In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, there is no more persistent reproach to his autocratic rule than the country’s oldest independent radio station, Ekho Moskvy. A ripe case in point came during the run-up to the March election, in which Putin was vying for his third term as president. Just days before the vote, Channel One, the country’s dominant, state-controlled television outlet, aired the sensational tale of a plot to assassinate Putin. The broadcast was met with skepticism along Moscow’s political grapevine; given that the suspects had been arrested weeks before, it smelled like a stunt to rally support for Putin.
It was left to Ekho Moskvy to deliver a public expression of that skepticism, by promptly broadcasting a pungent interview with Dmitri Oreshkin, a political analyst and well-known Putin critic. Team Putin is “trying to mobilize public opinion according to the logic that we are surrounded by enemies and that we have one decisive, effective, and intelligent national leader that they want to destroy,” Oreshkin bluntly declared. The New York Times included the quote, with credit to the station, in its story on the matter. That’s Ekho Moskvy, a thorn in Putin’s side that he has so far been unable, or unwilling, to extract.
For his part, Putin, who rolled to victory anyway, makes no secret of his disdain for Ekho Moskvy. “You pour diarrhea over me day and night,” he told Alexey Venediktov, the station’s longtime editor-in-chief, at a meeting of top Russian editors in January. All of which raises a couple of questions: Putin has been in power for nearly 13 years, and in that time has neutered many a critic. Why has Ekho Moskvy survived? And as Putin begins a new term as president facing unprecedented discontent among the public, is the station’s luck about to run out?
Ekho Moskvy operates out of the 14th floor of a concrete slab of a building on the Novy Arbat, a glitzy commercial thoroughfare in central Moscow. The station’s format is dominated by live, talk-show-style interviews punctuated with breaking-news updates and frequent—and sometimes cheesy—advertisements.
When the station was founded in August 1990, in the waning days of the Soviet Union, the audience was mostly listeners at home in their apartments. No longer. Car ownership has soared over the last 20 years, and Ekho Moskvy, 91.2 on the FM dial, now derives the bulk of its audience from the horn-honking drivers on Moscow’s traffic-choked streets. At peak drive times—weekday mornings and early evenings—the metropolitan Moscow listenership is about one million.
Although Ekho Moskvy takes pains to characterize itself as a professional news organization, not “opposition” radio, it is known for giving voice to the very figures that the Kremlin would prefer remain quiet. On the evening of Election Day, for instance, with Putin’s victory assured, host Sergey Buntman chatted with the controversial blogger Alexey Navalny, a leader of the anti-Putin street rallies who has branded Putin the head of a party of “crooks and thieves.” Navalny, tacitly banned from appearing on Russian television, told Buntman that Putin’s victory was illegitimate. “I am sure that the Putin regime will collapse,” he predicted.
The 56-year-old Buntman, Ekho Moskvy’s first deputy editor-in-chief, who has been with the station from the start, later told me that he was not a cheerleader for Navalny—or even much of a fan. “In some way, he’s quite dangerous,” Buntman says, because “he’s a nationalist. To be against Putin and to be a new Putin, it’s not the way” to improve Russia. But Ekho Moskvy’s goal, he says, is “to keep the stage for every political opinion” and “to try to create an objective picture” of the world.
Sheer luck is one reason Ekho Moskvy is still alive. The station emerged from the glasnost, or openness, policy of Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s. The founders wanted to provide an alternative to “official” information, and not surprisingly, Ekho Moskvy wound up on the hit list of the group of government hardliners, led by KGB officials, that attempted a coup to preserve the Soviet Union. The putsch failed, and even though Gorbachev was doomed, the first leader of the new Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, was committed to an open media. The young station had dodged a bullet.
Still, many of the businesses that were launched in those early years, media startups included, had no idea how to operate in a commercial environment—and as a result, many failed. That suggests another, more durable reason, for Ekho Moskvy’s longevity: the savvy of its founders, who had a clear idea of their mission but also understood their limitations. They came of age, after all, in an era when entrepreneurial activity could lead to a prison sentence.