Jordan Hostetter doesn’t know it but he’s a target. A young professional living in Washington, D.C., curious about international events, who listens to the radio while driving to work. Just the kind of person Voice of Russia radio is trying to reach.
Changing American hearts and minds about Russia has been Voice of Russia’s mission ever since it first went on the air in 1929, broadcasting from Moscow via short-wave radio. It still does use short wave but with the internet, Facebook and Twitter, that seems like a blast from the past.
Undeterred, VOR is turning to that American classic, morning and evening-drive AM radio, broadcast from a brand-new studio in downtown Washington, D.C. It’s the first time VOR has produced programming directly from the United States rather than broadcasts from Moscow.
But don’t expect to hear shock-jocks and in-you-face AM fare.
VOR is soft mix of American and international news and culture, delivered in English by young American hosts like Diana Ray.
“Why would you as an American want to work for a Russian broadcaster?” I ask her as we tour the studio.
“I think it’s very interesting, the perspective that Voice of Russia brings to the US,” she tells me. “There are a lot of, I think, misperceptions. It’s a different voice.”
Is it the Russian government view? No, she says. “We want to present the Russian perspective definitely, but in a balanced, credible way. There has not been any influence at all on what we cover.”
Jordan Hostetter and I tune in as he drives through city traffic to work. First, we hear a bouncy musical theme, then “This is the Voice of Russia,” followed by a discussion about Libya and the Arab Spring with an American journalist from the National Press Club.
“No specific focus on Russia,” I say to Hostetter.
“Yeah, and a very legitimate news story – journalists in Libya,” he says.
What’s Hostetter’s image of Russia? “Generally negative,” he says. “I'd generally think of it as oppressive and just propaganda.”
In an interview at VOR’s studio Deputy Chairman Yury Minaev, visiting from Moscow, concedes: “Russia in many respects is seen negatively in this country and we would like in some way to overcome this attitude.”
Meanwhile, VOR’s traditional rival, VOA– the Voice of America– has gone totally digital, reaching out to Russians on the internet with its Russian-language website and on Facebook and Twitter. On YouTube VOA gets a quarter million monthly viewers for its videos, says Irina Van Dusen, Managing Editor of VOA’s Russian Service.
“Russia is very oriented toward new technologies,” she says, “a lot of internet users, a lot of people who go online regularly everyday to read news.”
According to its charter VOA, says Van Dusen, is not in the business of propaganda or public diplomacy, attempting to improve the U.S. image. “We give voices to all the spectrum of opinion because we are not representing American government,” she says, “we are representing America and American society, and American society has many opinions.”
VOA says it tried to get a license to do the same kind of thing VOR is doing – broadcast on local Russian radio in Russian to Russians – but VOA’s Eurasia Division Director, Elez Biberaj, says it was prevented from affiliating with Russian radio and television stations “because of threats and because of the pressure that the government brings on license holders.”
So far, Americans can hear Voice of Russia on 1430 AM in New York and on 1390 AM in Washington. At a press conference announcing its new venture VOR’s Chairman, Andrey Bistritskiy, said the aim is to “speak to the Americans in their language,” offering more voices for American to choose from.
But competition on American AM radio is fierce. As Jordan Hostetter maneuvers his way through Washington’s traffic he tells me he’d be more likely to listen to the Voice of Russia if they had a celebrity host. But there’s no indication Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin or its President, Dmitry Medvedev, is looking for a new gig.
The biggest challenge could be getting Americans to care about what Russia thinks. Hostetter says he wouldn’t have a problem if VOR radio explained Russian policy on issues. “If it came across as propaganda I might,” he says, “but I think if it’s just specifically talking about Russia, they're going to have a very limited listener base.”