35 years ago, on 23 May 1987, the 3rd programme of Hungarian Radio took Béla Bartók’s name. We asked Márton Devich, Channel Director of Radio Bartók and Managing Director of the Hungarian Radio Art Groups, about the past 35 years, his personal ties with the radio and the mission of Radio Bartók.
– You were in your twenties when the 3rd programme of the radio took Bartók’s name in 1987. Did you listen to it? Do you remember what it was like?
– Of course how could I have not listened? After all, I inherited it from home. Not just because of the fact that my parents are musicians. My father, János Devich, was a cellist, my stepfather, Péter Zsoldos, was a contributing editor of Radio Bartók, and my mother, Katalin Durkó, was a pianist and the music director of the radio. If the radio wasn’t on, the topic was what recordings or concerts were on the air, who was saying what in a particular programme. My stepfather regularly told me what he edited into his legendary programme, Lemezek közt válogatva (Choosing from the Records), and why. I flew out and started a family very quickly, I worked a lot and also had children. I can’t say that my wife and I listened to the radio a lot at home, but when the radio was on, we listened only to Radio Bartók, and of course it was and still is on in the car. Okay, we were sometimes unfaithful, we listened to the Beatles, the Queen and later Sting on cassettes as well.
I remember those great radio personalities who defined Radio Bartók, Mihály Meixner, György Kroó, Attila Boros, to name but a few, and the wonderful programmes and fantastic concerts that were on 35 years ago. Muzsikáló reggel (Music in the morning) was launched some 35 years ago as the “sweet child” of editor Kornél Magyar, which until nowadays is a defining programme. I had no idea that one day I would be behind the microphone, hosting the programme, and that of all the colleagues I can work with Kornél Magyar, but later I was fortunate enough to have him as my editor, for years. Some of my fondest memories are of my mother taking me to Studio 6 when I was a teenager, or taking me to an evening concert and I could enjoy the way a recording was made, the way she instructed the musicians, or the way a live broadcast was going. I was interested in everything radio.
– How did you get to the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Technology with musical upbringing? And how did you get back into the field of culture?
– This is a very complicated story. The truth is that I had no idea where I would go after graduation, I didn’t learn an instrument, I stopped playing the piano after a few years, so a career as a musician was out of the question. In high school, all my classmates wanted to be philosophers except one, who happened to be my best friend. He had a passion for motorcycles, he had a Pannonia, a P20 to be precise, we used to work on it all the time. One day he said he was applying to the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Technology. Okay, I said, I’ll do the same.
I finished university with difficulties, but with good results, I even studied robotics in a specialised course, but by the end of the fifth year I knew I wanted to do something else: I wanted to work in the field of culture. This was the beginning of journalism, more specifically cultural journalism, and the beginning of my “speciality”, so to speak: classical music and Hungarian music scene. Then the regime change came. My first job was at the advertising department of the Hungarian Radio, and soon I found myself working for the cultural column of the renewed daily Magyar Nemzet. Plus, lo and behold, I married a pianist.
– It is a rare opportunity for a radio station to have its own orchestra—and a rare gift for an orchestra to have its own channel. You also took over the leadership of the orchestra in the year of the pandemic. What synergies could be achieved so far?
– This is a very fruitful cooperation, together we are very strong in the Hungarian music scene. Radio Bartók broadcasts all the concerts of the Hungarian Radio Art Groups live, we also record the Variations on Chamber Music series, and we produce numerous reports on the everyday life from workshops and of guest artists. In our portrait series, we introduce all the principals of the orchestra. Radio Bartók also has its own chamber concerts, and the radio musicians are regular performers at these.
And we haven’t even mentioned the so-called Z-recordings. Radio Bartók runs the Music Instutite, a body to which composers can submit new contemporary works. We record the best of them, often with the Hungarian Radio Art Groups, so that the compositions can be preserved for posterity and added to the archive. This work has been a defining feature of the last 35 years. But returning to the present moment, let me mention the M5 cultural TV channel, with which we also work closely, and we are there when needed on the Duna television channel in the production of The Dal (The Song) or at the Virtuózok gala (T/N: Virtuosos was the title of the popular Hungarian classical-music based competition television programme for children and young adults).
– What do you consider Radio Bartók’s greatest value? And what is the biggest challenge it faces in the coming years?
– Radio Bartók is an exceptional brand, if anything, it really is a true Hungaricum. There are not many places in the world where public classical music radio operates 24 hours a day, with national coverage. It is said that a foreigner, when Hungary is mentioned, can surely mention two Hungarian names: football player Ferenc Puskás and composer Béla Bartók. Radio Bartók is recognised all over the world, and Bartók’s name obliges us to produce and broadcast quality programmes. The value of the channel is in the diversity of genres—we play folk music, jazz and soundtracks—,the support of contemporary music, the many informative magazine programmes, interactivity, and the fact that with us listeners can escape from the noise of the world and find balance, calm and harmony.
We are in close contact with all the Hungarian classical music institutions. We have live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera and Bayreuth, sometimes from the Scala as well. We can also be proud of our presenters, my excellent colleagues who are very much loved by the listeners. With over 100,000 listener, we have a highly educated and loyal body of listeners, which is a great gift. Of course, our aim is always to expand our listeners’ base, and to reach out to the younger generation. It’s a truism that the world is struggling with a crisis of values, and that the classical music world is facing many challenges. Bands have to fight for the audience, and Radio Bartók has to fight for the listeners.
– Does digitalisation, and the spread of music streaming, pose a threat or an opportunity for traditional radio?
– We have regular listeners who sometimes criticise us for talking too much on Radio Bartók. They are right in a sense that we have to define carefully the balance between music and talking, in favour of music, otherwise we lose that certain harmony I mentioned. At the same time, with the proliferation of online music streaming, it is important to realise that every existing recording and classical musical composition is now available on the internet. You don’t need a radio to listen to your favourite music, whenever you want. Radio Bartók has to offer much more than being a “record player”.
That is why there is a need for accessible, popular education, humour and a more special approach to classical music, which can be provided by a popular classical radio station. And that’s why we are not willing to compromise on having a clear, precise and detailed announcement before and after a musical composition. We see all this as a challenge but also as an opportunity. We also have to recognise that visuality is at the forefront today, we are inundated with films and I don’t know a young person who is not a film fan. It’s no coincidence that our film music magazine, Cine-java (T/N: with a title that is a play on words combining the words ‘cinema’ and ‘crème de la crème’, the programme features classical music soundtracks), is very popular.
– It would be presumptuous to predict 35 years ahead, but it may be possible for five years ahead—how different will Radio Bartók be in five years?
– We have a lot of plans in the pipeline. I think it is also important for Radio Bartók to follow the divine commandment that God gave to man in relation to the created world, to “cultivate and preserve”, that is, to preserve its traditions and values, but to constantly try to renew them in a useful way. My hope is that in five years’ time we will have many new favourite programmes, and that thanks to the spread of digitisation we will be able to open up more of the world’s great concert halls to our listeners.