BELGRADE — EVERY day at 5 p.m., thousands of Belgraders tune their radios to the theme song from the Western movie classic, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."
The music heralds the main news program of Radio B-92, regarded by many here to be the most reliable source of information in the authoritarian-ruled remnants of former Yugoslavia.
While the state-run media work to preserve the regime's grip on power by fanning a war mentality, the young staff of the Balkan equivalent of an underground radio station tries its best with the barest resources to paint an accurate picture of daily events. The choice of the theme song for the main news broadcast suggests the staffers' perceptions of the political, social, and economic cataclysm gripping their country.
B-92 says its main mission is to disseminate accurate information no matter how it reflects on Serbia, the heavy-handed regime of President Slobodan Milosevic, and his proxy Serb armies in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. That is especially important as Serbia's economic crisis risks strengthening authoritarian tendencies in its rulers.
While state-run television and radio promote the official policy of the day, B-92 offers a wide range of opinions: from opposition leaders to ultranationalists to spokesmen of foreign governments expressing uncensored views of Mr. Milosevic and Serbia's role in the Yugoslav war.
Such an undertaking is increasingly dangerous in a country where ethnic unity has been made synonymous with loyalty to the state, and anything smacking of criticism of the regime or its policies is seen as an attack on "the whole Serbian people."
"Unpatriotic" acts by "low-quality Serbs" risk retribution from the authorities or regime-bred, neo-fascist paramilitary bands. "We get threats, but it's not a problem," says Veran Matic, chief editor and cofounder of the four-year-old B-92. "We are not afraid of organized paramilitaries. Only the lone lunatic."
Mr. Matic, at 31, is one of the oldest people on the 85-member staff. He is also one of only three full-time employees. The rest, working on contracts or on a part-time basis, earn an average of $20 per month. Advertising revenues are scant and have dropped drastically as a result of the economic crisis Serbia faces because of tightened United Nations sanctions.
But money is not why staffers work at B-92. "Because of the situation in this country, nobody can be what they want to be," says Aleksandar Vasovic, who dropped out of law school to become an editor and military affairs reporter at the station. "To be a journalist at any other existing media, you have to be aligned with the regime or the opposition. We don't want to be aligned. We want to be professionals."
Matic says the need for an independent information outlet is crucial because it was through the state-controlled mainstream media that the leaders of former Yugoslavia fanned the ethnic hatreds that ignited the federation's violent collapse.
"Journalists are the ones who, along with the politicians, paved the road for this war. And journalists are the ones who have influenced the brutality of this war," Matic says. "The [old Communist] party obedience of journalists has been transformed into ethnic obedience."
B-92 provides more than just news and views critical of the regime and a popular diet of foreign and home-grown rock, blues, rap, and jazz.
Founded on the principles of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, B-92 employs irreverence and imagination to oppose the war and promote the ideas of democracy, economic reform, and respect for minorities.
The station has sponsored antiwar demonstrations that have drawn tens of thousands of people - testimony to its listenership - as well as peace concerts and candlelit processions.
Matic and his staff have also turned to humor to illustrate the country's desperate straits.
To focus attention on the economic crisis, the station called on parents to bring their babies to Milosevic's residence so that he could feed them. Parents brought 400 infants. The ones that cried were declared anti-Milosevic.
Last month, B-92 sponsored an exhibit of works of art frozen in blocks of ice to symbolize the ban on international cultural ties with Belgrade proclaimed under the year-old UN sanctions. The exhibits were later placed in a deep freezer "and when the sanctions are lifted, they will be defrosted," Vasovic said.
B-92 now plans to bring cows into Belgrade to replace humans in a protest against the regime's agricultural policies and a law that severely restricts demonstrations in the capital. "This will also be against the phenomenon of the great leader," Vasovic says. "We will show that even a bull can be a leader."
Authorities have acted overtly against B-92 only once. During antigovernment riots on March 9, 1991, the police shut down the station, accusing it of fomenting trouble. The next day the broadcasters returned to the air with the rap tune "Fight the Power."
Still, the regime maintains a certain degree of control over B-92, refusing to upgrade its temporary operating license. And the station's transmitter is only powerful enough to broadcast to the Belgrade area, which already is an opposition bedrock.
Staffers believe that Milosevic allows B-92 to exist because it helps him preserve the veneer of a free press. "We are like some sort of nasty pet," Vasovic says.