Radio in Belgrade Once Upon a Time There Was a Radio B92

At the studio of Serbian radio station B92
At the studio of Serbian radio station B92 | Image: Goran Basarić

How tirelessly a small radio station can stand up for freedom of expression, freedom of the press and democracy! Saša Mirković is one of the founders of the radio legendary station B92 in Belgrade, and he tells its story.

The story of Belgrade Radio B92, whose inception in May 1989 preceded the fall of Berlin Wall by six months, may be recounted through four bans of its operation out of which this radio broadcaster always emerged stronger and more influential. This story may also be told as a unique account of a small semi-pirate radio station evolving into a radio movement, or showcased as the most successful example of an independent broadcaster’s fight for freedom of expression in an ostracised and isolated Balkan country suffering under international sanctions in the last decade of the 20th century, or related as a media testimony of dashed hopes following the October political changes in the year 2000 when Slobodan Milošević was finally ousted from power.  

All of the above was an integral part of the jigsaw about a radio station whose name featured the 92.5 FM analogue frequency which was supposed to provide for only a couple of months of its survival on the airwaves. This was intended to be its ultimate fate by a youth and student organisation, the formal B92 founder, as this was the prerequisite for existence of media outlets in the then as yet one-party state. Radio B92 editorial policy was based on the tenets of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was quite a rarity at the time, on the eve of disintegration of the federal state being torn apart by feuding political elites propped up and backed by their respective partisan media outlets. B92 was a radio station bringing together political, national, sexual, pacifist and non-governmental minorities which finally had a broadcaster of their own helping make their voices heard given that these had previously been marginalised and stifled in the public at large.  

Street protests live on B92 radio

First B92 logo from 1989 First B92 logo from 1989 | © B92 Radio B92 witnessed the birth of a multiparty system in former Yugoslav republics, chronicling ongoing pertinent developments, and was directly involved in the events unfolding in Belgrade streets which became a scene of fierce clashes between the government and a multitude of protesters over curbed media freedoms. The 9th of March 1991 shall also be remembered for the unlawful one-day-long ban of B92’s operation triggered by its continuous live broadcast of the mass street protests. The radio’s limited transmitter power provided for FM signal coverage of the city centre only which in turn reinforced a myth of the existence of an alternative radio station calling on its listeners, as part of its antiwar programme, to stay away from army recruiters handing in summons for military service, and remaining in day-to-day contact with our fellow colleagues in the region up to the very point when all communication was forcibly severed. Radio B92 grew into a movement of sorts organising a string of actions and concerts in the streets which culminated in the establishment of Cinema Rex, an alternative cultural centre, thus carving out space for unfettered artistic and creative freedoms.  As a publisher, Radio B92 was putting out the best literary and feminist magazines in the country, as well as many rock, jazz and world music albums of the day.

A drastic spike in numbers of protesters taking to the streets of Belgrade following a B92 shutdown due to “water in coaxial cable” during the 1996/97 winter demonstrations was yet another confirmation of Radio B92’s indisputable popularity and importance. Three-month-long civic and student protests sparked by Milošević’s rigged local elections gained momentum after the disruption of B92’s broadcasting and subsequent triumphant, swift return to the airwaves on the well-known FM frequency. These demonstrations were ultimately conducive to a change of local governments in many Serbian cities and towns which in turn laid the groundwork for expansion of a local radio and TV stations’ network called ANEM (the Association of Independent Electronic Media) led by Radio B92 that was distributing daily its news programming content to the network members.       

Broadcasting ban? Then we’ll just continue on the Internet! 

As an unwelcome media witness, Radio B92 was banished from the airwaves by the authorities just in case on the eve of the bombing campaign in March 1999 when Veran Matić, the B92 editor-in-chief, was illegally placed in detention. In the course of NATO intervention, the antiwar Radio B92 became a victim of the government crackdown as the radio station’s management were given marching orders by its nominal founder. All the employees refused to work for a new pro-regime radio which, except for its name, had nothing to do with the media outlet for which they used to work up to that point. When the bombing campaign drew to a close, former employees gathered together in the summer of 1999 under the banner of Radio B92 so as to resume broadcasting on the vacant city frequency. The most listened-to radio station’s operation was once again disrupted in the spring of 2000 when the police unlawfully stormed the premises from which the programme was being broadcast.    

Indomitable spirit and belief in its mission enabled Radio B92 to ingeniously overcome, using available technologies, the obstructions placed in its path by the undemocratic government. As a technological media trailblazer of the era, having displayed incredible creativity in overcoming bans and restrictions through recourse to the internet, Radio B92 set about carrying out the Ring around Serbia project in the year 2000 as part of which a network of transmitters in neighbouring countries provided for coverage of Serbia, thereby reducing likelihood of brutal obstructions to a minimum. Award-winning TV production was gradually evolving into TV B92 broadcasting its programming from neighbouring Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

Return to the studio and decline

Once again real B92 proved to be indestructible and invincible. Milošević’s departure from power enabled the original B92 crew to return to the premises from which they had been forced out during the bombing. Anxiety over survival in the times of transition took the place of a naïve belief that we had left the hardest part behind us in the 1990s. Surviving media monopolies quickly ingratiated themselves with the new authorities which failed to grasp the role of Radio Television B92 as a democracy’s watchdog. On top of this, B92 was consistently insisting on facing up to the recent past, broadcasting live The Hague tribunal’s trials for crimes committed on the territory of former Yugoslavia, pioneering investigative journalism in Serbia in the process, hence it was clear why, under such circumstances, B92’s prospects for success were slim. B92’s painstaking transition to national coverage, coupled with obstacles created by the powers that be to finding appropriate business premises, as well as the privatisation process, conspired together to bring about, following the premature departure of donors in the aftermath of 9/11, 2001, a catastrophic outcome shaped by the 2008 global economic crisis.    

The perfect storm wrecked all the media business models and former Radio B92 ended up one of its biggest victims. Decline of professionalism, tabloidisation, promotion of disputable values and greed put on the back burner the ideals on which the innovative radio that was way ahead of its time had been built. B92 perished in an uneven fight against many times stronger opponents epitomised in a statement by late prime minister Đinđić who offered them medals instead of a national frequency.     

How radio builds parallel worlds  

Long is the list of those who breathed a sigh of relief when the original Radio B92 ceased to be. Even now they feel uneasy when they realise how many esteemed journalists hail from this media company which is a reason enough for them to keep systematically stamping out on the home turf any lingering memory of former B92. This is why each and every reminder is important as a momentous lesson (un)learnt about a seminal Serbian media outlet which received so many international awards over the years and managed to create a parallel world behind the double layers of isolation imposed by the international sanctions on one hand and the domestic authoritarian regime’s sanctions on the other targeting its opponents considered to be traitors and foreign mercenaries. No wonder then that even today many wish for a new media outlet reminiscent of the one and only Radio B92 which, to this very day, has remained a unique example of inexhaustible media and artistic incubator of creative ideas and regional mainstay of professional journalism.

Many thanks to Saša Mirković for his memories. Many thanks to Goran Basarić for the beautiful photo and thanks to Biljana Pajic from Goethe-Institut Belgrade for the idea and her support.