A Travellogue from the Balkan

Belgrade, Cinema Rex, Opennet, Radio B92

In February 97 Tom Bass, US-American living in Budapest, travelled Belgrade, Sarajevo and Zagreb to find out about the situation of independent media in former Yugoslavia. This is his report about Radio B92, Belgrade

Belgrade's situation in comparison to other cities in East Central Europe is not unique: disillusioned and disenfranchised, countercultural spheres face the struggle to realize their fledgling ideas and initiatives. However, the dire circumstances of totalitarianism in Belgrade have attracted funding for alternative media, unlike the often ignored and less turbulent Budapest or Warsaw where press freedom equals complacency in terms of establishing public access and participatory facilities. Among the dearth of institutions in Belgrade catalyzing nodes for the free exchange of ideas in an informal, uninstitutionalized manner, there stands Cinema Rex, modeled on the success of media strategies that seek to mobilize artistic, cultural, and political activism among its visitors and users.

Cinema Rex

I met with Adrienne van Heteren, the General Director of Cinema Rex and resident fund-raiser in B92's marketing department. She initially became involved with De Baile, Amsterdam, and its eventual resident supporter of free media in the former Yugoslavia, Pressnow before relocating to Belgrade. I noted her professional manner enhanced by a string of pearls.

Cinema Rex began in the spring of 1994 when Veran Matic, the Editor-in-Chief of B92, rented the building that would hold the alternative art space. Initially he intended to turn it into a television studio, but this was politically unfeasible. Adrienne suggested that Cinema Rex would make an excellent cultural center. Indeed, that was its initial function as a Jewish community center. Nationalized after World War II, Cinema Rex provided pensioners with a center for cards and bingo. Eventually Cinema Rex served as its name suggests before becoming a derelict storage space. B92 capitalized on this situation, and now Cinema Rex functions as one of the sole alternative art spaces in Belgrade, especially as the Students' Cultural Center has fallen victim to the political situation and the Youth House continues in a desultory fashion.

Ms. van Heteren rightly believes that encouraging wide receptivity is the best strategy to see advances in new media awareness in the former Yugoslavia despite a debt of ideas, imagination, and ambition in this respect. This effort is hampered by the difficulty of persuading the bureaucracies of NGOs and international organizations to invest there limited funds in such seemingly imaginative projects. However, the problem remains how to refrain from implementing such a project in name only without augmenting the project with real practice. Cinema Rex plans to turn into a content input center, the value of such a concept recognized as a vital element of media access, though those plans are on hold as phone line leases are pending. Indeed, at the present there exists a lack of expertise for such an input center. Belgrade is starting form scratch, extracting the means to begin.

I quizzed Ms. van Heteren about B92's cultural authority and potential funding monopoly, and she responded in the following manner about her ability to pull some strings abroad for the radio as well as the innate lethargy in the establishment of motivated and committed participants in cultural circles:

"Only in the past two years as B92 has become the most dynamic in the production of books, in the organization of events, in the development of different activities surrounding the radio. Of course, a lot of people actually want to participate in these activities at one point and then think, 'Where do we then fit in?' These come from imagination and one's own dynamic. My experience is that people find it very hard to define for themselves what they want and then to act accordingly. If I want a film studio then I will build one against all odds.... That means having to work... start doing something, start approaching people, start writing letters."

"In relation to funding monopoly it is simply not true. The financial situation is fragile all the time. The bigger the projects get, the more is needed. And I think that there is some mechanism in which there is now a chance because of the situation. First the peace attempts in Bosnia, then the democratization process in Serbia. There is some fashionability in giving money to this area. That will disappear just like that. It swings from one year to another. You will never be sure if you can live on the same feet as the preceding year. Now there is a possibility to get some development funding, for projects like the internet and to see if it is possible to establish a local radio network. It is absolutely not true that B92 is colonizing the funding market."

The questioning shifted to Belgrade's isolation during the war due to the sanctions and its questionable position on the underground map of Europe. Since Soul Food closed, Belgrade offers the likes of Laurence Garnier spinning at Industria, a venue thriving with the bliss of all fat sounds. Despite this infiltration by the techno castes, Belgrade suffers from chronic isolation despite the insistently chic dress of its more wealthy residents, all gold and mock class. But they make do with their reincarnation of glamour while the communities of the Yugoslav Diaspora call, write letters, and perhaps alleviate the isolation. However, if you want to develop yourself further you have to get out. The underground and arts suffer from a limited dynamism as no completely new group is rising to offer a new intellectual paradigm. People's inability to organize themselves, whether internalizing the logic of resisting such collectivization or simply not understanding the potential benefits in doing so, has no immediate solution.

But how can this situation be solved or at least minimized? Dependency on the West is not the prescription, especially considering its own resistance to embarking on a program to rebuild the foundations of Yugoslav media. As for commodification and the transnational media conglomerates dropping millions into other East Central European and former Soviet states' media infrastructures, Serbia has yet to attract such investment due to the state's virtual monopoly on ownership. But the state is part of the problem if Serbian media is ever to shift from a stagnancy to dynamism. Ms. van Heteren adds:

"If this government does not allow a relatively high standard of public broadcasting to develop before international investment, and if alternative models are not going to be developed by the likes of B92, then what you will get in five years time is that everything that exists will be bought up by German companies or whoever and Yugoslavia will only have commercial stations, highly commercial. And nothing else. Not even a suffering public broadcasting system."

We wrapped up on this note, perhaps discouraging but putting the situation, the crisis, into focus. I was uncertain what exactly what the future would bode for the likes of B92, but considering the radio's history as a node of resistance, it seemed positively dedicated to continuing to report and transmit through the twists and turns of Yugoslavia's shrouded politics, for media as yet stood no chance of being de- politicized, de-authoritarianized. It was patently obvious: media is politics. They are fused, inseparable, seemingly grotesque Siamese twins; and whether national or supranational, they perform for an audience that pays with the castration of its personal liberty.

Sonic pandemonium echoed outside. Striking students and teachers embarked on their daily marches to oust the hard-line Rector of the University of Belgrade. Security whirled around the perimeter of the two distinct columns. Traffic impatiently waited, passengers glared from stalled buses, and the parades continued on their routes curling through the city. Later that night they would coagulate for the celebration of the Zajdeno coalition's victory. What they were celebrating? Was it not too early to do so? The whole affair had the atmosphere of a giant disco where the patrons weave through the crowd on the prowl for the opposite sex, the evening reaches a certain intoxication, and any self-respecting individual leaves before the final double-visioned pairing is initiated.

Protesting over champagne and fireworks as had been the case over the New Year seemed an inappropriate mechanism to overthrow a dictator, though, admittedly, one could not have over a million people hashing out the addenda to a new constitution all at once in Republic Square. Despite the levity of the protests, Belgrade had seen some result due to its festive diligence.


Opennet, otherwise known as B92's internet department, functions as the tactical center of B92's campaign to garner world wide support for its broadcasts. I entered the room and discussed some of the basics about the operation as the Sysop split squash seeds between questions. Director Drazen Pantic was absent due to the V2 real audio workshop, Wiretap. It seemed all of Yugoslav independent radio was assembled in Rotterdam to improve their tactics in using the net to distribute their programming as well as discuss the aesthetics of mixing radio with the net.

B92 established Opennet in November, 1995, in anticipation of internet access. In preparation for such a post-sanction possibility, Yugoslavia had established an internal network primarily through the universities. At an earlier predecessor had been the Jupak network running from Maribor, Slovenia. By February, 1996, XS4ALL was providing service to Opennet. Opennet adopted an access policy, charging a minuscule 4 DM a month for accounts with full service. That original link has been expanded to include a 64-kbs line used for the streaming of real audio files to the Serbian Independent Information server while the old link to XS4ALL continues to provide interactive services and email at 28.8-kbs as well as audio and video fiiles. In addition, Opennet has begun operating in Novi Sad, following the initiative of B92 in laying the foundation of a local radio network. USIS provides the space for Opennet's account holders. For those with remote access the process is frustrating as only six lines are currently dedicated, though on the day B92 was shut down it applied for 30 new lines, some of which will go to alleviating the problem. Such tactics are typical of the regime but it has not equaled Belarus where freelance hackers destroyed an opposition server's files.

Radio B92

On this Sunday afternoon, I finally met with Sasa Mirkovic, Director of B92, abrupt about his displeasure with being cooped up at the radio dressed in a suit and tie for a later appointment with EU Ministers on such a wonderfully sun-drenched day. In his absence B92 rushs to produce its daily 5 o'clock report: tapes being duplicated and filed, reporters calling in from their assignments on the street, others cutting audio in the studios, and DJs rifling through the sound archive. I no longer naively had the impression this was a small station, something similar to a pirate radio in its essence, but it is an enterprise with multiple offices and interests-- radio, publishing, marketing, film, internet, Cinema Rex--all connected by B92's resistant brand of independent media The radio began in 1989 out of two rooms filled with rented equipment, from "a minus" in Sasa's words, transmitting at one-kilowatt from a RTS antenna, but due to the age of the transmitter, the power is reduced to 300 to 400-watts, if it is not accidentally turned off by the Ministry of Information .

Since those humble origins, B92 has expanded while continuing its radio operations. Indeed, the attraction of the radio to over one million listeners during the protests has provided it with a wealth of personnel as the radio operates in its golden era. The radio has become an urban and resistance movement as it intended, and those that want to participate must seek the approval of the Editor-in-Chief and the Executive Producer in order to gain access to the mic. The political minority has equaled Milosevic's supporters and perhaps will topple him in the upcoming presidential election if the international community continues to demand electoral fairness. As was the case with the Cold War broadcasts of the BBC, the Voice of America, and Radio Free Europe, which now employ B92 journalists as correspondents, the regime constitutes part of the audience. B92 filters through the airport duty free, the police stations, and the Ministry of Information. Listeners' loyalty to the station has been determined by its struggle to maintain an undoctrinated space among the constant modulation of public information, even choosing to broadcast Milosevic's counterrally speech during the height of the protests in late December despite the objection of listeners. Sasa feels this action is fundamental in order to educate the audience about the rules of independent media. He stressed that B92 owes nothing to the Zajdeno coalition, though B92 supports giving voice to the disenfranchised and is responsible for turning invisible dissidents into an elected opposition. In addition, B92 has maintained its position by virtue of the fact that it is free, unlike newspapers that have been unaffordable in the past. Unfortunately, television is free, too. (see additional information about television )

I asked Sasa about overt state pressure on B92, but he had had no experience with it. The state was too clever and dominant for such tactics, preferring "legal" barriers to frustrate the progress of independent media. The Ministry of Information initiated jamming of B92 broadcasts but that ended as soon as Voice of America picked up B92's frequency and broadcast it over the whole of Serbia. And the transmitter's signal appeared to be stronger since its accidental malfunction initiated by the Ministry of Information headed by Ms. Radmila Milentijevic who is now reconsidering the new media law that has aroused to much controversy among independent broadcasters represented by the Association of Independent Electronic Media .

However, I was still disturbed by B92's dominant cultural position. Sasa displayed disregard for pirate radio initiatives, for "pirates only make music and weather forecast but not news," highlighting the importance of B92's most valued capital: information, information provided by journalists allowed to report at their own discretion. But Yugoslavia's questionably liberalizing media climate remains ripe for radical radio, a 4- watt transmitter, an autoreverse walkman, a prerecorded tape, and a car battery strapped to building until its discovery. No one confirmed the existence of radio pirates though everyone, including Sasa, thought they existed, thus guaranteeing their very existence as mercurial figures hijacking the airwaves.

With the history of B92 firmly established, I noticed Sasa Mirkovic's quintessential wrinkled journalist aesthetic, an image that at once endears him to you due to his real battle with the logistics of running a radio the size of B92, always struggling to make the balance between impartiality and activism, obligated to shake the hands of EU Ministers and smile as he calculates what percentage their contribution will make to the 40% of B92's budget funded by foundations, in particular Soros' Open Society Fund, the rest covered by advertising revenues.

In eight years, B92 has become a respected media institution, endowed with stamina, engagement, and credibility. Radio Index is following that legacy on its own terms. This is not something to dismiss. It is the dedication of technicians, DJs, reporters, and editors to make an urban radio that is a resistance and a community. B92's net initiative hopes to offer the same.

However, as the radio's ambition expands to include a Serbia-wide independent radio network, it runs the risk of overestimating the extent of liberalization of the media. If this future endeavor to foster independent news broadcasting and an intercity information exchange can be measured against the success of all of B92's strenuous multimedia efforts, then success may be realized in the current chaos that has built temporary fragments of opportunity which should be consolidated and reinforced before they vanish as untranslatable pieces of a city I was only beginning to appreciate for its manic cultural dyslexia. Under the tutoring of Belgrade's inhabitants one embraces the understanding that cultural sophistication eternally teeters on the balance with cultural barbarism. I remembered what Pavle had said when I asserted, "You're mixed." "Yes, but I am from Belgrade and that counts." B92 and its siblings are from Belgrade. And that counts. (Tom Bass)