LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
In divided Berlin of the late 1980s, radio enthusiasts on both sides of the Wall worked together to give a voice to the growing resistance movement in East Germany.
Esme Nicholson spoke to the founder of the small alternative radio show who today believes those enthusiasts helped bring down the Berlin Wall.
ESME NICHOLSON, BYLINE: In the final years of the German Democratic Republic, a growing number of East Germans stopped singing from the official hymn sheet and courageously spoke out against the system. Discontent was rife. The economy was in palpable decline, industry was producing more pollution than usable goods and restrictions on travel remained firmly in place. While East Germany’s leaders resisted Mikhail Gorbachev’s call for glasnost and perestroika, grassroots church groups aspired to it.
More and more dissident voices spread the word about reform, but paper and printing materials were in short supply. They needed radio to amplify that cause.
Starting an independent radio station in East Berlin was impossible so instead, raging critics smuggled their messages on cassette tapes across the border to a makeshift studio on the other side of the Wall. Broadcast on a small anti-establishment radio station, the monthly show was called Radio Glasnost.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO GLASNOST)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking German).
NICHOLSON: One of its founders and editors was Roland Jahn, then a political exile from the East and today Germany's Federal Commissioner of the Stasi file archives.
ROLAND JAHN: (Through translator) It was exactly what I'd always hoped for. We gave the GDR opposition of voice and let it ring out over East Berlin.
NICHOLSON: Jahn was essential to the entire operation. He provided the contacts needed to smuggle empty tapes East and the broadcast material back West. Punctuated by punk music, the show informed the GDR's growing underground opposition about upcoming demonstrations and meetings. It shared dispatches about the reality of life under East Germany's secret police, or Stasi and covered issues distorted or ignored by the state media in the East. Like the samizdat leaflets and newsletters, the radio equivalent was imperfect and its reporters amateurs, but, crucially, it was uncensored hence the shows jingle, "Out Of Control."
JAHN: (Through translator) Some of what we aired was pretty shoddy at times, often bordering on being unfit for consumption for the average radio listener.
NICHOLSON: No matter how poor the quality, the show's editors in West Berlin never attempted to improve upon or edit the reports they received. They did not want to be seen as another censor, let alone as condescending Western do-gooders.
JAHN: (Through translator) The dissidents in the East had to trust us but we had to trust them, too. We weren't in a position to fact check whether an arrest at this or that demonstration had really taken place.
NICHOLSON: Unsurprisingly, the Stasi were some of the show's most dedicated listeners but their activities were not limited to monitoring. At the same time Gorbachev ceased jamming Voice of America in the Soviet Union, the East German authorities launched their first jamming campaign in a decade, but their anti-Glasnost measure backfired. Radio Glasnost simply repeated the blocked shows, thanking the Stasi for the free promotion. As the Stasi began to lose its grip on East German society, they gave up jamming the show. Radio Glasnost served as a vital communication channel for the resistance movement for over two years, until it was no longer needed. The final show went out just three weeks after the fall of the Wall.
JAHN: (Through translator) I still get emotional now when I think about that last show and how we all came together for the first time in our studio and celebrated the fall of the Wall and the peaceful revolution.
NICHOLSON: Radio Glasnost was the Twitter revolution of its time. Even today, Jahn, still a broadcast journalist at heart, believes the power of radio should not be underestimated.
JAHN: (Through translator). By November 1989, Radio Glasnost had done its job. It had contributed to the fall of the Wall.
NICHOLSON: For NPR News, I'm Esme Nicholson in Berlin.
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