Hungary's First Gypsy Radio Hits the Airwaves

A new sound has joined the Hungarian airwaves with the launch of Radio C, a station run by and directed at the city's large Gypsy population.

At the stroke of midnight, the haunting sound of the Gypsy hymn went out on the air Sunday, followed by Gypsy poet Jozsef Daroczi Choli telling listeners in both Hungarian and Romany they were tuned to radio C at 88.8 on their FM dial.

The station, on the air for a trial period but in the running for a permanent frequency, represents the second place in Europe for Gypsies, or Roma, to have their own full-time radio broadcasts. Several such stations already operate in Macedonia.

Broadcasting currently is limited to the 30-day license granted by the National Radio and Television Supervisory Body. Radio C — the C for copyright, emphasizing the originality of having a Roma station — is competing with two Christian evangelist stations for a frequency and a seven-year license.

Hungary has more than half a million Roma, most of them marginalized and poor. Though known worldwide as Gypsies, the United Nations, other international organizations and the ethnic group themselves prefer the name Roma, which means "the people" in the Romany language they speak.

A Station With a Mission

Although they are Hungary's largest ethnic minority, state-run radio and television currently run only a 30-minute weekly magazine program on issues affecting them.

"We are going to have news, music, talk-back programs, interviews, but our focus will be the Roma. If there are new developments in any social welfare area, that will be our leading item, not some national news," said assistant editor Maria Bogdan, 25, a Roma from the southern town of Pecs.

Bogdan sees Radio C as fulfilling a vital education function.

She also says it's a station with a mission. "So many of my friends have left the country, mostly for Canada, to start a new life," she said. "We think the Roma should stay and feel they have a chance to have a decent life here."

In addition to social issues like housing, jobs, and social policy, Radio C will open discussion of racism and other topics relevant to the Roma population.

Rich Cultural Tradition

Efforts also will be made to address the group's culture and identity with programs on the history of the Roma, going back to their origins in India, or their more recent fate as victims of the Holocaust.

The station may be located near the main market in one of the city's poorest areas, but it offers a rich selection of gypsy music from around the world — everything from Kalyi Jag, a Hungarian gypsy band, to the Gipsy Kings, Jose Cura's flamenco and Hungary's famed Gypsy violinists.

"We are giving priority to Roma issues in our programming, be it news or music, but we also seek to have a wider appeal," said Vladimir Nemeth, a veteran radio worker and one of the few non-Roma among the 40-member staff.

Nemeth said the station has been financially backed by several foundations, including the philanthropic Soros Foundation. Studio equipment was purchased with funds from PHARE, a European Union program that provides financial and technical aid to central and eastern European countries.

Several multinational companies have bought advertising time from the station, and in keeping with Roma cultural roots, the Indian embassy has promised to contribute cultural programs.

According to circulation data, less than 1 percent of the Roma population reads periodicals devoted to Roma issues. The radio station could serve as a vital conduit for news and information, as well as lifting cultural awareness and identity of the group.