if we don’t have ‘official’ speech defects we usually don’t speak in radio voices, like normal radio DJs do.
“They hired an actor to try to teach us but it ended really badly.”
When did Radio 1 start become more professional, or more like a normal, commercial radio station?
“Well, we sort of aren’t professional yet [laughs], but I think after about five or six years it started to resemble a normal radio station. The first advertisements came a few years after we started and we really needed the money.
“And there was quite a lot of backlash at that time, because other radio stations mostly didn’t exist yet. So having advertisements on air was unheard of. There was state radio, which didn’t have any, and now there was somebody who was telling people, Go buy this yogurt.
“But it saved us, because it brought us the money that we needed.”
Doing this book, was there anything that you feel that you learned about the station?
“Lots of little details from the first days, because I wasn’t part of the very first team. So some details, like about people meeting and speaking lots of nonsense and then some great ideas crystallized.
“So I think there wasn’t any huge surprise, but lots of small details. Also it’s very nice to see how people love the radio station – and also the people who are not DJs but are somehow part of the bunch feel so strongly about it.”
You’ve been associated with the station for 30 years. What did you get from the experience of putting this book together, and speaking to all your old colleagues and people you maybe didn’t know so much?
“It makes me appreciate it even more. It made me see how big and how beautiful the whole thing is. I mean, for me it’s sort of a privilege to be a part of it, but when you speak to people and all of them say how important it is for them, and maybe how it helped them, it was great to see how this works.”