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Response to Review of Russia in the Microphone Age: A History of Soviet Radio, 1919-1970

I am grateful to Allan Jones for his lucid and thoughtful account of the book. It is especially valuable for this diehard Russia specialist to read the response of an expert on British broadcasting. The research for this book was, to a greater extent than any previous project I have worked on, an inherently comparative undertaking. We are so used to putting Russia in a box of its own, yet wireless broadcasting was adopted by the Bolsheviks at almost exactly the same time as everywhere else in Europe, and many of the issues they faced (ownership, funding, the balance to be struck between entertainment and edification) were debated in Britain and Germany as well. Naturally, as Dr Jones points out, Soviet Russia resolved them in very particular ways: edification trumped entertainment even more than in Reithian Britain, and radio in Soviet Russia was most of the time wired, not wireless. Only one aspect of the comparison caused me lingering regret: the fact that the literature on the history of Western broadcasting is so much richer (partly, but not only, because the source base is also richer). I can only hope that there will in the future be more detailed and nuanced studies of some of the subjects Dr Jones asks about: programme making, internal bureaucracy and funding, and broadcasting beyond Moscow and Leningrad. Frankly, I doubt that detailed studies of regional radio would do a huge amount to change the picture (and I have read quite a few Russian dissertations on broadcasting in Vladivostok, Kazan, Voronezh, and so on), but they might add more texture to the portrait, and sources are sometimes more revealing in the provinces than in Moscow. The non-Russian union republics, however, would be a different matter, not least because so many of them were on the frontiers of the Cold War. Finally, it would be possible to extend the treatment beyond 1970, using interviews with broadcasting professionals to supplement the documentary record, which is still limited for the late Soviet period.

Let me take up just one issue raised by Dr Jones – the most fundamental one. How was it that Soviet radio could be turgid, unimaginative, ideologically saturated, and so on, yet at the same time be a valued ‘interlocutor’? Here I can do no better than take a phrase from the best study of the Soviet mass media in the post-Stalin era: if Soviet radio was a failure, it was ‘a very successful failure’.(1) For one thing, the criteria for ‘success’ were so very different in the pre-war Stalin era even from the Soviet 1950s, let alone the British or American 1950s. Radio did to some extent serve as the voice of power for the largely young, displaced and disoriented people who by the mid-1930s were making up a mass urban audience; it created a kind of enveloping Sovietness, and its real-time immediacy (bolstered by outside broadcasts) brought rhetorical dividends that no other medium of the time could match. When we move into the post-war era, the rhetoric begins to shift, partly because the technology of programme production was transformed: in the late 1940s, Soviet programming became overwhelmingly prerecorded. This probably made political programming even more turgid, but it also freed broadcasting professionals in certain areas (especially children’s radio) from their paralyzing fear of error. When the political wind changed in 1953, broadcasting ‘thawed’ like other areas of cultural production. The quest for the ‘human face’ of socialism was pursued with greater dedication, and rather more than lip service was paid to the interests and tastes of the audience. By the mid-1960s, listeners were more likely to be addressed as ‘friends’ than as ‘comrades’. If I had to boil the book down to one line, it would be this: even in a repressive one-party state it is worth paying attention to the medium as well as the message.

Notes

  1. Kristin Roth-Ey, Moscow Prime Time: How the Soviet Union Built the Media Empire That Lost the Cultural Cold War (Ithaca, NY, 2011), p. 1.Back to (1)