BBG Watch Commentary

BBG Watch is restarting its series on the history of U.S. international broadcasting, which despite the Internet and other new media or perhaps because of it, has many lessons for today’s journalists and media managers. As one example, Radio Liberty’s First Director Francis (Ronny) S. Ronalds (he died on November 26, 2014, aged 89), who during his long broadcasting career also worked at the Voice of America (VOA) in Washington, made Russian the working language of the American station in Munich in the 1950s. As pointed out in the “ARCHITECT OF BROADCASTS HEARD BY MILLIONS OF SOVIET CITIZENS” obituary of Francis Ronalds, “Staff meetings were conducted in that tongue, even if the person in the chair happened to be an American (who was required by his job to know the language).”

In later decades, especially after 1999, U.S. international broadcasting saw enormous growth of the federal bureaucracy in Washington combined with marginalization of area expertise, creative talent and journalistic independence at the working level. These elements plus a large measure of independence from the government bureaucracy in Washington and relatively light internal bureaucratic structure were essential for Radio Free Europe’s and Radio Liberty’s earlier successes.

“Every day, Ronalds and his staff devoured a diet of transcripts of Soviet radio broadcasts and reams of newspapers from various parts of the country, as well as Western reporting. They became convinced that in order to promote political change in its target area RL’s programs would have to stress evolution, not the revolution that was implicit in the “rollback” policy of the early Eisenhower Administration. In time, they were able to persuade their backers to let “Radio Liberation” become “Radio Liberty,” a name that was more in keeping with reality.
For its Soviet listeners Radio Liberty tried to do the job that would have been done by a domestic radio if it could have operated free of censorship. Unlike radios operating in the name of foreign governments, like the Voice of America and the BBC, RL tried to view the world through the eyes of its audience in the USSR.”

One of the best sources of facts and analysis online about the history U.S. international broadcasting is the “Cold War Radio Broadcasting” blog of Richard H. Cummings who was director of security for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for 15 years beginning in 1980. He is author of “Cold War Radio: The Dangerous History of American Broadcasting in Europe, 1950–1989” and Radio Free Europe’s “Crusade for Freedom”: Rallying Americans Behind Cold War Broadcasting, 1950–1960.

When Radio Liberty covered or commented on U.S. news developments, it was usually in response to disinformation in the Soviet media or for the purpose of making comparisons between similar social problems in the Soviet Union and the U.S.

(Photograph of Francis (Ronny) S. Ronalds interviewing Dr. Martin Luther King courtesy of RFE/RL, Inc.)

READ MORE: Radio Liberty’s First Director Francis (Ronny) S. Ronalds, RIP, Richard H. Cummings, Cold War Radio Broadcasting, December 1, 2014.