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Rhetoric versus Reason: Why we need histories of radio surveillance and monitoring

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"Don't let her grow up without hearing the truth!" Ad for Radio Free Europe [USA, 1950s]

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Philippe Henriot of Radio Vichy

Philippe Henriot of Radio Vichy in 1934 Wikepedia

21 October 2016

Today, our access to events from across the world is instantaneous. We hear Reason and Rhetoric, post-truth diatribes. These are not new experiences. With a radio receiving set to hand, ordinary people tuned into news as it happened, and governments and social movements sought to control and exploit this new mode of communication.

The use of radio propaganda was prevalent during two global conflicts, the Second World War, 1939-45, and the Cold War, 1945-1991. Governments sponsored radio stations to project national values across borders. Radio stations, such as Radio Liberty (RL) and Radio Free Europe (RFE), which broadcast to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe respectively, transmitted to a diverse range of international audiences using multiple languages.

According to heroic insider accounts, RL/RFE helped win the Cold War, by informing oppressed people in communist Eastern Europe about the ‘TRUTH!’ For RL/RFE’s fascinating History in Images, go to:

This history of international broadcasting has become well know but what is far less well known is how from the Second World War governments across the world gathered vast amounts of intelligence on broadcasting. A Leverhulme Trust-funded workshop, which met at the University of York in the autumn of 2016, addressed this underexplored topic: Radio Surveillance and Monitoring.

Pulp literature and popular films are obsessed by the activities of unusual people, spies. We know far less about the seemingly mundane lives of those that collected intelligence from radio broadcasts. These people were highly skilled agents, multi-linguists, some of whom had escaped persecution under repressive regimes. Hooked up to headphones day and night, they undertook real-time monitoring of foreign and domestic radio broadcasts by enemy stations.

This was a serious business. Speed was of the essence. Unlike ordinary people tuning into and out of radio as a backdrop to their working days, monitors listened attentively so that they could transcribe and translate radio copy. They had to file a daily report to their superiors, who often passed this intelligence on to government ministers.

As they listened in, monitors took instinctive decisions about what their governments needed to know. These unsung heroes gave governments and their propaganda machines real-time insights into events from hundreds or thousands of miles away. This instantaneous intelligence was shared between allies, such as the US and UK; it was also kept secret, classified and filed away. Stations such as RFE (pictured to the right) used these confidential reports to inform programming.

Radio Surveillance and Monitoring created a tit-for-tat system. Opposing radio stations entered into carefully crafted, ritualistic exchanges.  Using information gathered by monitors, supplemented by intelligence from escapees and feedback from letters sent covertly by overseas listeners, international radio stations challenged the claims of propagandists overseas.

Stations based in Western Europe strove to be credible sources of news, aware that outlandish propaganda was counter-productive. This liberal ethos emerged gradually but the Second World War was the turning point. The BBC disseminated reliable news about battlefield defeats as well as glorious victories. Radio Oranje, the Dutch language station in London supported by the BBC and linked to the exiled Dutch government, also took on the Nazi propagandists. These stations ridiculed their enemy. In the 1940s, for example, the BBC broadcast a comedic song about Philippe Henriot of Radio Vichy (pictured to the right) asking him why he loved the Germans so much. (The Résistance assassinated Herriot in 1944).

From the late 1920s, European colonial administrations invested in new radio stations to counter the pervasive influence of foreign broadcasters, most notably those based in fascist regimes. In 1938, for example, the francophone Radio Tunis was founded to reduce the influence of Radio Bari and Radio Berlin. These German and Italian stations, broadcasting music and news, were becoming popular with Muslim audiences across North Africa. In an era of insurrection against repressive foreign rulers, colonial states obsessed about the listening habits of their subjects. They secretly surveyed how radio was affecting mass colonial cultures.

Many such fascinating episodes from the global past of radio were presented at the first Leverhulme Trust-funded workshop, at the University of York. 

How are we to extend these histories, to make them public, and link them up to current debates about the positive and negative effects of the media today?

Firstly, we need oral testimonies. At our workshop, we heard from Alan Sanders, who was in the RAF and attended language training at the Joint Services School for Linguists (JSSL) and worked for 30 years at the BBC monitoring operations based at Caversham, Reading, and for its China service in Hong Kong. We also listened transfixed to Tina Tamman, former sub-editor for the BBC monitoring for Estonian, who was woken at 4am on August 20 1991 and asked to listen in as the Cold War came to an end. We need to hear more from the ’mundane’ lives of monitors!

Secondly, we need improved access to written records. The BBC created a vast archive of summaries of world broadcasts. Its well-known Summary of World Broadcast is the tip of an iceberg. These sources are a fantastically rich source to reconstruct the history of important events. Historians should be able to use the information created by monitors to plot the speed and fluidity of events, and assess how historical processes were connected, transnational in form. These files are already being used to reconstruct new accounts of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, pictured below, and to open up new methods of enquiry. By tracing the relationship between shifts in radio propaganda and changes in government practice, we might gain new insights into how non-democratic and democratic regimes responded to the shifting sentiments of those they ruled over.

the Hungarian uprising in 1956

Image source: RFE/RL History in Images

Unfortunately, historians have poor access to these sources, and their systematic analysis will require a vast, and expensive digitisation project. The written and aural records of Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe are exceptional.

  • And there is also material on Radio Liberty in archives across Europe, notably in the Open Society archives in Budapest.

But historians need a wider range of sources to work with. Our knowledge of how radio broadcasts were monitored in the Eastern Bloc is scant. We know that these regimes created sophisticated surveillance operations to monitor and punish those listening in to overseas broadcasts.

Radio historians are not nostalgic for a bygone age. Radio, as a mode of mass communication, will never be as important again as it was during the Second World War, and the Cold War, but it remains a vital medium of international communication. Radio remains an important tool for propagandists. In today’s Crimea, Russian and Ukrainian broadcasters seek to win hearts and minds.

RFERL distributing radios in Shaidave Province Afghanistan, in 2010

Image above: RFE/RL conducting radio distribution in Shaidave Province Afghanistan on October 25, 2010. Sourced by RFE/RL History in Images.

Our hope is that global radio history will help ward against Rhetoric and foster Reason.

Stay tuned. Get in touch. Help us Connect the Wireless World


David Clayton, Co-Investigator 





Further information

Shortly after the workshop The Foreign Affairs Committee innounced that it would be holding a one-off evidence session examining the potential consequences of the proposals for restructuring BBC monitoring. You can read by clicking on this link

Caversham Park: End of an era for BBC listening station:

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