59. Into the void

by Peter Fraenkel

A public speaker looks at his audience and observes:  Are they yawning… are they, surreptitiously, reading their newspaper? Do they laugh at his jokes?

A broadcaster has no such opportunities. His audience is distant. He has to rely on audience research interviewers to tell him how – or whether – they are responding. But even that was never possible for me. I was responsible for BBC broadcasts to Eastern Europe during the cold war. If we wanted to know whether anyone was listening we had to be inventive… even on such elementary questions as ‘are we broadcasting at times that suit the audience?’    At what time, for example, are potential listeners – say in Romania – going to sleep?

Of course, even the rulers in Eastern Europe knew little about what their people really thought. The Romanian party boss, Ceausescu and his wife, were flabbergasted when the crowds suddenly turned against them and dragged them to execution.

But years before those dramatic events I sat, on a cold night, on Bucharest park bench, facing a huge block of flats to observe at what time lights were switched off. The next night I repeated this in a suburban housing estate. Not a scientific sample, I admit, but it seemed to me our timing was not too bad. But what of the contents of our broadcast? That was much more difficult to assess. There were frustrating obstructions. There were interest-groups, offering advice, often conflicting advice. For example, there were Russian Orthodox priests based in London who insisted Russia needed and wanted more religious broadcasts.  But were they right?  The great Solzhenitsyn came to see us to support their cause. Decades of atheist propaganda, he insisted, had been totally ineffective… counter-productive, in fact.

I got a tourist visa to the Soviet Union. In Leningrad I took the Metro to the Yunost cemetery – the largest cemetery I had ever seen anywhere. I checked: Was I being followed? Not, so far as I could detect. That morning there was only one single burial – and that took place without any religious symbolism.

It was cold. The next day I took shelter in one of the cemetery’s chapels but that day there was only one single burial service in that chapel. This, however, did involve a priest and Christian hymns. But I could not draw conclusions from a sample of one. I was not making much progress.

But why wait for services? I walked along rows of gravestones to count how many displayed the hammer and sickle or the Soviet star? And how many had crosses? Or the Star of David? Or the crescent moon?

But I had learnt enough about such research to be aware of pitfalls. Could the rows lining the major pathways be atypical? Perhaps they were reserved for the privileged or the wealthy? I had to examine a random sample.

But was I attracting attention sitting there for hours clutching a notepad?  I bought myself a packet of cigarettes and lit one – even though I’m not a smoker. Perhaps that might explain my long periods apparently just sitting. But was I causing offence, smoking – or pretending to smoke – among graves?

Of course our U.S. competitors, Radio Liberty and Radio Free Europe, employed researchers who interviewed East Europeans who were travelling in the West – but I had a low opinion of their method. In those years only carefully screened East Europeans were allowed to travel in the West. True, the American researchers used ingenious mathematical methods to try and correct for the bias in their sample. I studied their methods but found them entirely unconvincing.  I did not make myself popular by saying so aloud. After all, people were earning good money pursuing such methods – flawed methods, I thought.

After several cold days at that Leningrad cemetery I returned the London and called in some of my Russian colleagues to give them my preliminary impressions.  They looked at me curiously as I spoke. When I had summarized my finding, one of them spoke up:

“I’m glad to see you back here, boss.”

“Why?  Where did you expect me to be?”

“In Siberia!”  He laughed. “Pardon my frankness, but I think you’re stark staring mad. And I’m sure everybody here will agree, even if they’re too polite to tell you. Don’t you realise that in virtually every Soviet film, every thriller, the wicked Western agent meets his corrupt, ugly Soviet contact …where?  In a cemetery! It’s always in a cemetery.”