Red Tape
Radio and Politics in Czechoslovakia, 1945-1969
Rosamund Johnston



THE FIRST DAY OF a new job can be scary. When reporter Jana Peterková stepped into her role at Czechoslovak Radio in 1967, she recalls feeling nervous, “because lots of known writers worked there, and I had the impression that I was not up to their standard.”1

When I began researching this project nearly a decade ago, I probably assumed that the people who would make novice reporter Peterková feel the most nervous in a socialist news organization would be the powerful-but-distant radio management, or perhaps the not-at-all distant police censors prowling the radio headquarters. But Peterková suggested that, for her, the radio amounted to “known writers” and that her nerves were caused by admiration for, rather than fear of, this institution.

This book, like Peterková, focuses on reporters as the defining group shaping state media during state socialism. It sets out to explain why she, alongside thousands and thousands of others who listened to and wrote in to state radio in Czechoslovakia, might have articulated their relationship with Communist-controlled media in terms of admiration. One might argue that the situation Peterková describes in Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s is quite exceptional and completely incomparable to how radio staff and listeners would describe the more restrictive Stalinist years. I would not be one of them. By taking a longer-term view here, I highlight important continuities and institutional inertia, as well as incremental shifts in the political environment in Czechoslovakia during radio’s second “golden age,” between 1945 and 1969. In examining how reporters went about their jobs and were praised for so doing by radio listeners throughout this period, I ultimately show how a nondemocratic society established, stabilized, and reproduced itself.

An editor-in-chief or media boss is often understood to hold immense power over what a media organization publishes and, resultantly, over what the people who use that media think. But, even at the most restrictive of moments, journalists in socialist Czechoslovakia did so much more than merely following orders passed down from Communist higher-ups. It is precisely in the work that they did that we can understand the mechanics by which a socialist society actually functioned, which is to say through the creative efforts of entire cohorts of invested elites and those with whom they entered into uneven dialogue, rather than through the unilateral command of a detached handful of rulers.

The subjects of this book are threefold: as well as examining the role played by reporters, I focus on the influence held over radio by politicians (though less here than in traditional histories of early socialist Czechoslovakia) and listeners. Taking the view from the newsroom out, I show how each of these constituencies came and went from the forefront of radio staff’s, concerns. Despite holding a great deal of power over reporters’ ability to work in the first place, I show that there were indeed moments when intervention-prone Communist politicians were not at the forefront of radio staff’s concerns. By taking reception seriously, I shed new light, moreover, on radio listeners (encompassing practically the entire population) as themselves important historical actors in a socialist state.

Czechoslovak journalists such as Peterková worked as dutiful servants of the state, even as they sometimes resisted that very state system. From the first days after the Second World War, the Communist Party was the ultimate arbiter of journalists’ right to work where they did, with the social prestige, income, and benefits that accompanied this. Their work came to be censored by employees of the Ministry of the Interior and critiqued, first by staff at the Communist-controlled Ministry of Information and then by members of the Communist Party’s Ideological Commission. The knowledge of all of these checks and balances shaped the way that reporters penned even the most innocuous game show questions. But these journalists also used the structures in which they worked to disseminate knowledge, information, and models of speech for Communist ministers and audiences alike in the nascent Party state. They cocreated the rhetorical environment in which Czechoslovak ministers and citizens could safely affirm their commitment to socialism after Stalin’s death, and in which they could later formulate the political reforms and potential of the Prague Spring. At times, these reporters went as far as petitioning Communist functionaries to acknowledge their unique social insight and expertise and to formulate legislation based on their suggestions. None of the reporters profiled here were straightforwardly and specifically mouthpieces for the party bureaucracy. And if they were indispensable in the construction and maintenance of socialism in Czechoslovakia, then they also show how constructive criticism of socialism in Czechoslovakia could emerge from inside the regime’s very own institutions.

At the dawn of this era, journalists worked according to a professional creed of communicating and contextualizing the aims of those in power. Their sense of purpose shifted gradually, with reporters seeking increasingly to transmit messages from citizens to the authorities. Journalists became ever-noisier intermediaries in the news that they relayed, leaving an increasingly legible fingerprint on the reports that they authored. They emphasized their years of journalistic experience and travel as justification for making their own opinions heard. Just as politicians removed formal political oversight (in the form of censorship) from the newsroom during the Prague Spring, a number of radio journalists in fact decided to make the leap into professional politics.

Listeners’ opinions of radio changed over time too—a shift captured in the mail they sent to reporters. In an increasingly affluent society, letter writers sought fewer material tokens from the radio personalities that they addressed and described with increasing frequency what those stars meant personally to them. Fans’ tendency towards personal disclosure was prompted by the changed rhetorical environment that radio helped bring about following Stalin’s death. The way that reporters handled the mail they received from listeners over these decades also transformed. Upon receipt of listener mail, socialist journalists had traditionally exercised their influence behind the scenes. But by 1968, reporters incorporated listeners’ views into the fabric of their reports—often seizing upon correspondence with which they did not agree and entering into debates with its authors.

By following how the relationships between officials, journalists, and “ordinary” listeners shifted in Czechoslovakia, as well as assessing how the porosity between social strata changed, Red Tape uncovers the autonomy of journalists and listeners in a socialist state—as well as its limits. The journalists focused on here belonged to what Muriel Blaive describes as “a specific generation, that of young postwar communist intellectuals [that] supported Stalinism, were disappointed by the end of the 1950s, felt guilty about their previous commitment, and so participated in the Prague Spring movement.”2 Whether driven by “guilt,” disappointment, or other motivations, these reporters—as a highly politically minded cohort that stood outside the central decision-making structures of the Communist Party (though the majority were party members)—are indicative of the political work that people engaged in outside of the official structures of the party in socialist Czechoslovakia. As such, they begin to show us how the Communist Party and ideology took root and blossomed in Czechoslovakia during the postwar years, when party membership swelled to more than one million people, making it the biggest political party that Czechoslovakia has ever recorded.3

Approaching Czechoslovak Airspace Transnationally

It is a truism that radio “is no respecter of boundaries,” as its early theorists Gordon Allport and Hadley Cantril had proclaimed in the 1930s.4 This held true across the sturdiest of iron curtains well into the Cold War too. Located at the westernmost edge of the Eastern Bloc, Czechoslovakia’s ether was hotly contested from the beginning of this era (as it had been during the Second World War and interwar periods). Reporters and citizens devised ways to use this to their advantage.

Red Tape stresses the transnational nature of radio broadcasting and listening in postwar Czechoslovakia to make two particular claims. Firstly, by tracing the work of Czechoslovak foreign reporters from the first postwar years until the late 1960s, I foreground official attempts to foster international linkages during the Stalinist years and beyond, in particular with countries in what we would today term the Global South. This both challenges the idea of a “closed” East propounded during that moment by politicians East and West, and traces an important prehistory to studies on socialist globalization which tend to take Khrushchev’s consolidation of power in the Soviet Union around 1956 as a starting point.5 By examining in depth the careers of radio reporters Jiří Hanzelka, Miroslav Zikmund, and Věra Šťovíčková in particular, I show indeed how reporters could go as far as inflecting foreign policy in a state which had, according to some onlookers, no independent foreign policy of its own as a Soviet “satellite.”6

My second claim is for the continued importance of the German-speaking world for radio listeners in Czechoslovakia deep into the Cold War, and with it for the enduring relevance of a mental map of Central Europe (reflecting the names of cities clustered on the radio dial). Czechoslovakia’s neighboring states of Austria and the two Germanies—its citizens’ historic points of comparison—housed the foreign stations of most note in Czechoslovakia between 1945 and 1969: Radio Vienna routinely pulled in more Czech and Slovak listeners than the Communist government’s sworn nemesis, the American-sponsored station Radio Free Europe (RFE). A study of radio significantly alters, therefore, our image of the nature of the Cold War in Czechoslovakia (if the Cold War has commonly been defined as a bipolar competition between two blocs led by the Soviet Union and the United States).

A bipolar confrontational attitude did shape official discussions of radio broadcasting and technology. It affected which stations were singled out for frequency jamming and which were spared the tones of “Stalin’s bagpipes.” But it did not mark the way that listeners approached radio entirely. An altogether recognizable mix of longing for connection, peer pressure, self-improvement, habit, curiosity, a desire to vent personal grievances, and material aspiration inflected Czechoslovak citizens’ foreign radio listening preferences—and these should not simply be reduced to “resistance to communism,” as some analysts from the period and several recent works of popular history have claimed.7

While Czechoslovak Radio’s history and significance have been, in particular in the Czech-language literature, narrated in nationalistic terms, the scale and resonances of cross-border, multilingual media usage in Eastern Europe following the Second World War is reconstructed here.8 Such usage has largely been overlooked as historians have taken state-led drives to homogenize the region ethnically as a starting point to explore citizens’ behaviors. Most media histories pertaining to this time and place have, moreover, assumed that listeners sought, and followed most closely, foreign stations broadcasting from across the Iron Curtain in their mother tongues. But listeners’ behaviors were conditioned by earlier habits of cultural consumption, the multiple languages that were not simply forgotten as the geopolitical situation changed, and older infrastructural links reworked using new technologies like FM receivers, personal telephones, and transistor radios.

Czechoslovakia never became an ethnically homogenous state, no matter how much some of its nationalist activist citizens may have wished, and continued throughout socialism to comprise speakers of multiple mother tongues. Some of these, such as Ukrainian and Hungarian, were recognized and granted programming on state broadcaster Czechoslovak Radio, while others, such as German and Romani, were, for long years, less well acknowledged. A bilingual dialogue between the state’s two most widely spoken, mutually comprehensible languages, Czech and Slovak, meanwhile, shaped the fabric of flagship statewide station Czechoslovakia I’s daily programming.

The RTVS (Rozhlas a televízia Slovenska) sound archive in Bratislava, Slovakia, provided invaluable resources for the research of this book. Red Tape, however, draws overwhelmingly from Czech archives and replicates some of the Pragocentrism of their content. Czechoslovakism—the attempt that followed Czechoslovakia’s establishment to create a hybrid nationality elevating the Czechs and Slovaks who lived in Czechoslovakia above all other ethnicities—was a political project that had been largely abandoned by the moment that Red Tape begins (one can hear its last traces in the postwar speeches of Presidents Eduard Beneš and Klement Gottwald, speaking alternately in Czech or in Slovak, depending on circumstance). Rather than an innately inclusive and cosmopolitan set of policies, scholars have rightly pointed out some of the project of Czechoslovakism’s inbuilt inequalities, anti-German sentiment, and other shortcomings.9 It is not in this political tradition that I opt for the term “Czechoslovak” over the pages that follow. The book deliberately uses the term “Czechoslovak,” however, to avoid lazy use of the term “Czech” as a shorthand for events and debates that were shaped by and affected those beyond the Czech lands too.

Ultimately, radio in Czechoslovakia and Czechoslovak Radio never came to mean quite the same thing. While state radio staff and government functionaries sincerely wished that Czechoslovak citizens would tune into the state broadcaster to the exclusion of all else, listeners did nothing of the sort. Not only did audiences station-hop, they employed their foreign listening habits, as we shall see, to secure the programming they desired from the Czechoslovak state broadcaster. By thinking about the transnational nature of reporters’ radio work and listeners’ radio use, I show the complex back-and-forth that shaped “national” political debate in postwar Czechoslovakia and foreground some perhaps surprising, and highly generative, Cold War “philosophical geographies” that did so much more than point slavishly to Moscow and longingly to an Anglo-American “West.”10

Propaganda and Its Limits

On November 28, 1954, the celebrity travelers Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zikmund spoke to the radio news, fresh out of the polling station in Gottwaldov (today Zlín), about casting their votes. Western onlookers would rightly judge these elections to have been both coercive and ultimately falsified. In the bid to encourage voting, Jiří Hanzelka told listeners to the radio news that “our travels . . . were the best form of political education, which helped convince us of the correct orientation and strengthen this conviction . . . Today’s elections gave us the opportunity to proclaim out loud where we belong and what we are working for with heart and soul: for socialism, and for peace for all mankind.”11

Some scholars have taken a rather broad view of propaganda. One of its finest theorists, Jacques Ellul, for example, has shown how instruments of propaganda can work in concert, and thus aspects of propaganda can take many different forms, from architecture, to face-to-face conversations, spanning visual imagery, radio broadcasts, and even the clothes one wears.12 Ellul’s theorization helpfully illuminates the broader social framework in which propaganda works, and rightly shows that no one work of journalism is, in itself, sufficient to shape a listener’s worldview. But I take a much narrower view of propaganda here, understanding it—as professional journalists in postwar and socialist Czechoslovakia did—as a specific journalistic task that formed part of their job. Hanzelka and Zikmund’s articulate radio explanation of why voting was necessary provides one such example of propaganda work.

Propagace, which might be translated into English as either “propaganda” or “promotion,” was championed by officials at the Communist-controlled Ministry of Information from the first days following the Second World War. Journalists were encouraged, sometimes downright directed, to participate in propaganda/promotional campaigns as diverse as drumming up support for the five-year plan, compelling citizens to cut their alcohol intake, or to collect scrap paper or metal. Most notoriously, radio listeners were impelled to eradicate the “American” potato beetle fomenting capitalist counterrevolution in Czechoslovakia’s fields throughout the early 1950s.13

If propaganda was a journalistic task, then it was not necessarily one that journalists relished. It tended, in socialist Czechoslovakia’s newsrooms, to be allocated to those at the bottom of the pecking order. In her memoirs, reporter Věra Šťovíčková recalled being allocated such dogsbody’s tasks as trumpeting fulfillment of the economic plan in the state’s collective farms, and indeed knocking on doors to persuade people of the value of Stalinism, on account of her junior status at Czechoslovak Radio in the early 1950s.14 In the Soviet newsrooms which were supposed to serve as a model for Czechoslovakia’s, meanwhile, Natalia Roudakova finds that designated “propagandists” were handed tasks that others “did not want to do.” These included, “praising the party and its policies, denouncing the party’s enemies home and abroad, [and] writing welcoming speeches for official events.”15

Propaganda, then, meant the promotion to order of a specific government policy or objective. But the term “propaganda” (rather than its Czechified equivalent, propagace) came also to be used by both Czechoslovak journalists and listeners as a term meaning “bad journalism,” serving as a foil to the “professionalism” of domestic journalistic output which was held in higher esteem. The postwar period did not represent a zero hour in this regard, as some of the negative connotations held by the term “propaganda” were a result of the wartime experiences that audiences had had under one of its most vocal champions, Joseph Goebbels. This distinction between “professional” journalism and scorned propaganda reveals discernment among journalists and listeners in a socialist state, but still requires further nuancing. As we have already seen, for example, the same individuals could produce both (though not every journalist was as forthright about this in retrospect as Šťovíčková).

The way that listeners received Hanzelka and Zikmund encouraging voter turnout was different from the manner in which they received the pair’s travel accounts decrying colonialism in Africa. For a start, the former generated less of a trail of fan mail for the archives. While the latter lauded “progressive” politics where the travelers found it on their journeys around the globe, Hanzelka and Zikmund’s Africa reports were in fact received as a refreshing break from propaganda by many. One pseudonymous listener wrote to the pair describing their reports as “a green oasis in the desolate, boring desert of Prague radio” during Stalinism. “They are the only thing I listen to,” continued the listener, “because it is impossible to listen to any more propaganda and brass music.”16

Reflections such as this listener’s show the complexity of citizens’ views of state media in state socialism: constituencies both inside and outside media institutions understood that radio could simultaneously produce propaganda and professionalism. Approaching propaganda production as a routine journalistic task rather than more abstractly as the main purpose of state broadcasting brings such nuanced listening on the part of the Czechoslovak public into focus. Listeners could be quite aware that journalists, like the vote-casting Hanzelka and the door-knocking Šťovíčková, produced propaganda at times, but they could still like and trust these reporters despite this. Western accounts of Communist media during the Cold War discounting its sum total as propaganda cannot begin to explain the discernment and journalistic ranking systems of media actors and audiences in Communist societies, let alone the affection that listeners could feel towards voices coaxing them, among other things, to eradicate imperialist potato beetles.17

If the sum total of Czechoslovak Radio’s reports was not propagandistic, then it was certainly political. But this politics could extend far beyond the question of party politics. In socialist institutions like Czechoslovak Radio, personnel were judged, ranked, and issued orders according to factors beyond their publicly stated political loyalties. Professional hierarchies operated alongside, reinforced or, at times, undercut political affiliations.18 By pinpointing just a few of the different political registers deployed by journalists and then decoded and reflected by listeners, I show the repertoire for political action within a socialist state that was so much richer than a Communist/anti-Communist binary, even at the most restrictive of moments. The case of Jiří Hanzelka’s politics amounts to more than his propaganda work loudly casting a symbolic vote in rigged elections. The same Hanzelka who dutifully encouraged voter turnout in 1954 was vaunted by Czechoslovak ministers as informing their Africa policy in 1961 and then ran for political office himself on a ticket of reforming socialism at the end of that decade.19 The profile and the following he had created at the radio made this change of career possible.


1. Jana Peterková, interview with Rosamund Johnston, October 26, 2016.

2. Muriel Blaive, “The Reform Communist Interpretation of the Stalinist Period in Czechoslovak Historiography and its Legacy,” in East European Politics and Societies (November 2021): 7.

3. Bradley Abrams, The Struggle for the Soul of the Nation: Czech Culture and the Rise of Communism (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto and Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004), 12

4. Gordon Allport and Hadley Cantril, The Psychology of Radio (New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1935), 22

5. See Andrei Zhdanov “New Aspects of World Conflict: The International Situation,” September 22, 1947. Last modified April 29, 2022; and for Dwight D. Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles’s reflections upon Eastern Europeans’ isolation and “captivity,” see Susan Carruthers, Cold War Captives: Imprisonment, Escape and Brainwashing (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009). For literature on socialist internationalism see, for example, James Mark, Paul Betts, Alena Alamgir, Péter Apor, Eric Burton, Bogdan Iacob, Steffi Marung, and Radina Vučetić, Socialism Goes Global: The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the Age of Decolonization (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022); James Mark, Artemy Kalinovsky, and Steffi Marung (eds.), Alternative Globalizations: Eastern Europe and the Postcolonial World (Bloomington: Indiana, 2020), and Patryk Babiracki and Austin Jersild (eds.), Socialist Internationalism in the Cold War: Exploring the Second World (London: Palgrave, 2016).

6. See analysis from the period, for example, Curt Beck, “Czechoslovakia’s Penetration of Africa, 1955–1962,” World Politics 15, no. 3 (1963): 403–416. doi:10.2307/2009470.

7. See, for example, Tony Prince and Jan Šesták, The Royal Ruler and the Radio DJ (Slough: DMC Publishing, 2017) and “23.10.2019—30.8.2020—Technika v diktaturách,” last modified June 12, 2020,

8. For sources from the period, see Miloslav Disman, Československý rozhlas v boji (Prague: Orbis, 1946); Miloslav Disman, Hovoří Praha (Prague: Svoboda, 1975), and E. F. Burian, Voláno rozhlasem I (Prague: Svoboda, 1945). For more recent examples, see Eva Ješutová (ed.), Od mikrofonu k posluchačům. Z osmi desetiletí českého rozhlasu (Prague: Radioservis, 2003).

9. Mary Heimann, Czechoslovakia: The State That Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011).

10. This term, originally penned by John Ledyard, is revived and explained by Larry Wolff in Inventing Eastern Europe: The Map of Civilization on the Mind of the Enlightenment (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), 6.

11. The Archive of the Southeast Moravian Museum (AMJM), box sign. 4031-1 Texty pro Cs. Rozhlas. “Zprávy Československého rozlasu v neděli, 28. listopadu.”

12. Jacques Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (New York: Random House, 1973).

13. See Pavlína Kourová, “Kampaň proti ‘Americkému brouku’ a její politické souvislosti,” November 19, 2009, Moderní Dějiny. Accessed April 28, 2022.

14. Věra Šťovíčková-Heroldová, Po světě s mikrofonem (Prague: Radioservis, 2009), 20–21.

15. Natalia Roudakova, Losing Pravda: Ethics and the Press in Post-Truth Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 56.

16. AMJM, box 960. Letter from K. Převrátil to Hanzelka and Zikmund (no. 111) in “Korespondence Čs. rozhlasu: dopisy posluchačů (1947–1949),” 16.

17. See Fred Siebert, Theodore Peterson, and Wilbur Schramm. Four Theories of the Press: The Authoritarian, Libertarian, Social Responsibility, and Soviet Communist Concepts of What the Press Should Be and Do (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1963); for more recent versions of this argument, see Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956 (New York: Anchor Books, 2013), 174–191 and what Agata Zysiak has called “neototalitarian” works of scholarship from the region itself, for example Jaroslav Pažout (ed.), Informační boj o Československu/v Československu (1945–1989) (Prague: Ústav pro studium totalitních režimů & Technická univerzita v Liberci, 2014).

18. Roudakova, Losing Pravda; Simon Huxtable, “Making News Soviet: Rethinking Journalistic Professionalism after Stalin, 1953–1970,” Contemporary European History 2 7, no. 1 (February 2 018): 59–84; Dina Fainberg, “Unmasking the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: Soviet and American Campaigns against the Enemy’s Journalists, 1948–1953,” Cold War History 15, no. 2 (2015); Sune Bechmann Pedersen and Marie Cronqvist “Foreign Correspondents in the Cold War,” Media History 26, no. 1 (2020): 75–90.

19. National Archives; Prague, Czech Republic (NA CR). ÚV KSČ Antonín Novotný—zahraničí. Box 4—Afrika. 1261/0/44 A “Záznam o průběhu konzultací skupiny MZV . . . na MIDu SSSR k otazkám Afriky ve dnech 21.–25. listopadu 1961.”