At the top of each hour, Washington, DC radio station WZHF broadcasts an unusual message: “This radio programming is distributed by RM Broadcasting on behalf of the International News Agency of the Federal Unitary Enterprise Rossiya Segodnya, Moscow, Russia.”
This is how listeners know they are listening to programs produced by the Russian government.
WZHF is one of two US stations broadcasting Radio Sputnik, which is produced by the Russian state media company from studios near the White House.
On the surface, Sputnik looks like a traditional talk radio. Observers and the US government consider it Kremlin propaganda amid the ongoing war in Ukraine.
The views and topics range from explicit pro-Russian content to more innocuous attempts to undermine trust in Western governments, media and institutions.
A recent segment on alleged Russian war crimes in Bucha, Ukraine portrayed Russia as the victim.
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“This is the first time it seems likely that it is the kyiv regime that is killing its own citizens whom it considers traitors and then tries to portray it as some kind of atrocity on the part of Russia”, explained a guest of a program. called The critical hour.
Sputnik host Lee Stranahan, whose Twitter bio reads “I’m with Russia,” describes his Washington-based show as broadcasting “live from the empire of lies.”
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On a recent show, he interviewed a guest who proclaimed that when it comes to the war in Ukraine, “the Russians don’t just win this thing, they decisively win it.”
“The United States has clearly miscalculated its economic warfare,” Stranahan acknowledged.
What makes Radio Sputnik so unusual is that it managed to stay on the air when other Russian state media were banned, suppressed or went off the air following the invasion of Russia. ‘Ukraine.
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Cable news network RT America abruptly shut down in March after being abandoned by distributors. Russia Today was banned in Canada, while Europe banned both RT and Sputnik.
Sputnik, backed by the Kremlin, has found a way to continue to reach Americans, buying it airtime.
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To host its programs, Sputnik buys airtime from American stations, through an American broker. It effectively functions as a paid infomercial for Russian interests.
Sputnik was appointed by US intelligence agencies as central to Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election by promoting misinformation and misinformation.
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In 2018, the Ministry of Justice strength Russian state media operations in the United States to register as an agent of a foreign government. American companies that sell airtime to Sputnik have also been forced to register. Legal deposits show that the Russian operation spends about $1.1 million a year buying airtime in the United States.
Most of that money is spent broadcasting Sputnik around the clock on WZHF’s two frequencies in Washington – one AM and one FM – but Sputnik has also found an audience in the heartland of the United States.
Radio KCXL near Kansas City, Mo., is paid $5,000 a month to air six hours of Sputnik a day, including during the coveted morning show slot.
“We’ve had a really good response, with people saying they appreciate having a different point of view,” says KCXL owner Peter Schartel.
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Schartel says he first sought out Sputnik’s programming as a source of money for the failing station. “It’s a very important part of our income,” he says.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has renewed scrutiny and criticism from station owners who broadcast Sputnik. In March, the National Association of Broadcasters called the stations to abandon all Russian state programming.
“We believe our nation must stand fully united against misinformation and for freedom and democracy around the world,” NAB President Curtis LeGeyt said in a statement.
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Sputnik’s American partners refused to budge.
“If you’re for free speech, you really have to try to listen to what other people are saying, what other people are thinking,” Schartel says.
He suggests that concerns about Sputnik’s programming are misplaced and call misinformation “a subjective term.”
“If I felt this was all just misinformation, we wouldn’t spread it, even if it hurt financially,” he said.
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Despite this unprecedented moment in US-Russian relations, free speech advocates are on the side of the station owner.
“I don’t see any problem with having more news and information about our marketplace of ideas,” says Roy Gutterman, director of the Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University, noting that Sputnik’s ownership is not a secret.
Gutterman points out that the programs have a very limited audience. They only air in two cities, on stations that are not in the top 30 of both markets.
However, he wondered what the Russian government was getting for his investment.
“It’s making headlines,” Gutterman said, “but I don’t know who’s listening or if they’re paying close attention to what they’re listening to anyway.
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