It couldn't happen here
Was there a slight hesitation in the voice? An infinitesimal glitch in the constant flow of the British media? In the week of its high-profile publication, Matthew Collin's book was serialised daily on BBC Radio 4. Collin's previous book Altered States was an in-depth account of dance music and drug culture in the 1990s. Anyone familiar with Radio 4 knows that a book such as Altered States would not even have been considered for Radio 4, so what is it about this new book (which deals with many of the same themes) that attracted the BBC?
It tells the story of cultural resistance in Serbia, a struggle whose only implications for the West are seen as self-congratulatory, a story superficially read as the triumph of Western popular culture and democratic values. Yet when the moment came to introduce the programme, something in the script caused the presenter to pause: the introduction contained the phrase "independent radio station" and it was this that seemed to impair the presenter's smooth delivery.
As Collin showed in Altered States, this concept is highly problematic in the British context. Independent radio stations and other media are lauded when they operate in the Balkans or other "troublespots," but here the concept is almost alien, threatening to some, dreamed of by others.
On the British airwaves there is a choice between the state-funded BBC, the cynical music and talk stations of the commercial sector and the ultra-marginal pirates of London and the other cities. On none of these would there be space for the type of radical and subversive programming celebrated in this new book: try applying for a licence for anything other than commercial music or getting a serious platform for alternative politics on the BBC.
From the outset, B92 operated in a legal "grey area," sheltered by the legal and institutional chaos of post-Socialist Yugoslavia. In Britain, as Collin knows, there are no such grey areas: a broadcast is either legal or illegal and access to the airwaves is extremely tightly controlled. In short, no station such as B92 would ever receive a licence in Britain and, if it attempted to broadcast without one, would probably attract the attention not merely of anti-piracy enforcers but the security services.
This is the contradiction that caused the Radio 4 presenter to stumble. To a representative of Britain's official media the concept "independent radio station" is both troubling and exotic: to be celebrated abroad, deterred at home. Collin's book is an important one, but some of the high-profile British media attention it has received is related not so much to its merits as to its ideological significance. One section of the media wants to appropriate the story of B92 into a Western triumphalist narrative, while another sector of opinion is fascinated by the B92 story precisely because of its impossibility in the British context.
The culture of resistance
Right from the start, Belgrade's B92 saw its mission as a type of "liberation through culture" (p 27), countering monotonous nationalist propaganda with exposure to the best in international thought and culture, very much in line with Belgrade's long-standing but often-threatened cosmopolitan tradition.
Early in the book, Collin discusses another station with a similar agenda: the autonomist Italian station Radio Alice, which, though it was finally shutdown by a state intent on suppressing dissent, never became an international cause célèbre as B92 has become. Since it dared to challenge the socio-economic consensus on NATO territory rather than in the Balkans, it seems unlikely that Radio 4 will ever celebrate the struggle of Radio Alice and other suppressed Western stations to maintain an independent voice.
B92 deserves celebration not just because of its dynamic record of resistance to nationalism, authoritarianism and kleptocracy (none of which are exclusive to the Balkans), but as an example of the disruptive and radicalising potential of radio and other electronic media. The book demonstrates that one of B92's key strengths was its belief in the transcendent power of music (p 8) and that dynamic cultural reporting was as essential to the construction and maintenance of an alternative reality as a strong current affairs operation. B92's aim was:
To establish a genuinely alternative social movement, politics and culture had to be synthesised to create a kind of feedback loop, each amplifying the other, each reinforcing the same message: question authority, think for yourself, don't swallow anyone's propaganda (p 28).
This is a healthy and necessary approach for any critical media, especially in a context where culture is largely displaced by populist entertainment and is kept isolated from politics wherever possible. The book's account of the internal politics of the station is particularly strong and does not gloss over the tensions and contradictions that have affected its development. In its early phase, a struggle developed between the journalists and the music department. From the start B92 championed unpopular and challenging styles of music and some felt that this alienated potential listeners, depriving them of access to its news coverage.
In June 1990, Nenad Čekić, chief advocate of a less alienating music policy and his supporters split from B92, taking some equipment and creating a still-unhealed rift. However, time has shown that the radical cultural and informational approach of B92 editor Veran Matić has been far more influential than Čekić's approach, and the championing of alternative music and culture was a key aspect of the station's success and identity.
Riot sounds produce riots
B92's schedules were inhabited by idiosyncratic DJs such as Fleka, former manager of Belgrade's Akademija venue who combined obscure music with a stream of consciousness flow peppered with phrases like "Mental Bomb" or "Art of Provocation" like a more politicised version of the spiel of London pirate DJs.
During the Terazije protests in Belgrade in March 1991, music actually proved more powerful than words. Temporarily shut down and then told they could play only music, B92 DJs selected confrontational records directly related to the previous day's rioting: Public Enemy's "Fight The Power", The Clash and others. Collin describes this as "an amazing, defining moment—sound and actions fused solid" (p 41), which vindicated the potential of a radical, anti-populist music policy. It was after this incident that B92 became accepted as "the electronic voice of the resistance" (p 42).
The section of the book describing the 1996-1997 protests against the dis-allowal of local election results is particularly strong. Collin doesn't merely describe the protests but analyses in valuable detail the social and semiotic mechanics of the protests while retaining a strong narrative flow. "A wealth of detail" is a hackneyed phrase but it definitely applies here: the slogans used, the music played, the diverse mix of people present are all conveyed. What comes through is the wit of many of the actions by both B92 and the protest movement proper. As well as Belgrade's surrealist/Dadaist tradition (dating back to the twenties), a Pythonesque brand of black humour helped shape the protest. Details such as the placard "When the ruler is impotent, only the people arise" are priceless.
Rock 'n' Roll Radio?
In the subtitle of the book, Collin stresses the symbolic impact of the music of Detroit techno unit Underground Resistance, frequently played by Gordan Paunović and other B92 DJs. The first part of the title however, "Rock 'n' Roll Radio" seems to do a major disservice to the book and the station. It's a snappy title but reveals a major contradiction in the book. It might sound adventurous to Radio 4 listeners, but to almost anyone under 30, rock 'n' roll now has largely negative associations with Golden Oldies stations and perpetual nostalgia: the automatic association between rock 'n' roll and rebellion or resistance is long dead. This over-simplification is summed up by this phrase from the introduction, which describes B92's creators as:
a small group of idealists who simply wanted to play rock 'n' roll and tell the truth about what was really happening, and the coterie of like minds which coalesced around them, warming their hands at the flickering flame, keeping their dreams alive (p 3).
This phrase over-romanticises a very concrete struggle and also overplays the simplistic "rock 'n' roll" motif—if B92 really had been just "rock 'n' roll radio," its impact would have been minimal and Collin would not be writing about it. Its success lay in a far wider and more experimental approach than the rather kitschy description above suggests.
Collin's analysis of the corruption of almost all sectors of cultural and political life by the "Turbo-folk ideology" and the accompanying gangsterization of public life is very strong and illustrates that domestic rock stars were as corruptible as anyone else and that according to Belgrade writer Petar Luković: "Very few people in rock n' roll stayed clean" (p 85).
Indeed, during the NATO bombing, mainstream rock artists in both Yugoslavia and the US naturally assumed "patriotic" poses and allied themselves with their respective government's policies. Rock 'n' roll, then, is a heavily compromised medium, frequently appropriated by authority, perhaps not to the same extent as Turbofolk, but far less so than dance music of the type played by The Prodigy (who played Belgrade in the mid-1990s) or by Underground Resistance.
Technoculture and the future of resistance
The new digital cultures that sprang up around both the developing techno/dance scenes and the spread of the Internet were key elements in building a dynamic alternative in Belgrade. One of the most inspiring aspects of the book for media activists in both West and East is the account of the technologies of resistance utilised by B92. The use of the Internet as an alternative medium is particularly striking. Satellite re-broadcasts, real audio technology and the creation of the ANEM network of independent electronic media all played a vital role in the survival and spread of the station and its signals.