- Inspiration, Subversion, and AppropriationThe Effects of Radio Free Europe Music Broadcasting
The music broadcasting operations of Radio Free Europe (RFE) are an underappreciated political and cultural phenomenon of the second half of the twentieth century, one that sheds light on key features of the Cold War as well as on the essence of the most important cultural impulse of that time: the spread of Western popular culture, especially rock music.
This article's main focus is on RFE's music broadcasting to Communistera Czechoslovakia, which was selected as an example of a former Soviet-bloc country in which Western culture and music gained broad popularity, particularly among young people. The article evaluates the impact of this type of broadcasting from several angles, including how it was perceived and responded to by official institutions and political elites on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The article also discusses the links and mutual influences that led to changes in the declared aspirations and policies related to this type of broadcasting. Finally, it demonstrates how the audience in Soviet-bloc countries was able to seize the opportunity presented by the RFE broadcasts to take an active part in cultural exchange and even to help shape the broadcasts.
An analysis of the complex role of Western youth culture in undermining support for Communist regimes is beyond the scope of this article. However, the findings here cast doubt on a simplified perspective in which Western music (especially rock music) shook the foundations of Communist states, with rock stars as the "muses of revolution."1 My analysis points instead to a much more complicated relationship between popular music and Communist societies that involved not only political subversion but also generational [End Page 124] conflicts, as well as the appropriation and adaptation of Western cultural impulses within the processes of intensified aesthetic proximity, overlap, and connectivity between nations and ethnicities during the period of late modernity.2
Institutions in both the East and the West used various means to influence and assess the impact of RFE's broadcasting on Soviet-bloc audiences. The data on these policies allow us today to draw some cautious conclusions and generalizations. Crucial materials from the archives of the former Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSČ) and the former Czechoslovak State Security (StB) apparatus permit a reconstruction of the regime's perception of RFE and the countermeasures undertaken by the StB and other institutions in the Communist countries, and other archival documents illuminate the everyday lives of RFE listeners and sympathizers.
By combining these types of historical documents with the memoirs and recollections of the employees of RFE and its listeners, we can deduce changes in the role the broadcasting service played in Soviet-bloc societies, as well as the shifts in thinking, cultural preferences, and behaviors of different strata or groups within these societies. To a certain degree, we can even try to reconstruct the sphere of personal experiences and meanings of music broadcasting for broadcasters and listeners themselves. The existing evidence indicates that music broadcasting was important in the everyday lives of people on both sides of the Iron Curtain in the second half of the twentieth century and complicates the image of Communist Czechoslovakia as a society passively exposed to the propaganda wars between the two blocs.
The issue of RFE's music broadcasting has attracted some academic attention. Musicologists and researchers interested in music history have discussed the role of RFE in the dissemination of jazz and rock music in Eastern Europe.3 Some of the appraisals of rock music in the Eastern bloc published in the 1990s are based on extensive research and offer many insights into the effects of music broadcasting and audience reactions. At that time, however, many of the records in the Communist Party and state security archives were inaccessible, and these early studies could use oral history sources in only a [End Page 125] limited way. In addition to works focused on music and cultural history, the issue of music broadcasting has been discussed only in passing in studies by historians or by former employees of RFE.4 Some of these studies discuss counterresponses by the official institutions of the...