Muscovy pluck

How long can Ekho Moskvy radio get away with pooh-poohing Putin?
May 1, 2012

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.

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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.

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.

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.”

Paul Starobin , a former Moscow bureau chief of Business Week, is the author of After America: Narratives for the Next Global Age.