A small voice turned to thunder Serbian radio station mixes message, music


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- For a tiny rock 'n' roll radio station with low power, high energy and tight finances, B-92 sure is influential.

On this station, they don't just play the hits, they provide the play-by-play of the daily protests against the rule of President Slobodan Milosevic. And when the news is read, the theme from the movie "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly," wails in the background.

"Three weeks ago, we were just another radio station that played rock and roll, underground, alternative, techno, liquid, progressive music," says Aleksandar Vasovic, the foreign editor. "Then these protests erupted and we started reporting about them. Now, we're known around the world."

While the Belgrade demonstrations dominate worldwide news, they're virtually ignored by Serbia's state-controlled television and radio stations.

So the protesters and their supporters turn to B-92, as the station's 75-member staff of 20- and 30-year-olds rousts TC government officials, interviews opposition party politicians and provides routes and information on the marches.

The station's importance was highlighted last week when the government temporarily shut it down, along with another independent outlet, Index. The world community reacted with outrage. The plight of the station, simply named after its FM frequency, made the agenda at the Bosnian peace and reconstruction conference in London.

Eventually, foreign pressure forced the Serbian government to back down and put the stations back on the air. But government officials refused to acknowledge that they had acted because of political considerations.

They claimed that a flood had knocked out the transmitter.

"It is just too stupid to close us," says Dejan Radojevic, one of B-92's street reporters. "We're too small. It is not logical. But in Serbia, you don't have a normal government. They are afraid of anyone who speaks."

"The people need us," says Sasha Timofejev, another reporter. "They don't have enough money to buy bread, let alone newspapers. So they listen to us."

The men whisper in the smoke-filled newsroom that is crammed with reporters and computers. In a nearby control booth, technicians scramble with tapes and telephones.

When Radojevic and Timofejev hit the streets, they don't have to go far. Their station is in a drab downtown building, with protests sometimes just outside the door.

They're an odd couple, Radojevic, 24, a fresh-faced veterinary student, and Timofejev, 31, a 10-year news veteran who has lugged cameras into riots.

Armed only with walkie-talkies and well-worn boots, they plunge into the crowds, providing vivid descriptions as the marchers snake past government buildings, including the state-run television outlet.

"Another day, another demonstration," Timofejev says, as he watches the crowd surge by.

"Nothing is new," he adds. "But I'm not cynical. I am working hard. This is my town. My country. And I am proud to tell Belgrade people what is going on. I can be objective."

But make no mistake: B-92 backs the protesters and is a main source of opposition party news. The station has put its broadcasts on the World Wide Web, which also has emerged as a vital information source for the college students who have led the demonstrations.

Milosevic's government appears unsure how to deal with this new information age, a point driven home by Kati Marton of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Marton met with Milosevic for 2 1/2 hours Saturday and extracted from him a signed pledge to support a free press with the "right to publish and broadcast freely." But before signing, Milosevic crossed out the words, "without censorship."

"We're living in the age of Internet, e-mail and the fax," says Marton, whose husband, Richard C. Holbrooke, helped broker the peace agreement signed in Dayton, Ohio, that ended the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

"I told him [Milosevic] fortified borders are meaningless, that he was simply prolonging the inevitable," she adds.

The rock 'n' roll journalists at B-92 agree.

"We became a symbol of independent journalism in Serbia," Timofejev says. "The government made us."

Pub Date: 12/09/96

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