A federal judge in Florida has ruled that the owner of a Washington, DC radio station must register as a foreign agent for leasing WZHF (1390) to Russian government-controlled Radio Sputnik. In an 11-page decision, U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg shot down each of the arguments made by Arnold Ferolito’s RM Broadcasting against such a filing with the Justice Department’s National Security Division.
WZHF is owned by Multicultural Radio Broadcasting, but RM Broadcasting has been leasing time on the station for the past several years without much of a problem. But when it struck an agreement with Russian government-owned news agency Rossiya Segodnya to carry the English-language Radio Sputnik, it sparked interest by the DOJ.
Rather than comply with the DOJ’s request, Ferolito resisted. The former television executive who came out of retirement to form the airtime brokering operation said his company had no legal obligation to register as a foreign agent since RM Broadcasting isn’t acting on behalf of any principal. Under terms of the Nov. 2017 agreement, Radio Sputnik gets all but five seconds per hour on the station, leaving WZHF enough time to air the required station identification and a disclosure to listeners that says, “Time is paid for by RM Broadcasting. Programming provided by international news agency Rossiya Segodnya.”
The DOJ took Ferolito to court in October, asking that RM Broadcasting be forced to submit the foreign agent paperwork. It said the top-of-the-hour station IDs aired by WZHF fail to meet the foreign agent notification requirements and that Rossiya Segodnya and the government of the Russian Federation have “complete control” of the station.
An August court date had been on the calendar, but based on the evidence before her, Rosenberg decided she’d seen enough. Her order, handed down Tuesday in West Palm Beach, agreed with the DOJ that RM Broadcasting is more than a passive seller of airtime. Rosenberg said the company is “required to broadcast/transmit radio programs” on WZHF under the terms of the agreement, which contradicts its assertion that it merely buys and resells radio airtime. “Thus, under the terms of the services agreement, RM Broadcasting acts under Rossiya Segodnya’s direction or control and acts as a publicity agent for Rossiya Segodnya,” she wrote, concluding, “RM Broadcasting qualifies as an agent of a foreign principal under [the] Foreign Agents Registration Act.”
RM Broadcasting has not yet decided whether it plans to appeal the decision.
The contract between RM Broadcasting and Rossiya Segodnya runs through the next presidential election, with the pact set to expire Dec. 31, 2020. Financial terms of the agreement have been redacted from court filings. The company has told the court if it were to make such a filing, the release of confidential payment terms would “substantially impair” its ability to conduct business.
Rossia Segodnya news service has also leased the Reston, VA-licensed translator W288BS at 105.5 FM since July 2017 from Reston Translators, a company controlled by communications attorney John Garziglia. It pays $900,000—or $30,000 per month—for use of the Washington, DC market translator through December 2019. Unlike RM Broadcasting, Reston Translators made a foreign agent filing with the Justice Department. It’s fairly common for any person or company working in the U.S. on behalf of a foreign government in a “political or quasi-political capacity” to register. Nevertheless, Garziglia told the Washington Post earlier this year that it has hurt his business, including sidelining at least one deal he had to acquire space on a radio tower.