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WSJ on RFE/RL's Cold War Impact

As the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall approches, The Wall Street Journal is running a series of articles on the fall of communism and the events of the late 1980's and early 1990's. Here, the Journal profiles RFE/RL's Hungarian Service and how rapidly the media environment changed in Hungary during the period of Glasnost (openness).

"New Openness Raised the Frequency of Radio Free Europe"

Wall Street Journal

In mid-October 1989, Radio Free Europe was celebrating the opening of its newest bureau in Budapest, Hungary. It was quite a feat for a network that, not so long ago, had to overcome jamming of its frequencies and intimidation of local correspondents, who filed reports over the phone or through secret messengers.

Established at the beginning of the Cold War, Radio Free Europe was modeled after RIAS, a U.S. government-sponsored radio service for Germans living in the American sector of Berlin. With its mission for free speech and the capitalist way, the network had earned loyal listeners, some of whom credited it with keeping hope alive during some dark times. "During the past four years, many of us have sat up until late at night listening to our radios," said one writer in Budapest. "There were some very brave broadcasts."

But the rapid changes brought on by glasnost and open borders had ushered in a new era of media competition, introducing new challenges for the network. "After decades of searching for scraps of news from Eastern Europe, the 1,000-member staff can hardly cope with all the information pouring in by fax, telephone and the now more daring local media," according to a wire report that ran in the Journal.

While Radio Free Europe could operate freely in Budapest, so could others. "They have a lot to do these days to compete with Hungarian radio," student Andrew Deak told the Journal. "The Hungarian [radio] reporters seem better informed and more critical about about what's going on here." The British Broadcasting Corp. and the U.S. State Department's Voice of America had begun broadcasting over Hungarian airwaves. Rupert Murdoch had bought 50% stakes in two popular and gossipy Hungarian newspapers, and Britain's Robert Maxwell was considering similar moves.

"The competitive spirit is clearly influencing Radio Free Europe, which is trying to beef up programs," the Journal wrote. A host of programs were introduced to lighten up the traditional diet of politics. And to attract younger listeners, Radio Free Europe highlighted Western rock groups. "The Pet Shop Boys are big this year in Budapest," the Journal wrote.