BUDAPEST, Hungary--It’s a little after 7 in the evening in the studio of Budapest’s Radio C, and Bela Ponczok is hunched over the microphone, a black cap pulled low on his forehead as he keeps up a steady banter with callers to his nightly request program.
“Hello Gypsies! What do you want to hear tonight?”
An excited young woman comes on the air and requests “Evil Hides in My Stick” by the Varadi Family, sending the song out to an exhaustive list of friends and relatives.
For the next hour and a half, a stream of listeners phones in with requests for songs by Hungarian Gypsy bands. The interactivity, along with Ponczok’s lively banter, make the show the most popular on Radio C, Hungary’s only radio station aimed directly at Romani listeners.
But while loved by many of Budapest’s 100,000 Roma, Ponczok’s show is also part of a controversy that has surrounded the station since it debuted for a month-long trial run in February 2001. At the time, Radio C--for Cigany, the Hungarian for “Gypsy”--was hailed as a major step forward for the Roma by the Hungarian government, the European Union, and international media such as The New York Times. But since taking the air permanently in October 2001, the station has been beset both by money problems and criticism from Romani leaders.
While station manager Gyorgy Kerenyi calls the existence of Radio C “a very big step in the emancipation of the Roma,” critics brand the station a lost opportunity: an unprofessional mess that perpetuates negative stereotypes.
“Radio C is not brave enough to give a voice to the Roma community,” says Jeno Zsigo, the leader of the Hungarian Roma Parliament, an organization that provides legal aid to Roma and arranges cultural events.
As one of a growing number of media outlets in Central Europe and the Balkans broadcasting for and staffed by Roma--there are similar radio stations in Serbia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bulgaria, and Romani television stations in Belgrade and Sofia--Radio C’s rocky start shows how difficult it is to establish a media voice for a previously silent minority. With Hungary on the verge of joining the EU--which has identified the plight of the Roma as a key concern--many eyes are on Radio C.
Frequent promotional spots on Radio C proclaim it “Our Radio”--especially for Budapest’s Roma. But since before the station went on the air, manager Kerenyi and much of Budapest’s Romani elite have clashed over how the station would best serve its audience.
“The whole editorial plan is set by Gyorgy Kerenyi,” says Aladar Horvath, the leader the Roma Civil Rights Foundation and member of the Hungarian Parliament from 1990 to 1994. “This radio station is too important to be based on one person.”
Kerenyi is not a Roma, but has extensive experience in non-mainstream media. Since 1989, Kerenyi, 39, has helped run Hungary’s first alternative nightclub, worked at the country’s first pirate radio station and written for Hungary’s first post-communist alternative magazine. In 1997, he became editor of Amaro Drom, a non-profit magazine on Romani issues.
Along with five others, Kerenyi sits on the board of owners that secured the station’s broadcast license last year. With a five-year contract, he can only be removed by vote of all the other owners.
The board includes only two Roma. Some critics charge them with being too close to the center-right Fidesz (Alliance of Young Democrats) party that led Hungary’s coalition government when the station’s license was granted. They say Kerenyi sold out when he agreed to the makeup of the board.
Kerenyi insists that he is just trying to take the middle road, because, he says, creating a station to please all Roma “is absolutely impossible.” He adds, “I’m independent … Roma politicians want us to make propaganda for them.”
Others accuse the station of poor journalism.
“It is a silent radio,” says Szilvia Varro, a non-Roma journalist who helped found the station but left after differing with Kerenyi over editorial direction. “When we started, there was a goal that the news should focus on local Roma. Now, there is nothing, just news on Israel, Indonesia, the United States.”
Kerenyi agrees that the news reporting is not up to par, but faults inexperienced reporters and lack of time. “We are sometimes amateurs,” he says. “We do a lot of things by accident. We have no time to look really deep because we’re always running to solve problems.”
FIGHT THE POWER
While Radio C’s programming includes talk shows, a weekly Romani-language program, a legal aid show, hourly news reports, and a music mix of Gypsy, world, jazz and hip-hop, Ponczok’s request program is by far the station’s most popular--and controversial.
Many callers send songs to people in jails, known in Hungary by the name of the street they’re located on. So a call dedicating a song to “My brother on Marko Street” is really for a relative in jail.
“It’s a catastrophe,” Roma leader Jeno Zsigo says. “It reinforces the stereotype that Roma are criminals,” he continues. “There are two million people in Budapest who can listen to the station and think that all Roma are in prison.”
Roma make up 60 percent of Hungary’s prison population, even though they comprise only around five percent of the country’s total population of 10 million.
On the streets near Radio C, many Roma identify the request show as their favorite program and Ponczok as the station’s best DJ.
“My mother calls in almost every day to request a song for my brother,” says Aniko, 19, standing in a group of five young Roma. “Everybody calls in to request songs for their friends in prison. It’s the only reason why Radio C is good.”
Kerenyi defends the program. “We are not afraid of the image we show to gadjos--to white people,” he says. But he admits that callers are now discouraged from mentioning prisons on the air--a request that is often ignored. Now Kerenyi says he is thinking about reserving one day a week for prison requests.
“A lot of Roma are in prison,” he says. “It’s a fact. It’s a fact that could be used against the government, against the establishment, against the power.”
AN UNCERTAIN FINANCIAL FUTURE
On a recent Tuesday evening, Kerenyi sat on the corner of his desk squeezing homemade apple brandy from a plastic sports bottle into coffee mugs he then passed around, celebrating the receipt of a $36,000 grant from the Levi Strauss Foundation. The grant was a welcome infusion of cash for the station, which maintains a salaried staff of around 50, most of whom are Roma.
“We’ve got cash flow problems,” Kerenyi says. Radio C operates on $35,000 a month and is about $100,000 in debt, according to Kerenyi. Most funding for the station comes from Western sources, especially George Soros’s Open Society Institute, which also backs other Romani media projects in the region.
“Mr. Soros doesn’t want to continue funding [Radio C] indefinitely,” says Brigitta Sandor, a program manager for the Soros Foundation in Budapest. “He’d like to force them to find an advertising community, to force them to survive on their own.”
Kerenyi says he wants half of the station’s income to come from advertising by its fourth year of operation. A few local businesses, such as pawnshops, now advertise on the station, but it has landed few big clients. Those include a mobile phone company, an Internet service provider and a recently signed contract with the Hungarian phone company.
“All these have come through personal connections,” says Antal Kote, a Romani manager at the station, referring to the corporate advertisers, all of whom run in the same left-wing circles as Kerenyi.
Zoltan Valcsicsak, a manager in Levi’s Hungarian operation, says it will be hard for Radio C to hit its advertising goals.
“At Hungarian companies, there is a fear that if I use Roma in my commercial, non-Roma will have a problem with it,” he says. “Companies don’t consider the Roma an important consumer group.”
Despite the bickering over the station’s management, Radio C has presented young Roma with opportunities to break into the media.
Ponczok, 21, met Kerenyi four years ago at a club for Romani high school students. For Ponczok, now a student at a catering school, Radio C’s training sessions and exposure offer a chance at a media career.
“He will be a star on commercial radio,” Kerenyi says, adding that he is trying to get Ponczok profiled in women’s magazines and on TV.
Other Roma, including reporters, technicians, talk-show hosts and managers also work at the station.
“This station is like a school,” says Andras Mata, a 25-year-old Romani reporter. “You’re getting a chance, but you don’t need a diploma or a special paper, only talent and interest.”
Ponczok says Radio C is a step forward for the Roma.
“We feel comfortable having the radio station, we feel more self-confident. The fact that we have a radio station is an achievement.”
But is it sufficient simply that the Roma have a radio station? And what should its goals be?
“It’s not enough,” says Krisztina Debre, 24, one of the few Roma reporters on mainstream Hungarian TV. “When they let it go this way, they accept this poorer treatment of Roma. Radio C must be more than simply a message that it exists.”
Kerenyi insists that his critics will be proved wrong.
“It’s a fantastic story what’s happening with the people here,” he says. “In the last year, I’ve watched these guys grow more confident.
“This radio, it’s an identity building course for the Roma. They can listen and think, ‘We are in the mainstream now.’ There is Kossuth [Hungarian public radio], there is Juventus [a commercial top-40 station], there is Radio C. It’s so important that Roma not only get entertainment from this station, but that they get an identity from it.”
Doug Merlino, a freelance journalist, is a former editor at the Budapest Business Journal.
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