Nowhere is the contrast between the progressive drive of Hungary’s creative class and the current government’s reactionary politics more visible than in the sprawling capital Budapest. The city is known as the Paris of the East for its art nouveau architecture and flâneur-friendly boulevards, though extreme budget cuts and rampant racism under Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s nationalist Fidesz party are rapidly degrading its potential as a creative hub in what many see as an only nominally united Europan Union. We met six protagonists from the city’s varied art, music and cultural scenes who remain cautiously optimistic about their individual futures amidst the collective crisis. This is the second of a six-part series. Read our first part here, and the third here. All photos by Rosalia Kullick.
Gábor Csabai, the godfather of Hungary’s independent radio community, continues to be a key figure in Budapest’s musical underground.
12:00pm: Meeting Gábor Csabai AKA ‘Papo’ at Rádió Tilos Headquarters
The term tilos means “forbidden” in Hungarian, so Tilos Rádió literally means “forbidden radio”. Perhaps you’ve read the famous children’s book Winnie-the-Pooh and you remember Piglet’s house inside the beech tree? The tree has a wooden sign nailed to it that reads: “Trespassers w…”—some of the letters are missing but I could imagine that the original sign read, “Trespassers will be shot”. The famous Budapest underground pub Tilos az Á had named itself after that sign and was the station’s first location. When we started our program on August 21, 1991, we named it after that pub.
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the Hungarian government promised to give out radio frequencies to free radio stations. In reality the situation was slightly more chaotic because during the transitional period founding a radio station like Tilos was still consid- ered illegal. However, the owner of the pub was fearless; the guy had a lot of experience running an offshore pirate station in the Netherlands, which would send its signal from just beyond the fifteen-mile boundary into the country. What’s more, in the pub a young DJ named Zsolt Palotai had already earned a reputation for spinning the strangest and most obscure music to date. He soon became DJ Palotai and Tilos’ first musical director and editor. With his stunning mixes he informed a whole generation of young Hungarians, feeding into the creative mood that flourished in Budapest. Besides that, I would consider the Tilos az Á the first “ruin” bar in Budapest, which is pretty forward thinking, as well.
In its infancy, Tilos Rádió had to broadcast from a variety of different locations in order to outrun the authorities. I remember moderating a radio show from the rooftop of a building, the top of a ten-story tenement and even outside from the top of a hill. In hindsight I’m sure the authorities could have ended this cat-and-mouse game pretty quickly if they wanted to—after all, they were well equipped with detection equipment and experience. Still, you got the impression that the situation was somewhat ambivalent. Maybe they just had to report that they were trying to get us? I know from various sources that at least some of the people who were chasing us were actually enjoying our program! However, we were always careful and would always monitor their communication, as well. That’s how we remained secret.
Compared to the romantic and adventurous start-up days, we’re now facing serious threats by the government to destroy the genuine community radio stations such as Tilos. Establishing a quota that obliges us to play fifty percent Hungarian music in our program is nothing but a bad joke. I mean, how are we supposed to fulfill the quota from only a handful of Hungarian albums when we are doing, say, one of our regular reggae programs? Even worse is the newly implemented obligation to provide a daily news service which forces us to build up an entirely new editorial department, something which places great strain on a listener-supported station. The final insult is that religious radio stations—as well as certain commercial ones—are suddenly being assigned “community radio” status just like us, which is of great concern. It’s an affront to what we do because the European Union clearly defines community radio as non-commercial and volunteer based. It renders the intention of Hungary’s new media act painfully clear: by means of bureaucratic bullying they are trying to turn politically neutral and independent institutions like Tilos Rádió into conformist entities. Yet we refuse to be intimidated and have developed our own responses so we can meet them head on. For instance, we now claim Hungarian “authorship” for skillful DJ mixes to meet the quota, in the same way you could say that Kruder & Dorfmeister’s DJ Kicks album, which curates tracks from international artists, was a genuinely “Viennese” DJ statement. Of course the struggle continues but one thing is certain: we will never give up.~