Czech Radio turns 100! The first European continental broadcaster has a rich history

17. květen 2023

100 years ago, Czech Radio’s story began. On May 18th 1923, just outside of Prague, it entered into the annals of history as the very first continental European broadcaster. All throughout this year, Czech Radio not only celebrates its legacy established a whole century ago, but also looks forward with the slogan "100 years is just the beginning."

On May 18th 1923, what was then still a private company named Radiojournal sent its inaugural broadcast into the airwaves in the late evening of that fateful May night. This first broadcast, mostly consisting of music, reached listeners via a transmitter located by the Kbely airport just outside of Prague and was created in a tent borrowed from the Scouts. Inside this humble makeshift studio, radio enthusiasts, technicians and musicians gathered to create magic. They did not have much but they did have the earliest radio equipment and a carpet laid across the grass to support an elegant piano, its wheels gradually sinking into the soil. And so, a mere six months after the BBC, broadcasting on the mainland began in the Czech lands, the heart of Europe.

Much has changed since then. Czech Radio is now a modern public service media institution, and with a solid floor underfoot. It offers an extensive array of content across 25 stations, via various formats, published on several multimedia platforms and created with the latest technology. Yet celebrating 100 years is necessarily about looking back. As Czech Radio Director General René Zavoral explains, it is “a time when we are recapitulating important past moments, revisiting our history and remembering outstanding radio broadcasting.” Thus, all year, throughout its various celebratory events and activities, Czech Radio commemorates its historical milestones.

Throughout the tumultuous decades of the 20th century, Czechoslovak Radio (later Czech Radio) was not only influenced by what was going on in the country and the world, but indeed played an active role in key historical events. In 1933, the broadcaster moved into the newly-built radio building at 12 Vinohradská Street, where it found a permanent home – and home is worth defending.

The Nazi occupation of 1939 brought censorship and propaganda to Czech Radio. Nevertheless, it was a broadcast from the Radio itself that ignited the Prague Uprising, which began on May 5th 1945. The insurrectionary broadcasts began early in the morning and were later followed by explicit calls for resistance. What ensued was the bloody Battle for the Radio, which lasted for several days, until liberation on May 9th.  Brave Czech patriots – radio workers, soldiers, policemen and other rebels – gave their lives during this battle, and thus ensured that a free broadcast continued throughout the uprising, an unprecedented and unmatched feat in any of the other cities under Nazi occupation.

This was not the last time Czech Radio would have to fight to defend its home and its broadcasting – nor the last time the country would face unfreedom. After the victory of the Communist party in the parliamentary elections of 1946, Czechoslovakia quickly became a mere satellite state of the Soviet Union and Czech Radio a tool of state propaganda. The situation improved in 1968, when reform communists began to implement “socialism with a human face.” Censorship was lifted and people were suddenly able to speak openly and critically – those at Czech Radio were no exception. Unfortunately, the relative freedom was short-lived.

In August of 1968, the Warsaw Pact invasion put an end to any hopes for lasting reforms. As the Soviet Army rolled its tanks into the country and through the streets of Prague, Czech Radio was once again the voice of the nation. It continued to broadcast a steady stream of uncensored information about the invasion and urged the public to stay calm and engage only in non-violent forms of resistance to prevent bloodshed. As the tanks neared the radio building, hundreds of Prague citizens came to defend it. After a few days, the invaders managed to seize control of the building, but radio personnel worked tireless to ensure a free broadcast continued from hidden locations. The Soviets quickly took control of the Communist party, the government, newspapers and television. Only the Radio remained as the nation’s last source of unbiased information for several more weeks, until full censorship was reinstated.

Today, this moment in history and its lesson feel eerily timely. The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine is a tragic reminder that democracy and the free and independent media needed to maintain democracy are worth fighting for. Czech Radio has been a strong supporter of Ukraine from the very beginning of the war. Not only does Czech Radio rebroadcast Ukrainian public service radio UA:PBC to Ukrainians living in the Czech Republic, but the two media organizations signed a cooperation agreement earlier this year, and Czech Radio also produces content in Ukrainian and recently launched a new Ukrainian website offering news, culture and practical information.

Both Ukraine’s fight for freedom and Czech Radio’s 100-year celebrations bring to mind once again the events of 1989 – the Velvet Revolution – the latest historical milestone in Czech Radio history. Student demonstrations, at first brutally suppressed, swelled into the nationwide revolution. Soon, the public expressed their distaste for the limited and biased content of broadcasting right outside the radio building. And so, for the first time since 1968, free and uncensored journalism returned to the air. What was then still Czechoslovak Radio joined the nationwide strike and began to air forbidden works and voices. The Radio was no longer a tool for tyrants, but a medium of public service and objective information.

Czech Radio’s centennial celebrations are about honoring the freedom won, but also ensuring its continuity. As the slogan of Czech Radio’s 100th year pledges, “100 years is just the beginning.” A retrospective informs and inspires how to look ahead. Czech Radio hopes to use the opportunity of its anniversary to launch another century of new programming and technological innovations, to support the position of Czech Radio on the media market and to continue to fulfill its public service mission with resilience and forward-thinking.

After all, public service is the core Czech Radio. Its listeners, old and new, are its raison d'être. Celebrating 100 years of Czech Radio is also about celebrating its past, present and future listenership. In the words of Director General René Zavoral:

“For a hundred years, radio has educated, informed, entertained and broadened horizons. Over the course of its existence, it has found an important place in the lives of several generations of listeners, many of whom it has accompanied since early childhood. Czechoslovak Radio, now Czech Radio, has had a long and varied journey, during which it has played an important role in the history of our country. I am delighted that, at 100 years old, it is the most trusted medium in the eyes of the public in the Czech Republic.”

Learn more about Czech Radio’s centennial celebrations, including events, projects and new programming content.

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