Russian Service of Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) posted an announcement on its website that as of July 26, Radio Liberty Russian programs will no longer be carried through shortwave radio transmissions but will continue on the Internet. The loss of Radio Liberty’s Russian shortwave broadcasts will affect radio listeners in Russia as well as Russian speakers outside of the Russian Federation, including Russian occupied Crimea where many residents speak Russian. Officials of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal agency in charge of RFE/RL, bet that audiences will use the Internet without fear of being monitored or other forms of interference by the local authorities, such as blocking of websites. In the April 20, 2016 press release, the BBG condemned targeting of independent journalists in Crimea, including RFE/RL contributors.
71.3 % of Russia’s population has Internet access, which means that nearly 30 % does not. While no one denies that shortwave radio listenership has been in serious decline in recent years due to the expanding use of digital media, Broadcasting Board of Governors officials seem to be making highly optimistic assumptions about future behavior of Vladimir Putin. Critics also point out that after years of poor management the BBG has now an extremely small audience and impact in Russia, either on radio or the Internet. “This is yet another indication that the agency under the Broadcasting Board of Governors has no significant audience in Russia,” a former BBG staffer told BBG Watch. “They are not closing these facilities solely because people have migrated to new media. Regardless of the media/medium, the result is still the same: no significant audience in Russia,”
BBG and RFE/RL officials often cite misleading statistics, such as the monthly number of site visitors or the number of Facebook “Likes” for a single post, to hide the fact that its overall weekly audience in Russia for all media may be less than one or two percent. Some of the remaining independent Russian media outlets, such as Meduza and Rain TV, have much greater online reach in Russia than RFE/RL or VOA, which seems to suggest that the BBG program content is unappealing or otherwise inadequate. BBG audiences are higher in countries which allow local rebroadcasting of radio and TV programs. The BBG often has to pay local broadcasters for these rebroadcasts because program quality and their audience appeal are poor. Some VOA programs, however, such as the VOA Ukrainian Service and VOA Albanian Service TV news broadcasts, are popular in the target countries. This does not appear to be the case in Russia, which does not mean that high-quality analytical programs with high-quality intellectual content are not urgently needed. There has been a general decline in journalistic standards under the Broadcasting Board of Governors. RFE/RL has not had permanent leadership for over two years.
At present, the impact of BBG programs in Russia seems negligible. In a nationally representative survey of Russia, the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found “Russians’ attitudes toward the United States and President Barack Obama are extremely unfavorable and have grown sharply more negative in the last couple of years.”“Eighty-one percent of Russians have an unfavorable opinion of Obama, and only 2 percent have a favorable view of him,” AP reported.
BBG’s annual budget funded by U.S. taxpayers through congressional appropriations is approximately $777 million (FY 2017 Federal Budget Request).
While the shortwave Russian radio announcement was made by RFE/RL, radio transmission services are provided by the Broadcasting Board of Governors through its International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB). RFE/RL and BBG have so far posted no announcements in English on their plans to cut shortwave radio broadcasts in Russian to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and other Russian speaking regions, including Crimea, which Russia has illegally occupied.
Media freedom in the entire region has been in decline in recent years. The latest RFE/RL and BBG press releases are dated May 25, 2016 and deal with RFE/RL journalist Khadijah Ismayilova being released from prison in Azerbaijan. The RFE/RL announcement on the planned elimination of shortwave radio broadcasts was in Russian. It was posted on Radio Liberty’s Russian website.
In recent years, IBB has been significantly reducing shortwave radio broadcasting by RFE/RL and by other of its U.S. taxpayer-funded media entities, including the Voice of America (VOA). BBG officials point out that in the era of Internet and digital media, shortwave radio listenership has been in steep decline worldwide, including Russia. In 2008, IBB cut VOA Russian shortwave radio and live satellite television transmissions shortly before Russia invaded and occupied parts of Georgia.
While RFE/RL websites remain vulnerable to being blocked at any time by the Kremlin, the Russian authorities still allow RFE/RL to operate a large news bureau in Moscow which provides news reports and other programming mostly for Radio Liberty’s Russian Service. This may account for the optimism among BBG officials. They apparently assume that President Putin will not dare to interfere with the Internet and try to block RFE/RL websites in Russia. However, Kremlin controlled Russian TV channel NTV produced a propaganda hit piece on Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) which was broadcast on March 25, 2016. NTV report linked legitimate physical security measures at RFE/RL to vague accusations of allegedly hidden activities against Russia in carrying out the U.S. government’s agenda. The Russian propaganda TV program also alleged misappropriation of U.S. taxpayers’ dollars at the RFE/RL Moscow bureau. RFE/RL strongly denied these charges and in the March 18, 2016 press release condemned pressure tactics against RFE/RL bureau in Moscow. BBG and RFE/RL officials must assume that the Russian authorities will not expand these pressure tactics to include blocking of RFE/RL and VOA websites in Russia.
BBG officials claim that the money spent on shortwave can be better used to create new programs and expand digital program delivery options, but critics point out that in recent years millions of dollars of U.S. taxpayers’ funds have been wasted mostly on the BBG and IBB bureaucracy in Washington, which kept expanding and protected its jobs while cutting radio broadcasts, other programs and programming positions.
New CEO John Lansing has been on the job at the Broadcasting Board of Governors since September 2015. He has promised management reforms and expansion of digital media outreach. Critics say that instead of depriving the most vulnerable groups abroad of safe radio program delivery and an inexpensive option of getting uncensored news and commentary through radio, BBG officials should achieve savings and expand digital media by drastically cutting their own bloated and inefficient bureaucracy.
The RFE/RL announcement says that 24/7 RFE/RL radio transmissions in Russian will continue online and can be heard through the RFE/RL website. Radio Liberty’s Russian audio can also be heard 24/7 on two satellites, Hot Bird and AsiaSat, according to the same RFE/RL announcement.
So far, the Russian government has not been regularly blocking RFE/RL websites in Russia, but recently Russia’s media regulator, Roskomnxdzor, briefly blocked and then unblocked RFE/RL’s news website Krym.Realii (Crimea.Realities) in Russia and and Moscow-annexed Crimea.
Roskomnxdzor’s spokesman said that the Russian authorities later unblocked Krym.Realii (“Crimea.Realities”) after RFE/RL’s Crimean news desk complied with a request by Russia’s Prosecutor-General’s Office to remove from the site “materials that contain illegal information.”
RFE/RL’s Crimean desk said, however, that it removed no content from the site in response to the May 12 blocking of its website by Russian Internet providers.
RFE/RL’s Crimean desk chief Volodymyr Prytula said that “we received no demands from Roskomnadzor calling for the removal of any kind of content. So we removed no content.”
While all shortwave Radio Liberty transmissions in Russian are to end on July 26, according to RFE/RL’s announcement, Radio Liberty Russian Service will continue to use 1386 kHz medium wave radio frequency from midnight to 6 AM and from 9 PM to to 10 PM Moscow time. This frequency can only be heard in some parts of European Russia.
Radio Liberty (originally named Radio Liberation) began shortwave broadcasting to Russia on March 1, 1953.
See RFE/RL announcement (in Russian only) on the planned elimination of Radio Liberty’s shortwave radio transmissions in Russian [accessible via original article].
See RFE/RL video on the blocking of its news website for Crimea [accessible via original article)
On March 1, 1953, the radio station that become known as Radio Liberty began broadcasting from Lampertheim, West Germany, with these words from Sergei Dubrovsky: "Listen! Listen! Today, a new radio station, Liberation, begins its broadcasts.” Below is a brief historical summary of the U.S. financed radio station that broadcast to the U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. The American Committee for Freedom for the Peoples of the USSR was founded in the United States on January 18,1951, in the state of Delaware. Newspaper columnist Eugene Lyons was the first president.
Unlike the National Committee for a Free Europe, the American Committee for the Freedom of the Peoples of the USSR decided not to raise public funds in the United States, which would have “aided in providing plausible cover for its true sponsorship”—the Central Intelligence Agency’s Office of Policy Coordination directed by Frank Wisner. Eventual funding from the U.S. Government for Radio Liberty would reach almost $160 million.
The Committee would undergo names changes to American Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of the USSR, and American Committee for Liberation from Bolshevism in March 1953, and, finally, in 1964, Radio Liberty Committee. The American Committee’s position was that the most effective psychological war against the Soviet regime would be conducted by former Soviet exiles united in speaking out against Communism. However, there were difficulties in the way of accomplishing this aim: one was the extreme hostility between Great Russian groups and non-Russian nationalities of the USSR. The other difficulty was the basic political differences between Marxist and non-Marxist exiles, regardless of their nationality.
After long and arduous negotiations among the émigré groups at meetings held throughout Germany, agreement was finally reached in October, 1952, for the formation of a Coordinating Center, composed of four Great Russian and five nationality groups. This was not a unified émigré agreement: certain Great Russian émigrés (NTS for example) and representatives of important minority groups in the USSR, including Ukrainians and Byelorussians, did not join the Coordinating Center.
Four days before the death of Joseph Stalin “Radio Liberation” (Radiostantsiya Osvobozhdeniye) first broadcast with this announcement: “This is Radio Liberation speaking the free voice of your compatriots abroad.” According to a recently declassified 1954 Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) report, Radio Liberation (RADLIB) was seen as "an emigre station working in the interests of the Soviet peoples and speaking in a voice and from a point of view recognizable, understandable, and acceptable to the peoples with the USSR."
Because of the two low-powered 10 KW transmitters purchased from Radio Free Europe, only the Soviet armed forces in Germany and Austria were targeted. There was no record that the first broadcast was actually heard in the target area. Yet, within ten minutes, the Soviet Union started jamming the broadcasts, and the jamming of Radio Liberty’s broadcasts would continue uninterrupted until 1988. It has been estimated that the Soviet Union and other communist countries spent four US dollars for each dollar RL expended on broadcasting.
On June 30, 1953, a Presidential Commission issued a Top Secret report to President Eisenhower on International Information activities, which in part read:
In a situation short of war the project can probably make its greatest contribution by de-emphasizing its political activities and devoting its major effort to the improvement of broadcasts from Radio Liberation.
This station should use Soviet émigrés in an effort to weaken the Soviet regime and should concentrate on the Soviet military, government officials, and other groups in the population, which harbor major grievances against the regime.
The American Committee for Liberation from Bolshevism, Inc., should concentrate on the improvement of Radio Liberation and reduce expenditures on the émigré coordinating center.
By the summer 1953, the Coordinating Center was dissolved and any idea that the émigré groups would run their own radio station faded into history. One of the first, if not the first, newspaper accounts of Radio Liberation appeared in the Christian Science Monitor on February 2, 1955. The article, written by George W. Neill, began by quoting from a RL program:
This is Radio Liberation.
Listen to the free voice of your brother fighters from abroad.
Listen to our true information, which the Kremlin tyrants and their lackeys conceal from you.
Pass along what you hear on Radio Liberation to your relatives, friends and acquaintances.
This is Radio Liberation
The Ukrainian Service of Radio Liberation began transmitting on August 16, 1953, with these words: "Brothers and Sisters! We live abroad, but our hearts and minds are always with you. No iron curtain can separate us or stand in our way!" Belarusian, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Turkmen, Uzbek, Tatar-Bashkir, Armenian, Azeri, Georgian, Chechen, and Ingush language broadcasts were added to RL’s programming. From 1955 to 1973, Radio Liberty broadcast Russian language programs from Pa Li, Taiwan, to eastern parts of Siberia and the Maritime Provinces of the Soviet Union. Below you can listen to the Russian language signing on and listing of the short-wave frequencies of of Radio Liberty from Taiwan:
RL’s signal was capable of geographically covering, at various times, 90 percent of the USSR.
The radio station’s name was changed to Radio Liberty in 1959. Former US Presidents Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower were “honorary chairmen” of Radio Liberty at that time. The Committee press release gave the ideological justification for the existence of Radio Liberty:
Radio Liberty’s broadcasts analyze events and developments in the Soviet Union and the acts and policies of the Soviet government from the point of view of the best interests of the peoples of the Soviet Union. Radio Liberty’s writers and speakers seek to give expression to the innermost feelings, thoughts and repressed aspirations of their fellow countrymen
In January 1964, Howland Sargeant, former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and now president of the Radio Liberty Committee, issued a prepared statement giving the main task of the committee:
To sponsor efforts to communicate with the peoples of the Soviet Union in order to achieve the long-range goal of a fundamental change in Soviet policies and practices, which will reflect the will of the Soviet peoples for genuine peace and freedom.
On March 23, 1959, Radio Liberty transmitted its first broadcast from the beautiful beach Playa de Pals, on the Mediterranean coast, north of Barcelona, Spain. Shortwave broadcasting from this site would continue until May 25, 2001. 47 years after the first broadcast, on March 23, 2006, the huge transmitter towers, some of which reached a height of over 500 feet, were demolished in a live Spanish television broadcast.
Similar to Radio Free Europe interviews, many prominent Americans were interviewed by Radio Liberty reporters, e.g., Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964 in Munich. The interview was repeated after the assassination of Dr. King in April 1968. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were consolidated in the single corporation: RFE/RL in the 1970s.
The collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union was hastened in August 1991, when government officials illegally attempted to oust Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. President Gorbachev publicly recognized the role played by the Radio Liberty in informing the Soviet people. Gorbachev said he relied on its broadcasts for news, while held under house arrest in his Black Sea vacation home during the attempted coup.
Shortly afterwards, Russia's first President Boris Yeltsin enthusiastically, if not fully accurate, said:
During the 3-4 days of this takeover, Radio Liberty was one of the very few channels through which it was possible to send information to the whole world and, most important, to the whole of Russia, because now almost every family in Russia listens to Radio Liberty -- and that was very important.
A few weeks later he signed a Presidential Decree allowing RFE/RL giving RFE/RL special status, which allowed it for the first time in its history to officially operate a news bureau in Moscow. Ten years later, Russian President Putin repealed this decree in October 2002, but RFE/RL continues to operate in Russia at the time of this writing.
On March 20, 1993, Mikhail S. Gorbachev was an invited guest at RFR/RL’s 40th anniversary celebration in Moscow of the first Radio Liberty broadcast, Gorbachev told the assembled audience of diplomats and journalists, "In the dark years of Communist rule before my own perestroika (reconstruction) reform program began, Radio Liberty told the truth.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty marked the 50th anniversary of broadcasts to the countries of the former Soviet Union with a series of events that included a conference in Prague on June 6, 2003, at the RFE/RL Broadcast Operations Center. The 60th Anniversary was celebrated in the RFE/RL office in Washington. D.C. on 1 March, 2013. Details of the celebration and historical photographs can be viewed here: http://www.rferl.org/content/radio-liberty-60th-birthday/24915830.html
For more information:
Radio Liberty: Hole-in-the-Head
James Critchlow, American University Press
Sparks of Liberty: An Insider's Memoir of Radio Liberty
Gene Sosin, The Pennsylvania University Press
Discovering the Hidden Listener: An assessment of Radio Liberty and Western Broadcasting to the U.S.SR During the Cold War, R. Eugene Parta, Stanford/Hoover
Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty: The CIA Years and Beyond A. Ross Johnson, Woodrow Wilson Center Press 2010
A Princeton PhD, was a US diplomat for over 20 years, mostly in Eastern Europe, and was promoted to the Senior Foreign Service in 1997. For the Open World Leadership Center, he speaks with
its delegates from Europe/Eurasia on the topic, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United." Affiliated with Georgetown University for over ten years, he shares ideas with students about public diplomacy.
The papers of his deceased father -- poet and diplomat John L. Brown -- are stored at Georgetown University Special Collections at the Lauinger Library. They are manuscript materials valuable to scholars interested in post-WWII U.S.-European cultural relations.
This blog is dedicated to him, Dr. John L. Brown, a remarkable linguist/humanist who wrote in the Foreign Service Journal (1964) -- years before "soft power" was ever coined -- that "The CAO [Cultural Affairs Officer] soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating."