Radio days of the revolution: Goodbye Soviet Russia, hello North Korea

Vintage radio representing BBC RussiaAfter 65 years, BBC Russia shut down its radio service this week, with all the attendant “end of an era” sighing. That era ended 20 years ago, but hey, who doesn’t appreciate an opportunity to wax nostalgic.

If you read anything at all about dissidence in the Soviet days, tuning into illegal radio broadcasts is a central image. In the 1970s and 80s, refuseniks used to go into the mountains to listen to foreign radio broadcasts, at heights where Soviet jamming signals couldn’t reach. Most often, it’s Voice of America that is cited in these anecdotes, but either way, radio broadcasts were critical to spreading information and learning about the outside world. Both the BBC Russian service and Voice of America got their start in the war years and immediately after. Voice of America grew out of the Office of War Information during WWII. BBC established its Russian service in 1949.

Ironically, while I was reading about the BBC, I also came across this piece in the April issue of the Atlantic: North Korea’s Digital Underground, by Robert S. Boynton. Disseminating anti-government info via radio isn’t quite the anachronistic throwback it might seem. While Egyptians are naming their children after Facebook, and the BBC is realizing that information no longer needs radio, in North Korea radio is still a central means of reaching people from the outside world.

The same retro-nostalgia that brings things like Hipstamatic to our iPhones has a twisted cousin in Kim Jong-Il’s dictatorship, where government-issued radios (the only kind that exist in North Korea) are pre-programmed to be permanently turned on and tuned into the government propaganda station. Which in turns means that radio is one of the most effective and frequent means of spreading dissent and counter-propaganda from outside the country. Boynton gives an overview of the many organizations working to smuggle information in and out of North Korea; in a country with virtually no internet, all of them employ “old-school” technologies like video and photography and radio. (Also, take a look at my recent review of Barbara Demnick’s Nothing to Envy: Daily Life in North Korea.)

Incidentally, this doesn’t prevent North Korea from having an official website and Twitter account, which, according to the Atlantic, are run out of China. The Twitter feed has 11,337 followers, but only follows 4 people, and I, for one, really want to know how they made the cut.

© 2017 Lea Zeltserman