In what would be a dream world for our previous President, who declared the media to be "the enemy of the people" just before his infamous 2018 meeting with Russia's Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Russia has now criminalized pretty much any and all independent media. But our guests on today's BradCast have a really cool and, yes, retro idea about how to help counter Russia's media blackout. [Audio link to full show follows this summary.]
Among other restrictions, Putin's new censorship law, adopted just after his invasion of Ukraine, mandates harsh penalties, including jail time, for the crime of reporting on the invasion as an "invasion" or "war". Independent outlets have been forced to shutter or have stopped covering the war at all. Western media outlets have pulled their reporters and Russia has closed Internet access to websites of foreign state-run media outlets such as Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, the BBC and Deutsche Welle.
Kremlin-approved propaganda is now all that many Russians have access to, where they are being told that Russia's barbaric military assault on its sovereign neighbor --- including its civilian population --- is little more than a minor, "special military operation" meant to "demilitarize and denazify" Ukraine. Civilians are not being harmed, and anyone who says otherwise is reporting "fake news," the Kremlin insists.
Of late, however, as Julia Davis reported yesterday at The Daily Beast, some cracks are beginning to appear, even on Kremlin-approved television, including one of Moscow's most popular evening news programs, whose Putin-friendly host has been sanctioned by the EU and where nightly broadcasts frequently end with clips of monologues by Fox 'News' star Tucker Carlson.
For most Russians, however, there is very little access to independent, outside reporting to counter the official state media narrative. Our guests today, attorney KATE NEISWENDER and former longtime Voice of America employee and shortwave radio enthusiast KIM ANDREW ELLIOTT are part of a small, grassroots effort aiming to revive a Cold War technology in hopes of helping counter the information desert inside of Putin's new Iron Curtain.
Dubbed #ShortwavesForFreedom on social media, the new project has begun raising money to fund re-broadcasts of Voice of America (VOA) programming into Ukraine and Russia via shortwave frequencies. While the BBC World Service announced this week they were reviving their old shortwave broadcasts into the former Soviet Union, the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty --- both managed by the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) --- have declined to do so, at least so far.
Neiswender, Elliott and a number of other VOA veterans and supporters aim to fill that gap with a crowd-funded effort. The group has already raised enough over just the past week or so to get up and running --- rebroadcasting some of VOA's programming (which is all public domain) --- into Europe via shortwave transmission from Florida station, WRMI Radio Miami International.
They both join us today to explain, among other things: How this effort came together in just over a week's time; how they hope to expand from English-language programming to broadcasts in both Ukrainian and Russian; why they believe VOA (actually, USAGM) has yet to take this step themselves; and how a very small amount of money can go a very long way in this project, as they seek additional broadcasters to help transmit shortwave programming from both the U.S. and Europe.
Does anyone in Russia still even have access to the equipment needed to listen to the broadcasts? "Well, nowadays for sure, fewer people will be listening to shortwave and fewer people have shortwave radios," Elliott explains. "But, when the Internet is cut, squeezed, blocked, and at some point maybe even with lines into the country cut off, radio will be the only way to get in to the country. And then, the people in those countries will have to try to find their old Soviet-era shortwave radios." He believes "that audience can pass the information on to the larger audience in those countries."
Will Russian audiences have any more confidence that what they are hearing from Western state-run outlets like VOA is any more reliable than what their own state-approved outlets are telling them? "VOA and RFE (Radio Free Europe) have a government-imposed, in-the-code-written-by-Congress, can't-get-around-it mandate to be fair," Neiswender argues. She's referring to USAGM's Charter, adopted during the Ford Administration, which one VOA journalist has explained to me, means that, "We're probably the only news organization in the world that is mandated to be fair, objective and unbiased."
Whether VOA and RFE's reports are perceived as such by listeners inside of Russia and Ukraine is another matter, but their broadcasts did serve as an information lifeline to many behind the old Iron Curtain for many decades of the Cold War.
For now, the effort is already working. Elliott, who spent more than 30 years as a broadcaster and audience analyst at VOA tells us that "the signal is getting through to a very large extent, and sometimes with really good reception quality. Direct feedback from the audience, that will take some days and weeks as the word gets around that these transmissions are available. Already, WRMI received a note from a diplomat in Egypt who heard the Russian transmission. It is getting through."
Neiswender says that the project's success is only a matter of raising funds to keep going and expand their reach. The effort is crowdsourced with a fund raiser at Fundrazr.com/RadioWaves. A very small amount of money goes a long way here, she insists. They are already up and broadcasting after raising just over $6,000.
All of the money, "goes directly to the stations. No one is getting a dime from this that is organizing it or running it. Every cent of the money that is coming in is going directly back out to fund these transmissions," she notes.
It's a fascinating conversation about a fascinating project that I believe is well worth your time today, even as these are very strange days indeed.
Finally, we close with one more fascinating story, and a song. The story comes, ironically enough, courtesy of Fox "News", regarding Marina Baronova, the now-former Managing Editor of Russia's state-owned media outlet Russia Today (RT). She resigned her post last week in protest of Putin's invasion of Ukraine. She now fears for her life, though not necessarily for the reasons you may assume. And her interview with Fox concludes with this message: "Russians love their children, too."
As it happens, Grammy-winner Sting, last weekend, posted an Instagram video singing his 1985 tune called "Russians" which, he says, he has rarely sung since the end of the Cold War. Now, as you'll hear, it has new relevance. Apparently even for Baronova...
(Snail mail support to "Brad Friedman, 7095 Hollywood Blvd., #594 Los Angeles, CA 90028" always welcome too!)