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Published January 28, 2020


When radio was our window to the free world

By John Toth / The Bulletin

The radio had a polished wood- grain case. Inside were tubes and a big speaker in the middle. The front sported the usual knobs, buttons and a complicated-looking dial. And it was off-limits to my little hands. Golden rule.

My father’s pride possession was a Grunding tabletop radio on the far side from my bed of the small room our family shared in the old country behind the Iron Curtain in the early 1960s.

I often stayed in that room by myself while my parents were at work, but it never entered my mind to turn it on, or even touch it. But when my father did, I was all eyes and ears.

On Sundays, it served as his source for Hungarian folksongs, which my mother could barely tolerate. He sat at the table by the big window, smoked and listened to the radio.

Even after we got a black-and-white television set, he would repeat this ritual most Sundays. That Grunding was used far more than the TV, which was often broken.

I don’t know where he got it from, or whether it was new or used. But I think he got it because it had several shortwave bands. I didn’t realize until later why that was so important.

A few times when I woke up early in the morning, I saw my parents huddled around the radio, with their ears close to the speaker. They kept the volume as low as possible so it would not wake me up.

They didn’t want to disturb me, but more importantly, they didn’t want me to hear what they were hearing. A careless slip of the tongue in grade school could have caused problems in an environment where information was controlled by the government, and shortwave reception was perceived as a threat to that control.

I couldn’t make out from across the room what program they tuned into. Years later my mother said that they were listening to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America (VOA). It was their window to the world.

That’s how important the radio was to them. And that’s one reason that in this technology filled world of ours, I still like turning on a radio, whether for just background music or a news broadcast.

After I arrived in the U.S., I found a Grunding model radio fairly similar to the one that helped my parents bypass the official channels of propaganda in the old country. It was a bit more modern. Transistors had replaced the hot tubes inside. I had it for many years. Most of the time I used it to listen to baseball games and Top 40 music.

But it also came with a shortwave band, and our high-rise apartment made for a perfect location to attach a long antenna to the radio and string it along the metal windowpane.

Much like my father years earlier, I was huddled by the Grunding and carefully turning that shortwave dial. I picked up either static or broadcasts in languages that I did not understand. Every now and then I would get a German language broadcast that held my attention, especially if they played music. We lived in Vienna for a year and a half before immigrating to the U.S., and I was familiar with some of the songs.
And then it happened. In the midst of the static, I could hear some faint words in Hungarian.

I tinkered with the dial and repositioned the antenna. The signal grew some in strength as I very slowly turned the dial.

My mother came into the room, and we listened together. The signal would fade away frequently, but came back strong enough so that we could hear the program.

It was VOA’s Hungarian language broadcast, the same one that my parents used to listen to in that little room of ours.

We had come full circle. But our circumstances were different - a lot different.

I never could tune in that station again, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t vital to us anymore. We didn’t need it to peek into the free world.

But who knows? Someone else may have been listening secretively in a cramped little room, plotting a once-in-a-lifetime chance to go to where the signal originated.

If so, I hope they, too, made it.

(John looks forward to hearing from you on this subject. Send me a note at john.bulletin@gmail.com. You can even send an old-fashioned letter to: The Bulletin, P.O. Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516.)