I have met many great social entrepreneurs on this journey, and will meet many more. Some will achieve greatness, others will make their own difference on a less grand, but no less important scale. Yet very few will have the impact of Veran Matic, the inspiration behind B92, the organisation which is the single most famous and important social business in the entire region. There is no single person I tried harder to meet than Veran–and finally, thanks to Dragana Nikolic Solomon, had the pleasure of meeting him with his interpreter, Vlada Brasanac, on 20 July 2007. What a story!!
I will not bore you with a lengthy history of B92. Interested readers can purchase Matthew Collin’s gripping book, “This is Serbia Calling” and get the full picture of B92, its background and its impact. During the 1990s and all the “troubles” under Milosevic, B92 became nothing short of the conscience of the nation. It was simply a radio station, initially a not-so-popular one; what it became was, in the words of one person I later met, “the single most important thing to me in my whole early life, period”. B92 took on the Government and provided the only independent voice at a time when all other outlets were under strict control. This was not easy. Employees, especially the Directors, were subject to regular personal threats, the station was shut down several times, equipment stolen and destroyed–and they continued to broadcast, and fearlessly remained independent. Critically they did not become the voice of the opposition–and gave a regular opportunity for the Government and other illiberal forces to state their views, as well, on the air. They were unique only in that they gave listeners the full picture–of the war and its atrocities which the Government was perpetrating in their name.
Today, B92 is a successful and diversified media company. It does TV, radio, publishing, produces movies, etc. It is a serious commercial enterprise, broadcasting programmes with a huge following, such as ”Big Brother” (although their version does have a twist) but at the same time, will follow up with a documentary about the tragedy at Vukovar. It is backed by commercial media investors as well as “soft” money, and partly staff-owned.
Yet refusing to rest on its laurels, it now has strayed further into the social side of the business. A year or two ago it tried to raise money on the air for a “safe house” for women who were the victims of domestic violence. It raised so much money, it built three! More recently, it mounted a campaign for mobile blood units, urging people to help replenish Serbia’s depleted summer stocks (Veran himself gives regularly). Its next project will be a Holocaust-based exhibit that will focus on Serbia’s role in the extermination process. In all three cases, B92 highlights an issue most Serbians would prefer to ignore–they raise money and awareness about these topics–and then they make practical suggestions for moving forward. For example, the Holocaust exhibit will primarily be about tolerance in a general sense, and not be limited to the WWII atrocities, a quality not only lacking in Sebia but all over the world!
So the question is, what makes a guy risk life and limb to do all this. Veran offered a wide range of intellectual arguments, the UN Declaration on the Freedom of Speech, etc. I feel a personal anecdote is much more telling. When he was about 7 or 8, his deeply religious and beloved grandfather was losing his eyesight. To help him, young Veran used to sit in his lap and read to his grandfather from the bible. In addition to reading they chatted about the ethical and moral issues contained therein. I am not sure if Veran is religious–I failed to ask him (a mistake no decent journalist would make!), what I am willing to bet on is that there, in the lap of this great man, is where Veran’s ethical compass and moral courage were formed. But for this, there is no telling how things might have ended.
I can think of nothing else to say, but I tell you this. I am going to pay more attention to what I say when my grandchildren sit in my lap as my own sight fades-perhaps the fate of a nation will depend on it?