BEYOND THE SPECTRUM: NET.RADIO IN EASTERN EUROPE
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.
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
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.
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.
11. Josephine Bosma, “From Broadcasting to Narrowcasting,” 1999.
12. Erik Davis, “Acoustic Cyberspace,” 1997.