The agony of the Hungarian Public Radio

It would be too long to tell the whole story of the ups and downs–mostly downs–of the Magyar Rádió. After 1990, the year of the change of regime, it took a long time, perhaps three to four years, to enact a media law that made possible the establishment of multiple, competing television and radio stations. Meanwhile there was the old state television and radio with the same left-wing staff. The conservative Antall government wasn’t happy with this situation, realizing that media support was very important for a political movement. Thus, the government started to meddle in the affairs of the so-called independent public television and radio. The government removed the head of television and radio. In response, the liberal president, Árpád Göncz, overstepping his constitutional powers, refused to countersign the appointment of the new nominees. Eventually, he had to oblige, and the government installed the men who was ready to do a little house cleaning. The new media head of the radio let 118 staff members go. It was true that Magyar Rádió had about three times as many employees as were necessary, but the firings were too obviously political in nature. So (for those who have followed American business news) Chainsaw Al with a twist.

As soon as the first democratically elected conservative government lost the elections, the 118 fired employees, with the new government’s blessing, practically occupied the radio station. They had already prepared the day’s news, pushed aside the old guard and occupied the microphones. It was rather tasteless, I thought at the time. Thus, the old management was restored. Yet the station was losing audience rapidly. The reason was that it was no longer the only show in town; hundreds of radio stations had sprung up. They were modern, they were "with it," while the Magyar Rádió was stuffy, if not deadly dull. To this day, the announcers speak such "perfect" Hungarian, their pronounciation is so-so correct that it hurts one’s ears. Nobody speaks that way. At noon, the bells of different churches ring, celebrating the Battle of Nándorfehérvár, nowadays Belgrade, where János Hunyadi beat the Turks back in 1455. Bells of different churches, carefully selected according to denomination. Daily there is some time put aside for religious thoughts, again, one day Catholic, next day Lutheran, the following day Hungarian Reformed and Jewish. In brief, this station is behind the times and not economically viable.

But, to go skip back a bit. Four years of the left wing Horn government went by, Viktor Orbán became prime minister, and the attack on the radio and television continued. More and more people were let go, once again for political reasons. According to some observers the Fidesz practically gave away the public television and radio to the MIÉP, a party of the extreme right, in exchange for the MIÉP’s support in parliament. The programming started to shift rapidly toward the extreme right.

And, of course, there is the management of the radio. Without going into the details of the complicated way the head of the radio is selected, the right-wing members of the board managed to choose Katalin Kondor, a former media celebrity turned right-winger, as president of the Magyar Rádió. With her appointment the situation became even worse. Moreover, although Orbán left, Kondor remained, despite the fact that the liberal reporters tried everything to discredit her. For example, though it is most likely true that Kondor in the Kádár regime was a more than willing informer, she managed to convince the courts (she loves to sue people) that not a word of the documentation against her was reliable.

It was only about a year ago that Kondor at last departed. Well, not completely, because although she was no longer the head of the radio, she remained on the staff. Her successor was György Such, who had rather ambitious plans to reorganize and modernize the Magyar Rádió. In the new format, one channel was a hip all-music station, while the structure of the other was completely revamped. Once again he tried to trim the staff, but this time the firings seemed to be more even handed. He eliminated a cabaret program, directed by a well known liberal comedian, because few people listened to it. Oh dear, Katalin Kondor also got a pink slip as the program director of a program.

The reaction has been incredible. Listening to the complaints of those who lost their jobs, it becomes clear that these people really looked upon the Magyar Rádió as a sinecure. They intended to stay as long as they wished or until they died. One man, who is 54 years old, went on a hunger strike. All of them are suing the radio for age discrimation. Kondor hasn’t said anything yet, but today about 150 people were demonstrating on her behalf in front of the radio’s headquarters. Knowing Kondor’s behavior in the past, I have the feeling that the story hasn’t ended here.