Former US Ambassador (1986-1990) to Hungary Mark Palmer told the Hungarian newspaper Népszabadság in a recent interview that he, historian Charles Gati, and others are working on restoring a Radio Free Europe for Hungary. His comment was then covered by various media in Germany, Austria, Hungary, and in the USA.
In November 2011, Hungarian-born author Paul Lendvai said in an interview also printed in the newspaper Népszabadság: "A right-wing and at times far-right media hegemony prevails in Hungary, and I ever more often feel that Radio Free Europe or the BBC’s Hungarian-language service should be restored, to state the basic facts.”
In Munich for the 60th Anniversary of RFE's first program from Munich in April 2011, I had the privilege of again meeting many RFE (and some RL) veterans. The article below, a short overview of Radio Free Europe's Hungarian Broadcast Service in Munich, "Bye-Bye Szabad Európa Rádió (SZER): Memories of RFE's Hungarian Broadcast Service," is reprinted with the kind permission of former RFE employees and authors, whom I met at the conference: Géza Ekecs and János Kund.
The first Hungarian language program of Radio Free Europe (RFE), i.e. Szabad Európa Rádió (SZER), was broadcast from a small makeshift studio in a Munich apartment house on October 6, 1951. It became known as the "Voice of Free Hungary" in English.The Hungarian broadcast service moved to the English Garden headquarters building half a year later, after its construction was completed.
The daily program of about 19 to 20 hours was written and put together by a relatively small team of emigre journalists recruited from several European countries. Our first director was Gyula Dessewffy, a descendent of an ancient noble family which had fought for Hungarian freedom and independence for centuries. One of our first colleagues was Sándor Márai, one of the most outstanding writers of the twentieth century, whose SUNDAY LETTERS catered to gourmets of literature throughout the years. Imre Györi-Mikes ("Gallicus"), his pen dipped in vitriol, was castigating the communist regime in his program series REFLECTOR. Sándor Körösi-Krizsán criticized communism with an insider's expertise: being one of Lenin's supporters back in 1919 he had hoped for a new social order but later, when disillusioned by Stalinism, he turned a determined foe of the Bolsheviks. Another one of our Founding Fathers was playwright Ottó Indig, -- his light pieces touched many hearts.
The populist literati of our country were represented by Zoltán Szabó. Idiomatic Hungarian, rustic pronunciation, and sharp wit characterized Bálint Czupy ("Farmer Bálint") when he spoke to millions of listeners. Julián Borsányi ("Colonel Bell"), a former high-ranking officer of the Hungarian Army, informed the audience about topics of science, technology, and military strategy. Communist attempts to falsify Hungary's past were refuted by historian Prof. Tamás Bogyay in his weekly program series HUNGARIAN HISTORY. The studio producer of high-quality radio plays and literary shows was Aladár Kovách, a former stage director of the Hungarian National Theater. -- These are just a few of a great many names found in the memory-chest of the 42 years of the history of the Hungarian Services of Radio Free Europe.
Our news editors were providing ten-minute newscasts on the top of the hour, every hour from dawn to midnight. (At that time, the domestic radio carried only three to four newscasts per day.) Our press reviews were concise mirrors of the world's newspapers. Our actors and announcers spoke a beautiful and intact Hungarian; they were guardians of the purity of the mother tongue, with a keen sense to offset the negative impact of the political phraseology that was spreading and corrupting the language in the homeland.
Hundreds of thousands of people left their homeland in the wake of the Soviet invasion that crushed the Hungarian Revolution of October 1956. We created a bridge between separated families by broadcasting the messages of refugees to their beloved ones who stayed behind.
From the early 1960s on, the Hungarian Broadcasting Department broadened its programming, airing a rich variety of topics and formats and improving its technical standards; we grew to a professional radio station. Using the latest formulas of modern radio, we introduced early morning live shows and informative noon blocks as well as evening and late night live programs on current affairs. It always took a few years for the domestic media to follow suit and copy the example.
This was valid also in the case of our rock and pop music programs – like the TEENAGER PARTY -- for the young generations: Radio Budapest copied our show five years later. There are more examples to this, but we also had formats which the communist media could not "domesticate" at all; e. g., international press reviews or our colorful panorama-type programs of a light and non-political tone.
At the time of the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo -- as we later learned -- the domestic media used our programs as source for reporting on the Olympic events. Our method here in Munich was simple: we asked the RFE Central News Department to have the AP, UPI, and Reuter news wires installed in our live studio. The wires kept on ticking away in the background, we tore off the items immediately as they came in and reported the very latest sports results. It was a sensational coincidence that the news agencies "flashed" Khrushchev's ouster right during our Olympic live coverage, giving us once again a considerable edge over Radio Budapest.
In those exciting first years of Space Age, we aired frequent live programs adapting special coverages from US radio and TV networks; one of the highlights was the historical landing of the first man on the moon on that unforgettable early morning on July 20, 1969. At times of great crises and global developments -- like the Middle East wars, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, or the Solidarity Movement in Poland -- we went beyond reach in competition with the communist press and radio.
This was true years later again when samizdat authors pressed a relatively liberal Kádár regime to make new and new concessions: we were broadcasting those samizdat publications which helped cutting away roots and branches of the Party's monopoly of power. Indeed, in the process of the great historical transformation the Hungarian programs of Radio Free Europe were driving quite a number of nails into the coffin of the communist regime.
This brief retrospect is just a nostalgic glance at some of the highlights of the past. It is, however, a moral duty for us to make efforts to achieve that detailed and deep-going reviews and books be written on the work and history of the Hungarian Broadcasting Department of Radio Free Europe, including merits and faults, between its first day on October 6, 1951 and its last day of programming on October 31, 1993.
Arch Puddington, author of the seminal work on Radio Free Europe, wrote the best short description of Geza Ekecs' work at RFE from 1951 to 1992:
The popularity of Teanager Party infuriated Hungary's cultural bureaucrats ... Like most RFE journalists, Ekecs used a radio name to protect relatives back in Budapest. As Laslo Cseke, he became a household name, a beloved personality whose voice was known throughout the country. Letters addressed to "Uncle Laci" poured in from all over Europe, from Hungarians living in Yugoslavia, Slovakia and Romania, from Hungarians working in Moscow and East Germany, as well as from Hungary proper ... When communism collapsed, Ekecs returned a hero to the country he had left forty years earlier
Ekecs' book about his Radio Free Europe days has been published in Hungary
Janos Kund was employed at RFE from 1957 to 1994. Today he is a free-lance journalist living in Munich.