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Belgrade's battle station

During Slobodan Milosevic's rule, a Serbian radio station
broadcasting cutting-edge music became a focus for public
resistance. Can rock'n'roll still change the world, asks Tom Horan

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.


© FreeB92, 2000