Rebel station has a new quest

After battling Milosevic, Yugoslavia's B92 station seeks fiscal success - and a national TV license.

The journalists at B92, the iconic Belgrade radio and TV station that symbolized and succored defiance of former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic for more than a decade, might have hoped for a bit of gratitude from the new democratic government.

They have been disappointed. "If someone was highly courageous during the Milosevic era, we will give them a medal but not a TV channel," said Zoran Djindjic, the Serbian premier, recently.

Welcome to the new Yugoslavia, where ratings and realpolitik count for much more than the romance of rebellion.

The story of B92's problems in securing a license to broadcast its TV shows nationally tells a lot about what has changed and what has not in Yugoslavia since Oct. 5, 2000, when the democratic opposition seized power from Mr. Milosevic in an outburst of mass protest.

B92's TV signal currently reaches only central Belgrade. "But we have to cover all of Serbia if we want to be commercial," says station manager Milan Begic. "Without national coverage, this television station has no future."

But the government is refusing to hand out new broadcasting licenses until a new media law has been passed. Sixteen months after the change of power, parliament has still not voted that law, despite early promises from senior officials that they would make it a priority.

Some see dark motives behind the delay. "The people who supported B92 when it was in opposition are now in government, and they do not want any parallel structures, just the state-owned media," suggests Jelena Milic, an analyst at the Belgrade office of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based policy think-tank.

Veran Matic, one of B92's founders and now its editor in chief, is inclined to be more charitable, but he points to another problem.

"I don't think there is a conscious desire to stop us," he says. "But there is a political problem with passing this law," because it would mean the government would lose its control over the state-run stations.

The new legislation would make them "public service broadcasters" along western European lines.

It is not as if Mr. Matic is planning to operate the sort of straightforward opposition network that he ran during the 1990s. He has in mind, he says, a mix of commercial programs to attract a broad audience (such as "Sex and the City," and NBA games, which the channel already runs) and public service programs.

"Our goal now is high ratings, not just to be someone's opponent," Matic says. "We are in a transition from alternative programming to dignified mainstream."

While maintaining what he calls "a critical attitude to the new authorities that say they are reformist, a watchdog role," Matic also sees his station offering support to the government in its policies.

Amid widespread popular anxiety about the painful effects of economic reform, for example, B92 television has made a series of documentaries about the state-owned firms that are being privatized, clearing some of the fog of uncertainty and fear that surrounds such a process.

"We are offering information that calms people down," Matic suggests. "It is important that there be a dialogue between the government and the victims of its policies, and that is our job. It's a vacuum left by the state media that we have filled."

This mix of the commercial and the political reflects the new reality that the B92 radio station, founded in 1989, faces.

"In the Milosevic era you had government propaganda and supporters on one side, and a grass roots democratic movement on the other," says Milivoje Calija, manager of the radio station. "We were in a parallel world.

"Today there is no bipolar system.... We have to become the leader in a single world. We have to float freely in the market," he adds. "The struggle for self-sustainability is a bigger challenge than living under Milosevic."

This approach is a far cry from the gritty alternative rock, hip-hop, and openly opposition news shows that made B92 radio an essential pillar of the nonconformist community in Belgrade. And journalists at the station are frightened of the new reality, says Mr. Calija.

But the station has been able to build on its reputation for credibility to become commercially successful in the past year. B92 radio has captured one-third of the Belgrade audience and 22 percent of the national audience, it is the most popular radio station in the country, and now covers 90 percent of its costs through ad sales, according to Calija.

That follows years of depending on aid from philanthropist George Soros, the US Agency for International Development, European governments, and others who were keen to support the opposition to Milosevic.

Money is a bigger problem for the TV station, which is both more expensive and less able to attract advertisers because of its limited reach.

At the same time, international donors are less generous than they were when the station was an opposition beacon, says Matic.

"We knew it would be harder," he explains. "But the problem is not just Oct. 5 [when Milosevic fell], it is Sept. 11. Yugoslavia has been wiped out of people's memory.

The station has still been able to find donors ready to fund some programming, however.

US foundations will finance a series of documentaries about the Balkan wars, and the US Agency for International Development is paying for B92 television to broadcast the entirety of the Milosevic war-crimes trial in The Hague live for as long as it lasts, according to Mr. Begic.

In the end, predicts Matic, B92's future will be much like its past - intimately related to democracy. "A successful commercial future is possible," he says, "but it will depend a lot on the development of democracy: If we are stronger, democracy is stronger, and if democracy is stronger, so are we. B92 will be a bellwether for how this process goes."

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