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<nettime> B92, twenty years later
Bruce Sterling on Mon, 25 May 2009 01:31:00 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> B92, twenty years later


*Tactical media -- bruces

http://www.b92.net/eng/insight/interviews.php?nav_id=59331

B92, 20 years later

22 May 2009 | Source: Vreme


B92's President of the Board of Directors Veran Matic is interviewed  
by Belgrade weekly Vreme, to mark 20 years since the founding of the  
company's first outlet: Radio B92.


Q: When Radio B92 began broadcasting twenty years ago, you had an  
office of 15 square meters and one telephone, and your signal barely  
managed to cover downtown Belgrade. Today, it is the commercial radio  
with the highest ratings in the country, and a part of the larger  
media system which includes a television station, Internet portal,  
music production, and book publishing. Did something stay the same  
after all?

Matic: You are right, many things have changed. But I would like to  
believe that the basic spirit and idea remained unchanged. B92 has  
always been a gathering of people with different fields of interest,  
depending on the profession they belong to, whether they were  
journalists, activists from various social fields, or media  
professionals in music, culture and arts, technology, design and  
marketing. However, what carried through the spirit of B92 all these  
years is idealistic faith that as media we can teach Serbia to be a  
better country than it is, ourselves who live in it today, but also  
those who come after us, our children.

That is what has always connected everyone on B92 who is a part of our  
story – from myself to the last sound technician. To be popular and  
big does not mean to lose the passion and faith that we do the most  
important thing a media can do in a sensitive country with so many  
unresolved issues: try and change it and make it better. Also, we  
still cherish criticism and suspicion towards those who have the power  
to control fates of thousands, even millions of people. That is what  
was giving us strength twenty years ago, that is giving us strength  
today. People still trust us the most. Even those who don't like us  
know well they would get the time and space from us according to  
professional standards.

As a media house we have tried in the last twenty years to build a  
very clear profile of our station and articulate a set of values that  
this house and people who work in it stand for. One of the constant  
phenomena which adorns B92 is a combination of respecting and  
challenging values and principles that B92 represents. I would even go  
that far as to say that political and other options are getting closer  
to or drifting away from B92, which is one of our largest legacies. It  
is not us who lean towards options, it is the opposite.

Q: In the book by Dušan Mašic Talasanje Srbije (Making Waves in  
Serbia) about Radio B92, you say that B92 has always dedicated a lot  
of its time to subversion and that the major part of its survival was  
based on subversive strategies. Is there anything subversive today in  
B92's activities and can a media house with national coverage allow  
itself such a principle of activity at all?

Matic: It all depends on how you understand the attribute  
"subversive". For a lot of people The Insider is a highly subversive  
program because it speaks about things others do not dare speaking  
about. Unfortunately, we still live in times when there are so-called  
taboos and when professional approach to certain topics is treated as  
subversive strategy. If that is the price of professionalism and fight  
for the truth, however, then we do not shy away from subversion. And  
the fact that we are a television with national coverage only  
increases our responsibility towards public which expects us to be the  
way we have been for years. Professional and subversive.

Subversion is necessary when it is impossible to work systematically.  
For the first ten years, B92 was a symbol of media subversion due to  
mere fact that it was illegal, that it was thrown out of the system.  
When you work on the edge, you have the right to use all the relevant  
strategies you have at your disposal. Of course, it is altogether else  
that we actually enjoyed having no rules, using our favorite tactic  
for confusing the enemy – "fiercely and nonsensically".

But the most subversive thing today may be that we are treated as  
commercial media when we behave as a combination of commercial media  
and public service. The question is how long can we endure in that  
position, but I hope that, just like each time before, we will make  
others adjust to us.

B92 is subversive today because it is once again out of the system.  
And by that I don't mean the system defined by the Broadcasting Act,  
but the model of behaviour in the society, the fact that you can buy  
media and their opinion for money easier than ever. It is sad but  
true: media over here directly reflect the state and relations of  
political power and because of that, regardless of the colour of  
packaging, they are alike as two eggs, from the smallest to the  
largest. The fact that B92 today airs a program such as The Insider is  
pure subversion because such a program belongs at a public service and  
not commercial television. The fact that B92 is much more a public  
service than the one that should be is the largest media subversion in  
Serbia today. But we can only thank those who left that space open for  
us: that is why we are so strong. Without it, we would be lot less  
stronger.

With subversion comes innovation: today we have a very strong  
superdesk where every journalist works for all our platforms: radio,  
television, info channel, web site, teletext, news for mobile phones.

Convergence of media is at maximum. When you look at the example of  
Index Finger alone, you will see what I am talking about: we have  
managed to create a radio show with the highest ratings in Serbia,  
then we added cameras to it, and not only its listeners switched to  
TV, but we doubled our audience. The Index Finger on the site also has  
a very loyal audience, when it comes to both the video and written  
version. Through smart use of technology, we have multiplied our  
influence to maximum effect.

Q: According to one interpretation, in the 1990s B92 was primarily a  
movement, and in this century it has become primarily a media. If that  
is true, is that essentially a progress or not?

Mati : We have been a movement while we were in constant danger of  
being closed down as media. It was a necessity of the social fight and  
political circumstances. If we hadn't been a movement, that famous  
coaxial cable would have never dried off. Regardless of support from  
all the journalist associations and large international media, we  
would not have survived if hundreds of thousands of people had not  
marched in front of our windows. They primarily stood up against the  
electoral theft, but they knew very well that we are important so that  
people can know who are the thieves.

What we have today is essentially a progress. We have become a media  
that does not need support from the street any more. (Although there  
are situations when that is still required, too). At the same time,  
instead of a movement, today we can talk about a certain cultural  
matrix, taste, model of behaviour and reaction, which are closely  
connected to what B92 does. We have also not given up certain  
enlightening mission, especially when it comes to basic values and  
ideals we have been striving for the whole time.

This equation you mention does not say whether by becoming a media we  
have stopped being a movement, though. Because we have not. One should  
not let the formal frame of legal prerequisites for work, which B92  
did not have in the past and it has today, be the basis for concluding  
what is a media and what a movement. These two dimensions are strongly  
connected in our case and it is impossible to separate until you can  
recognize emotion and passion that people relate to in everything we do.

You should not forget that regardless of our advancement, B92's  
foothold is still the radio and it is the strongest link of our  
relation with the audience, regardless of whether our other formats  
are more popular. An interesting media research was carried out long  
time ago where people were asked if a media could be transformed into  
a human shape and enter your life, what it would be. Most of them said  
of the radio – a friend. The fact that we are trusted as a friend,  
which is proven by results of surveys on the trust in media where we  
are in the convincing lead in Serbia, still says that we have the  
strength of a movement.

We have retained strong elements of a movement in our socially  
responsible actions which we carry out the way we organized actions  
for protection of the freedom of speech in the past. And that is  
unique when it comes to media in our region, and I would add the whole  
world as well. Last year alone, we have collected over a million euros  
for building safe houses for victims of domestic violence and ran  
serious campaigns against domestic violence, campaigns for the  
purchase of the first portable mammograph and campaigns for education  
on prevention against breast cancer, actions of voluntary blood  
donation, clown doctors, gathering humanitarian aid for various  
purposes, etc. (see the overview of B92's socially useful activities  
in the addendum).

Q: From today's perspective, would you have done anything differently  
than during the time of Slobodan Milosevic's rule?

Matic: I would have certainly done a lot of things differently, but  
that would not diverge from what we were doing in general. I would  
have made certain moves that would increase our efficiency, secure  
better future after the changes, since we were somehow surprised by  
the attitude of our allies when they came into power, attitude towards  
us who represented a "backbone of the resistance movement" (just  
remember statements such as: "We will give you medals, but not the  
frequency"). Although we started preparing for a commercial battle two  
years before the changes, the mere complexity of it all, the quick  
transformation of Milosevic's media and other linchpins into the new  
allies of the democrats startled us, and we lost a lot of energy and  
capacities there.

I would have been more cautious about physical safety of our  
journalists – I am under the impression we have taken too much risks.  
But then again, we could not have stayed inside the radio or at home.  
Journalists themselves would have refused it. And then we come to the  
conclusion that hardly anything would have been done differently,  
regardless of today's wisdom and experience.

Q: Also from today's perspective, what do you see as the biggest  
success of Radio B92 achieved in the 1990s? And does that top list  
look the same as your top list of successes from those days, or did  
the "historical distance" and "wisdom" brought by the experience  
already shed a different light on important events and resulted in  
reassessments?

Matic: My top list is almost identical today as it was in the time  
when we carried out valuable moves and strategies. Our biggest success  
was, above all, psychological in nature. We have brought people, at  
least in strict downtown Belgrade, confidence and sense that they are  
not alone and helpless. That was somehow the most important thing – to  
raise our voice, show that we are alive, that we have not surrendered  
and accepted what the people in power were doing. Also, that I managed  
to imbue people in the house with belief that we are invincible and  
that despite every ban we would find a way to return even stronger  
(what does not kill you – makes you stronger).

We have achieved the same success on the planetary level, where we  
were a poster child of democracy for a long time, a symbol of struggle  
for universal values, against war and taboos... With time, the word  
about our life, our hope and resistance, spread everywhere. There were  
more and more local B92s (through the ANEM network) and fear and  
loneliness withdrew, and we started to get out on the street as  
someone who cannot be scared by anything.

There is an another very valuable thing that I rarely talk about, and  
consider to be my exceptional success – the trust of employees in  
myself and teams who ran the house with me. We were a lot more than a  
mere management, we often played a role of an extended family. It is  
an incredible success when you make it possible that in the period  
between 1993 and today the salary never once comes late. That facts  
speaks a lot about the position of people who worked or still work at  
B92.

Q: A part of "old" listeners of B92 never "forgave" you the  
commercialization of the program – primarily the broadcast of reality  
shows such as the Big Brother. Was it really necessary?

Matic: Some commercial programs are judged harshly, just as reality  
shows are usually given a negative connotation, although those  
programs, in many ways, are much deeper than just another commercial  
segment of our programming. Big Brother is an extraordinary  
sociological and media experiment and its place is exactly on B92.  
 From everything we saw, not only on screen but through the nation's  
reaction, we could learn a lot about where we live.

Let me get back to your previous question, the one about subversion.  
In a situation such as ours, where media space is choked up to the  
point of breaking, and the audience expects media to play their roles  
imposed by stereotypes and prejudice, broadcasting Big Brother on B92  
is also a kind of subversion. It is not accidental that according to  
general parameters of ratings proportional to popularity of the  
television it was aired on, the Big Brother had better ratings on B92  
than on TV Pink. With the help of that program and some other  
commercial shows, we have managed to raise the level of ratings of our  
news and investigative programs. I remember that the film and serial  
on the destruction of Vukovar was seen by over 1,3 million viewers  
when we positioned those programs after exceptionally successful  
commercial programs. (Which is subversive as well).

By the way, the Big Brother is not that simple a phenomenon as some  
people seem to think. Just remember the first Big Brother and its  
winner. Did the viewers reward kitsch, stupidity, intolerance? Or just  
the opposite. It was the first show of the kind that was regional in  
nature. And in the end, a Serb and a Bosniak remained in the House as  
two biggest friends, as adults who went through so much together and  
suffered so much, and it was only three months, and only a game. What  
is the moral of that story? I think that it was very righteous. The  
question of commercialization is always present when you run a media –  
whether a local or national one. Are you going to depend on a couple  
of large advertisers or the ratings and a lot of the small ones? I  
always choose the latter option. As under Miloševi , you always have  
to develop several options, more exits and possibilities. You must not  
close into your moral self-satisfaction because you will be condemned  
not only to marginalization, but to full dependence on the kindness of  
donors. And there are no donors any more, anyway. We live in democracy  
and capitalism, where the possibility of free choice is the biggest  
value. At least it is proclaimed to be like. We have thus offered Big  
Brother as one possible choice, relying on experiences of similar  
media, such as the progressive British Channel Four. We have  
experienced what that means, with all the positive and negative  
consequences of it.

Q: In the 1990s, B92 was banned four times, everything was taken away  
from you twice, and you personally were arrested. And yet you recently  
said that today it may be even harder for you than in those years. How  
is that possible?

Matic: It is harder because it is more complicated, and more complex.  
There are a lot more ways to apply pressure, restrict freedom, and the  
more sophisticated they become, it is almost impossible to notice them  
at once. First, there is a lot more of us, which means you are  
responsible for existence of a lot more people. At the same time, you  
are obliged to investors who invested into B92 believing in our  
business (profit) capabilities. And then, in the liberated and  
democratized world, in your own country, you are facing obstacles,  
pressures and lawlessness which is restricting your advancement and  
future. Often those who dictate the position of certain media come  
from the very times and places we would like to forget as soon as  
possible.

And now they are the ones who create conditions, dictate, make  
threats... These are not your usual Eastern European tycoons and small  
fish who got rich overnight, these are people who were deeply involved  
in crime committed by the regime that was in power for over ten years.  
While common people suffered in the time of record hyperinflation,  
they were building their empires. And that world is connected to  
current politics, even a part of authorities, in a way that directly  
threatens you. The lack of legal and economic security, without allies  
you can count on, makes the position of someone who wants to play the  
role of a watchdog of public interest even more complicated. In the  
past we had only one strong centre of power which had monopoly on the  
force it used against media; today that power is decentralized and the  
levers of power are varied, which means that strategies of protection  
have to be more complex and sophisticated. And, naturally, more  
expensive.

Q: You said that occasionally you get "warnings" that you can lose  
advertisements from large companies. Where do such warnings come from  
and what causes them?

Matic: Primarily from those who appear as protagonists in The Insider.  
Causes are pretty simple and – direct. And since the latest season  
included a wide range of currently most powerful companies, and a  
large part of the state apparatus as well, we have opened up a wide  
front of pressures.

Q: Some Belgrade and other media released "information" that B92 could  
lose its national frequency allegedly over the majority foreign  
ownership, which is forbidden by law.

Matic: That only shows how some people, or services, tend to work. Do  
they really think that such things can scare us into submission? Then  
again, who knows, this approach may work elsewhere. It would be  
interesting to investigate a phenomenon when a media starts  
criticizing a company or person, and then suddenly falls silent  
overnight. And then, after a while, starts praising the successes of  
the same company.

We have also learnt that people were hired in other state institutions  
that work as extension of tycoons in order to gather as much data  
usable in media on B92 as possible, regardless of whether it makes any  
sense or not (such as the case with the current attack). Those people  
do not realize that instead of scaring us they can only cause the  
opposite effect: they gave us idea to pay special attention to those  
extensions of tycoons incorporated into the very system, which  
paralyze the system when it needs to work against damaging moves that  
siphon huge amounts of money into private pockets. In addition, they  
make us deal with other aspects of their past and their current  
affairs (which was not the original topic of the current serial at  
all). The Milosevic regime was permanently experiencing the same  
boomerang effect whenever they applied some form of pressure or more  
drastic bans against us.

Q: There is a word on the street that you are facing bankruptcy, which  
is why you are sacking a large number of people. Did you sack people  
and how many?

Matic: What the street "knows" is often just wishful thinking. It is  
true that we reduced a certain number of temporary employees, but  
nothing dramatic or drastic as people say. It is simply current  
adjustment to the crisis which hit the sector of advertising hard,  
which is our main source of financing. Rationalization of business  
dealings, savings, increasing efficiency is something we strive for  
not only at times of crisis; and at times of crisis, it also becomes a  
question of running the company responsibly.

Q: What direction would, according to current plans, B92's development  
take in the following period?

Matic: We will try to broaden our offer to a wider population. It is a  
general goal which we will, I hope, achieve with our own and outside  
production.

Our web site is the most visited news portal in the region and we  
would like to try to broaden our other platforms, such as the radio,  
television and info channel across borders within frames which  
understand the language we speak, because the B92 brand has certain  
value in all those territories.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Social responsibility was always the backbone of B92's policy"

In the 1990s it reflected in the politically independent reporting  
with strongly built-in political mission of promoting and defending  
free speech and human rights. Such reporting often went with direct  
actions: anti-war, social, artistic. Radio has started creating new  
institutions, launching magazines, forming a cultural centre,  
publishing, humanitarian projects, but the dominant goal was  
strengthening professional responsibility, independence, broadening  
the network of independent broadcast media (before the fall of  
Milosevic, we had over 50 local radio and television stations in the  
network).

With the fall of the regime founded on crime, and with the chance of a  
social system that ensued in Serbia, the paradigm of social  
responsibility changed as well – virtually overnight, political  
programs of various stations started resembling each other, which  
meant that the attitude towards basic issues of freedom of speech and  
human rights was slowly made relative. You could not differentiate  
media solely based on that any more.

The point of differentia started to become the attitude towards  
transition and its greatest problems (privatization, corruption,  
tycoons, monopoly) whose main protagonists quickly started to have  
major influence on the Serbian political scene which could rightfully  
be called, in its majority, an operative lever of interests of Serbian  
tycoons. The pressure on B92 started, basically identical to the one  
experienced in the 1990s from the Milosevic regime, but the methods of  
pressure started to become much more sophisticated and in a long term  
– more dangerous, and even fatal for B92.

That kind of pressures made B92, in the new paradigm of responsibility  
which can be called uncompromising protection of public interest, find  
its new identity, which to a lot of people seemed lost in the initial  
period after October 5, because it remained the only media on the  
Serbian scene which consistently refused to be bought by the tycoons.

It was not only the behavior of other private media which now have the  
right to shape their own editorial policy that gave additional weight  
to this position of B92, but primarily the Public Service, which is  
not doing its primary function, but instead balancing between the role  
of public service and decidedly commercial media, with constant  
compromises with ruling political and business elite, which among  
other things, pushed B92 into a slightly schizophrenic situation – of  
defending independence of its news activities through presence of  
commercial programs such as Big Brother.

Socially responsible actions of B92 came as an extension of editorial  
policy and news department in which trained journalists dealt long  
term with drawing attention to certain hot social topics (domestic  
violence, situation in health care, traffic, positions of children).  
Through journalist reports, a public opinion was created on the  
existence of problems and then the operational part of the CSR team  
came to the scene in order to implement concrete actions, campaigns,  
fundraising, purchase of equipment, construction of safe houses etc.  
In all of this, B92 once again went one step further from a media that  
merely reports, and turned into a mediator between social groups which  
can help solving a certain acute problem only in synergy. Those are  
the civilian sector (NGO), which has ideas but often lacks finances  
and organizational efficiency, companies which have increasing  
awareness that the society or endangered groups should be helped and  
have the money, but don't know what to do with it, and the state which  
has the levers of power, but is often paralyzed by inefficient  
bureaucratic apparatus. We appeared as mediators who through practical  
realization of actions used what each of these sectors did best,  
resulting in enormous efficiency in the CSR field that is  
unprecedented at the domestic and regional scene.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


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