This is Serbia Calling
by Matthew Collin
Serpent's Tail, 2001
Belgrade in the 1990s was a weird, horrible place. Mafiosi bragged about their murders to TV hosts while police cracked down on newspapers and radio stations. Inflation rivaled that in pre-Nazi Germany. The music scene was dominated by turbo-folk, a moronic reworking of traditional Serbian music set to modern beats and sung by peroxide blondes with impossible bodies. Through the magic of state-owned television, millions of Serbs were convinced that their catastrophic defeats in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo were in fact victories.
Amid all this crap shone radio station B-92, which began broadcasting May 15, 1989--ironically, as a project of Belgrade's communist youth organization to honor Tito's birthday--when Slobodan Milosevic was only a minor despot. As Milosevic grew to become the world's most wanted war criminal, B-92 grew, too, to become the most consistent thorn in his side. This is Serbia Calling, by British music journalist Matthew Collin, is a history of the 1990s in Belgrade seen through the lens of B-92.
B-92 is by far the coolest radio station in Belgrade. It has the most reliable news in town and a great mix of indie, drum-and-bass and hip-hop. But before October of last year--when Milosevic lost elections and was forced out of office by hundreds of thousands of protesters--it was more than just cool. It was the most significant voice in Serbia's tiny world of independent media, fighting the regime on two fronts: news and culture.
News in Serbia in the 1990s was dominated by state-dominated media like Radio-TV Serbia, Milosevic's biggest weapon. Through it, millions of Serbs came to regard the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo not as the rest of the world saw them--as Serb aggression against ethnic minorities--but as heroic struggles to save Serbdom against all the forces allegedly out to destroy the nation. B-92 tried to cut through the state propaganda (while still telling a largely Serb-centered story of the wars) by using independent correspondents from the war zones. Even before Milosevic fell, it started airing a weekly program, "Catharsis," examining war crimes committed by the Yugoslav government.
This editorial independence resulted in being shut down four times by the authorities. Station managers got thinly veiled threats. Advertisers to B-92 would often get visits from tax inspectors shortly after their spots aired. This made revenues spotty at best, so the station needed (and still relies on) outside aid from foreign governments. The aid ensured the station's survival but led to criticisms that it was a tool of the enemy. But when NATO bombed Serbia to force Milosevic's troops out of Kosovo, B-92 opposed the intervention. The station was shut down anyway. Its former allies did nothing to help and editor-in-chief Veran Matic, in a bitter moment, suggested that "this has become a direct consequence of US policy in the Balkans. To destroy and silence all alternative democratic voices and peace initiatives in order to make Yugoslavia a European Iraq and a pariah state for the next ten years." Unfortunately, Collin doesn't really explore the international community's involvement in B-92; to do so would compromise the homegrown picture of the station that he tries to create.
The cultural war was fought against turbo-folk, which was championed by Milosevic and to many represented the crass materialism, cultural isolation and xenophobia that reigned in Serbia in the 1990s. As one B-92 listener told Collins, "Turbo-folk said work less, earn more, cheat and steal, fuck a lot, drive a stolen Golf GTi, enjoy life!" B-92 was the voice of the outside, of Europe, playing what kids in London and Berlin were listening to.
Over its history, the station has had to make some concessions to mainstream taste to keep the less hip listening to the news. Today you can even hear American oldies on weekend afternoons--although there is still great hip-hop in the evenings and experimental stuff late at night. B-92 has also expanded its promotion of Serbian music, running a record label that puts out CDs from some of Serbia's best bands. (It will be interesting to see how long it takes for some Congressional budget wonk to question why the US government--if only indirectly--is funding Serbian drum-and-bass collections.)
This is Serbia Calling at times reads a bit like a Balkan media "Star Wars"--a plucky band of rebels heroically defeat the evil empire. Collin relies mostly on interviews with station members, in many cases conducted years after the events in question took place and so some of the recollections seem tinted by nostalgia or selective memory. After every shutdown, there are saccharine accounts of public support for the station. And the crucial issue of funding--how heavily the station relied on money from outside sources--is only dealt with briefly. With more evidence coming to light about how important US funding and training was to the democratic opposition's defeat of Milosevic, this is not an idle question.