State-Run Russian Radio Is Looking To Expand In The U.S.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
U.S. intelligence officials have warned that Russia is trying to interfere in the presidential election just like it did in 2016. Some of its attempts to sway the American public are out in the open for all to hear. State-run Russian radio programming has been on the airwaves here in Washington, D.C., since 2017, and this year, it expanded to Kansas City. Chris Haxel of member station KCUR has the story.
CHRIS HAXEL, BYLINE: Pete Schartel owns KCXL, a small AM radio station in Liberty, Mo. Schartel cobbled together a network of transmitters, so his signal reaches to Iowa 90 miles north. But KCXL is struggling financially and has no employees. Schartel hasn't paid himself since last summer. So when he heard about someone in Washington getting paid $30,000 every month to broadcast something called Radio Sputnik, he thought...
PETE SCHARTEL: Oh, my Lord, that's twice what my whole budget is. They must have some money. Let's investigate this.
HAXEL: There are no DJs here, and KCXL's programming is eclectic - everything from music to Bible study to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. Now Schartel broadcasts Radio Sputnik for six hours each day.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "FAULT LINES")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The antidote to propaganda American-style, it's "Fault Lines" with Nixon and Stranahan.
HAXEL: But complaints began to pour in, getting the attention of Congresswoman Sharice Davids, whose Kansas district is just across the state line. Davids and six of her Democratic colleagues sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission about Radio Sputnik. They claimed the Russian government is not being properly identified as the source of programming.
SHARICE DAVIDS: It feels pretty obvious that the propaganda that was paid for by the Russian government and broadcast on American radio stations should be labeled as such.
HAXEL: Davids argues that the FCC is not enforcing its own rules, and she worries that people listening to Radio Sputnik during their commute will have no idea who is behind the programming. Mindia Gavasheli is the Washington bureau chief for Radio Sputnik. He insists that Russia's investment in Radio Sputnik is just like every other state-run media outlet.
MINDIA GAVASHELI: Why is the U.S. government spending all this money to have Voice of America, Radio Free Europe? Why is the British government spending all this money to fund BBC? Why is Qatari government...
ANDREW FEINBERG: Sputnik's management likes to say they're no different from, say, Voice Of America or the BBC. It's a lie.
HAXEL: That's Andrew Feinberg, a former Sputnik journalist. He's now a White House correspondent for a digital outlet called Breakfast Media. Feinberg says he learned firsthand that a lot of the news and radio programming at Sputnik can seem normal and ordinary, and that's part of the strategy. The slick production sounds like a lot of conservative talk radio across the country.
FEINBERG: What makes it propaganda is the way a certain set of stories are presented. If there's a story or if there's an angle to a story that allows them to portray the U.S. or American institutions as corrupt, hypocritical or part of a failed state, they'll run with it.
HAXEL: Take, for example, the surprising success of presidential hopeful Pete Buttigieg. That got lots of mainstream coverage, but on Radio Sputnik, it's presented as a conspiracy.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "FAULT LINES")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: They take this guy with very, very suspicious ties to the intelligence community. And then all of a sudden, he's thrown out into the middle, and now they're rigging everything for him.
HAXEL: Sputnik bureau chief Mindia Gavasheli says he's currently negotiating deals with other small radio stations. Sputnik's marketing goal is to eventually broadcast in every major U.S. market. For NPR News, I'm Chris Haxel in Kansas City.
(SOUNDBITE OF AIR SONG, "ANOTHER DAY")
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