The DJ who brought Led Zeppelin to Soviet audiences retires

Sep 4, 2015

In the Soviet Union of the '70s and '80s, it wasn't easy being a fan of Led Zeppelin, Queen or David Bowie. Western records were only available on the black market, and only a few foreign radio stations played rock and roll. 

But if you wanted to hear the lastest hits, there was one DJ in particular you could turn to.

The BBC Russian Service's Seva Novgorodsev established a huge cult following, broadcasting rock music from London, interspersed with chat and interviews in Russian. His show was controversial with authorities, but initiated generations of Russians into a love for Western music. At one point, the audience for each show was estimated to be around 25 million. After each broadcast, taped versions of the show would be shared and swapped between an even larger audience of fans.  

This week saw Seva's final retirement from broadcasting after 38 years on the air. "It's sad and emotional" he said. "My colleagues raised a glass for me, and we had a chat with the audience. It's a way to say goodbye". 

Seva still has a huge following, but he says his popularity originally stemmed from the fact that Russia lacked its own youth culture during the Soviet era. "The youth of the Soviet Union were dispossessed — under the heel of the Soviet schools, their parents, the Komsomol [party committee]. And rock and roll offered them that niche, with me explaining to them what's what." 

Some genres were immediately popular on his show, according to Seva: "Hard rock and heavy metal provided the heroic pose — the pathos, the melody. So It just resonated with the Russian character." A radio documentary he made about Led Zeppelin 'went off like A-Bomb' with his audience. 

Other genres were a more difficult sell.  Hip hop never crossed over on Seva's show: "Of all the modern trends, somehow Black culture did not take such root. It was slighly alien for our listeners." The one exception was rap — at least when performed in Russian. "It took root because every other Russian writes poetry. That was already there."

Seva's fans have been reminiscing in the lead up to his retirement, and some listeners have been sending him cassette tapes of his shows recorded back in the Soviet era. It makes for a nostalgic listen for Seva. "We're still getting those scratchy tapes, even to this day. Found somewhere in the attic. You can hear those sounds, exactly as they heard it, all those years ago." 

From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International