Romanians Get Music--and Hard News--From Radio


When Romania's radio waves were freed from communist orthodoxy, disc jockey Bogdan Popescu went to work spicing things up with once-banned Western pop music.

Listeners were grateful, but Popescu quickly learned that Romanians needed hard news as much as hard rock.

Now Popescu--widely known as "The Snake" for a commercial he once did for Bucharest's Red Snake bar--is prominent among a cadre of tough radio journalists giving the Establishment fits by giving Romanians news.

His employer, Radio Total, is among more than a dozen private stations that have gone on the air in Bucharest since this backward country of 23 million people threw off communism in 1989.

Unlike state-owned TV and radio or Romania's free but sloppy newspapers, the private radio stations are getting news fast, getting it right and, wherever possible, getting it live.

Doing so, they are jolting Romanians out of a centuries-old habit of accepting official whim that was exaggerated under the Draconian communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu.

"Why isn't there water? Why is the government increasing taxes? Why is meat 3,000 lei [$1.50] more expensive today?" Popescu, 27, laments in a growling voice and mispronounced "r's" that have helped make him a celebrity.

When bureaucrats announced that much of Bucharest would be without water during six days of repair work, Radio Total didn't blithely accept that. It ran a blitz of live reports from repair sites and broadcast calls from irate listeners and interviews with embarrassed officials--who managed to finish the work in two days.

"We frightened them, and they worked around the clock," said station director Cornel Nistorescu.

One day when Nistorescu felt a disconcerting bending motion on a traffic-laden bridge, he stopped his car and phoned in a live report warning motorists to avoid the span. Officials later closed it.

Other stations, such as Bucharest's popular Radio Contact, have won big followings mixing Western pop music with concise news bulletins, weather forecasts, traffic reports--even warnings about police speed traps.

"It's extraordinary," said Dumitru Tinu, editor of the newspaper Adevarul. "They have stimulated competition in the written press, particularly with information. It is a positive thing."

Although editors believe readers still place greater value on the written word, the financially ailing print media repels many Romanians with its seeming preoccupation with sensationalism or numbing political argument.

"Radio tells me what's going on, and political comment is separate," said Radu Catcana, a 40-year-old businessman in Brasov, a city of 320,000 people that now has three private stations.

Young people such as Gheorghe Catalin, an 18-year-old waiter in Bucharest, say they are too busy trying to make it in the new market economy to wade through newspapers. He says he listens to private radio "when I go to bed, in the kitchen, and in the street on my Walkman."

Leading the wave are intense young go-getters such as Popescu.

After earning a chemical engineering degree in 1990, he drifted into radio when people told him he had a good voice. He started with a half-hour show that played popand rock.

He soon found it too shallow, and quit in a disagreement over program format. He joined Radio Total three months before it went on the air in late 1993, practicing on mock-up shows and studying journalism in a program sponsored by the British Broadcasting Corp.

Though his work wardrobe may still feature cutoff jeans and T-shirts, "The Snake" is anything but casual about his work.

"When I married my wife, I told her that radio comes first," he said.

"Every day I read the papers, watch TV to keep up to date. We're not an easy station. We get people to think."

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