How Did the Radio Shape the World During the Cold War?

This article is written as a part of Journalism Radio project at the Journalistic department of FSPAC, Babes-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca.

Historical background

As the world mourned from the deadly aftermath of the World War 2, countries were divided into massive two superpower blocs as they competed in military, science, psychological warfare, and ideology, without shedding any bloodbath. The Western bloc, led by the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom advocated anti-communism and anti-socialism in the wake of Soviet Union-led Warsaw Pact, consisting of the USSR, East Germany, Poland, and more.

On the other hand, thanks to the technological advancement of broadcasting means, the use of radio had just started to become commercialized at the time. It was an essential tool in propagating elements of doctrines — US president Theodore Roosevelt was the first political figure to utilize its power with his “fireside chats” from 1933 to 1944 —, and although television became the most popular broadcast medium by the end of the 1950s, the growth of radio was inevitably influential in shaping the world that we live today.

While the Cold War might be a rigid period by nature, it remained hot on the airwaves. Both sides capitalized on their respective public’s paranoia over mass destruction and possible chaotic nuclear war and used radio as their propaganda machine. Plus, unlike TVs that were rightfully costlier at the time, radio sets were much more affordable and reachable for poor and marginalized communities, making it a perfect machine despite the roaring popularity of TV boxes.

The aim of this article is to understand the role of radio for both sides of ideologies during the Cold War era by capturing the historical side of each bloc especially during the first phase between 1947 and 1953, in hope to shed some light about its importance.

The Western bloc

Radio arrived in 1920s when Detroit’s WWJ became the first commercial broadcasting station in the country, creating euphoria in the Western society amidst the Great Depression. It ended the monopoly of print media at the time and brought fresh breath of air for consumers.

By the middle of the decade, the West began experiencing the “Golden Age of Radio,” an era where radio accelerated to become the public’s number one mean for both communication and entertainment. In just a few years after WWJ aired for the first time, hundreds of radio stations were launched throughout the nation, broadcasting news, live events, music, soap opera, child programs, and more. Statistically speaking, most American households were already equipped by radio sets by the early 1930s, and it took another decade for marginalized African American families to afford it.

Learning from President Roosevelt’s success with radio during the Second World War, the West took the platform as their weapon of choice. To penetrate the Iron Curtain between the West and the East, the confrontations between the world’s two biggest idealities also happened through broadcasts. The US and its allies vehemently promoted their second “Red Scare” fearmongering campaign in attempt to warn the citizens from societal outcomes of communism by any means necessary.  

With their “Westernization” agenda, the West believed that the cultural influence in the Cold War was just as important as military showdowns and the infamous Space Race. February 1947 became an important cornerstone in their attempt of a détente period when the state-owned Voice America began broadcasting in the Soviet Union, proclaiming, “Hello, this is New York calling!” Since then, as a result, at least one out of three Soviet urban adults, as well as around half Eastern European adults, have tuned in to Western radio.

Asides from informing the public, shortwave radio stations have also been used to communicate top confidential information. They’re called “numbers station,” and these stations broadcast coded messages of vocalized numbers through speech synthesis, as well as Morse code transmissions. This technicality is still at use even to this day: the BBC ran a story of a “ghostly radio station that no one claims to run” in 2020. Nicknamed ‘The Buzzer’, MDZhB station has been broadcasting “dull, monotone tones” since 1982 in a sinister-looking swampland just near the city of Saint Petersburg.

The Eastern bloc

In the East, Vladimir Lenin opened the first state-owned station called All-Union Radio, which broadcasted political events, classical music by Russian composers, and sports events, following the October Revolution. Years after that, Radio Moscow was born in 1929 and similar to Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Liberty (previously known as Radio Liberation) in the West, it served as the State’s channel main propaganda channel.

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Despite being allies in the World War 2, the US and Soviet’s relationship was heavily plagued by mistrust. In the aftermath of that, Radio Moscow looked to expand its broadcast by adding several languages to its channels. An expansion to Korean language debuted in 1946, followed closely by Uighur and Mongolian, and became a critical lighthouse in Soviet’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula and the start of the Korean conflict in the early 1950s. In its peak, Radio Moscow served 70 languages, including Indonesian, Arabic, Vietnamese, Mandarin Chinese, Amharic, Zulu, Greek, Romanian, Tagalog, and more.

The Cold War radio battle intensified as both sides stepped up their broadcasting hours and reach, even all the way to Africa. In the late 1940s, Radio Moscow began expanding its broadcasting hours to accommodate its needs to put Kremlin in favor. For example, the Arabic service moved from 7,5 hours per week to 42 hours, English to 38 hours, French to 28 hours, and German to 55 hours. In response to that, the West, led by the VOA and Radio Liberty in the US and Radio Free Europe (RFE) in West Europe, broadcasted over 300 hours per week in Soviet and added 17 Soviet languages from 11 transmitters.

In Europe, RFE was seen as a serious threat to communist governments, especially three times-elected Nicolae Ceaușescu from the Socialist Republic of Romania and Hungary’s de facto leader Mátyás Rákosi, which escalated to violent conflicts. At the time, it was the main nemesis of Romanian communist regime’s ideological war against Western media.

As public’s trust over Ceaușescu’s ruling steadily went downhill, the Securitate, Romanian’s secret police agency, shifted its foreign policy regarding foreign broadcasting from heavy surveillance to an open war, resulting in at least three casualties of RFE’s Romanian service directors. During the Romanian Revolution in December 1989, the station played an integral part in the city of Timisoara for informing the mass about the anti-communism revolt a few days before Ceaușescu’s final ill-fated speech at the Revolution Square in Bucharest, marking the beginning of an end of his 15 years of regime and cult of personality.

After the fall of Soviet Union, Radio Moscow was rebranded Voice of Russia (VOR) until 2014 and reorganized as Radio Sputnik. Still, the radio serves as a propaganda channel, especially in the wake of Russian attack on Ukrainian land in 2022. Nonetheless, it shows how important the understanding and knowledge of this domain is.

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