During Slobodan Milosevic's rule, a Serbian
broadcasting cutting-edge music became a focus for public
resistance. Can rock'n'roll still change the world, asks
ISSUE 2122, Saturday 17 March 2001
One Spring day in 1992, Belgrade radio DJ Veran Matic was
hard at work, peppering his show as usual with an incendiary
mixture of music. From Public Enemy to Thin Lizzy, Curtis
Mayfield to the Clash, he played the kind of free-spirited
melange that was the hallmark of his station, the independent
B92. But as the records played and Matic chatted, dramatic
news was filtering into the studio.
The Belgrade-controlled Yugoslav army had begun murderous
advances into Bosnia, which Radio B92 was alone in reporting
to Serb audiences. That day, the army was poised to crush
a single Muslim unit that was holding out against it. In
despair, the unit commander was threatening to blow up a
dam and flood the Drina valley, wiping out everyone in the
area, Serb and Muslim alike. Now, someone at B92 had tracked
down the commander's mobile number and passed it to Matic.
"I didn't expect to get through," Matic says
of the on-air interview that became a nail-biting negotiation.
"He said, 'Tell them to withdraw or else I'll blow
the dam up.' I was saying, 'Don't do it - there are your
own people living down there. You'll kill them as well.'
He said, 'If we can't live together, we'll swim together.'
" Moments after Matic's call, the commander set off
his explosives. But they failed to burst the dam.
In western Europe and America, the rock radio station is
a little more than a marketing apparatus. Rock 'n' roll's
honourable association with the politics of free thought
and battles against injustice is a distant memory. The likes
of Kiss FM and Virgin Radio incite their listeners to buy
grooming products, not man the barricades. But as a revealing
new book documents, Serbia's B92 is a very different animal.
Matthew Collin's This is Serbia Calling, from which the
tale of the Drina dam is taken, paints a picture of an inspiring
organisation, founded on idealism and run by young people
of conviction and courage. Subtitled Rock 'n' Roll Radio
and Belgrade's Underground Resistance, the book shows that
- in some places, at least - rock music is not a docile
has-been but a powerful and liberating influence.
Neither public-service broadcaster nor commercial station,
B92 first broadcast in 1989, before the fall of the Iron
Curtain. From the outset there was tension. The news desk
was keen to produce hard-hitting coverage of the political
turmoil that was brewing in Yugoslavia. The DJs wanted to
belt out the latest Niggaz With Attitude remix, or feedback
orgy from Sonic Youth.
Somehow both sides got their way. As Serbian nationalism
swelled and Slobodan Milosevic's power grew, B92 became
a focus for those in the Serb capital who wanted nothing
to do with his aggressive, isolationalist policies. It soon
established links with like-minded stations in the other
states of the former Yugoslavia - and a reputation for black,
absurdist programming to match its idiosyncratic music output.
In 1995 the station invited pop-situationists the K Foundation
(Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty) to show their infamous film,
See the K Foundation Burn a Million Quid, in the city's
main square. In a country ravaged by hyper-inflation, the
gesture seemed to make a grotesque kind of sense.
The after-show phone-in was bedlam. Callers traded insults
with Drummond as Fleka, B92's most provocative DJ, played
everything from Arthur Brown's Fire to a drum-and-bass version
of the theme from The Magnificent Seven, made by Drummond
and featuring a vocal from Fleka himself. The track became
an anthem for anti-Milosevic resistance.
Author and journalist Collin first came into contact with
B92 in 1996, when he went to Belgrade to cover student demonstrations.
Milosevic had shut the station down after he suffered reverses
in local elections, but it was still managing to reach its
listeners via the internet. (B92 has been shut down four
times, and each time re-appeared.)
"These were talented and committed young people, who
were the same age as me," he tells me, referring to
the B92 staff he met and befriended. "Many of their
peers had given up on their own country and gone abroad.
But they had decided to do the best they could to resist
the authorities and bring about change. I found myself asking
whether in their position I would have the same courage."
Collin sees B92's blend of music and campaigning journalism
as perfectly suited to the situation in Serbia. "All
of daily life was politicised," he says. "Every
decision - including the music you listened to - was political.
Your cultural choices demonstrated what you stood for.
"Milosevic's signature sound, which the state-controlled
media pumped out incessantly, was an overblown reworking
of traditional Serbian songs, called 'turbo-folk'. To be
broadcasting or listening to Massive Attack, or Chicago
house music or techno was to say, 'We are different - we
believe in an outward-looking alternative'."
In a country where every other medium traded in misinformation
and propaganda, the rock 'n' roll that B92 played became
the cornerstone of its crediblity as an independent factual
reporter. As Veran Matic told one listener during the West's
bombardment of Belgrade, "People do ring up and complain
about the music, but if I changed the music they wouldn't
believe the news any more."
Since Milosevic's fall last October, the station has lost
much of the outside funding that it attracted as the lone
dissenting media voice in Serbia. Internet head Gordan Paunovic,
who has been at the station since the early days, tells
me: "B92 now has to be self-sustainable to survive.
This means going national, but the authorities are refusing
us a national licence. If this remains the case, we will
probably be dead in a year or two. It seems even democratically
elected governments are sensitive to criticism."
At the height of Milosevic's tyranny, the state's TV news
broadcast at 7.30 every night was the signal for Belgraders
to grab pots and pans from the kitchen, rush to their balconies
and batter them in a city-wide attempt to to drown out the
propaganda. The cacophony was music to the ears of B92.
With its customary flair for the absurd, it would broadcast
the sound live on air, amplifying the dissonance by re-transmitting
it. Perhaps now that the saucepans are silent, the station's
work is done.