Olga Szantova 1932-2003: Radio Prague mourns a truly exceptional colleague


On Friday night our much-loved colleague from Radio Prague, Olga Szantova, died at the age of 71: the end of a long battle with cancer and a life that was quite exceptional. She will be hugely missed not just by colleagues but also by many thousands of listeners, who had grown to know her over a radio career that spanned over 40 years. David Vaughan remembers.

Olga SzantovaOlga Szantova "You are tuned to Radio Prague. I'm Olga Szantova..."

In the twelve years that I knew Olga it was always a pleasure to hear her distinctive and unforgettable voice when I came into the office every morning. "A bedroom voice" was how one admiring listener jokingly described Olga's velvet tones when she was younger. As Olga grew older, her voice never lost its special quality, although she laughed out loud when not long ago she received her first letter in praise of her "grandmotherly tone."

In fact Olga really was a proud grandmother - with two grandsons now in their twenties - but by nature she remained young. Even though she stopped working full-time for Radio Prague two years ago as a youthful 69-year-old, Olga had radio in her veins. Despite her battle with cancer, she continued to make many contributions to the programme, the elder stateswoman of Radio Prague - although I think Olga herself would have had a good giggle if she'd heard me calling her that.

At the beginning of my own career at Radio Prague, I learned a huge amount from Olga, like many other young journalists, with whom Olga often seemed to identify far more than with most of her own generation. Olga was direct and outspoken, and it is no surprise that in the days of the old regime, she suffered far more than most. After the Soviet invasion of 1968, Olga was cut off from the profession she loved. For twenty years she was not allowed to have anything to do with radio.

But with the fall of communism Olga made up for her lost radio years with an energy and skill that would put most of us younger journalists to shame. At times she almost seemed to be the very heart of Radio Prague's English Section.

To end the programme, we'll repeat an interview that Rob Cameron recorded with Olga eighteen months ago, when she talked about her life. Letting Olga speak for herself is perhaps the most apt tribute we can make.

You were born in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Was it a happy, contented childhood?

"It was a very complicated childhood, because I was six - turning six - when the regime changed and when Czechoslovakia fell apart [in 1938]. My father had been politically active and we had to flee, because of the Nazi occupation. What there was of my childhood was very, very happy, but very, very short-lived."

A childhood disrupted by the Second World War. You spent the war in New York.

"In New York City. That's where my English comes from. Some people say I have a mid-Atlantic accent, because I did spend a couple of years in Britain. So it isn't clean New York, but there is a bit of New York, Manhattan East Side in it. I lived in the East Side, where the Czechoslovak community was very strong in those days. I went to school there, to junior high, before we came back in 1946."

When did the love affair with radio first begin?

"Oh very early. It started as a love affair with journalism. I was already writing in New York for various children's magazines and so on. Radio actually came as a coincidence, because when we did come back in 1946, my father was again very active on the political scene and got himself arrested in 1951. So after that there was no chance of me studying at university - my studies had to be interrupted - with no idea of my getting into any media, newspaper or radio. I was working in something called the Pioneer House. It was a kind of after-school centre for children, and Jan Dvorak from the American section [of Radio Prague] came there to do an interview. He discovered that there was somebody there who spoke very good English. So he introduced me to the staff and it took a terribly long time before I could start working in radio because of my father's political problems. Anyway, finally I did come here - that was in 1961, and I worked here, with four years off when we were in Africa - my husband was a correspondent of a Czech news agency. And when I came back 1968 and 1969 came around and I had to leave again. "

So you were working in the American section of Radio Prague in 1968, the time of the Prague Spring, when there was more relaxation of the official control of the media. What's your single most powerful recollection of those days when everything suddenly seemed to be looking up for Socialist Czechoslovakia?

"The abolition of censorship. All of a sudden we did not have to show every word we were going to put into the programme to the censor, who didn't speak English in the first place, so we had to tell him what was on the paper."

So you took the script to him...

"Every word. We couldn't have talked like we are now. We would have had to script it. The head of the section had to sign and with that signature you took that script to the censor's department - he didn't speak a word of English, nor French, nor anything else - so we all went there, and he said: 'What's in there?' We more or less told him and he said: 'Are you sure there's nothing else?' And we said: 'No'. So he put a stamp on that and we came to the studio and read it."

Did you ever slip something in there which shouldn't have been in, which you knew he wouldn't understand?

Olga: "No, because it would have been suicide. We were listened to by people who did understand the various languages and we didn't slip in anything. We didn't talk about a number of things. We kept as much propaganda - outright propaganda - out of the programme as we possibly could, and I think we were pretty successful in that. But we certainly did not put any anti-regime things, because it was the easiest way of getting not only thrown out of the radio, but of being arrested."

Of course the reform movement was crushed in August '68.

"That is... [laughs]... I was going to say my favourite memory - not of the occupation but of the broadcasting that followed. 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."

So you came back after the collapse of communism. You came back in 1990. Was that a very emotional return for you?

"Yes, it was very emotional. Many years had gone by. Actually it came at a time when under ordinary circumstances I would have thought of retiring. And of course, during all those 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."

You certainly have. A lot of people I've spoken to have spoken of a great frustration and anger at spending several decades out in the cold, not being able to do the job that they wanted, and they do seem very bitter. You've never really seemed to me a bitter person, that you were denied the job you wanted for over fifteen years.

"No, 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 on and around the February 1948 events. I'm not saying that I had any major role in them, and the fact is that my father was arrested in 1951 which shows that we weren't exactly pro-regime, but if you want to be honest, you have to start wondering how much we caused ourselves."

If I can ask you just one last question. What's it like working with younger and less experienced colleagues?

"I do not mind at all. You know it's nice to be able to help people, and if it's somebody who's really interested and who you see is learning and is doing a good job, then I can't think of a greater joy. Sounds horrible doesn't it! - very righteous [laughs]. But I really do feel that. I've enjoyed helping young people."

A fine note on which to end. Olga Szantova, thank you very much.