Broadcasters and historians from both sides of the Iron Curtain assess impact of Western radios during the Cold War

Nov 30, 2004

October 2004

Former VOA deputy director Alan Heil reports below on the three-day conference "The Impact of Cold War Broadcasting" (sponsored by CWIHP and the Hoover Institution) which brought together media managers, scholars, and professionals, past and present, at Stanford University. Lessons learned from the Cold War years may have some relevance in the new multimedia digital media environment of the post 9/11 era.

"What made RFE effective during the Cold War were its impartiality, objectivity and independence --- it reported events without distorting lenses. Its support for freedom, democracy and human rights was and is very important today because unfortunately, it will be a long time before freedom and democracy will come to all areas of the world."
---Vaclav Havel, in a statement videotaped for the opening of the Hoover conference

"The Cold War is over. The dragon is dead. We (Soviet officials) downgraded the importance of truth. The real impact of Western broadcasts was on the elite, not the masses. The leaders understood, finally, that in their own societies, they could not continue to lead."
---Oleg Kalugin, former director of counterintelligence, the Soviet Union

"The first lesson learned is that we in Western radio can't go it alone. We have to look at RFE/RL, VOA and the BBC as an aggregate. Their impact together was overwhelming. The effect was far greater than the sum of its parts."
---Thomas A. Dine, President, RFE/RL

It was a lively look back at the impact of Western radio during the Cold War. Historians, research experts, and hands-on broadcasters from both sides of the Iron Curtain and more than three generations participated in the CWIHP/Hoover Institution conference on the campus of Stanford University, California, October 13-16.

Former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz challenged the fifty-six specialists present to draw lessons from their Cold War professional experience. "What can we learn from this," he asked, "to help us reach people who are antithetical to our interests today? How do you figure out what works, what doesn't work?"

There was virtually unanimous agreement that credibility --- telling it as objectively as humanly possible --- was the paramount key to success of Western international broadcasting from 1947 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Conference participants felt that audiences today thirst for information of substance and depth as much today, as they did then.

Former RFE Director Jim Brown said Western radios during the Cold War drew power from their independence, and their integrity. "Purely straight information," he said, and fair and unbiased comment about what was happening in Europe and in the United States was essential because of what he termed "the antagonistic contradiction between the people and the occupying governments of Eastern Europe."

The gathering was held on the premises of the Hoover Institution and co-sponsored by that think tank and the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Other co-organizers and contributors were the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at Stanford, the Open Society Archives at the Central European University in Budapest, the Annenberg Foundation Trust and Bernard Osher Foundation of California.

Professor Charles Gati of the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, D.C., summarized the findings of a panel that had examined the now open archives of Warsaw Pact Poland and Czechoslovakia. What the documents revealed, Dr. Gati said, were that Western broadcasts

---kept hope alive in those Soviet-dominated countries,
---forced the communist regimes to remain on the defensive by providing information they routinely denied to their own citizens, and
---imposed huge costs, often unaffordable, on regimes that were engaged in jamming and other countermeasures.


R. Eugene Parta, director of audience research and program evaluation at RFE/RL in Prague, estimated peak Soviet audiences to Western broadcasts from 1980 to 1990. He projected their annual reach at nearly 25 per cent of the adult population of the USSR during the first half of that decade.

VOA, Parta reported, was the leading international broadcaster to the USSR from 1978 to 1987, with the BBC World Service second. When Moscow jamming was lifted against Radio Liberty in 1988, it became the most-to-listened to Western broadcaster.

The RFE-RL survey results generally matched those of Romir, the Moscow-based research organisation. Elena Bashkirova of Romir told the conference that urban, in-country surveys in the early 1980s indicated a VOA listenership of 66 percent, compared with 24 percent from the BBC and eight percent for RL --- during a period of jamming.

RFE/RL's Parta summed up the impact of Western radio based on interviews of more than 75,000 citizens of the Soviet Union who traveled or settled abroad between 1970 and 1991. The radios, he said, were listened to by more than a third of the Soviet citizens, including half of those who lived in cities. The huge audience, Parta added, resulted in

---widespread Soviet media attacks on Western broadcasts
---the fact that Soviet media were forced to take information from the radios (the Chernobyl disaster for example) and address the same issues on their own programming, and
---a far better informed Soviet audience by the end of the 1980s, ready for the changes which accelerated in 1989 and beyond.


What were the lessons for today of the Western Cold War broadcasting experience? Summarizing, these were:

1) The continuing importance today of credible, accurate, substantive programming of interest to intellectually curious moderates and democracy advocates in Russia, Central Asia, the Balkans and the Muslim and Arab worlds. In the words of Wladimir Tolz of RL's Russian Service: "History has not ended, nor has the history of foreign broadcasting. Broadcasters must be aware of what's going on in each of the areas they reach --- they cannot allow ratings to overtake the mission. The events in Beslan showed the intensity and potential of international broadcasting. As CNN broadcast images of the tragic siege of a school in Beslan, the highest ratings on Russian TV were those for fashion programs."
2) The need to amass functional and regional expertise, including audience and content research. A. Ross Johnson, Hoover Institution research fellow and former RFE director, recalled the importance of in-depth familiarity with audiences and issues during the Sino-Soviet split. Then, RFE/RL broadcast information on the dispute late at night, knowing that the transcription services in Moscow and Beijing would record the programmes and set them down on paper in time for high level Communist Party meetings a few hours later.
3) The essential requirement to pursue multiple media (radio, TV and the Internet) in a multimedia age. RFE/RL President Dine reported that his network's managers would be holding the second in a series of retreats to consider how radio, TV, Internet and FM placement of their programmes might be enhanced through convergence, even in times of tight budgetary constraints. "We must be proactive," Dine said. "The communists were always on the defensive --- we, as broadcasters must always be on the offensive, differentiating among audiences by gender, age, media they use, and most of all, need for information."
4) The wisdom to recognize that patience, modesty, and constant evaluation of effectiveness are hallmarks of success in international broadcasting. In the words of former RFE Director Brown: "(Reflecting) democracy was essential during the Cold War. We were anti-communist only because we were pro-democracy. It's important," Brown added, "to stay away from mission statements and guidances and consider first our listeners. There's a great danger of overrating ourselves and underestimating our audiences. Modesty is important; triumphalism deters listening." Research director Parta offered a vivid example of this, and of how research on audience attitudes can be factored into programming decisions. During the early years of the USSR occupation of Afghanistan, he recalled, listeners at home perceived a sense of Radio Liberty satisfaction at Soviet military reverses. The RL Russian Service took the attitude studies seriously. The service began to report expressions of sympathy for Russian losses in the mountain passes of Afghanistan. The credibility of RL programs rebounded in subsequent surveys.
5) The need to remember and use the intimacy and magic properties of radio in a multimedia age. Associate Hoover Institute Director Elena Danielson cited "the particular inherent communication quality of the human voice on radio." When it connects with listeners, one on one, amidst the babble of a soundbite age, Danielson suggested, "something magic happens." She quoted former VOA Director and public broadcasting executive and historian Dr. Mary G. F. Bitterman as observing during a conference break that radio still has a singular role among 21st century media. In Dr. Bitterman's words: It is dynamic. It is personal. It is hardly an artifact of a lost world."


Alan L. Heil Jr., is a former deputy director of VOA and author of Voice of America: A History (Columbia University Press, New York and Chichester, West Sussex, 2003.)

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Laura Deal // Catalog Specialist
  • Pieter Biersteker // Editorial Assistant
  • Charles Kraus // Program Assistant
  • Evan Pikulski // Program Assistant
  • Roy O. Kim // Program Assistant
  • James Person // Deputy Director, History and Public Policy Program; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project