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BOOKS: The story of Serbia's B92 radio.
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May 24, 2002
Waves of Liberation
Supporting B92 became one way of resisting the “whirlpool which dragged their lives relentlessly downwards into the darkness,” Collin writes. The station’s playlist tended toward the international (indie rock, hip hop, techno and Seattle grunge), linking Belgrade’s youth with the rest of Europe while simultaneously rejecting the nationalism of Serbian “turbofolk.” Collin carefully contrasts the station’s eclectic programming and subversive news items with the deterioration of the state-run media: “Milosevic belonged to Yugoslavia’s first TV generation ... [he] understood how efficiently it could shape public opinion.”
B92’s independent status was sustained by liberal philanthropists and foreign sponsors such as George Soros’ Open Society Institute, but as an editorial safeguard, no single donor could contribute more than 20 percent of the station’s total funding.
In 1991, with the country on the brink of civil war, a demonstration supporting the freedom of the press became the first uprising against the regime. While many of its staff fought with the police, B92’s transmitter was shut down by the state. They were permitted to resume broadcasting on the proviso that only music was aired. Veran Matic, the editor-in-chief, responded by repeatedly playing tracks like “White Riot” by the Clash and “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. “We were able to say through music what we would have said in the news,” recalls Matic. “The listeners understood the code.”
This was to be the first of many shutdowns over the upcoming decade. As Milosevic led his country into four Balkan wars, B92 became the leading voice of Belgrade’s urban underground resistance. Collin first reported on the station as part of a feature on Belgrade’s mass street protests in 1996, when he established a close relationship with B92’s founders. Through a montage of interviews, Collin reveals how the symbolic importance of B92 far “exceeded its broadcasting power.” The station came to represent a “parallel world, where democracy, human rights and free speech were still respected.” By contrast, Belgrade disintegrated into a “city of chaos” where “everything [was] permitted, and nothing [was] permitted.” Matic explains: “To be normal meant to be subversive.”
ollin’s achievement in Guerrilla Radio lies in interweaving two opposing themes: the optimism that those involved with B92 derived from their unique brand of music and political counterculture, and the devastating, demoralizing effect the regime had on all who stayed in the country. B92’s 1999 “Net Aid” manifesto, aired the same year of NATO’s bombing, stated: “When reality doesn’t work any more, we move to the virtual world. But the pain is real and it stays with us.” Collin articulates young Serbs’ personal pain—boredom, frustration and economic hardship—melded with a horror at the crimes being committed in their name. As one young music producer puts it: “The years from twenty to thirty, these are the best years of your life. And they were stolen from me.”
In a fine twist of irony, Milosevic’s last interview before going to The Hague was with a reporter from B92. Emerging from his luxurious Belgrade residence just hours after the police first attempted to arrest him in 2001, the ousted president declared: “I am not afraid. I expect this story to end in a just manner and for the benefit of our people. ... We are very proud.”
Milosevic’s story is still being written. By all accounts, his trial is not progressing smoothly. Dusko Doder has written that the “prosecution’s bungling has turned what was once touted as a ‘water-tight case’ into a battle of wits, allowing Milosevic to mount a fifth war—legal and psychological—against the court itself.” Collin’s vivid and touching account of Belgrade life serves as a timely reminder to all those who may doubt the trial’s historic importance. The eventual sentencing of Milosevic would be the most fitting conclusion to this chapter in B92’s ongoing story.
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