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[HCDX] Revamped Radio Free Europe woos Russian listeners
Nov. 19, 2004
William J. Kole
Prague, Czech Republic
Ronald Reagan used it to reach out to the Soviets during the Cold War. Lech
Walesa, the leader of Poland's Solidarity movement, likened it to the sun
lighting the Earth. Rock band R.E.M. immortalized it in a cynical hit song.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is trying to woo new listeners in Russia
with a controversial overhaul that former dissidents and other critics
contend will compromise its reputation and influence as a beacon of
"We're becoming just another bunch of blah-blah-blah on the air," Lev
Roitman, a senior commentator for the private U.S.-funded station, said
Thursday. "They must be idiots to do something like this at this critical
time in Russia."
Officials at RFE/RL's football field-size newsroom, housed in Prague's
communist-era parliament building - an imposing edifice of black granite
circled by heavy concrete barricades and machine gun-toting guards - say
they simply want to modernize the programming and expand its reach.
The station's primary target is urban, employed, university-educated
Russians aged 35 and up. Key changes include more call-in shows, a Web site
overhaul to appeal to the 18-plus crowd, and a shift from longer evening
programs on human rights and other issues to shorter, snappier spots aired
throughout the day.
Nenad Pejic, RFE/RL's associate director of broadcasting, insists that
Russian-language news and programs on human rights will remain a priority
and that only the format - not the content - will change.
"It's about our survival, not our mission," he said. "Listeners in Moscow
tell us our programming is a little old-fashioned, that we still sound like
a dissident radio. We're just revamping. We want to be a local radio with a
But the proposed overhaul, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated
Press, also includes plans to cut staff and "move the center of gravity to
Moscow" by dropping on-air references to Prague to give the impression that
RFE/RL is a local Russian station rather than an outsider.
The broadcaster, which gets $75 million a year from Congress, has moved key
positions to Moscow and now broadcasts 70 percent of its material from the
Russian capital. Critics say that exposes the station known Radio Svoboda -
Russian for "Liberty" - to government intimidation and the threat of
"If anything similar to the current plans of the RFE/RL management would
have been suggested in Soviet times, there would have been no doubt as to
the source of inspiration: the KGB," Elena Bonner, the widow of Nobel Peace
Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, wrote earlier this month in an open letter
to Western media.
"Can anyone think of a more Cold War-type operation than one that pretends
to disguise a radio funded by the U.S. Congress and based in the Czech
Republic as a local Russian radio?" she said, denouncing the plan as
superficial and "a stupid gimmick."
Mario Corti, a former RFE/RL Russian service director who now works as an
editor, ridiculed the station for basing the changes on recommendations by a
U.S. consultant recently hired to create an internal music channel for the
Starbucks coffee chain.
"The rationale for some of the changes is reasonable. But how can you
establish credibility when you're misleading people?" Corti said. "We're a
paragon, perceived to be independent because we're a foreign station that
doesn't belong to the oligarchs. We had something unique. Now we're becoming
like everyone else."
RFE/RL, whose 600 employees and network of 3,000 freelancers were overseen
and funded by the CIA until 1971, now answers to the Washington-based
Broadcasting Board of Governors. Besides its transmissions to the former
Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, which are rebroadcast by affiliates to
far-flung regions, it also airs broadcasts in Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.
Masha Klein, who heads the Russian service, conceded RFE/RL's journalists in
Moscow "have been under pressure for years," but said the station is
prepared to shift staff back to Prague if Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's
She said the revamp sprang from the perception that the station nominated in
1991 for the Nobel Peace Prize is foreign, aloof and run by Russian
dissidents and expatriates "who hate Russia" and spout American propaganda.
"I'm Russian, and I dearly hope the day will come when our services are no
longer needed," she said. "But I don't see that in the near future. The
Russian people still need us."
On the net:
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, http://www.rferl.org
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