Special Radio archives bring Czechoslovak history to life

05-07-2014 02:01 | David Vaughan

This spring I worked on a project to explore the Czech Radio archives with a group of international undergraduate students, studying at the Anglo-American University in Prague. This followed up on a similar project last year to mark the radio’s 90th birthday. Czech Radio has one of the biggest radio archives anywhere in the world, going way back to the late 1920s and it includes several hundred recordings in English, most of them from the radio’s international broadcasts. Working in groups, the students spent time delving into the archives and they chose several archive recordings to analyze. Some of the recordings they picked out are well known and have gone down into radio history, but others had not been listened to since they were first broadcast several decades ago. They give us some intriguing insights into radio at different times in Czechoslovakia’s history: into the tense atmosphere before the outbreak of World War II, into the drama of the Cold War and then the thaw of the 1960s, followed by the Soviet-led invasion. As we listen to the recordings, the past quite literally comes to life. In the programme we listen to extracts from these archive sounds and hear some of the insights that the students gained into them.

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The programme starts in the second half of the 1930s, at a time when tensions between Prague and Berlin were growing. Hitler was stirring trouble in the mainly German-speaking border regions of Czechoslovakia. At the time, several foreign journalists came to Czechoslovakia to see the situation for themselves. One of them was Edgar Young, who gave a talk to Radio Prague at the beginning of 1937. Kateřina Glacnerová, listened to the recording, and we hear her reflections on a radio talk that evokes vividly the atmosphere on one of the fault lines of pre-war Europe.

There is also a sense of calm before the storm in the second extract we hear. The radio archives have a whole series of recordings featuring exchange students, who came to Czechoslovakia from America in the 1930s and commented on their experiences. Some have already featured in past Radio Prague programmes, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Students Pavel Prouza, Gabriella Strnad, Viktoriia Fediuk and Jack Podhoretz delved further into the archives and found more recordings featuring exchange students in 1937. The optimism of the recordings is poignant, coming just two years before the world was thrown into war.

We then move forward to the 1950s, when the Cold War was at its height and Radio Prague was broadcasting propaganda to the West. The date is 1959 and the United States has been carrying out nuclear tests in the Pacific and the Nevada desert. For the fourteenth anniversary of Hiroshima, Radio Prague broadcast an unusual programme that comes somewhere between a radio play and a documentary. Lancelot Purdue comments on this rather quirky broadcast.

This was also the time of the decolonization of Africa and a year later Radio Prague launched its English-language service to the African continent, which was soon to become a major part of the station’s output. The very first broadcast is preserved in the Czech Radio archive and caught the attention of Matthew Theisen and Bozhidara Boyadzhieva.

In the course of the 60s there was a gradual thaw in East-West relations, and this is also reflected in the Czech Radio archives. Czechoslovak Radio’s correspondent in the United States at the time was Karel Kyncl, one of the most famous broadcasters in this country’s radio history. His 1963 interview with the first black American student at the University of Mississippi certainly highlights the imperfections of American society, but this is not just a piece of propaganda. Joshua Levy, Emily Cunniff and Daniel Kopilnick listened to the recording.

I should add that James Meredith is still alive and recently celebrated his 81st birthday. He went on to have a career as a Republican politician and political adviser, and he continued to play a major role in the fight for equal rights for all US citizens. Karel Kyncl, who interviewed him, also had an interesting subsequent career. He was openly critical of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and ended up not just losing his job, but also being sent to prison. In 1982 he was given political asylum in Britain, where he became well known back home for his contributions to the Czechoslovak service of the BBC. After the fall of communism he was highly popular as Czechoslovak Radio’s correspondent in London. He died in 1997.

Many thanks to my students on the “History of the Electronic Media” course at the Anglo-American University for putting up with my obsession with radio history!

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