RADIO PRAGUE - 65 YEARS
At the end of 1937 - when the danger of fascism in Central Europe had become a reality - Radiojournal witnessed an important watershed: on December 24, at 23:00, all of
Czechoslovak Radio's domestic stations broadcast a "Greeting to People of Good
Will." The broadcast contained messages of peace from the electrical pioneer Frantisek
Krizik (1847-1941) - nicknamed the "Czech Edison", and the writer Karel Capek
Letter to Mr Vlastimil (1890-1938). The 90-year-old Krizik appealed to Albert Einstein; Capek addressed the
Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. In his message, Karel Capek said: "Master Tagore,
we send greetings to you from Czechoslovakia, where the snow is now falling; from
Europe, where we are wistful; from the western world, where not even the most
advanced nations are capable of shaking hands like brothers. At a moment when the
westernmost and easternmost regions of our shared continent are rumbling with artillery fire, the weak voice of western democracy calls on you at this, the year's close:
long live the world, but a world of equal and free peoples." Both men heard the messages over the radio waves, and both sent replies. Einstein wrote: "This Christmas
greeting is truly addressed to everyone who, in this age of confusion, bears a heartfelt
wish for spiritual values to be preserved. All of them know that Czechoslovakia is
defending - in difficult conditions - the political freedoms and human rights without
which spiritual life would wither away. The hopes and heartfelt greetings of all the
friends of truth, humanity and freedom are therefore sent to the Czechoslovak Republic
in the heart of Europe, which, under the leadership of wise and far-sighted men, has
worked and will continue to work for a better future for Europe."
The pre-war development of the international service culminated in 1938.
Broadcasts to Europe and America were extended by one hour per day, and broadcasts
to the East by two hours. In the first half of 1938, broadcasts reached a total of 9 hours
a day. Programmes to Europe consisted of news in Czech, 30 minutes of music, news
in German, lectures in English, German or French, 30 minutes of music, news in
French, 20 minutes of music, news in English, technical intermissions and 25 minutes
of music. The music programmes took up approximately three quarters of the broadcasts, news 15 %, lectures 5 % and literary programmes and press reviews 5 %. In May
1938 Radiojournal was included on a list of companies declared important for the defence of the state, and the authorities exerted even tighter control over the broadcasts.
In 1938 the Brno poet and writer Ivan Jelinek joined the shortwave section. He
remembers the hectic days of the late 1930s: "Our Czech and Slovak broadcasts were
intended for American expatriates, the English programmes were meant for England
and the English-speaking world in Africa and Asia; the same went for the programmes
in French; the Spanish broadcasts went to South America. The Praha OLR station broadcast almost 20 hours per day, including music, which made up about a third of the
programme. We had news in Czech, Slovak and all the languages I've just mentioned.
News reports were wired to the transmitter from the Czechoslovak News Agency
(CTK) offices. All texts had to be submitted to the censor, Dr Fort, who often gave excellent advice and salvaged a great deal."
Ivan Jelinek mentions a number of important details about the early shortwave
programmes. One was the wiring of news reports from the Czechoslovak News
Agency - Czechoslovak Radio also received news directly from CTK during the interwar period. This practice changed, however, in the critical autumn days of 1938, when
a news department was created at the radio station itself. The news department wrote
bulletins in different languages for the shortwave broadcasts. Also worth a mention is
censorship and the name of the station. The existence of a censor has been confirmed
by others who remember those days - although they all agreed that censorship was far
from strict and some texts - especially foreign language texts - were never even read.
As far as the call signs for identifying the shortwave transmissions, Czechoslovak
Radio was given the international prefix OLR, followed by the different frequencies.
For example the Podebrady transmitter used the OLR5A call sign in the 19 metre-band,
OLR4A in the 25 metre-band and OLR2A in the 49m band. A theme from Antonin
Dvorak's New World Symphony was chosen as the signature tune for the shortwave
Autumn 1938. The period leading up to the Munich Agreement - which sanctio-
ned the annexation of Czechoslovakia's German-speaking borderlands (Sudetenland)
to Nazi Germany - produced another significant increase in broadcasts. News coverage increased, and during the September crisis the station began broadcasting 22 hours
a day. Soon after the signing of the Munich Agreement, a new schedule was introduced on October 15, 1938. The existing broadcasts to Europe, America and the East
were bolstered with two new broadcasts to Central and South America. The overall
length of programmes increased to 19 hours a day, of which 14 were made up of
music and more than 3 hours of news. The existing languages (Czech/Slovak, English,
German, French, Ruthenian, Spanish) were boosted by programmes in Italian,
Portuguese, Serbo-Croat and Romanian. To maximise the effect of the programmes, the
shortwave broadcasts were combined with the domestic station Praha II. The international service and the Praha II station both benefited from reaching a wider
audience on both short and medium wave. In December 1938, following the loss of
transmitters in the Sudetenland and the partial independence of Slovak Radio, the
Radiojournal broadcasting company changed its name to Czecho-Slovak Radio.
One of those working for Czechoslovak Radio at the time of the Munich crisis was
the Canadian journalist and future historian Gordon Skilling. Skilling was in Prague to
complete his doctoral thesis, and was also working as a freelancer for the international
service: "I worked on the programmes to North America, and I produced news bulletins using Czech news reports and newspaper articles. I remember the huge sense of
disappointment that followed Munich. One of my supervisors at the radio station -
I think his name was Kraus - was so furious, that he threw his French Légion
d'Honneur into the River Vltava."
At this point we should mention the Esperanto broadcasts, which played an important role in informing the world about pre-war events in Czechoslovakia. The
Esperanto programmes were not part of the international service, but they were aimed
at the same audience. They were put together at the domestic stations in Brno and
Ostrava, and were broadcast on medium-wave. They included lectures about
Czechoslovakia and, in 1938, news about the political situation. Responses to the
Esperanto broadcasts came from all over the world, in the last year before the war
there were 2,000 letters. Two Esperanto programmes were also broadcast on short-
wave in 1938.
On March 15, 1939, what remained of the Czech state was occupied by Nazi tro-
ops, and Hitler proclaimed the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.
Announcer Bozena Danesova remembers that day well: "On March 15 I was sitting in
the studio. It was before we went on air, and I was waiting as usual for the signal from
the transmitter in Podebrady. What happened next came as a complete surprise. There
was a knock at the door and a German officer came in. He was, I have to say, very
polite. He apologised and said he was very sorry, but the broadcasts from Podìbrady
had been shut down. And that was the end of the pre-war shortwave transmitter called
"OLR". And the occupation also ended my career as an announcer."
In his memoirs Ivan Jelinek had this to say about the momentous events of March
1939: "A new boss arrived at the radio building. He was referred to as the "Führers Stellvertreter", and his name was Marek. I asked to see him, and when he granted me
a few minutes of his time I told him that I had carefully studied Hitler's speech, in
which he promised that he would fully respect the cultural independence of the Czech
nation. I asked him whether "cultural independence" included the radio. Marek was taken aback, but told me yes, it did. So I asked him to give the order for the Praha OLR
shortwave station to be put back on the air. Marek promised to see what he could do.
And two days later he telephoned me, and announced that he was allowing the shortwave broadcasts to continue, but only in Czech."
This recollection proves that the international service did not disappear entirely
during the war. Only two hours of programming - broadcast to North America - were
left, compared to almost 20 hours before March 1939. The programme consisted almost entirely of music, with an officially-approved 10-minute news bulletin, and was
broadcast on the 25 metre-band under the call sign OLR4A, and in summer on 19m
under the call sign OLR5A.
The months following the occupation saw the gradual emergence of a separate
Czech Radio, from the heavily curtailed Czecho-Slovak Radio. Czech Radio became
Rundfunk Böhmen und Mähren - part of Germany's Reich Radio. All official media -
including radio - became instruments of Nazi propaganda. In March 1939 journalists
of Jewish origin were forced to leave the station, under a decree issued by the Ministry
of Transport and Communications. Most of the newsreaders and announcers from the
pre-war international service left. Several - including Ivan Jelínek - emigrated, others
found new jobs. Announcer Zdenka Wallo, who was Jewish, died in a concentration
camp. Today her name is included on a plaque at the entrance to Czech Radio, honouring all those employees who died at the hands of the Nazis.
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