Who is really controlling “Radio Sputnik” WZHF Washington (1390) is the question that a group of House Democrats is once again asking Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai to investigate. Two years after the first request was made, the lawmakers say WZHF isn’t sharing with listeners the “true identity” behind the programming. They say the station is airing state-sponsored propaganda with the Russian Federation at the controls.
In the FCC database, WZHF is clearly licensed to Arthur Liu’s Multicultural Radio Broadcasting, which has leased the station to RM Broadcasting for years. Since November 2017, RM Broadcasting has had a contract with the Russian government-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya to carry the English-language Radio Sputnik. Rossiya Segodnya also leases the Reston, VA-licensed translator W288BS at 105.5 FM from Reston Translators to simulcast WZHF on the FM dial.
The stations currently air a disclosure that says the programming is on behalf of Rossiya Segodnya, telling listeners additional information is on file at the Dept. of Justice. But the lawmakers say that’s not enough for the average listener to figure out what the source of the content truly is. “A reasonable listener of AM radio cannot be expected to know that Rossiya Segodnya is a Russian government-funded propaganda outlet,” said the letter from Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) to the FCC.
According to required foreign agent filings with the Dept. of Justice, Rossiya Segodnya pays $30,000 per month for use of the FM translator. Its contract with Reston Translators will expire in December. But the contract for WZHF continues through next year. It paid RM Broadcasting more than $1.4 million from November 2017 to June 2019. And the contract runs through the end of 2020 carrying a $55,000 per-month fee.
The timing of the contract is another red flag to House members, who point out the end date is shortly after the next presidential election. The intelligence community officials have said Russia is already at work meddling in the 2020 election cycle. And while no direct line has been drawn between WZHF and the current presidential race, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence has described Radio Sputnik as a “government-funded outlet producing pro-Kremlin radio and online content” and concluded it was part of the Russian government’s propaganda efforts to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.
In the letter, which was also signed by Reps. Norma Torres (D-CA), Yvette Clark (D-NY) and Jerry McNerney (D-CA), the House Democrats say they’re not requesting “any press censorship” that would run up against the First Amendment. Instead, they say they’re pushing to ensure the FCC’s sponsorship identification rules are complied with. “The American people deserve to know when radio programming they hear on public airwaves is foreign government-funded propaganda,” they said.
A spokesman for the FCC pointed to a letter Pai sent Eshoo last year in response to her earlier request. In that letter Pai said he had referred the matter to the Enforcement Bureau to look into, explaining that even if WZHF violated sponsorship identification rules it would more likely be fined that face license revocation. The Bureau never announced any outcome from that review and no fines have been issued against WZHF.