I had the chance to visit some community radio stations in Budapest during my recent trip there.

Through the fortuitous circumstance of happening upon a fellow Wisconsinite while attending the ESF workshop (Paul the Mediageek just produced a show of us discussing that event in greater detail), who was also very interested in community radio, we ended up making contact with representatives from two community stations in Budapest, which we visited after the conference was over.

The first was Civil Radio, a forum specifically designed to provide a voice for “the social life and civic associations of the districts [in which its 50-watt signal can be heard], analyses the contacts between local governments and civic organisations, and reports on different NGO-support systems developed by different democratic governments.” The station’s programming is an eclectic mix of public affairs – on the afternoon we arrived, a news-analysis program was just wrapping up, and some teenage girls were waiting outside the studio to speak for an hour on their own issues.

At the same time, Civil Radio is also attached to a local cultural center, and often broadcasts its events live. This gives local performers of all genres of music, theatre, and spoken word the chance to be heard in (most of) Budapest. The station is run on a shoestring budget, mostly by volunteers, and although it receives some government support its direct identification with and representation of Hungarian civil society makes its relationship with the authorities not as smooth as it might otherwise be.

Interestingly, Civil Radio broadcasts from a tower left over from the country’s Communist rule. The tower happens to be located on land owned by the local water utility, which has no use for it, so the station appropriated it. The utility and station now have an informal agreement allowing the practice to continue.

The second station we visited was Radio C, which stands for “cigányok,” or “Roma” in Hungarian. Radio C represents the voice of the Roma people, a marginalized population found in all the countries of Europe and beyond (also referred to as “gypsies”). In Hungary, the Roma that we spoke with at the station characterize their situation as “of your Blacks in the 1940s” – ostensibly separate but equal, segregated, and treated with relative disdain by the rest of society.

Radio C is helping to lay the framework for what the Roma see as a bridge of understanding, justice, and eventual equality between themselves and the rest of Hungary – the station as foundation for a larger civil rights movement. Most Hungarians don’t realize it, but much of their musical tradition stems from Roma culture; many of the country’s most talented musicians happen to be Roma people. In this manner, the station serves a dual function: it is the quasi-official representation of Roma culture, but it also enlightens Hungarians more generally to the commonalities they all share but might not naturally recognize.

Radio C also makes sure it represents the voice of the Roma in civil discourse; the station began without a license after Hungary’s capitalist transformation, but was begrudgingly legalized by the new government. Since then, the station has patiently and persistently leveraged its voice in order to gain access to and a place of power within society at large. The Hungarian government has reluctantly recognized the Roma as an important part of the country’s civil and cultural heritage; some now serve in government; and the government itself has promised to fund Radio C directly (though it has yet to make good on this).

Regardless, the station perseveres, though it’s not quite clear just how. It has plenty of paid staff, but no real recognizably consistent income stream. Yet enough people obviously recognize the importance of the station and do whatever it takes to keep the lights on. In that sense, Radio C embodies the self-sustaining spirit of the Roma people themselves. It would seem to be paying off: the 10-kilowatt Radio C is the eighth-most listened-to station in Budapest, serves more then 250,000 online listeners a month, and has ambitious plans to extend its range with a network of stations throughout Hungary.

The personalities of the Roma we met were amazingly affable and generous. Hank (the fellow Wisconsinite) and I were somewhat conspicuous in the neighborhood, but having the Radio C folks with us invoked magic acceptance by everyone we met. Many thanks especially to the station’s general manager and operations director, Tivadar Fátyol and Ferenc Szénási, for making us feel such at home.