Quick: when was the last time you listened to the radio, and what did you hear? If you can’t remember, you’re not alone. Radio is a background medium. It’s something that’s “on” while listeners are doing other things, whether they’re driving to work with the window cracked on a traffic-snarled freeway or varnishing this year’s home improvement project in the garage.

In the early years, Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were “on” while their listeners were engaged in the Cold War. Far from being background media, these radio stations played critical roles in some of the most turbulent periods of world history. At times, they were the soundtrack to revolution. A. Ross Johnson’s book Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty: The CIA Years and Beyond is their story.

The goal of this book seems to be to set the record straight about “the Radios,” as they are called. RFE and RL are portrayed neither as grassroots efforts to fight Communism, financed by citizens and their “Truth Dollars,” nor as fronts for covert action by the CIA. Government records, the author says, “tell a more nuanced story.” Johnson writes:

“The Radios were not the beginning but the culmination of efforts in the late 1940s and early 1950s to harness the talents of recent émigrés from the Soviet Union and Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe to promote the United States’ national interests in the aftermath of World War II.”

Initially, he writes, the aim was to prepare émigrés for a role in restoring freedom to their homelands rather than employing them as communicators. As the title of the book suggests, Johnson does not gloss over the role of the CIA. Indeed, he argues that the Radios “would not have emerged without the initiative and backing of the Department of State and the organizational efforts of the Office of Policy Coordination and the CIA, of which it was a loose part.” Johnson says the CIA not only was present at the creation but also kept the Radios from “being emasculated or closed down at some points throughout the first two decades of their history.”

At the same time, RFE and RL weren’t simply the mouthpieces of the Agency. Their origins lay in public-private partnerships. Take the Free Europe Committee (FEC), which was the organizing body of Radio Free Europe. Johnson writes that directors of the FEC saw fundraising “more as a way to gain public support for the FEC’s efforts and to provide a cover for covert U.S. government funding than as a significant source of revenue;” and he states that the majority of funding for the Crusade for Freedom, which invited Americans to fight Communism with their “Truth Dollars,” came from corporate contributions.

The book is at its best when it compares and contrasts the Radios’ role in revolution. Johnson singles out Polish October, the Hungarian Revolution and the Prague Spring and subsequent Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 for close scrutiny. Polish October started with a demonstration by workers in Poznań for better economic conditions in 1956, and escalated into political protest and, ultimately, a revolt. Radio Free Europe urged moderation, working under the assumptions that Władysław Gomułka’s reform regime offered Poles their best hope and that Polish Stalinists and the Soviets might try to incite violent protest as an excuse for Soviet intervention. Johnson writes, “The performance of the Polish Service during the dramatic days of October 1956 received high marks in RFE internal reviews conducted at the end of the year.”  By contrast, an internal RFE policy review rated many of the programs broadcast to Hungary during its Revolution that same year as “mediocre or worse.” Some broadcasts to Hungary included anonymous exhortations such as “Safeguard Revolutionary Unity!” and “With Murderers There Is No Peace. Repeal Martial Law Immediately!” Radio Free Europe policy advisor William E. Griffith, who is quoted by Johnson, found the tone of the broadcasts “insufficiently professional, too emotional and too didactic.”

Radio Free Europe has been accused of giving Hungarians false hope during the 1956 revolution by promising Western military assistance, assistance that never materialized; but Johnson believes that is unfair. He says that allegation stems from a single RFE program: a review of the Italian press and an article in the London Observer that anticipated Soviet intervention. Johnson writes that two other stations – Radio Madrid and NTS Radio – mentioned military assistance from the West, and given the number of foreign and domestic Hungarian-language broadcasters during the period and the difficulty of reception through jamming, it is possible that listeners could have attributed those broadcasts to Radio Free Europe.

The lessons of Hungary paid off more than a decade later, during the Prague Spring and the subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union in 1968. Once again, caution reigned. When the editors of two Czechoslovak newspapers visited the RFE building in Munich in July, for example, RFE managers urged the visitors not to publish a story on their visit. (One of the newspapers did anyway.) “There were two reasons for RFE’s restraint,” writes Johnson. “First, RFE management (like the U.S. State Department and most Soviet watchers of the day) believed (reasonably, but in the event wrongly) that small steps away from Communist dogma were less likely than bold reformist actions to provoke a Soviet crackdown. … Second, RFE was determined not to repeat the errors it made broadcasting to Hungary in 1956.” During the Soviet occupation, says Johnson, “both radios sought to keep their audiences informed while bending over backward to avoid even the appearance of encouraging active resistance to the Soviet invasion, fearing that it might end in violence.” At Radio Free Europe, policy director Ralph E. Johnson ordered that he or his American staff approve in advance all commentaries on the invasion. At Radio Liberty, Policy Advisor Robert Tuck directed that all news features and commentaries “be checked by the policy office as soon as written and before broadcast.”

According to Johnson, many listeners have wondered why U.S. government support for the Radios was ever concealed. His answer, in part, is that concealment was “initially justified on the grounds that the Radios would convey hard-hitting anti-regime messages to countries with which the United States maintained diplomatic relations and for which it could not assume responsibility.”  Why the CIA? As the Voice of America, which was the U.S. government’s “official” broadcaster, expanded and fought “for larger budgets, it would have been impossible to justify to Congress and the public a second U.S. government-funded international broadcaster,” Johnson argues.

RFE and RL were major players in the Cold War. This book portrays them as flawed, but valiant efforts to wield soft power during a particularly dangerous time in world history.