Olga Szántová: the voice of Radio Prague

Olga Szántová

It was five years ago this week that our much-loved colleague, Olga Szántová, died at the age of 71. As a child she had spent most of World War II in New York, which was where she picked up her perfect East-Side English. Olga became one of the most familiar voices of Radio Prague’s English broadcasts during the political thaw of the 1960s, and she was also among the radio journalists who managed to carry on broadcasting secretly during the Soviet invasion of 1968, as several recordings from the time still bear witness.

Many years later, Olga remembered back to that time.

“A group of us managed, thanks to the technicians, who helped us - it wouldn't have been possible without them - managed to concentrate in one of the radio buildings outside this main building and for practically two weeks we did broadcast from there the true story of what was going on. So that I think was probably the most glorious part of Radio Prague, of my career in it certainly."

After the invasion, Olga’s job at the radio was increasingly under threat and she was forced to leave at the end of 1970. But just before being sacked she did get the opportunity to cover an international music festival in Bratislava, where she recorded a brief interview with a youthful and rather well-spoken Cliff Richard.

Olga: “Mr Richard [!], when I tried to get to you a little while ago, I nearly got knocked over. How do you keep from getting knocked over by fans?”

Cliff: “Well, I’m afraid I just have to be a bit faster than they are.”

Olga: “Is it hard work?”

Cliff: “No, not really. Actually they’re very understanding here. In England they pester you all the time for autographs. I can see some of the fans through the window now. I would like to sign their autographs, but I just don’t have the time at the moment.”

After she was thrown out of the radio Olga was not allowed anywhere near a microphone for nearly 20 years.

“I couldn't do anything that was connected with English - I sold fruit and vegetables, I knitted sweaters and so on and so forth, so I was going to retire the first day I possibly could. Instead I came back to radio and I felt I had to make up for all those years, and I've been doing my best to do so."

It was with great enthusiasm that Olga returned to Radio Prague after the fall of communism, and she made a huge contribution to our programme, showing more energy than many people half her age. Not long before she died, we asked Olga whether she felt bitter about the many years she lost.

“I wouldn't say I was bitter. You know, partially one questions oneself - if you're really honest to yourself - how much of all of this was really my own fault. Those political events didn't just fall upon us from up above. We made many mistakes ourselves, we made many errors. If you want to be honest, you have to start wondering how much we caused ourselves."

Olga Szántová died on August 8 2003, after a long battle with cancer. She carried on working right up to a few days before she died. I’ll end with a brief extract from a programme she made with the BBC’s Rosie Goldsmith in the early 1990s about the fine art of making Czech dumplings – “knedlíky” - something at which Olga was extremely adept.

Olga: “Here’s the pork, fresh from the oven.”

Rosie: “Mmm. Smells good.”

Olga: “So we can sit down and eat.”

Rosie: “And what are we supposed to drink with the pork, the cabbage and the knedlíky?”

Olga: “Only one thing possible, beer – Czech beer, of course.”

Rosie: “Of course…”

Olga: “So there we are, and all I have to say now is ‘Dobrou chuť!’ That is the Czech for ‘Bon appétit!'”