VOA: 75 years of station many Czechs tuned into across Iron Curtain

Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec, photo: archive of Czech Radio

Many looking for an alternative to state-controlled media in communist Czechoslovakia tuned into to Voice of America, which was founded 75 years ago this month. Over the decades a number of well-known Czechoslovak exiles spoke to the nation via the US-funded radio station’s broadcasts.

Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
Voice of America was established in February 1942 in a bid to boost America’s war effort via the international airwaves.

Its first Czechoslovak broadcasts took place the following month and it was best-known to listeners for shows featuring the famous acting duo Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich, who were then in New York.

When Werich returned to Czechoslovakia, his partner remained in the States and continued to broadcast on VOA.

In a recording on October 28, 1945 – the anniversary of the state's foundation – he addressed listeners at home:

“Greetings friends, this is Voskovec minus Werich, at my American eyepiece. Today we’re celebrating our October freedom. After the first October 28, in 1918, today is the most beautiful of all the 27 October 28s since then. Not just because after so many years we are celebrating it freely again – this year as well as our October freedom we also have our May freedom.”

Other illustrious names who spoke to the nation via VOA were journalist Ferdinand Peroutka and former minister Ladislav Feierabend.

Though critics argue that Voice of America serves mainly to spread US propaganda, in communist Czechoslovakia it was valued by many as an alternative to the party-controlled media.

The Communists jammed the station in the hard-line 1950s. That policy was abandoned in the middle of the next decade, only to be reinstated right after the Soviet invasion. Jamming ceased completely in 1973.

In later years the station played host to among others the Canada-based writer and publisher Josef Škvorecký, who appeared on its literature programming, while in the latter years of the Communist regime journalist Ivan Medek would deliver news about the Charter 77 protest movement via its airwaves.

By the 1980s Voice of America had a correspondent here in Prague, the Czech-speaking US journalist Jolyon Naegele. In an interview conducted three years ago, he explained how that had come about.

Jolyon Naegele,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
“It was a matter of reciprocity. Czechoslovak Radio, as it was then known, had a correspondent in New York. And the US government, the State Department, decided that if this correspondent was to continue writing about the United States and not just about the UN, then the Voice of America, as the counterpart to Czechoslovak Radio, had every right to have accreditation here.”

Naegele broadcast on Voice of America from Prague in the immediate aftermath of the Velvet Revolution.

However, the return of democracy made this part of the world less of a priority for the station and it ceased broadcasting in Czech in 2004. It is still active in over 40 languages across radio, television and the internet.