‘We were always showing we were always looking for some kind of alternative way to bypass the oppression and create a positive effect despite all the other problems’ - Gordan Paunovic, B92 DJ
Serbian radio station B92 first started broadcasting in Belgrade on 15 May 1989 as Youth Radio B92. Named after the frequency it broadcast on, B92 was more than just a radio station.
From the beginning, it sought to provide a voice to the oppressed and offer an alternative to the state-controlled mainstream media.
Gordan Paunovic worked as music editor for Radio B92 and was part of the station’s broadcasting team from the beginning.
He played a part in how the station challenged the Serbian government, despite a number of attempts by the state to shut the station down.
Life in Belgrade during the 1990s was often violent, fraught and unpredictable, and B92 was often at the centre of the action.
Still an active DJ, Gordan’s story and that of Radio B92 was told in Rebel Sounds at IWM London, an exhibition exploring how people have taken a stand for the music they love.
‘We were very politically courageous challenging the traditional system, challenging politicians’ - Gordan Paunovic
At the beginning of 1989 there was a general feeling of positivity in the city of Belgrade. A booming economy and the gradual collapse of communism across Eastern Europe gave many young people a sense that life could only get better. But tensions between the various states of Yugoslavia following the death of President Josip Broz - known worldwide as Tito - led to a growing nationalist movement. The leader of the League of Communists of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević, exploited this and manipulated it in his favour. Milošević championed an increasingly virulent brand of nationalism which ultimately led to the deaths of thousands of people in the following years.
In May 1989 Milošević was elected President of Serbia and in July 1990 a new constitution for Serbia was implemented. In theory it introduced multi-party politics and ended one-party rule but in practice it strengthened the powers of the president. In December 1990 the first multi-party elections were held in which, thanks to his skillful manipulation of the media, Milošević secured over 65% of the vote in the presidential election, and his party over 77% of the vote in the national assembly elections.
The staff at radio B92 took an active political stance from the station’s beginning, campaigning against anti-homosexual legislation and for the legalisation of prostitution. It also started a debate about the legalisation of soft drugs which was eventually discussed by the Serbian parliament. The station was not afraid to challenge the state, and soon attracted the attention of Milošević and his government officials, who tightly controlled and manipulated the media.
‘It looked completely mad, the protesters took control of the town, the people were so angry, we have never seen the power of the people like that before’ - Gordan Paunovic
In March 1991, frustrated by Milošević’s control of the media, the Serbian Renewal Movement Party led by Vuk Draskovic organised a demonstration in Belgrade against the media clampdown. Over 100,000 protesters joined the demonstration, voicing their opposition to Milošević. Violence broke out when protestors broke through police lines, with water cannons and tear gas being used by the police. The government responded by sending in a number of army tanks to suppress the crowds.
The B92 studios overlooked the demonstration and staff reported events as they happened, broadcasting live from an open window. Armed police forced their way into the studios and eventually succeeded in preventing the staff from broadcasting.
‘We were able to say through music what we would have said in the news had it been allowed, without the policemen who were sitting in the studios noticing anything wrong…The policemen probably didn’t speak English and the regime didn’t understand music – but the listeners would understand the code’ - Veran Matic, B92 DJ
The next day the staff negotiated with government officials to be allowed to broadcast again so long as they only played music.
The DJs decided to circumvent the ban on broadcasting news by playing music that described in sound and lyrics the violence of the protests. Tracks played included ‘White Riot’ by The Clash, ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’ by Thin Lizzy and ‘Fight The Power’ by Public Enemy. ‘Fight The Power’ became the official anthem of the station, with the lyrics feeling as relevant to people in Serbia as to black people in the United States.
To Gordan Paunovic and the B92 team Public Enemy were heroes, ‘because what they were doing in the States for equality, we were doing in Serbia for democracy’.
‘They chose the international call-signs of techno and rock’n’roll over the parochial, folksy paens to nationalism: the music of life over the music of death’ - Matthew Collin, journalist
The music played by the B92 DJs was very different to the turbo-folk music strongly associated with Slobodan Milošević. Mixing traditional Serbian folk music with other musical genres such as pop, rock and dance, turbo-folk’s emphasis on ‘traditional’ values portraying men as strong and successful, and women as attractive housewives was rejected by the station in favour of a mixture of Western and Serbian music that reflected the station’s resistance to Milošević’s regime.
B92’s refusal to be dictated to by Milošević and the station’s determination to broadcast the truth about what was happening in Serbia and beyond, continued throughout the ongoing conflict of the 1990s, as the former state of Yugoslavia was repeatedly plunged into violence resulting in thousands of people killed, numerous crimes against humanity and many displaced from their homes. Milošević’s government attempted to silence the station on four occasions but ultimately failed to do so, due to the popularity of B92 amongst those it aimed to give a voice to and the station’s circumventions of the state’s attempts to close them down.