A look back at six decades of VOA broadcasting in Czech

Voice of America (VOA), today the largest U.S. government-funded international broadcaster, ceased its Czech language broadcasts exactly 15 years ago today, on 27 February 2004, shortly ahead of the country’s accession to the European Union. The move followed budget cuts by the U.S. Congress and, the Cold War long over, a shift to “new audiences and new priorities”. We look back at the station’s local legacy.

Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec, photo: archive of Czech RadioJan Werich and Jiří Voskovec, photo: archive of Czech Radio VOA began broadcasting in the Czech language in 1942, the year it was established, and continued to do so throughout the Cold War, when it was for the most part less subject to jamming than its more famous counterpart, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

“The Voice”, as the station is also known, was born during the propaganda battles of World War II. It was continued during peacetime under a special act to combat Soviet propaganda and operated by the U.S. State Department.

In its early days, the Czech broadcast was best known to listeners for shows featuring the comedic acting duo of Jiří Voskovec and Jan Werich, who broadcast to their occupied country via VOA. In a 1945 piece airing on the anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s foundation, Werich, then in New York, 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 twenty-seven 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.”

RFE/RL concentrated on the internal affairs of the Soviet Union and its satellites. VOA, as the official spokesman of the American government, was somewhat less provocative – its mission being to inform the world about Washington’s take on events, not to present a direct alternative source.

And so it was tolerated. In April 1964, for example, while Czechoslovakia discontinued its jamming of VOA and the BBC, it still blocked RFE transmissions. After the Warsaw Pact invasion, the USSR resumed massive jamming of both, until 1973.

This isn’t to say VOA was apolitical. For example, journalist Ivan Medek, based in Vienna, regularly delivered news about the Charter 77 protest movement. And by the second half of the 1980s, VOA was more openly political, and the most listened to foreign station broadcasting in Czech. It got its first Prague correspondent, the Czech-speaking US journalist Jolyon Naegele – who interviewed dissidents and Charter 77 signatories such as Václav Havel and Jiří Dienstbier.

Jolyon Naegele, photo: Šárka Ševčíková / Czech RadioJolyon Naegele, photo: Šárka Ševčíková / Czech Radio But it may have been “soft power” – programmes dedicated to books, film and music – that drew most listeners in. Writer Josef Škvorecký, for example, hosted a show reviewing books and interpreting literature. Sometimes, broadcasters even explained the English-language lyrics – in real time – such as to Louis Armstrong’s “It’s a Wonderful World”.

As noted by the Prague-based Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, the broadcasts of both RFE/RL and VOA reflect various phases in Western policy over the decades, from “containing Communism” to “the emancipation of subjugated countries” to gradualism (efforts to support natural liberalisation within Eastern Bloc states), détente (relaxation of relations after accepting the fixed status of the other side), the New Cold War, and its conclusion.