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RFE/RL Ends Radio Svoboda on AM

America’s broadcast voice in Russia focuses efforts on digital platforms

The website for Radio Liberty’s Russian service Radio Svoboda.
WASHINGTON — A new Russian law that prohibits foreign-owned radio companies from broadcasting from that country has forced Radio Liberty’s Russian service, Radio Svoboda, from the AM band. The broadcast service remains available on shortwave and via satellite. The broadcaster has said it plans to expand its digital platforms.

While the development silences America’s over-the-air broadcast voice in Russia, it also presents a clearer path to further development of Web and mobile content and places a premium on apps with multimedia and interactive content, according to U.S. international broadcasting officials.

The station, which began broadcasting in 1953 and opened a Moscow bureau after the fall of the Soviet government, has let go a large portion of its staff [see sidebar].

International broadcasting analysts said the development will challenge the Broadcasting Board of Governors to find ways to cope with the loss of the terrestrial AM signal in Russia and increase listenership at a time when it’s increasingly splintered among media platforms. It will be increasingly difficult to reach older demographics, they said.

An aerial view of the IBB Germany transmitting station, taken from one of the shortwave antenna towers at the site in Biblis, Germany. The antennas transmit RFE/RL and other U.S. international broadcasting programming. No longer originating on AM from Moscow, Radio Liberty is available on shortwave and via satellite. The BBG sets policies and provides oversight of U.S. government-funded operations that broadcast overseas. This includes the Voice of America, Radio and TV Martí, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia and the Middle East Broadcasting Network.

Radio Svoboda broadcast on medium-wave frequency 1044 kHz with a 20 kW transmitter in Moscow until Nov. 10, when new amendments made it illegal for an entity that directly or indirectly has more than 48 percent foreign ownership to hold a broadcast license in Russia. Similar limitations on broadcast licenses exist in the United States, according to BBG Governor Michael Lynton, who criticized recent developments in Russia.

“During the first 100 days of his second incarnation as president of Russia, Vladimir Putin has taken steps that sharply curtail freedom of expression,” Lynton said in remarks about RFE/RL in October.

“Putin has enacted a series of laws that raise fines on protestors, impose limits on the Internet, make slander a criminal offense and require non-governmental organizations that receive funding from abroad to register as foreign agents.”

RFE/RL reports in 21 countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and Central Asia. It is facing challenges in Russia “where media regulations have curtailed audience distribution,” according to a BBG press release on audience measurement.

The loss of the AM signal in Moscow will be minimized by moving quickly toward new digital strategy and platforms, said Martins Zvaners, RFE/RL deputy director of communications.

“Reception of Radio Svoboda programming in central Moscow was difficult because of electricity generated from overhead cables used to power the city’s network of trams, which makes it very difficult to listen to any AM broadcast signal in the city. The footprint of the AM signal covered Moscow and the suburbs,” Zvaners said.

Observers agree that the pursuit of new digital platforms will be critical to future success but also believe losing the AM presence will cost Radio Svoboda listenership.

“Even if overall penetration [of digital] is substantial, if there are the kind of generational demographic differences in adoption that we see here, the loss of AM radio may be leaving a big hole in the reach to older adults,” said Dr. Gregory Newton, an associate professor and associate director in the School of Media Arts and Studies at Ohio University.

“Evolution is clearly in a digital direction, but the move to emphasizing digital platforms over traditional services is a question of the appropriate timing. Where’s the tipping point?”

Newton, who follows international broadcasting developments, said he is inclined to believe that, at least among older Russians, significant portions of the shortwave and AM service were duplicative.

Some Condemn RFE/RL for Layoffs

The Committee for U.S. International Broadcasting and others have criticized RFE/RL leadership for terminating staff at the Radio Svoboda Moscow Bureau. Some observers estimate that 40 staffers were let go. RFE/RL would not confirm that number.

According to the RFE/RL website, last updated in June 2012 and prior to the cuts, there were 82 staffers in Prague and Moscow. It also had approximately 100 stringers across the Russian Federation.

CUSIB said in a statement in October that it members were “standing in solidarity” with activist Lyudmila Alexeeva, chairwoman of the Moscow Helsinki Group, who called for expansion of the Radio Liberty bureau in Moscow after dozens of human rights journalists were fired in September.

CUSIB, a group that describes itself as “a nonpartisan, nongovernmental organization that works to strengthen the flow of uncensored news from the United States to countries with restricted and developing media environments,” said in the statement sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that it condemned “RFE/RL executives for engineering a mass firing of Radio Liberty journalists precisely at the time when the Kremlin bans RL broadcasts in Moscow.”

RFE/RL spokesman Martins Zvaners said all Radio Svoboda Moscow Bureau staffers were offered voluntary separation packages. “Many accepted the separation offers and left RFE/RL,” he said.

The employee moves were part of a restructuring designed to create a robust, unified team of journalists with diverse skills, Zvaners said.

“A number of journalists with cross-platform skills have been hired to fill need roles at the Moscow Bureau. Radio Svoboda also has a talented and diverse corps of journalists based at RFE/RL’s Prague headquarters,” Zvaners said.

Radio Svoboda officials believe future success in Russia will be on digital, Internet and social media producing video, audio and text content that urban, educated people in their 20s to 40s now demand, which demands a new skill set from employees, he said.

A former insider at RFE/RL told The Washington Free Beacon, an online newspaper that covers public policy, they believe the RFE’s leadership used the new Russian law that that required Radio Svoboda’s AM signal be shut down as an excuse to abandon the radio businesses, which had become costly.

“I think they have destroyed the radio so much loved and followed by those Russian listeners who stand for freedom and democracy,” Mario Corti, a former director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, told the Free Beacon. “They are lying to the media by playing down the scale of the firings.”

Another observer of U.S. international broadcasting said downsizing can sometimes increase efficiency.

“It can free up resources for new and innovative initiatives. That said, when it comes to journalism, bodies on the ground are the foundation of any successful news organization. Cutting 40 journalists can’t be a good thing when it comes to reporting on the day-to-day events in Moscow and throughout Russia,” said Shawn Powers, associate director of the Center for International Media Education at Georgia.

Randy J. Stine

“Therefore, losing one may have minimal consequences for access to information,” Newton said. “However, it might never be a good idea to completely abandon traditional broadcast platforms.”

Newton said as Russian audiences become increasingly tied to mobile digital services, digital platforms will provide opportunities for deeper engagement with the population.

Another U.S. international broadcasting analyst suggests there was little the United States could do to avoid Radio Svoboda’s AM fate in the face of the new Russian law barring foreign ownership of airwaves.

“Given the law, there is little the BBG can do, other than lobby for more aggressive pressure from the State Department or White House. That said, America too, has restrictions on foreign ownership of media, so it would be hard to make a compelling case to the Russian government regarding the faulty logic of the new law,” said Shawn Powers, associate director of the Center for International Media Education at Georgia State University.

RFE/RL President Steve Korn said the broadcaster explored a deal with a Russian businessman to assume majority control of the license to avoid losing it.“Our aim was at keeping our AM programming on the air. Unfortunately, this fell through,” Korn said in a statement.

In a letter on theRFE/RL website in September, Korn wrote to listeners, “We want to assure you that despite what you may have heard or read, we are not giving up on our commitment to provide you with Svoboda’s unique perspective on news and events in Russia. But big changes are indeed under way. … Although we will still be available on short waves and via satellite, our attention will now be focused on providing you with content across all digital platforms.”

Powers said it appears BBG is embracing digital media as a powerful, interactive and fast medium.

“The BBG is smart to move in this direction and cut its losses where appropriate. I haven’t seen audience data on Radio Svoboda, but AM is a weak, unpopular and typically ignored part of the spectrum,” Powers said. “Losing access to AM frequencies, in the grand scheme of things, is insignificant.”

As recently as 2005, Radio Svoboda had almost 30 local radio affiliates across Russia, according to the RFE/RL website. The broadcaster said many stations stopped carrying programming in response to political pressure.

Radio Svoboda, long considered by observers as the leading international broadcaster in Russia and a local alternative to state-controlled media, is available on social networking sites such as vKontakte and MoiMir. The station is on Facebook, Twitter and online comment forums, according to the broadcaster.

Its website attracts around 100,000 unique visitors each day and 1.8 million unique visitors per month, according to the broadcaster. Sixty percent of those visitors are from Moscow and St. Petersburg.

U.S. international broadcast programming to Russia has decreased through the years. Voice of America, the largest U.S. international broadcaster, has adopted a Web-only strategy in Russia.