J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Hidden Listener

Discovering the Hidden Listener: An Assessment of Radio Liberty and Western Broadcasting to the USSR During the Cold War
By R. Eugene Parta
Hoover Institution Press

Few broadcasters were as beloved by their listeners, as was Willis Conover, yet he was nearly unknown in his own country. As the host of Voice of America’s Music USA program, Conover brought jazz and the great American songbook to listeners behind the Iron Curtain. At its height, his listenership was estimated at between 20 and 30 million people.

VOA attained a certain character by mixing such music and entertainment programming with news broadcasts. Radio Liberty by contrast, was the Western broadcaster which concentrated on hard news, giving special attention to events within the Soviet Union. It is the reach of these western broadcasters in general, and Radio Liberty in particular, that former RL audience research director R. Eugene Parta analyzes in Discovering the Hidden Listener.

Parta identifies the hard-line Communist coup of 1991 as RL’s shining hour. Reportedly even Gorbachev himself listened to RL and other western broadcasters while he was cooling his heels under house arrest. Parta quotes Russian President Yeltsin, speaking on RL shortly after the coup was defeated on the network’s importance:

“During the 3-4 days of this coup, Radio Liberty was one of the very few channels through which it was possible to send information to the whole world and, most important, to the whole of Russia, because now almost every family in Russia listens to Radio Liberty” (p. xv)

With due respect to the late Yeltsin, Parta’s figures suggest this was a slight exaggeration. However, for a media outlawed by the state and under constant propaganda assault, western radio’s reach was certainly respectable. Parta estimates:

“In the period 1978-1990, the weekly reach of western radio was in the range of 25% of the adult population. In 1989, Western radio was reaching ca. 25 million people on an average day and over 50 million in the course of an average week.” (p. xix)

Of course, statistical analysis of any kind was problematic under the repressive Soviet environment. The importance of word-of-mouth as a method of distributing information could also amplify RL in ways that would be difficult to quantify, spreading news through its listeners, to those reluctant or unable to tune-in. Parta explains:

“A high degree of reliance on word-of-mouth communication is a hallmark of authoritarian and totalitarian societies, where it is often viewed as more credible than official sources of information.” (p. 46)

Clearly, RL contributed to the victory of the Cold War by providing an antidote to Soviet propaganda. Parta even suggests another more material contribution, writing of the never entirely successful Soviet efforts to jam the RL broadcasts:

“At the height of the Cold War, the USSR had constructed such an extensive jamming transmitter network that it cost considerably more to jam Western broadcasts than to broadcast them.” (p. 10)

Listener is a short study, which simply gives readers the data estimates and the methodology used to generate them. Parta is working on another book about Cold War broadcasting that hopefully will flesh out this important and needed history more. Parta can certainly write on the topic with authority, based on his very credible statistical analysis in Listener. Given the bellicosity and neo-Soviet saber-rattling of the current Russian regime, his expertise may be particularly valuable in the near future.

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