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.
Top editor Venediktov, born in 1955 and a school teacher in Soviet times, had the sense to realize, as he later told a Russian interviewer, that “it was time to stop working like amateurs…. A lot was expected of us, but our equipment was obsolete, pay was miserable, and we could not afford to hire people.” So the journalists sold a controlling stake to a professional investor—the oligarch Vladimir Gusinsky, who had close ties to the Yeltsin regime—with the stipulation, inscribed in the station’s charter, that only they would elect the editor-in-chief, who had final say on editorial content.
When Putin came to power in 2000, determined to crack down on the oligarchs, Gusinsky was an early casualty. He fled the country, signing over his media holdings to a creditor, Gazprom-Media, an arm of the state-controlled energy giant. Once again, it looked like curtains for Ekho Moskvy. But the staff was able to work out an operating agreement with their new “partner.” Under the arrangement, which still stands, Gazprom-Media has 66 percent of the shares and the journalists own the remaining 34 percent. But it takes a super-majority of 75 percent to change the station’s charter, including the crucial provision that the newsroom picks the editor-in-chief. What’s more, each journalist on staff owns at least one share of the station—collectively held in a company registered in Delaware—making it difficult for Gazprom-Media, or any other investor, to gain a 75 percent stake.
As a further precaution, Venediktov deliberately stays out of the station’s financial affairs. Problems for Russians who find themselves on the wrong side of political power often come in the form of ginned-up tax violations and the like. Buntman told me that Venediktov hasn’t signed a single financial document in his entire professional life.
Of course, Putin could still come up with a pretext for shuttering Ekho Moskvy. But doing so would likely cause an international outcry. In another illustration of the journalists’ savvy, the station has spun a web of personal ties with leading Western political figures by giving them a media platform when they visit Moscow. US President Bill Clinton, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and US secretaries of state Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice all made the pilgrimage to Ekho Moskvy while in office. More recently, the new US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, under fire from Putin’s regime for supposedly giving succor to the anti-Putin opposition, went on the station for an interview. Meanwhile, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the Financial Times cover the station’s plight as a barometer of press freedom in Russia.
“Ekho has become an icon of Russia’s post-Soviet media,” says an admiring competitor, Konstantin von Eggert, a host at Moscow’s Kommersant-FM radio and a former chief of the BBC Russian Service Moscow bureau. Its shutdown “would provoke a huge backlash” in the West, he says.