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Radio Liberty Going Off The Air In Russia

Oct 18, 2012
Originally published on October 19, 2012 5:42 am

Radio Liberty was founded in the 1950s to broadcast American views into the former Soviet Union when the Cold War was at its peak. Radio Liberty transmitted on short wave, and the Soviet government did all it could to jam the broadcasts.

But after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin granted the service permission to open a Moscow bureau and broadcast within the country on AM radio.

Now, after two decades of broadcasting, Radio Liberty's AM signal is about to be turned off. The service will continue to be heard on shortwave, but the plan is to move most of the operation to the Internet.

Radio Liberty executives say they were stymied by a recent Russian law that forbids foreign entities from owning a majority stake in any Russian broadcast license.

Steve Korn, the president and CEO of Radio Liberty and its sister service, Radio Free Europe, acknowledges that the law in the United States is similar.

Korn says Radio Liberty has tried to find a way to keep broadcasting, including looking for Russian partners who might be willing to take over the license. He says nothing worked.

"Rather than treat that as a calamity, we chose to treat it as an opportunity," Korn says, "because we felt that we could be reaching a much better and more effective, more targeted audience in Russia than we had [been] reaching."

Turning To The Internet

What Korn had in mind was a service that would be focused more on the Internet and social media. He says the company's research in Russia shows that many more Russians go to the Internet for information, rather than going to AM radio or radio in general.

What Korn sees as an opportunity, however, turned out to be a calamity for some 40 staffers at Radio Liberty's Moscow bureau.

They were called to Radio Liberty's lawyers' office, where they were told they were being terminated, with anywhere from four to six months' pay.

Former staffer Anna Kachkayeva says such treatment might be common for American companies, but it came as a slap in the face to Radio Liberty employees, some of whom had worked there for 20 years.

Kachkayeva, who also serves as the dean of media studies at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, says the changes ignore listeners who find it hard to adapt to Internet or can't afford it.

No one explained what was going on to the 200,000 listeners in Moscow, she says, but the message was "you are poor and old, and that's why you're being put in the wastebasket."

Masha Gessen, the newly hired director of Radio Liberty, disputes that figure about the number of listeners. She and Steve Korn say the AM signal was so weak that it couldn't be heard in most of Moscow and didn't reach far beyond the city.

Finding A New Audience

Gessen says the real challenge is to reach beyond the radio audience and even the audience for most websites.

"We are going to try to get away from the home-page model for websites," Gessen says. "We're going to look into something else that's very much in the [Radio Liberty] mandate, which is cooperating with Russian media to produce content for them."

Gessen says Radio Liberty will work with independent Russian television and online media. The idea will be to push content to consumers, rather than waiting for them to come to the home page.

Gessen says that means hiring what she calls "multidimensional journalists."

A few supporters of the Radio Liberty journalists who were fired held a picket outside the U.S. Embassy earlier this month. One of the organizers was Kirill Filimonov, a 20-year-old media student and former intern at Radio Liberty.

"What the Radio Liberty management in Washington did was exactly what the Kremlin would like them to do," Filimonov says.

He says he doesn't believe the new service will give the same voice to those who oppose the policies of President Putin.

Korn insists that the changes at Radio Liberty won't change its mission.

"We are not cutting back one penny of our total investment in Russia," he says. "We are reallocating it in a way that we think will be more effective."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. It is the end of an era in Russia. Next month, Radio Liberty will shut down its AM radio station in Moscow. The broadcast service funded by U.S. taxpayers has already fired more than 40 employees. Critics fear the move could silence an important forum for dissident voices at a time when President Vladimir Putin is cracking down on his opposition.

Radio Liberty executives say they're not giving up, just responding to market forces. NPR's Corey Flintoff has our story.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Radio Liberty was founded in the 1950s to broadcast American views into the former Soviet Union. It transmitted on shortwave, and the Soviet government did all it could to jam the broadcasts. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russian President Boris Yeltsin granted the service permission to open a Moscow bureau and broadcast within the country on AM radio.

Now, after two decades of broadcasting, this signal is about to be turned off. Radio Liberty executives say they were stymied by a recent Russian law that forbids foreign entities from owning a majority stake in any Russian broadcast license. Steve Korn, the president and CEO of Radio Liberty and its sister service, Radio Free Europe, says it's hard to argue with that law since it's similar to the law in the United States.

Korn says the company tried to find a way to keep broadcasting, including looking for Russian partners who might be willing to take over the license. He says nothing worked.

STEVE KORN: Rather than treat that as a calamity, we chose to treat it as an opportunity because we felt that we could be reaching a much better and more effective, more targeted audience in Russia than we had been reaching.

FLINTOFF: What Korn had in mind was a service that would be focused more on the Internet and social media. He says the company's research in Russia shows that many times more people use the Internet for information than AM radio or radio in general. But what Korn sees as an opportunity turned out to be a calamity for some 40 staffers at Radio Liberty's Moscow bureau.

They were called to Radio Liberty's lawyers' office, where they were told they were being terminated, with anywhere from four to six months' pay.

ANNA KACHKAYEVA: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: Former staffer Anna Kachkayeva says that such treatment might be the norm for American companies, but it came as a slap in the face to Radio Liberty employees, some of whom had worked there for 20 years. Kachkayeva, who also serves as the dean of media studies at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, says the changes ignore listeners who find it hard to adapt to the Internet or can't afford it.

KACHKAYEVA: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: No one explained what was going on to the 200,000 listeners in Moscow, she says, but the message was you are poor and old, and that's why you're being put in the wastebasket. Masha Gessen, the newly hired director of Radio Liberty, disputes that figure about the number of listeners. She and Steve Korn say the AM signal was so weak that it couldn't be heard in most of Moscow and didn't reach far beyond the city.

But Gessen says the real challenge is to reach beyond the audience for radio and even the audience for the usual style of website.

MASHA GESSEN: We are going to try to get away from the home-page model for the websites and we are going to look into something else that's very much in the Radio Liberty mandate, which is cooperating with Russian media to produce content for them.

FLINTOFF: Gessen says Radio Liberty will work with independent Russian television and online media, pushing content to consumers, rather than waiting for them to come to the home page. And she says that means hiring what she calls multidimensional journalists. A few supporters of the journalists who were fired held a picket outside the U.S. Embassy last week. One of the organizers was Kirill Filimonov, a 20-year-old media student and former intern at Radio Liberty.

KIRILL FILIMONOV: What the Radio Liberty management in Washington did was exactly what the Kremlin would like them to do.

FLINTOFF: Filimonov says he doesn't believe the new service will give the same voice to those who oppose the policies of President Putin. Steve Korn insists that the changes at Radio Liberty won't impact its mission.

KORN: We are not cutting back one penny of our total investment in Russia. We are reallocating it in a way that we think will be more effective.

FLINTOFF: A lot of people remain to be convinced. Corey Flintoff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.