Ever since “Radio Sputnik” programming appeared on WZHF Washington (1390), the network created by the Russian government-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya has been raising eyebrows. It has also been drawing calls from Capitol Hill for the Federal Communications Commission to review whether U.S. broadcasters were airing what amounted to Russian propaganda without adequately disclosing the source of the programming. Now, the FCC appears to be closing in on a decision.
FCC Chair Ajit Pai expects the Media Bureau to issue its recommendations in the coming months for whether the current sponsorship identification rules should be modified. The Media Bureau has been conducting a review of whether the regulations as they apply to programming provided by a foreign entity are one way the FCC could intervene. In letters to a group of seven House members, Pai revealed that the Enforcement Bureau has completed what he described as an “extensive inquiry” into the matter. That included issuing several letters of inquiry to the station owners. The Enforcement Bureau also determined that under federal law and judicial precedent, there is no FCC enforcement action that could be taken against the station owners selling their airtime to Rossiya Segodnya.
The issue has gained additional oxygen in recent months after Alpine Broadcasting’s talk/religion KCXL Kansas City (1140) struck a deal in January to carry the “Radio Sputnik” format for six hours per day—from 6-9am and 6-9pm. In addition to its AM signal, KXCL also simulcasts on two Kansas City-licensed FM translators in the market: K275BQ at 102.9 FM and K284CH at 104.7 FM.
“This expansion brings daily radio broadcasts of Russian propaganda to a second American city and advances Radio Sputnik's publicly stated goal to "broadcast in all major U.S. markets,” the lawmakers said in a February 13 letter to Pai. “As Radio Sputnik continues to expand, reaching more Americans in their effort to interfere in our democracy, the FCC must act to ensure that Radio Sputnik and the stations that air it comply with the laws and regulations of our country,” it said.
Rossiya Segodnya has used Arnold Ferolito’s RM Broadcasting to secure its American airtime. It has in turn signed long-term agreements and offered big payouts for second-tier AM signals. In Washington, Rossiya Segodnya paid more than $1.43 million to clear Radio Sputnik. And in Kansas City, RM Broadcasting has a time brokerage agreement that runs through Dec. 31, 2022 that will pay a reported $324,000 for KCXL.
Those sorts of numbers aren’t going unnoticed in other markets. In an interview with KCUR-FM Kansas City (89.3) last month, Radio Sputnik’s Washington Bureau Chief Mindia Gavasheli said he was negotiating deals with other small radio stations around the U.S. with the ultimate goal of eventually being on the air in every major U.S. market.
The current economic downturn could also make it easier for Rossiya Segodnya to find willing takers of its offer. In the case of KCXL in Kansas City, owner Pete Schartel told KCUR-FM that his struggling AM station had no other employees other than himself – and he hadn’t been collecting a salary for months. When the offer to put Radio Sputnik on KCXL came with a promise of guaranteed billings each month, he decided it was something worth investigating.
A 2017 U.S. intelligence report found that Sputnik was part of “Russia’s state-run propaganda machine” describing the radio format as “another government-funded outlet producing pro-Kremlin radio and online content in a variety of languages for international audiences.” The report said Sputnik, along with the RT cable channel, helped to facilitate Russian interference and influence in the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump.
But Gavasheli disputes that and said their programming is no different than the U.S.-backed Voice of America or Radio Free Europe.