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How 'Teenager Party' helped bring down the Iron Curtain

It was 1958, and the staff of Radio Free Europe pondered what to do next. The CIA funded broadcasting service was still reeling from the disastrous Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The United States had encouraged Hungary to revolt against Communist domination, then did nothing when the Soviet Union crushed the uprising. RFE took much of the consequent blame.

In the aftermath, RFE looked for less incendiary ways to spread its message of western style democracy. One day two editors at the services’ Hungarian desk in Munich were talking about their kids, who were obsessed with rock and roll. Say, the older editor suggested to the younger, why don’t you launch a pop music show for the kids in Hungary? Both editors pitched the story to their mid-level superiors, who at first warned that RFE shouldn’t be getting involved with “nigger and Jewish music.” But top level management (Americans) thought it a grand idea, and thus was born Teenager Party, broadcast three times a week to the aforementioned demographic.

The story is wonderfully told by Arch Puddington in his terrific book about RFE and Radio Liberty, Broadcasting and Freedom. Puddington was director of RFE-RL’s New York Bureau in the last years of the Cold War.

Talking Little Richard

In 1958, Hungary was a perfect target for a rock invasion. One of the ironies of rock history is that the medium was roundly condemned on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Here in the United States conservatives branded it a hedonistic, race mixing ideology that would weaken America’s moral fiber, softening it up for communism. In Eastern Europe the party bosses called it a degenerate, individualistic music that would infect the proletariat with capitalist ideas. Unlike the U.S., however, Hungarian state radio kept pop music off the airwaves, creating a void for RFE to slip into with ease.

Teenager Party‘s deejay was editor Géza Ekecs, a journalist who had escaped to the west in the late 1940s. Ekecs wasn’t a rock nut, or all that political either. He was just an open minded broadcaster, interested in all kinds of cultural developments. This made him perfect for the job. Ekecs played the latest top 40 hits, and also satisfied his audiences’ yearning for dish about the rock scene in the United States, reading articles from BillBoard over the air. “He could tell his listeners something about Little Richard’s biography,” Puddington writes, ” . . . or delve into the relationship between African American history and rhythm and blues.”

Needless to say, Teenager Party was a huge success. Although Hungarian kids could access Radio Luxembourg’s pop music schedule, Ekecs spoke their language, both literally and figuratively. The show also infuriated Hungary’s Stalinist bureaucrats. “They especially resented the brazenness of the program’s listeners,” Puddington writes. “Members of the older generation had, of course, listened to RFE. But they did so discretely, in the privacy of their own homes, and remained circumspect in discussing their listening habits with outsiders. Now their children flaunted Western radio preferences.”

Finally Radio Budapest decided to co-optTeenager Party with its own show in 1965. But, of course, its hosts packed the program with dishonest proletarian culture schtick, including translating the Beatles’ song “Penny Lane” as “Penny Lane: Street of the Poor.” “The station had to apologize,” Puddington notes, “after receiving a deluge of letters from listeners who, due to Ekecs’s broadcasts, knew that Penny Lane was a street in the Liverpool business district.”

Years later, when Soviet era communism died its deserved death, Ekecs returned to his native land. Everywhere people recognized his voice and welcomed him as a hero—another testimony to the enormous power of radio to change hearts and minds.

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