A Hungarian call-in show: György Bolgár’s “Let’s discuss it”

The idea for today’s topic came from an article I read in 168 Óra (168 Hours), a liberal weekly, which analyzes, unfortunately far too briefly, the call-in shows that are becoming ever more popular in Hungary. I guess their popularity stems from the fact that in a one-party system people couldn’t really voice any opposition or speak freely. (Or perhaps it’s just that people everywhere like to vent.) In any case, the idea came from the United States, where György Bolgár served as Magyar Rádió’s correspondent between 1988 and 1992. Once he got home, he had to carve a niche for himself and came up with the idea of a call-in show.

The show had its ups and downs at Magyar Rádió due to political infighting and the change of governments that usually resulted in a complete change of management. Initially, Bolgár’s program was hidden, once a month, in a late Saturday night slot. When it turned out that 500-600 thousand people listened to "Dear Mr. Bolgár"–as he is affectionately referred to by callers–the forty-minute program was aired twice a week during the early afternoon. That was the situation until 2002 when the new chairman of MR, Katalin Kondor, a woman unequivocally identified with the right, made Bolgár’s situation impossible. Bolgár left and with a slightly changed title moved his program to Klubrádió, a commercial radio station that originally belonged to the Hungarian Automobile Club. "Let’s Discuss It" is aired Monday through Friday for two solid hours. Everybody who is anybody listens to "Dear Mr. Bolgár"– members of parliament, the mayor of Budapest, political philosophers, friend and foe alike. The program has changed somewhat since it moved to Klubrádió: it is more than a call-in show. About half of the time Bolgár interviews politicians. These interviews become daily news. Very often one can hear on the news: "X. and Y. announced this or that on György Bolgár’s ‘Let’s Discuss It’ program."

In 2000 Bolgár published two volumes in which he collected the best of "Let’s Discuss It." I happen to have both volumes because I am a fan of the program. I like Bolgár’s topics and I am impressed with his general knowledge both of Hungary’s political affairs and of international relations. He is, as opposed to most Hungarian reporters, exceedingly well prepared. If he doesn’t know something or someone brings up an interesting question, he promises to look into it and the next day he has an interview with a person who has the answer. The other reason I listen to the program is because I want to hear ordinary people’s opinions. This is important for someone who doesn’t live in the country and doesn’t hear people talk about politics and everyday life. I must add here that Bolgár’s followers are overwhelmingly MSZP and SZDSZ sympathizers although there is plenty of evidence that people on the right are religiously listening to the show. For example, it turned out that one of the leaders of the Kossuth Square group, a man of the far right, not only listens to "Let’s Discuss It," but several times phoned in. In the beginning, neither Bolgár, nor we, the listeners, knew who he was.

As I said, most of the listeners’ and callers’ sympathies lie with the left and overwhelmingly they are the ones who phone in. But here and there comes a right-winger. Every time this happens Bolgár tries to engage that person in some kind of dialogue. Bolgár has a missionary streak. He thinks that an intelligent dialogue will persuade the other side of the validity of another point of view. Practically all his efforts in this direction fail. There are the belligerent ones who shout and don’t allow Bolgár to utter a word. These right-wing callers are in the majority. However, Bolgár doesn’t give up. He tries, usually in vain, to convince his opponent. He gives these people more time than they deserve and his friends on the left are not terribly happy about this. They consider it a waste of time even to listen to this "drivel." Bolgár defends his position by saying that we ought to know what the other side thinks and why. In any case, he has the patience of Job. One can only admire him. He never loses his cool. He is always reasonable and polite.

I think I will reread Bolgár’s two volumes. A cursory look at the very beginning of the first volume leads me to believe that after almost ten years some of the conversations will have an entirely different meaning today.