How to Listen to the Radio
The ill-covered crisis at an American institution.


John O’Sullivan

As a former executive editor of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, I am accustomed to hearing people say, “Oh, are they still in business? I thought they were a Cold War thing.” Well, the radios were a Cold War thing, of course; and a very successful one, too. They were so successful indeed that, when the Cold War came to an end, such leaders of the new market democracies as the late Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa asked the U.S. to keep the radios broadcasting until their countries enjoyed both a secure democracy and a genuinely competitive free media market.

That didn’t happen overnight; in some countries it hasn’t happened yet. So RFERL stayed in being but changed in two ways: Its broadcasting “footprint” moved east and south (away from Poland and the Czech Republic, towards Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Balkans), and it expanded technologically from radio alone into a series of multi-media electronic platforms. Today it broadcasts uncensored news, commentary, and debate to 21 countries in 28 languages and on multiple platforms. And it does so courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer.


I can rattle on like this for some time, if necessary. But rather than my doing so, here’s a link to a report on RFERL by P. J. O’Rourke following a visit he made to our Prague headquarters (given to us in 1995 by President Havel for the princely rent of one dollar annually). This was published two years ago in the World Affairs Journal, but it gives an accurate picture of RFERL, probably until its recent “troubles” and certainly until I left at the end of 2011.

Now, RFERL is something you should know about because U.S. international broadcasting, of which it is one “entity,” will be an increasingly important arm of American influence in the world as Washington copes with its reduced power to intervene militarily, diplomatically, and economically. It’s relatively cheap — less than $1 billion funds the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, RFERL, the Middle East Broadcasting Network, and the rest. Yes, its immediate impact is variable: Some stations help start revolutions, others register lightly in the public mind. But its real value is less in bringing crowds into the streets than in bringing minds out of a totalitarian or medieval passivity into an environment of free, open stand-up debate. It spreads American values but, even more subversively, it spreads an American mentality — the feeling that a man has a right to express his opinion and to question orders rather than simply to follow them. Its broadcasts create democrats and liberals in advance of liberal democracy. And as a result most of the authoritarian countries to which RFERL in particular broadcasts have liberal and democratic dissident groups who rely on it for intellectual sustenance, links with the outside world (and each other), and simple moral encouragement.

Russia is one such country — increasingly so as Putin tightens his control over both the opposition and the media. So when 41 journalists were let go from Radio Liberty in Moscow (37 fired, four resigning in sympathy) and the entire community of Russian democratic dissidents from Vladimir Bukovsky to Mikhail Gorbachev erupted in angry opposition, crying betrayal by the U.S., one might have expected that the U.S. and other Western media would immediately pay close and serious attention. Yet these events took place in mid-September, and the mainstream U.S. media began reporting them only last week. This first report was an article on the Wall Street Journal editorial page (by me, as it happens) arguing that the decision of RFERL’s president, Steve Korn, and senior managers to fire the journalists and replace them with a new Russian staff — under a well-known Moscow journalist, Masha Gessen, who wanted to pursue a more “normal” and less “opposition” kind of journalism — was a major mistake on several grounds, notably that it let down the growing opposition to Putin’s growing authoritarianism. But you can read it all here.