For a few weeks just after the fall of communism, Radio Prague went silent. Its days as a tool in the Cold War were over. After huge staff cuts, and with the old communist managers gone, Radio Prague went back on air early in 1990. A new era began for the English Section, and with so many sweeping social and economic changes under way, there was plenty to report about.
A familiar sound to Radio Prague listeners was the jingle of the weekly programme “Probe”, which used to look at some of the issues of the day. Here is an extract from an edition of Probe from 1991, presented by John Tregellas.
“One of the most important planks of the present government’s reform programme introduced on the first of January this year was the liberalization of retail prices. The cost of food immediately shot up, with many products doubling or trebling overnight, leading to a slump in demand which has lasted through the year, as people tighten their belts. For example, the demand for beef, which together with pork dominates the traditional Czech and Slovak diet, has fallen by 30%. With production levels remaining relatively stable, the consequences are obvious. By the end of this summer, Czechoslovakia had a beef surplus of around 250,000 tonnes.”
With a growing threat of beef mountains and milk lakes, John Tregellas’s report went on to look at Czechoslovakia’s hopes of finding new export markets in the European Union, then still known as the European Community. But opening trade also meant exposing farmers to greater competition.
“While looking for new outlets for surplus production, Czechoslovakia will have to take care that its own domestic market is not swamped with foreign imports. Since the opening of the borders, there’s been a massive increase in the number of Western food products commonly available on supermarket shelves here. Amongst the commonest are canned soft drinks, yoghurts and vegetable margarines.”
Radio Prague went on to ask Jaroslav Voráček from Prague’s Agricultural University, whether moves had been taken to curb food imports, and he gave an unambiguous answer:
“No. Virtually nothing has been done so far to protect the local market. But the farmers are now calling for such protection of our markets and for setting quotas for products of this kind that would be allowed to be imported to Czechoslovakia. On the other hand, I think it is good that this kind of product is available on the market, because it’s the needed competition and it actually forces our farmers and our food industry to be competitive – that means to go down in prices, to reduce the production costs and to be competitive in the market with these products.”
In the years that followed, domestic consumption of agricultural produce did recover, but the share of agriculture in the Czech GDP has continued to fall steadily. In next week’s programme we’ll be looking at how Radio Prague reported on the first wave of foreign investors coming to Czechoslovakia after 1989.
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