There’s also a cynical explanation for why Putin tolerates the radio station he hates. Putin understands, the thinking goes, that he is able to keep his grip on power, in part, by giving his harshest critics a safe place to gripe about his regime. The radio station, in this formulation, serves as a convenient pressure-release valve. Furthermore, Ekho Moskvy is the media outlet to which the regime can point when accused of squelching press freedom in Russia.
In my experience, it often pays to believe the cynical explanation for just about anything happening in Russia. But I don’t buy this one. The problem is that Ekho Moskvy really is not all that safe for the Kremlin—not when it gives voice to vitriolic Putin detractors like Alexey Navalny. Last December, after parliamentary elections in which Putin’s United Russia party won a majority on the basis of what appeared to be widespread fraud, tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets, egged on by Navalny, to demonstrate for fair elections. Ekho Moskvy is plainly sympathetic to this movement. For this reason alone, it may be premature to conclude that the station will survive another six years with Putin. Under pressure, the president may consider Ekho Moskvy a threat that he can no longer abide.
In fact, there has been a consequence to the “diarrhea” incident of January. Gazprom-Media was able to force Venediktov to step down from the station’s board of directors, although he remains editor-in-chief. Buntman told me that this move did not originate with Putin but probably from some bureaucrat taking advantage of a moment of vulnerability for Venediktov. Putin and Venediktov have on occasion met to talk over matters, and Putin “has some respect towards Venediktov” as “a hard opponent,” Buntman says. A Putin spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on Ekho Moskvy; Gazprom-Media has said publicly that it is not seeking Venediktov’s removal as editor-in-chief or changes in the station’s editorial posture.
Still, Venediktov initially resisted my request for an interview, apparently because of the delicacy of the situation. But after I finished my talk with Buntman, we met and chatted briefly, and as I was about to leave the station he chased me down, proudly waving a piece of paper. It contained an answer I had not been able to extract from Buntman: how much profit, if any, Ekho Moskvy, actually made. Look here, he said—the station made 25,585 rubles in 2011 (about $880), after taxes. And not a kopek, Venediktov made a point of stressing, has been borrowed from Gazprom-Media, so there is no leverage on that front. Perhaps he is not, as Buntman told me, involved in the station’s financial management, but he surely grasps its import.
All of which suggests still another reason why Ekho Moskvy lives on: a base of advertisers, willing to ignore, at least for now, Putin’s fulminations against the station in exchange for the allure of reaching a million prospective customers in Russia’s blossoming consumer society. “The state is always after us,” Venediktov said. “I feel absolutely confident we will survive.”