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Review March 2024

An insider’s view of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Review by Anna Grutza
R. Eugene Parta, 2022
ISBN 9789633864555
426 Pages
Published by: CEU Press
Radio Free Europe masts in Portugal. Photo credit: Fortepan/Fortepan

Under the Radar by R. Eugene Parta tells the story of Radio Liberty’s Soviet Area Audience and Opinion Research department (SAAOR) from an insider’s perspective. Written as a first-person narrative, it is a memoir spiced with wit and interwoven with amusing anecdotes about an ever-closer growing community of staff. It unfolds the story of a small but tightly knit international team that found itself in a historically unusual situation: under the radar of Western and Eastern intelligence services, it was tasked with the rather experimental endeavor of interviewing Soviet travelers and émigrés in the West. Using their skills to build upon personal contacts and circumvent the barriers that impeded their research into Soviet radio audiences, the team was able to set up interview projects with Soviet travelers and émigrés at crucial crossing points to the West.  

As a former employee and director of SAAOR and later of Media and Opinion Research at Radio Free Europe’s (RFE)/Radio Liberty’s (RL) Research Institute, Parta allows the reader to look behind the scenes of Radio Liberty’s US audience research. He thus offers more than just glimpses into SAAOR’s steadily accelerating growth, its professional networks and workflow, its liberal working atmosphere and various socializing events, which appear to stand in strong contrast to the periodically resurfacing tensions within RL as well as with its US administration in New York. Parta not only accentuates the importance of SAAOR’s research results for the continued existence of RFE/RL but he also sheds light on SAAOR’s day-to-day exigencies in identifying possible interviewers and interview locations and in enlarging its network by partnering with new institutions worldwide. SAAOR’s need for innovative solutions for its data representativeness and hence artificial adjustment of interview data through audience simulation methodologies led especially to its reliance upon the latest technology to gauge the size of RL’s audience, its cooperation with MIT and the continuous involvement of a circle of renowned academic experts, such as Ithiel de Sola Pool, Wilbur Schramm, Daniel Lerner, Paul Lazarsfeld, Vladimir Shlapentokh and Ellen Mickiewicz. 

the author’s passion for classical music and it follows the five movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the Pastorale.

Furthermore, in the light of the methodological limitations resulting from the very specific interview situation – questionnaires, for instance, were most often than not shown to the Soviet interviewees in order not to alarm the respondents and other actors who might suspect hidden intentions – Parta also elucidates how the constant quest for innovative adaptations made the employment of sometimes less orthodox approaches to Soviet listener interviewing and surveys unavoidable if they were to be continued under the suspicious radar of European as well as Soviet intelligence services. 

The structure of Under the Radar is inspired, as Parta explains in the introduction, by the author’s passion for classical music and it follows the five movements of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the Pastorale. Hence the “SAAOR symphony” begins with a Prelude on RL’s first Audience Research Division (ARD) in Munich, before it was renamed SAAOR in the late 1970s. It ends with a Coda on the work of RFE/RL within the long legacy of Cold War information wars, cyberwarfare and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, thereby reaffirming the crucial role played by public opinion. The main part of the book is divided into five movements that span the 38 years from 1956 to 1994. They tell the impressive history of how a small unit under the guidance of Max Ralis started out by solicitating listener mail and conducting ad hoc interviews with Soviet travelers, to become a leading organization in the field of media and opinion research that provided data not only about and to RL but also to Voice of America, the BBC and Deutsche Welle. Having finally established its headquarters in an office in Paris on the Boulevard Saint Germain, this enterprise developed into an increasingly sophisticated media research network on a global scale. Interview projects were conducted in Finland, Sweden, France, Greece, Italy, and Israel, to name a few, later expanding further into India and Japan and, finally, with the collapse of Communism, which at last allowed in-country polling, to Eastern Europe and Russia. 

it provides readers and researchers with unique information about RL’s audience research department and its international connections, including a priceless who’s who, the profiles of SAAOR’s employees

Still, some slight skepticism remains. To cite Wilbur Schramm’s comment on SAAOR’s almost insurmountable challenge, “[b]y the rules of the game, 95 per cent of all the sophisticated methods available to researchers in Western countries [were] foreclosed from use” (p. 43).  Despite the success story that Parta narrates, supported by positive evaluations of SAAOR’s work by various academic experts, SAAOR’s “second-best” approach to substitute for the lack of direct access and in-country surveys entailed relying upon interviews with privileged groups of Soviet citizens who could travel abroad. For these interviews, as Parta notes, the interviewers often needed to develop their own unorthodox modus operandi with their own indirect methods of asking questions, remembering information and their own notation systems that they used after the interview. Yet, the actor that one might most have expected to be at the central stage of the narrative, namely the CIA, even if only in its role of “benign overseer” (p. 20), is referred to surprisingly little. Other possible recipients of SAAOR’s survey data, such as USIA, the State Department, the Board for International Broadcasting (BIB), the Free Europe Committee (FEC) or US universities and research programs, are almost never elaborated upon. Beyond occasional parentheses, such as James Critchlow’s habit of reviewing the quality of the materials produced during his tenure as head of Soviet research at USIA, the memoir remains rather silent about the further circulation and use of SAAOR’s data by other US institutions.  

In general, however, and in contrast to the continuously growing research on the Cold War history of RFE, together with the memoirs of James Critchlow and Gene Sosin, this book adds invaluable knowledge to the still relatively understudied role of RL.1 Even more importantly, it provides readers and researchers with unique information about RL’s audience research department and its international connections, including a priceless who’s who, the profiles of SAAOR’s employees, depictions of its network and working techniques, and the role of its survey partner institutions. In this sense, it is an unprecedented study of its kind. A similar account of the history of RFE’s East European Audience and Opinion Research (EEAOR) under the directorship of Henry Hart would be desirable. Researchers tracing and deciphering the broader context of the Cold War correspondence and reports in the RFE/RL archives at the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford and the Vera and Donald Blinken Open Society Archives in Budapest will find in it an indispensable guide. Researchers working in the archives of RFE/RL’s audience research should start with this book.

Anna Grutza is a PhD Candidate in Comparative History at the Central European University in Vienna/Budapest. In 2022, she was a visiting student researcher at the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at Stanford University and an OSUN doctoral fellow at the Democracy Institute in Budapest. In her PhD thesis on “Imperial Laboratories of Governance in Disguise: Seeing Through the Grid of Cold War Information Analysis”, she investigates how experimental social psychology and mass communication, propaganda, and public opinion research shaped the policy and information analysis of Radio Free Europe and Cold War secret services respectively. Working along the edges of a history of knowledge and a history of ignorance, she aims at situating their mutual observations and mimetic operations in the context of a history of entangled imperial modernities.


1 Critchlow, James. Radio hole-in-the-head – Radio Liberty: an insider’s story of Cold War broadcasting, Washington, DC: The American University Press, 1995; Sosin, Gene. Sparks of liberty: an insider’s memoir of Radio Liberty, University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. Mark Pomar’s recently published book should also be mentioned here: Pomar, Mark. Cold War radio: the Russian broadcasts of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Lincoln: Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, 2022.