Cold War Radio: The Dangerous History of American Broadcasting in Europe 1950-1989, by Richard H Cummings

Radio Free Europe ad.

Although intended for listeners in Eastern Europe, programs from Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were regularly heard from their powerful shortwave transmitters across Asia and the Pacific.

Listeners in this region regularly wrote to both stations, most to obtain confirmation cards and promotional materials, but some wanting to hear familiar radio voices from their homelands and in their own language.

Through public fund raising and advertising campaigns in the USA, the general public probably believed comments like those from presidential candidate Dwight D Eisenhower that these stations were engaged in a ‘Crusade for Freedom’.

It’s doubtful if most listeners also knew that both stations were actually being continuously targeted by a variety of real threats.

These ranged from low level efforts to have staff spy in return for ‘protection’ for their families still living in the Soviet bloc, to attempts to find out how the stations conducted their audience listening research within the target countries, through to more serious [and sometimes successful] attempts at kidnapping, assault, and even murder.

The ‘highlight’ of these activities was a terrorist bombing masterminded by Carlos ‘The Jackal’ at the station headquarters in Munich. Who says that shortwave broadcasts have no impact?

Richard was director of security at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty for 15 turbulent years [1980-1995], covering the period when the Berlin Wall fell and Eastern Europeans again connected with their fellow Europeans.

Admitting he’s not the person to write the usual radio station story about programs, policies and bland personalities, Richard instead delivers a shortwave radio thriller.

From detailed bombing plots, kidnappings, the infamous umbrella murders, counter intelligence activities and much more, the book takes readers deep inside a world that their casual listening to these shortwave stations would never have revealed.

The Dangerous History of American Broadcasting in Europe 1950-1989 jacket.
© Richard H Cummings.

Richard draws on personal experience, delisted intelligence reports from Washington, Moscow, Bucharest, Berlin and other European capitals, interviews and his own collections of materials to show us the underbelly of international shortwave radio just a few decades ago.

However, it’s a very sharp reminder that some governments can still fear radio and its ability to broadcast uncontrolled news and views.

Governments today may not resort to using batteries of anti-aircraft guns and fighter jets to destroy ‘freedom’ message balloons drifting across their borders [and promoted by shortwave broadcasts] as the Czech authorities did in the early days of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.

But ‘freedom of the airwaves’ is still an ongoing and hard fought war more than 50 years later, even within many democracies that pride themselves on strong human rights and press freedoms.

In 1950, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty was ‘sold’ as ‘a campaign sponsored by private American citizens to fight the big lie with the big truth’ yet in 1969 a secret CIA report stated ‘Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are the oldest, largest, most costly and probably the most successful covert action project against the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe’.

‘Cold War Radio’ examines the facts. The decisions are for readers to make. Our thanks to Richard for sharing his unique radio heritage story and making the book available for review.

Cold War Radio: The Dangerous History of American Broadcasting in Europe, 1950-1989

Broadcasting from within Europe has always been able to and still does, reach across the miles and impact on the wider Pacific region. Radio signals have always ignored the boundaries.

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