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Part One: Radio Free Europe Mission Shifts Further East

Even after the collapse of the iron curtain in Eastern Europe, Radio Free Europe continues broadcasting to Russia, the Middle East and parts of Asia. While visiting the Czech Republic recently, Ed Mayberry stopped in at Radio Free Europe’s new headquarters in Prague.


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image of Julian Knapp Radio Free Europe broadcasts to 20 countries in 28 languages.  It receives U.S. financial support to provide news and discussion for countries where free and independent media are not permitted.  Begun in the aftermath of World War II, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were initially headquartered in Munich, Germany.  Former RFE analyst Lowell Bezanis, who now works for a Houston energy company, watched events after Eastern Bloc countries split from communism in the late 80’s.

“It was an extraordinary institution and it remains very important in terms of communicating information to populations that had very limited access to information about the rest of the world and about what’s going on in other communist countries during the Cold War.  So it was not possible for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty journalists, for example, to travel in the Soviet Union.  And even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it was — particularly in the early period — it was a very delicate matter.”

Radio Free Europe’s Julian Knapp was born in Germany, but now lives in Prague, where the new facilities have just been built.

“And President Havel, at the time, was very generous to invite Radio Free Europe here and then, after many years, I think Radio Free Europe kind of outgrew the building that we were in, in Prague initially, which is the former Communist Parliament building, which was, of course, a wonderful irony of history that Radio Free Europe could be in that building in Prague right in the center of the city.” 

image of Irena Chalupa, the director of the Ukrainian Service, and Ed Mayberry

For security and technological reasons, Radio Free Europe moved into new facilities in Prague earlier this year.  Irena Chalupa, the director of the Ukrainian Service, remembers listening to foreign broadcasts when she was a little girl living in Poland.

“And I remember I have a very distinct memory of listening to JFK’s funeral.  And I was six years old then, and I remember sitting there crying my eyes out over a president I had never seen before.  I’m very aware of the immediacy of radio and how it touches people in a much more personal way than, let’s say, television.  And I think that’s the beauty of radio.  If you touch an individual, that means you’ve touched the world.”  

Radio Free Europe’s mission is to act as surrogate radio, providing news from a closed society back to its population.  It uses FM relays, satellite feeds and Web streaming.  When governments jam the broadcasts, it even reverts to shortwave, which can penetrate farther and use multiple frequencies.  Radio Free Afghanistan Director Akbar Ayazi gets lots of listener mail.image of Radio Free Afghanistan Director Akbar Ayazi

“Here’s one of the letters.  This is a very young man, I think he’s a 14-year-old young student.  He sent us this letter.  This letter is about six meters long.  The culture of writing letters to your media organization is still alive in Afghanistan.  As you can see, this young boy has, you know…”

Ed: “In colors, sent his picture…”

“In colors, exactly.  He’s talking about women issues, drug issues, He’s giving us poetry, he’s writing jokes for us, and he’s used all his artistic skills. We get, I would say, between 300 and 400 letters a month.”

Ed: “Well, how do you respond?  Do you send them…”

image of listener mail

“Oh, this is out of our control, there’s, very hard for us to respond to all of them.  In some cases, we can’t even open them.  I don’t have the resources for that to open all these letters.  I have one listener who writes to us every single day, and I have a collection of 365 letters from one listener in one year.”    

But, how do you get news out of countries that bar your correspondents?  Tomorrow on part two, we look at Radio Free Europe’s coverage of civil unrest in Tehran following Iran’s recent elections. 

Ed Mayberry, KUHF Houston Public Radio News.


View photos on Flickr

photo credits: Wanda Norris, RFE staff

Extended Audio


Akbar Ayazi, director, Radio Free Afghanistan


Julian Knapp, Deputy Director of Communications


Irena Chalupa, director, Ukrainian Service

Click here for Part Two: Radio Free Europe Provides News for Underserved Countries .

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