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B92: The Voice Of Serbia's Postcommunist Aspirations Falls Silent

In 2000, B92 founder Veran Matic was voted one of the 50 World Press Freedom Heroes of the previous half century by the International Press Institute.
In 2000, B92 founder Veran Matic was voted one of the 50 World Press Freedom Heroes of the previous half century by the International Press Institute.

BELGRADE -- For most of Serbia's postcommunist history, life in Belgrade without the soundtrack of independent B92 radio has been unthinkable.

"The wife of one of our colleagues was buying an apartment [in the mid-1990s]," says Dragan Janjic, vice president of the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia, "and she carried a transistor radio around with her and would only discuss an apartment where you could receive the B92 signal. The only deal-breaker for her about an apartment was not being able to listen to radio B92."

Earlier this month, the final act of the landmark station's long demise was played out when employees received a terse e-mail.

"By now you have probably been informed about the changes at radio B92 as of Thursday, July 9," the message read. "So that there are no misunderstandings, those changes include shutting down all original programming -- including yours."

Eleven of the station's 16 remaining employees were dismissed and the station's name was changed as it went to an all-music format.

It was the end of an era.

Founded in 1989 by a group of young journalists using financial support from the Soros Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), B92 won international acclaim for its coverage of the Balkans wars, the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, the 1999 NATO bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, and more.

During the NATO bombing campaign, the Milosevic government was so angered by B92's independent coverage that government agents occupied B92's studios and took over its broadcasts using the B92 name. The "real" B92 was forced to go underground and base its journalism on the Internet. It was kept from broadcasting for months.

WATCH: A 1995 promotional video for B92

In 2000, the Vienna-based International Press Institute named B92 founder Veran Matic one of its 50 World Press Freedom Heroes of the previous half century. The citation praised B92 broadcasters for providing "an accurate, impartial view of the tragic events occurring in their region while standing up to constant pressure from the Serbian authorities."

By 2001, the B92 group employed more than 250 people, with operations in radio, Internet, television, music, film, and publishing.

The company was also socially active. It was a founding member of the Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM), which initially promoted media freedom but later branched out to include a regional project called Truth, Responsibility, And Reconciliation in which broadcasters from throughout the former Yugoslavia designed programming and events designed to promote peace and tolerance for diversity.

During the disputed 2000 presidential campaign that eventually resulted in Milosevic's defeat, B92 organized get-out-the-vote concert events.

Four times Milosevic governments pushed B92 off the airwaves -- in 1991, 1996, 1999, and 2000 -- and four times the collective managed to bring the station back. B92 also pioneered the use of the Internet, launching Belgrade's first Internet service provider. By the time of the NATO bombings, B92's website boasted 1 million hits per day.

"An early experience with the world-shrinking power of the interweb tubes was reading B92 during the Kosovo war," one fan wrote on Twitter after news of the station's closure broke.

The station was the world's window on Serbia, but it was also Serbia's window on the world. Its music programs introduced audiences to contemporary Western popular music and fashioned tastes. B92 formed its own music label and organized concerts to promote local musicians.

"[B92's] original music shows were an important part of the station," says rock music critic Petar Janjatovic. "They formed the basis of rock journalism. Our colleagues informed audiences and educated new generations over the years in a specialized, professional, and tasteful manner, enabling them to understand and see the essence of rock and its various subgenres."

B92's demise has been slow and inexorable. The company -- including B92 television -- was purchased by Greek businessman Theodore Kyriakou in 2010, and founder Matic was shunted into a bureaucratic position. The popular news and current-affairs programming on B92 television was trimmed away.

Kyriakou's company, Antenna media group, has maintained total silence concerning its strategies or plans for B92 and does not respond to requests for comment.

Olja Beckovic says Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic sometimes called her personally with complaints.
Olja Beckovic says Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic sometimes called her personally with complaints.

Journalist Olja Beckovic hosted B92's popular Utisak Nedjelje (Impression Of The Week) talk show until it got the ax in October. Over the show's 20-year history, she often featured guests who were critical of Serbia's various governments. Beckovic has said that in the show's last months, nationalist Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic sometimes called her personally with complaints.

She is certain that there is more than "just business" behind the changes at B92.

"Only a fool would say this is about private ownership and that the owner has the right to make his own decisions," Beckovic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service at the time. "But it is also quite clear to all that there is not a single owner who is not obliged to return a favor to the prime minister. ... The least an owner can do for the prime minister is to remove whatever is making the prime minister uncomfortable. In this case -- me."

According to the World Press Freedom Index produced by Reporters Without Borders, Serbia's ranking fell from 54 in 2014 to 67 in 2015. Serbian journalist Gordana Susa agrees that the media climate in Serbia has turned frosty since Vucic became prime minister in April 2014.

"Someone is really invested in making this symbol of media freedom [B92] disappear from the scene," Susa says.

B92's fans have taken to social media to express their despair and the hope that the spirit of the station can survive and take a new form.

"Luckily, we are not in the 1990s anymore," wrote a fan identified as Milena Kwapeel. "There is the Internet now. I hope you and other people with whom we grew up musically and culturally will find a way to create a new oasis of music, good taste, and true values."

"We will make our own radio," wrote another fan. "Again."

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague

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