Joanne Richardson

1. Media in Eastern Europe after 1989

At the dawn of 1989, revolutionaries dreamed of communication without fear, unmediated access to information, and direct participation in politics and the media. In Romania, a thousand small newspapers bloomed overnight as everyone joined the rush to start their own media. There was euphoria in the air, a sense of almost limitless possibilities. But this utopian desire was inspired by the Western media, naively interpreted as an authentic mode of communication that would eradicate all the problems of the communist propaganda machine. After seventeen years the utopia has vanished under advertisements for Coca Cola and new technologies of censorship and control.

Karol Jakubowicz characterized media development in Eastern Europe in terms of “two types of post-communist countries”: countries that were economically stronger, more open to the west, and had pockets of privatization within the state-run economies adopted Western models of commercial media, while countries that were economically weaker and more isolated continued to exercise a form of state control that undermined free expression, using the post-89 media as propaganda channels for new political interests.(1) Although this account doesn’t capture many nuances, the distinction between two dominant tendencies is useful in drawing a rough map. The “more developed” countries that opted for wholesale privatization and copied Western media models experienced a heavy influx of foreign capital, which created new colonial dependencies. In their 2003 report on Central and Eastern European media, the European Federation of Journalists mapped the shift from state monopolies to commercial empires. In Hungary 83% of the press is foreign owned; in Poland and the Czech Republic, about 80%. There’s also a large concentration of foreign ownership in the Baltic countries.(2) The important foreign empires - WAZ, Axel Springer, Ringier, Viacom, Disney, Time Warner, News Corporation and Central European Media - are also present in Serbia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania and Russia, but the picture and percentages look different in these countries since the majority of the media remains in local hands.

Studies of Romanian media ownership show that the biggest players are Romanian politicians or businessmen with direct ties to political parties.(3) The second largest media empire in Romania is owned by Dan Voiculescu, the president of the PC (the Conservative Party). The map of the local press reflects even more extensive political control – in small cities most of the newspapers and televisions are owned by mayors and local deputies. In 2003, Reporters without Frontiers sounded an alarm bell about Romania’s media control and appalling record of free expression. Their warning was triggered by notorious cases of journalists being threatened, beaten and killed, which RSF claimed “in each case … involves journalists who were investigating corruption that is more or less related to the ruling Social Democrat Party (PSD).”(4) The situation has since changed, as the neoliberal government elected in 2004 took important measures to promote more media independence from politics, more privatization of the economy, more foreign investment, and fewer labor rights and social protections. The Romanian media today denounce anything that smacks of the “left,” equating democracy with global capitalism and portraying all critiques of this best of all possible worlds as nostalgia for communist dictatorship.

While it’s important to highlight the differences between autocratic control over the media by political interests and Western style commercial monopolies, both represent forms of control that restrict independence and free expression. Commercialization subordinates media to market forces, which leads to an emphasis on entertainment, diversion and advertising rather than serious information or critical thought. Commercial monopolies also have vested interests, even if these aren’t directly political. Media ownership by large transnationals is part the neoliberal agenda of “liberating” everything from the state and handing it over to private people, if we understand “private people” to mean billion dollar corporations. When the owners of the largest media monopolies also own electronic industries, military technologies, telecommunications networks and a large piece of the privatized water market, with annual revenues over $300 billion, then the mass media has an obvious interest in protecting the current economic system by selling the idea that “there is no alternative.” As an appendage to corporate interests, the media ceases to have a critical edge and functions to ensure that there are no significant disruptions in the balance of power.

2. Alternative media: “piracy” and the internet

Both political and commercial control ultimately mean that media don’t represent the real interests of the vast majority of people and have failed to enhance democracy and civic participation. In the former communist countries, provisions for public service and community media are especially weak due to bad legislation and the bad connotations that “public” media still has because of its former association with state control. As a consequence, most community oriented, non-profit initiatives have taken shape as alternative media. “Alternative media” is a very muddled term since it merely claims to be “other” than the mass media, without saying precisely how it differs, and since it has materialized in so many different forms. But it’s still possible to point to some common features, such as: (1) independence from political authority and economic interests, (2) a production process that is transparent, collaborative and inclusive (sometimes eliminating the difference between experts and passive consumers), (3) a different content that focuses on aspirations of ordinary people and marginalized social groups, (4) a critical function that provokes the audience to reflect in contrast to mass-media’s propaganda function, (5) a low budget approach and a committed group of volunteers rather than paid employees.

Alternative media often takes refuge in unofficial, unlegislated or uncolonized spaces – from samizdat publications, zines and pamphlets that don’t need to be registered, to broadcasting without a license (“piracy”), and most recently, the internet. Despite its bad rap, throughout history piracy has been a reaction against monopolies established by autocratic powers. According to Owen Rutter’s account of the 18th century battles between the British empire and pirates in the Malayan archipelago, the pirates waged “guerrilla warfare by sea” as a “retaliation against those interlopers from the West” who destroyed their livelihood.(5) Piracy was widespread after the collapse of the communist media, often forcing new governments to change the law. At the beginning of the 1990s there were more than 3000 pirate radio and television stations across countries of the former Soviet Union; today around 1000 are broadcasting legally. In the Czech Republic, Radio Stalin, which broadcast from a toppled Stalin statue in Prague, became so popular that the government didn’t dare to shut it down, preferring to write new laws that permitted hundreds of stations to emerge. In Hungary, Tilos Radio (translated as “forbidden radio”) started broadcasting in 1991 to raise awareness about the absence of legislation for community radio. Tilos broadcast for many years outside the law, constantly changing locations to evade the police. With its monthly parties and open microphone policy for different groups and minorities, Tilos became a pillar of the Budapest cultural scene and was instrumental in liberating the airwaves. In 1995 a media bill was passed with provisions for low-power community radio stations.

The legal conditions for community media across Central/Eastern European countries has varied greatly. In the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia most of the privately owned radio and television stations cover their costs by selling advertisements and are therefore considered “commercial.” The only station in the Czech Republic with a non-profit, “alternative” approach is Radio 1, which began in 1990 as a pirate station. In Slovakia the only station that qualifies as a community station is Radio Ragtime, founded by students in 1991 and operating out of Comenius University. Hungary and Slovenia are the interesting exceptions in the region. Hungarian law makes allowances for half commercial, half community media, and although there has never been an equal proportion, there were already more than a dozen community radios as early as the mid-1990s. Slovenian law states that non-commercial media should receive special funding and have priority over commercial media in receiving licenses; in addition there are provisions assuring programming for minorities in their own languages. In Romania, by contrast, non-profit, community media is outlawed - only state-owned or commercial media can receive licenses. As a result, most of the interesting, independent initiatives have taken the form of “piracy”. 

The first pirate station in Romania was Radio Camuflaj in 1990, but pirate radio emerged as a significant phenomenon only after 1995. DJ Tony from Radio Alert recalls that the pirate radios in Bucharest “used to be a kind of family, meeting listeners every couple of weeks,” and sometimes having broadcasting parties on a single frequency, interacting with each other as if they were in the same studio.(6) After the crackdown on piracy in 2000, with steep fines and threats of imprisonment, most of the pirates disappeared. In 2001, Attila Gasparik of the National Audiovisual Council proposed a new law that would grant licenses to non-profit community groups and NGOs, but it was rejected by parliament. In response to the failed media reform, in 2002 Radio Fara Frecventa (Radio Without A Frequency) in Cluj started broadcasting simultaneously on FM using a low powered transmitter and streaming on the internet. The first press statement of RFF announced: “we wanted everyone present … to imagine what it would be like to live in a liberated zone where it is possible to say whatever we want about things that matter to us without being threatened by imprisonment for the desire to communicate freely.”(7) During its live events RFF tried to promote public awareness of how net.radio could be used to bypass legislative control.

The internet has been used to evade draconian legislation in places where political control over the media has been the fiercest. The most celebrated example of using the internet to rout around censorship is the Serbian independent radio, B92. B-92 began broadcasting in 1989 as part of a Socialist Party effort to appear hip by sponsoring a two-week youth radio, but it stayed on the air, challenging the weakening power of the regime. It became an important part of the alternative scene in Belgrade, a kind of umbrella for NGOs, anti-war activists, feminists and minority groups, and a force behind many street demonstrations. The radio had its first clash with the Milosevic regime and was shut down in 1991 after denouncing the policies that led to the separation of Bosnia and Croatia. It was banned again in December 1996 for supporting demonstrations by hundreds of thousands who denounced the government’s annulment of municipal election results (won by Milosevic’s opponents). A day later B92, assisted by Progressive Networks and XS4ALL, an Internet Service Provider in Amsterdam, started distributing news clips over the internet in Real Audio format, which were rebroadcast by local Serbian stations and the BBC. On March 24, 1999, when NATO bombing raids began in response to the Kosovo crisis, the Milosevic government closed the station again, confiscating the transmitter. B92 responded by uploading its files on the Internet which were rebroadcast around the world in a wave of solidarity - the B92 website received 15 million hits in 7 days. On April 2, the police closed the studios where B92 continued to broadcast via the internet. An international Help B92 campaign was launched with hundreds of people and organizations from Netherlands, Austria, Spain, Germany, Italy, Japan and Australia giving donations and tech support. Because of the decentralized nature of the internet, and the well-organized networks of activists using it, it was impossible for the Serbian regime to silence the flow of information by shutting down B92’s physical space.

3. Net radio and the radical possibilities of radio

In countries with tight control over the media, net radio has been used to circumvent censorship and control, but where there is a more open political climate, net radio experiments have tended to be aesthetic and ontological in character, investigating the nature of radio and acoustic space more generally. Both types of net.radio have tried to surpass radio by returning to the unfulfilled promise of what radio could have been. It was the military background of radio, with its aura of secrecy and control, that determined its evolution. When radio was first invented it was used for bi-directional communication. From 1906 on, there were many radio “amateurs” in the US, with a national organization and hundreds of relay points across the country. These first radio enthusiasts saw radio as a medium that made it possible for people to communicate directly, without interference or mediation. The US government saw the proliferation of amateur radio operators as a threat, and passed the Radio Act of 1912 to regulate radio by requiring licenses and imposing fines. The legal restrictions limited the technical possibilities of radio, separating transmission from reception and creating the dominant paradigm of broadcasting from a central point to many distributed receivers.

Aside from the radio amateurs, the first to think about the radical possibilities of the radio medium were artists. As Dan Lander explains, the use of radio by artists represented “a struggle to overcome the enforcement of the arbitrary boundaries drawn by the paranoid hands of the state.”(8) In 1932 Bertold Brecht theorized that “radio is one-sided when it should be two-. It is purely an apparatus for distribution … So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes.”(9) Brecht criticized radio’s uni-directionality and its function as a propaganda tool, and saw radio as a medium that could lead to unmediated communication and transform listeners into producers. While Brecht focused on radio as a tool of democratization that carried a specific content (a political message), other artists explored its aesthetic dimension and investigated what was essential to radio’s use of sound and how it differed from the visual. In 1933 the Futurists wrote La Radia, praising the ability of radio to create simultaneous presence and to liberate sound from concepts. In 1947 Antonin Artaud wrote a script for French radio, which used cries, grunts, onomatopoeia and noise – in the end, the station refused to broadcast it. These aesthetic experiments challenged radio’s purified space (its elimination of the body, noise, silence) and its desire for unambiguous messages and authority.

These two different directions fused in the free radio movement of the 1970s and 1980s that emerged first in Italy and later across Europe and in Japan. Felix Guattari, during his work with Frequence Libre in Paris, stressed the radically different function of free radio, which did not impose programs on a mass audience but sought to change the relationship between speaker and listener. Like Brecht, Guattari believed that free radio could create a form of direct democracy. But Guattari went beyond Brecht in wanting to use the airwaves to liberate molecular desire rather than disseminate leftist messages. Tetsuo Kogawa, a key figure of the Mini FM movement in Japan, also focuses on the “micro politics” of free radio. He defines the difference between conventional radio and micro radio not quantitatively - in terms of the power of the transmitter or the area of coverage - but as something “qualitatively different.” Micro radio does not seek to broadcast messages to a large audience. As a resonating medium, it communicates without concepts, linking small groups of people together through moods and affects, offering a possibility to “be convivial.”(10)

Net.radio has drawn on early experiments by radio amateurs and artists as well as the tradition of free radio. Kogawa became a kind of spokesperson for the movement, since his analysis of Mini FM as a resonating medium and a space of conviviality seemed especially relevant to the net.radio experience. Net.radio has varied considerably over the years: some exist both on air and online, while others have programs only on the net; some stream from special events, while others have regular programs; and some are similar to traditional message radio, while others are more interested in experimenting with sound and live performance. Josephine Bosma has highlighted the networked, decentralized structure that is common to net.radio as its most important feature. Frequently local editors are contributing different fragments to the stream (voice, noise, music), which means there is no final content. Bosma describes net.radio as a live radio show with participants from around the globe adding archived material, sampled and remixed sound files and live input from performances.(11)

One of the most interesting experiments that came out of this scene is the exploration of the meaning of “acoustic space” by E-Lab (now RIXC), a new media center in Riga, Latvia running the net.radio OZOne. The acoustic space project includes a series of publications that define the concept and map the practices, several Acoustic.Space.Labs or events that explore sound art and networked environments, and the Xchange mailing list, which contributed to creating a network of artists, activists and alternative internet broadcasters. These experiments are inspired by McLuhan’s distinction between visual space, which is characterized by straight lines, planes and grids, and gives rise to a form of subjectivity that experiences the world from a distance in terms of a fixed center, and acoustic space, which is characterized by simultaneity, immersion and resonance, and gives rise to a form of subjectivity that responds to its environment affectively rather than through concepts. Erik Davis, in his lecture at the Xchange conference in 1997, defined acoustic space, whether belonging to early radio experiments or to the internet, as an open, indeterminate and unmapped space that has an irresistible utopian dimension because it is capable of organizing subjectivities and collectives in a different, nonlinear way.(12)

Net.radio takes us back to some fundamental questions: what is inherent to the radio medium, why was transmission separated from reception, and why has radio been dominated by visuality - privileging linear concepts, unambiguous messages, disembodied presence and chronological time - when it is in fact an acoustic space? Perhaps the FMs, whether they are market leaders or alternative radios, will reevaluate their practices in light of these experiments. But it’s also important to remember that net.radio is actually not radio and that it belongs to a different medium, the internet. Net.radio is not limited by geographical space and does not depend on the scarcity of the spectrum, which needs to be parceled out in fragments. So while it may provoke us to ask questions about radio’s most radical possibilities, it also makes other questions about its limitations by the spectrum seem redundant and obsolete.


1. Karol Jakubowicz, “Post-Communist Media Development in Perspective,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2005.

2. European Federation of Journalists, “Eastern Empires: Foreign Ownership in Central and East European Media,” 2003.

3. See Manuela Preotesa’s report on Romania in “Media Ownership and its Impact on Media Independence and Pluralism,” 2004, and Paul Cristian Radu, Sorin Ozon and Dan Badea, “The Muzzling of the Romanian Media,” 2002.

4. See Reporters without Frontiers, “Romania - Annual Report,” 2003, and the interview with RSF, “Europe’s Black Sheep,” Tranzitions Online, 2004.

5. Owen Rutter, The Pirate Wind, Oxford University Press, 1987. For a discussion of the parallels between 18th century piracy and today's “war on piracy,” see Armin Medosch, “Piratology,” 2002.

6. Luiza Ilie, “Nostalgia Radioului Pirat,” Bullet, 2003.

7. Radio Fara Frecventa, "Comunicat de presa," 2002, at . In 2002 I co-organized a festival of independent media makers from Romania and the CEE region as a local part of Next 5 Minutes 4, an Amsterdam-based tactical media event decentralized labs. Radio Fara Frecventa was born at this event and it continued to broadcast events by artists, poets, musicians and activists in Cluj between 2002-2003.

8. Dan Lander, “Radiocasting: Musings on Radio and Art,” eContact! 2.3, 1999.

9. Bertold Brecht, “The Radio as an Apparatus of Communication,” 1932. Originally published in Brecht on Theatre, Hill and Wang, 1964.

10. See Tetsuo Kogawa, “Toward Polymorphous Radio,” 1990, and “Micro Radio Manifesto,” 2002.

11. Josephine Bosma, “From Broadcasting to Narrowcasting,” 1999.

12. Erik Davis, “Acoustic Cyberspace,” 1997.

Cluj, 2005. Written for the Radio Revolten Festival (http://www.radiorevolten.net), Oct 3-5, 2006 in Halle, Germany. Published in the "Relating Radio" Conference Reader, by Spector, Leipzig, 2006.

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