My own private STASI?

In the 80s we did not have Macs and iPads at home but many among us did spend part of the night surfing in a compulsive way nonetheless, or at least, I did. I listened to the radio. And it was even more magic and hypnotic than the World Wide Web.

It all started when my cousin introduced me to the mystique of the British illegal radio stations broadcasting from ships in the North Sea: think Radio Caroline, My Amigo and Ross Revenge. Remember the movie The Boat that rocked? Well this was the real thing. Radios with fantastic DJs and programs, broadcasting the early Madonna, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet hits long before the Italian commercial radio stations in FM caught up. I remember going to school and being totally and utterly ahead of the curve musically speaking, in spite of my sleep deficit. Nobody understood me when I was saying that this “Madonna” singer was fabulous. The year after she was the absolute idol also in Italy.

For me listening to the foreign legal or illegal radios by night was true surfing, like the internet. Endless space on air where hidden gems in foreign languages could be discovered. Listening to radios by night was my favorite English exercise, I would sleep with the radio on. The BBC World service was glossy but boring, while Radio Luxembourg was more rugged, had the best music and a programme which was better than Facebook (but this is another story).

Following the steps of my cousin I then started to “collect” radios. By using my grand parents’ old 50s radio which did capture even ships morse code messages I could tune in to very remote radio stations. Imagine my joy when I captured the US base radio of Wake Island in the Pacific. In order to have a proof of it, radio amateurs like me would send a report to the radio and get back a QSL card confirming the receipt of the transmission. That was the absolute trophy. QSL were even better than stickers or stamps, and not just teenage stuff! The cards came from far away and some were so rare, plus there was always a human touch in those coming from small stations.

Of course those were the years of cold war propaganda. Some radios were big operations. The Voice of America and Radio Moscow were absolutely everywhere on air. Top of the pops was Vatican Radio with its ubiquitous supernatural presence and jingle. Radio Berlin’s jingle was cute too. Some socialist countries had fabulous broadcasting services in many languages, similarly to the BBC’s World Service. Radio Moscow fooled me so many times with its incredible English and American super speakers. The content was boringly surrealist: they were always reading tons of letters from (fake) American readers extremely interested in Marxism-Leninism and that was quite fun because in their World Service they broadcasted evil western pop music: kafkaesque! But the sound quality was pristine and their British or American accents so immaculate – much better than the one of the Neapolitan professor teaching English at my highschool. When it comes to English I owe more to Radio Moscow than to that teacher.

All the biggest propaganda radios – VoA, Vatican, Moscow, Sofia – sent over incredible goodies with their QSL cards. Books, pamphlets, postcards, brochures, pennants and stickers, featuring StPeter and Leningrad, the Pope and Lenin…and they would keep on sending more stuff once you were in their mailing list. My collection of QSL card started to grow plus I was very intriguided by all the kitsch propaganda paraphernalia sent by the big stations. Radio Sofia and Radio Moscow were particularly generous and their brown envelopes were heavy with pictoresque postcards depicting the beauties of the Socialist Republics.

Come May 1981 – hey, 30 years ago – I was already savouring the end of the school year and the possibility of longer nights awake listening to the radio and playing with the newly found “analogical Facebook” without my parents complaining. But one Saturday coming back from school I found my parents sitting in the kitchen with two Carabinieri.

The Carabinieri were waiting for me. They had brought a big manila envelope with them. It had my name and address on it and came from Radio Sofia (more goodies). They had it inspected apparently. They started questioning me on the content and on the reason why I was getting so much mail from the DDR, Moscow and especially Bulgaria.

I explained that I listened to many radios by night, sometimes even to the ships morse code (!!) and that I had this QSL business to tend to. Here, even Vatican radio sent me a card recently. They were not radio amateurs and were quite puzzled by the answers. My parents were a little bit nervous and with “would you shut up, puppy” body language wrote off my behaviour as a typical you-know-these-teenagers!! thing.

The Carabinieri went away not before having me promise to cease all QSL card activity with the Socialist bloc (!!) and write straight away to Radio Sofia asking to be removed from the mailing list. If I was to receive more mail from Sofia they would come back.

I then got scolded by my parents. “They asked us many questions about these Radio Sofia envelopes: how often you get them, when did you start getting them and why all of a sudden this Spring you are getting all this mail from the Socialist countries radio stations. They said that mail coming over from Bulgaria was now getting “special attention”. The Carabiniere giovane had mentioned the pista bulgara investigations – you know, the Ali Agca guy – before being summoned to silence by his boss. So would you please avoid getting us into more trouble and stop your bloody radio amateur correspondence?”.

Quite sad, I went back to my collection of QSL cum propaganda material and noticed that almost all the envelopes I had received so far from Eastern European stations had arrived already artfully torn. Maybe is wasn’t just the fault of the heavy goodies content packed in poor quality manila envelopes. Did we have some Gladio-flavoured Inoffizielle Mitarbeiter snooping in our own countryside postoffice too?

4 Responses to “My own private STASI?”

  1. 1 Jasna
    May 12, 2011 at 22:02

    This is REALLY amazing!!! :-O Seriously

    I am dedicating my free time to wierd radios this summer, seriously. Do you think there is still some room for adventure left, in the age of internet?

  2. 2 stripedcat
    May 12, 2011 at 22:09

    video didn’t kill the radio star…and internet won’t do it either 😉

  3. May 13, 2011 at 10:49

    giusto per rimanere in tema: radio 3 una delle poche isole rimastaci in questi tempi piùttosto difficvili;-)

  4. 4 stripedcat
    May 13, 2011 at 17:56

    infatti ho linkato nel blog parecchie belle cose che han fatto: la storia del muro di berlino, una serie sulla STASI, una bellisima serie con lo storico alessandro barbero su federico di prussia (favolosa) ma anche una cosetta divertente di radio2…le stupende lezioni di tedesco di caterpillar!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to keep track of what's going on at BerlinRomExpress - check your Inbox (and Junk mailbox too) to activate the subscription!

Join 45 other followers


%d bloggers like this: