The Radiant Digital Future

13 November 2012

By Masha Karp

On 10th November Radio Liberty, funded by the US Congress, stopped its Russian broadcasts on medium wave. When the plans were first announced at the end of September, more than 40 journalists – both broadcasters and the station’s internet team – were sacked without warning. A new boss soon arrived at the Moscow Office and brought her own team. There could be no doubt – Radio Liberty was changing course. Amid the outcry in Russia, letters to Washington, and protest rallies at the US Embassy in Moscow, Radio Liberty’s American managers organized a meeting with Russian human rights activists who were appalled by the changes. The conversation was recorded and made available to the public. Masha Karp has watched the video.

On the one side you see the American bosses who have steeled themselves for a tough but necessary managerial exercise. There’s no doubt in their minds that people are generally resistant to change and it’s the task of a wise manager, kind but firm, to make them aware of the managerial vision, which is, after all, in their own best interests, even if they don’t immediately recognize it. Naturally, the managers want to keep the meeting under control, especially when, as in this case, they are being filmed. They must have been given the task to sort everything out, so they have invited those who wrote the letters of protest, but not the most active protesters – the journalists who had been sacked. 

Everything has been prepared, including the explanation for the decision not to let the sacked journalists in. The managers are waiting, there is a quiet, dignified atmosphere, bottles of “Holy Source” water on the table, and an interpreter ready for Steven Korn, President of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and its main reformer, who does not speak Russian at all. His deputy Julia Ragona seems to understand some Russian, but prefers speaking English when she does not keep silent. Only Masha Gessen, the new director of Radio Liberty’s Russian Service, is equally fluent in both languages. 

On the other side are people of an entirely different calibre. This becomes obvious at the very start when some of them stop at the entrance to the room and request that at least two representatives of the sacked Radio Liberty journalists be allowed in. The way they ask without entering the room obviously tells Korn something and, understandably keen to avoid any clashes, he immediately asks that two more chairs be brought. Only then do Ludmila Alekseeva, Sergei Kovalev and Valery Borshchev enter the room, joining Pavel Litvinov, Aleksander Cherkasov from Memorial. Galina Mikhaleva, who represents the Yabloko party, and Lev Gudkov, from Levada Centre. And Steven Korn opens the meeting with a presentation of his position . 

The Vision 

Remarkably, he does not seem bothered that every sentence he makes contradicts the previous one. First, he tries to justify a new Russian law prohibiting Radio Liberty from having a radio license for AM broadcasts in Russia: “This law is very similar to laws that exist in the US and Western European countries.” Then he stresses that “this signal that everybody is upset about losing – including us! – is a weak signal and is only heard in Moscow.” Still, he insists, the management were fighting like lions to preserve the medium wave broadcasting license – but when they failed they “decided not to view it as a calamity.” On the contrary, losing the signal proved a wonderful chance to move forward! Moving forward meant firing some journalists. “In the current economic climate” Korn felt he’d be remiss to have twice as many people as necessary. “But,” he hastens to add, “make no mistake – we are not spending less money than we spent on Radio Liberty in the past. We are investing!”

A little later he finally explains what they are investing in: “We need to move where modern technology is taking us,” he says. Not the political situation, not the demands of the audience, not the mission of Radio Liberty – modern technology. Young people prefer their mobiles to listening to radio, so radio – which of course we tried so hard to save! – is of no use! And for the digital service that we are bringing in instead of it, we need people with a new mindset and not those who are used to seeing a distinction between broadcasters and on-line journalists. 

Obviously, this bit about the radiant digital future is the centre of the whole presentation. One can imagine how convincing it sounded  in Washington. The plans to invest in “state-of the-art digital equipment” must have confirmed to the Broadcasting Board of Governors how seriously he takes his task of broadcasting to Russia!

On a Different Scale. 

But his opponents in Moscow are not impressed. They look at the situation from a completely different angle. All of those who came to defend Radio Liberty see it as an issue of their country’s future, as the cause to which they devoted their lives. Some of them spent years in prison and exile in Soviet times; all of them live under constant threat today. They are the most active part of society, people who choose to fight the evil which has enslaved their country, even when the majority of the population has given in to fear, resignation and apathy. They see the recent developments at Radio Liberty in the context of Russian history and politics. And in this context the end to broadcasting and the dismissal of the best journalists cannot be seen as anything other than a surrender to Putin. 

The timing of the decision is what appalled every speaker around the table – how can the dubious reforms be introduced now, when the country is undergoing a period of the darkest reaction, the clampdown against the winter protests by the President who, as soon as he had regained the office of president, immediately adopted a raft of anti-opposition laws? Sergei Kovalev defined the issue most precisely: “Many people here have spoken about the growth of authoritarian tendencies. I think this term is completely inappropriate. Something else has happened in our country: we have seen the preparation of the legal basis for totalitarianism, if I might put it this way. It is here, it is ready. It’s wrong to say that the Cold War is over – it has never stopped, but it has transformed itself. It is now being waged by one country only – Russia. <….> This Russian aggression is not accidental, it is required by the nature of this regime - it needs enemies. And by changing the rules for broadcasters, the regime does not yet get rid of its ideological opponents, but deprives them of opportunities they used to have. So what have you [American management] done once you saw that the regime was changing in Russia? You sacked your journalists! You sacked the people who created the public image of your station over many years – and did it quite successfully”. 

In the Cold War of course it was not a matter of issuing laws, no matter how harsh, to stop foreign stations from broadcasting – it was a matter of simply jamming their signal and trying to stop Soviet citizens from listening to them. But the foreign stations would persevere by broadcasting their programmes at different times of day, by changing frequencies – everything to let people in the Soviet Union hear them. They felt they had a mission. Stephen Korn, the president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, certainly does not seem to have one. 

Questions Without Answers

It was Mikhail Sokolov, one of the best political journalists at the old Liberty who reproached Korn for betraying American values and the radio station’s mission . This accusation went unanswered, as did practically all the other arguments put forward by Korn’s opponents. Marina Timasheva, another former Radio Liberty journalist who had been in charge of cultural programming, spoke about the changes that had taken place at the station and about the variety of skills – including digital – that its staff had acquired in recent years. Aleksander Cherkasov tried to explain that even the best state-of-the-art equipment would be nothing without  experienced journalists devoted to what they are doing. Pavel Litvinov wondered why, with the Russian propaganda TV channel Russia Today freely broadcasting in America, the USA could not have tried to insist on at least some reciprocal arrangement for Radio Liberty. And the sociologist Lev Gudkov touched on perhaps the most sensitive issue for the American management – the issue of the target audience. 

According to Lev Gudkov’s data, Radio Liberty shared an audience with the newspapers Vedomosti, Kommersant, Novaya gazeta, and partially with radio Echo Moskvy, reaching about 3-4m people in Russia. The change from radio to internet, warned Gudkov, would not only decrease the number of listeners, but also dramatically change the character of the audience. Targeting the internet–savvy younger audience would bring no benefit since these people already have a wide variety of channels at their disposal, and competing with those would undoubtedly prove a much riskier business than keeping the loyal, devoted audience that Radio Liberty has been able to boast of until now. Moreover, the 40 percent of Russia’s population who use the Internet regularly, at least on a weekly basis, live mostly in big cities. Two thirds of the country’s population – people who live in smaller cities and in the countryside – find themselves deprived of any independent media, while they remain exposed to the propaganda of the state-controlled TV channels. But of regular internet users in the cities only 10 per cent go on–line in search of political or social issues. To imagine that these people would start listening to Radio Liberty on their phones would be a huge mistake, concluded Gudkov. 

“You imply that we gave up our medium wave broadcasting voluntarily, but we did not!” Steven Korn exclaimed, obviously completely forgetting how attractive the digital future seemed to him just a minute before. His answer to Pavel Litvinov about Russia Today was even weaker: the main difference between Russia Today and Radio Liberty, it transpired, was that Russia Today did not in fact need a license –“it is satellite delivered and picked up by individual cable-system operators.” This of course proved that the assertion Korn made about the similarity of laws on foreign broadcasting in different countries was misguided, at least in the context of this discussion. But he did not care much about consistency. What he did care about was trying to avoid responsibility for the dismissals. The list of those to be sacked, he claimed, “was put in front of me.” It was all done by the Russian Service’s own management and neither he, nor Julia Ragona, nor Masha Gessen had anything whatsoever to do with it. 

His colleagues were mostly silent, although Masha Gessen made an attempt to formulate a strategy for the content that will, from now on, be digitally delivered to the audience. First, Radio Liberty would speak more about the country (Russia), as ‘we’ (presumably Muscovites) don’t know it enough. Secondly, the discussions would become more profound. And thirdly, Radio Liberty would try to overcome Russia’s isolationism and bring the attention of its audience to issues that are being discussed in the West. Since these were exactly the same directions that Radio Liberty had pursued in the past, one could only surmise that the new director firmly believed that the new team she had brought with her to work at Radio Liberty would do it better than those who had been sacked. 

In Cahoots? 

Can Americans be really acting in cahoots with Putin’s government, as many in Russia now suspect? Can the Americans fail to see what has been happening in the country? To put it mildly, they certainly prefer “to look the other way”. Beginning with the famous “reset,” Obama’s administration chose to forget about the territories annexed from Georgia. The Magnitsky Act has not been officially adopted even though just one step remained until its formal recognition. USAID obediently withdrew from Russia, when Putin told it to do so. 

But this attitude is not confined to the present American government or just to America. In the last twenty years the need to promote “Western liberal values,” which was so acutely felt during the Cold War, has all but disappeared. The less fear of Russia the West felt, the more indifferent it has been towards the country’s predicament, the more it betrayed those Western-oriented Russians who dreamt of making Russia a “normal”, that is, “Western” country – with free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, governmental transparency and observance of human rights. 

The fate of radio, once a tool of paramount importance for piercing the Iron Curtain, which found a grateful response in the most remote and unlikely corners of the huge country, has been particularly indicative here. It is not accidental that the Soviet government and its followers have always been sending their agents to Western radio stations - they certainly found them worth infiltrating. But confronted by the general determination of Western governments to reach out to the people of the Soviet Union over the heads of their rulers, the agents could not do very much. Once this determination was gone, everything was over. The people who were put in charge of the radio stations because they knew something about Russia were replaced by managers with no interest in the country or experience in journalism. The indiscriminate recruitment often left the editorial decisions in the hands of those who formerly worked for the Soviet propaganda machine. The rapid development of communications technology obliterated the issue of why precisely this technology was needed, and radio was much derided as the most “old-fashioned” way of delivering the signal. Exactly the same mantra about the new digital future and multimedia platforms has been repeated to the journalists of all the former international broadcasters throughout the world. The Voice of America and the BBC Russian Service have both left the air-waves and moved to the Internet. Radio Liberty held out for longer, but with the strengthening of the Putin regime has lost its numerous rebroadcasters. And during the winter protests in Russia the divide between the big cities and the rest of the country became painfully obvious: this was the split between internet-users and those who had no alternative to Kremlin propaganda. Not that these people necessarily believe the propaganda, but they have no option of getting independent information anywhere else. 

Having made themselves dependent on the benevolence of the Russian government over the last twenty years, Western broadcasters had thought of no alternative to medium wave and FM frequencies in Russia, or being rebroadcast by Russia’s own stations. Yet there is no doubt that had they, or the government institutions that fund them, had the will to reach out to wider audiences in Russia, they would have found a way to do this. It is the will that is missing. So perhaps it’s wrong to say that it is just Steven Korn, who has betrayed Western values. The governments of the United States, of Britain and other European countries had long before beaten him to it.