American Charity Backs Military Radio Station In Ukraine An information war is underway on Ukraine's troubled eastern flank, with pro-Russia radio and TV dominating the airwaves. But with key help from an American charity that makes no claim to neutrality, Ukraine's military now has its own FM radio station for its troops on the front. The reach of Army FM is limited, but Spirit of America's Jim Hake is determined to change that.
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American Charity Backs Military Radio Station In Ukraine

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American Charity Backs Military Radio Station In Ukraine

American Charity Backs Military Radio Station In Ukraine

American Charity Backs Military Radio Station In Ukraine

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An information war is underway on Ukraine's troubled eastern flank, with pro-Russia radio and TV dominating the airwaves. But with key help from an American charity that makes no claim to neutrality, Ukraine's military now has its own FM radio station for its troops on the front. The reach of Army FM is limited, but Spirit of America's Jim Hake is determined to change that.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Even though there's an official cease-fire, Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine are still at war with forces loyal to Kiev. Mortar shells explode daily along a 300-mile line that separates the country from eastern Ukraine's breakaway regions. An information war also rages in the former Soviet state. Its latest combatant is a military radio station that's backed by an American charity. NPR's David Welna traveled to Ukraine and brings us this story.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Above a musty old officer's club in downtown Kiev, battle flags and rocket launchers decorate the walls of a brand-new radio studio. It's home to a hit talk show called "Polygraph."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Ukrainian).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Ukrainian).

WELNA: The show's featured guest - the American ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GEOFFREY PYATT: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak directly to some of the brave Ukrainian men and women who are defending your country in the east.

WELNA: Since March, this radio station, Army FM, has been broadcasting to troops along Ukraine's eastern front. Ambassador Pyatt warns them their worst enemy may be pro-Russian propaganda.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PYATT: The objective of this Russian informational warfare is not to win the argument. It's to win the war. As we say, they have weaponized information.

WELNA: Ever since fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine two years ago, pro-Russian radio and TV stations have dominated the airwaves here. Ruslan Kavatsuk is a top adviser at Ukraine's Defense Ministry. In the war of words, he says, his country is badly outgunned.

RUSLAN KAVATSUK: If we had enough resources, we would have launched TV, radios, beautiful magazines. But we don't have as much money as Russians do.

WELNA: But there was the memory of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM")

ROBIN WILLIAMS: (As Adrian Cronauer) Good morning, Vietnam. Hey, this is not a test. This is rock 'n' roll.

WELNA: Robyn Williams' screen portrayal of an unbridled radio deejay entertaining the troops is what inspired Army FM, a station to inform troops on the front lines with uncensored news and only in the Ukrainian language - no Russian - and entertain them with music, half of it Ukrainian. But who could pay for it? Enter Internet entrepreneur Jim Hake and Spirit of America.

JIM HAKE: We're a non-governmental organization, but we're a unique one in that we are not neutral.

WELNA: Hake founded Spirit of America after 9/11 to support the work of U.S. troops and diplomats in hotspots around the world. So why back Army FM? Hake says the decision to do so was ultimately about keeping American troops safe.

HAKE: Russia has aggressive tendencies in this part of the world. And the worst thing that could happen is to have American troops have to take up the fight because the Ukrainians failed.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Is it right expression for us break a leg?

HAKE: Yes, I think so.

WELNA: In downtown Kiev, Hake teams up with a Ukrainian military interpreter, an army engineer and me. And we head east, to the front line near Russia. Spirit of America has sunk $76,000 into Army FM. For Hake, who's sporting a Spirit of America ball cap and T-shirt, this is his first chance to see how it's playing in the war zone. About nine hours into the bone-jarring road trip, Hake pulls out a portable radio. He tries tuning in Army FM.

(SOUNDBITE OF STATIC)

WELNA: No luck. Army FM's signal, Hake says, still has limited reach.

HAKE: We funded three transmitters out on the front-line war zone to reach the soldiers who are closest to the fight with Russia and Russian-backed separatists. What we're traveling to the frontlines right now to see is how effective those three transmitters have been, what traction Army FM is getting, and the effect that it's having on the soldiers.

WELNA: Inside the conflict zone, we stop at an army base near the city of Kramatorsk. Ukrainian music plays over a loudspeaker.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WELNA: Turns out this is a live broadcast of Army FM. The 81st Airborne Brigade that's based here just lost two of its men to enemy shelling and had eight others wounded. Chief Sergeant Konstantin Tatargan says the new radio station is good for troop morale.

KONSTANTIN TATARGAN: Three times a day - morning, supper and dinner - we turn on Army FM here on this loudspeaker.

WELNA: And do the soldiers like it?

TATARGAN: Yeah. We can just go and ask any soldier if you want.

WELNA: Here's what a soldier who goes by Sergeant Dima tells me.

SERGEANT DIMA: I think it's nice. Guys have a new idea to help army in information war. I think it's good. Yeah.

WELNA: Who do you think is winning the information war right now?

SERGEANT DIMA: I think Ukraine is winner (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Speaking Ukrainian).

WELNA: Here in the conflict zone, both sides speak Russian. But on Army FM, it's all Ukrainian. Sergeant Tatargan likes that. Ukrainians, he says, should be using their own language.

TATARGAN: Because all of soldiers of Ukraine, all of people of Ukraine understand Ukrainian language. But they don't want to speak them. It's very easy to speak Russian because our parents - my parents speak Russian.

WELNA: And you speak Russian, too.

TATARGAN: Yeah, and I speak Russian, too, because I grew up in a family that speaks Russian.

WELNA: And Russian is what you hear anywhere else on the radio dial.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Speaking Russian).

WELNA: Radio Komsomolskaya Pravda (ph), quite literally Radio Truth of the Young Communists, is beamed into eastern Ukraine from Moscow. Back in Ukraine's capital, Kiev, the Defense Ministry's Kavatsuk says broadcasts like these can fill Ukrainian soldiers with doubts.

KAVATSUK: Even if you don't believe it, you start hesitating after some point of listening to that crap. And then you start being less active, less passionate, less convinced.

WELNA: Army FM, says morning talk show host Philip Boiko, has just the opposite effect.

PHILIP BOIKO: Just good, optimistic information, just good, optimistic music. Maybe some jokes - only positive.

WELNA: This Spirit of America-backed military radio station is winning praise, but not financing from American officials. General Ben Hodges commands the U.S. Army in Europe.

COMMANDER BEN HODGES: I thought it was a wonderful idea that Ukraine wants to find a way to communicate to their soldiers about what's going on because they are getting bombarded all day long, every day.

WELNA: But Army FM's signal still only reaches about a quarter of the soldiers stationed on the eastern front. Spirit of America is buying five more transmitters to expand coverage. And while Kiev is home to the military's high command, the station has not yet been granted a frequency to broadcast there. That's no surprise to U.S. Ambassador Pyatt.

PYATT: What it says to me is that there are still big sectors of the Ukrainian government that have still to be reformed.

WELNA: For Jim Hake, all this is simply growing pains.

HAKE: By proving the results of Army FM, the right things will happen. And it just takes persistence.

WELNA: And likely more help from Spirit of America, an unabashedly partisan charity that's joined the fight in Ukraine's information war. David Welna, NPR News, Kiev.

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